Why Queer Novels Matter & Why Diversity is Important

Having just read The Advocate article, "How The Tenth Challenges the Image of Black Queer Men," I thought I would repost the post I did for Queer Romance Month in October.

I read. A lot. And I collect books. I have hundreds. Many are classics—Fitzgerald, Wells, Dickens, the Bront├ęs. Virginia Wolfe. But many more are contemporary gay fiction ranging from newer, lesser known writers to the literary lions of gay literature: Felice Picano, Mark Merlis, E.M. Forster, Baldwin, Burroughs (William, not Augusten), Alan Hollinghurst, William J. Mann, David Leavitt.

The first queer novel I read was Patricia Nell Warren’s The Front Runner. I remember finding it at the book store at Penn freshman year. My roommates, who were on the track team, were at an away meet that weekend. I read the entire book before they returned, barely stopping to sleep and eat. I read The Fancy Dancer, too. But it was The Front Runner that started me on the pursuit of queer fiction. From then on I read queer romance and queer fiction almost exclusively.

I was hungry for stories about people like me. In retrospect some of my choices make me blush in embarrassment—Gordon Merrick comes to mind—but back then queer books weren’t so easy to find. And I needed queer stories. Even if the stories weren’t really about me. They seldom had any people of color or anyone who wasn’t spectacularly good looking or outrageously “hung.” Reading, I would superimpose myself, my experiences, over each of those author’s texts—much like I’d done when the only GI Joe dolls available were white.

In discovering queer fiction, I had discovered I was not alone; I could finally visualize a life lived with a beloved man at my side. I was truly grateful to the gay authors who had the courage to tell queer stories. But I was increasingly frustrated with the white homo-normative narrative. Where my stories, the stories of our brothers and sisters who were other, who were outside, should have been, there was only silence.

But those queer stories also needed to be told. They were a part of our larger queer stories. We need stories that reflect the spectrum of our lives and loves. We need stories of queer men who find love and romance even if they aren't handsome or hung or white. That said I don’t believe there are black stories and white stories, there are just stories but I do believe that no one in the queer community should be marginalized or invisible—in life or in literature.

There are no black stories. There are no white stories. There are just stories. Queer stories matter because they allow us to share our lives, to show the world we are varied, we are different but not so different, not really. The value is in allowing us—each of us—to see queer selves, our differences, celebrated and reflected.

Read The Advocate article, "How The Tenth Challenges the Image of Black Queer Men," here.
Read my original post, and the resulting comments, here.
Learn more about my first novel, What Binds Us, here.

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Comments

  1. It's the mark of a good writer who can make you love a character without ever physically describing them, or doing so subtly so it doesn't matter to the story. James Patterson's Alex Cross is one such character.

    Then there's the other end of the spectrum, where the physical description of the character has everything to do with the story and who they are. In this corner, Tyrion Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire series (a.k.a. A Game of Thrones).

    There's the opinion that, unless the character's race of physical description has something to do with the plot of the story, it's better to be vague about how they look. That way, the reader can form their own images of what the character looks like. What the author needs to do is show the reader how great (or not) that character's personality and motivations are. That's the real challenge.

    I understand the need and desire for diversity in all fiction, not just queer fiction. People want to read about other people like them. But there's this push on white middle-class hetero writers (which I am not, just to be clear) to carry what I call the Burden of Representation. They are being called on to write in diversity for diversity's sake, not because it has anything to do with the story.

    My opinion is that if non-white, non-middle-class, non-hetero people want to see more of themselves in fiction, then they need to be the ones to write those stories. Who's going to do a better job than someone who's already there? The old whine about how publishers won't buy that kind of manuscript because it doesn't target the mass market is irrelevant now with the ease of self-publishing through ebooks.

    Of course, self-publishing doesn't mean you should put out poorly-written trash. Diverse writers still need to learn the craft and polish their work and make it the best they can. But if they (we) do that, then there you have the representation you so crave.

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    Replies
    1. I think the mark of a good writer is the ability to make the reader care about a character even if they are unlike you--either in temperament or looks. I did not mean to imply that white het writers MUST include non-white, non het characters (I just happen to choose to limit my reading of those authors/book). To your point if the character’s race has nothing to do with the story, then why make them all white & het--if race/sexuality is truly irrelevant, it shouldn’t matter and think of how important it is for those who are different to have their existence acknowledged even in fiction.

      I mix my characters because I live in a mixed world--and let's face, it would be pretty weird for a black author to write all white characters, no?

      For me making sure those like me, AND those different from me, see something in my characters. For me the best feeling has come from straight people who read What Binds Us and/or Unbroken and write me to thank me for letting them walk in my shoes—for exposing them to a different experience and point of view.

      And I agree if those of us who are different want to read our stories then we need to write them. Certainly I encourage that. But I also realize not everyone can write (though way too many think they can), so I will continue to encourage and call for a diversity of voices in fiction.

      Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to share your point of view.

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    2. Perhaps one of the best, and most recent, examples where sexuality, if not race, didn't matter is Rowling's outing of Dumbledor. His sexuality happened completely off the page, but it informed her characterization of him.

      I, too, remember reading Gordon Merrick, who I thought was fine except for his inability to write a sensible word of dialogue.

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    3. ah Dumbledor. I liked that it added dimension to him and how it reflected that we often don't know someone's orientation but then we d-find out in an offhand way and we think, Oh yeah, I can see that then shrug and move on.

      Dear Mr Merrick. I think we all read him back in the day. Today I realize he was a bad writer and that he is legion


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