Friday, January 29, 2010

Gay Literature

In the February 1st issue of Time is an article titled "From Europe with Love," about the release in America of an anthology of short stories, Best European Fiction 2010, containing translations of stories "from thirty-five nations and regions from Albania to Wales...."  The columnist Radhika Jones writes, "Translations of  foreign-language works make up a mere 3% to 5% of the books published in the U.S. annually, and that includes new editions of classics like Anna Karenina.  Except for a few recent breakouts...translated authors tend to deliver anemic sales, which makes mainstream American publishers loath to gamble on them [p. 52]."

The United States isn't the only country to avoid releasing translated versions of foreign writing; Canada's pretty good at it too, although I think, in general, Canadian publishers do a better job of importing this material, especially from England, which makes sense given our connection to the Commonwealth.

But it isn't just foreign translations that don't get much attention.  It's gay literature too, both written by gay writers--who, in many cases, are every bit as capable as straight writers--and containing gay content.  One need only peruse the shelves of Chapters, the large national outlet that's all but wiped out local independent booksellers across the country (read, less choice), to see for themselves the lack of selections from gay writers like Edmund White, James Baldwin, and Christopher Isherwood--that is, of course, unless there is little actual gay content.  Despite their large locations, Chapters seems to carry only those books that are more mainstream, the ones they know will sell, denying us easy access to the works of lesser-known writers (and the ones that could dearly use our support), whether gay or straight.  

All of this got me thinking:  Over the years, I've read countless wonderful books written by straight writers, most with not a single gay character. And, don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed being brought into the worlds of straight characters as they play out their lives, and, yes, even as they engage in sex with someone of the opposite gender.  None of that puts me off, or discourages me from reading it, even though I'm gay.  Just because I read about straight characters doesn't mean I can't identify with the feelings of a man and a woman who fall in love, and everything that goes along with that.  Funny--gay people and straight people are more alike than we are dissimilar.  In fact, over the years, it's a good thing I've been able to engage in and enjoy books with straight characters.  Otherwise, I don't know what I would have read.

So the question I have for you is this:  When is the last time you read a book with a gay character in it, or mostly gay characters in it?  Do you have the same attitude toward gay literature that I have toward straight literature?  Just something to think about.


  1. I'll take a different twist here. As a retail bookseller, I see the other side of the coin. There are many, MANY wonderful Christian writers out there who are highly underrated. I've taken the chance in bringing their books into my store, recommending them to my customers, and then had them sit there on the shelf collecting dust. It frustrates me to no end because I know readers are missing out on something great. The bottom line is the bottom line. I can see Chapters' position. You have to make money to stay alive in the book business, so you carry the books that you know will sell. But you are absolutely right about the lesser-known writers - of all genres - who need the exposure. I don't have the answer.

  2. Yup, point well taken, and I absolutely know what you mean.
    I get so frustrated sometimes because--don't get me wrong, I love Chapters--but, honestly, I feel as if there's so many wonderful books out there, and I never see them. Because Chapters has wiped out so many independent booksellers, all we see is what Chapters carries, so I believe they have a responsibility to us to meet more of our book needs by having a larger, varied selection.
    A really great example is any time I've gone to Borders or Barnes & Noble in large American cities. Wendy, there are thousands and thousands of books in those stores that I never saw before and didn't even know existed. I've often thought how cool it would be to open a bookstore and stock only the books Chapters doesn't carry. How much fun would that be, but would it be profitable? I'm not sure. Someday, when I win the lottery big time, I'll do just that, and, as long as I break even, I'll be happy. I'd like nothing more than to fly down to the U.S. every season and see what's new that I need to stock in my hypothetical bookstore. Doesn't this sound like a blast?
    And I feel for you, Wendy, as far as your challenge making titles available that you know people would love but that sit unsold on your shelves. It's a shame. At least you know you're trying and recommending. That's all you can do.
    Thanks for your wonderful comment, and for your contribution to this post. You always point out something that makes a lot of sense and that needs to be said.