Who Cares What Straight People Think?
Brandon Taylor on the Uncertain State of Queer Narratives
The queer section in Books-A-Million was hidden in plain sight. The last aisle on the left before the magazines. Top shelf between social studies and psychology: just as the social studies books began to bleed into psychology, there was for the span of a few book spines, a zone of titles that were neither psychology or sociology. This unmarked, nebulous space was the queer section. Things that could be found there: a single copy of a best gay erotica anthology, a couple erotic novels, one or two manga, a coffee table book of artful nudes, and maybe a book about lesbians, depending on the day.
When I was in my late teens, I went to the bookstore to buy a copy of Giovanni’s Room, which I had discovered on some online list of gay novels. It wasn’t under fiction, so I thought to check the queer section, but it wasn’t there either. I went to find a clerk. “We don’t keep that in the store,” is what he said to me. I still remember the sweat gathering in his mustache as he said it, his eyes narrowing. I asked him about some other titles, and title for title, he said it over and over, “We don’t carry that. You have to get that online.” Not even an I’m sorry to soften the blow of it, just a flat denial and a tone of voice that told me I should be ashamed.
In an essay titled “To Suffer or Disappear: The State of Queer Literary Fiction,” Michelle Hart asks:
What does it say about the state of queer fiction that its biggest success is a book written by a straight woman that essentially suggests gay men can either be yuppies or victims of sexual abuse—or you know, both. There seems to be no in between when it comes to queer characters, male or female. We’re either just like them or we suffer greatly because we’re not like them.
The book referenced above is Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, hailed by Garth Greenwell as The Great Gay Novel in the pages of The Atlantic. I remember all the fanfare surrounding A Little Life. For the first time, it seemed to me then, queer lives were being treated as a worthy subject for art. Not merely for queer people, but for straight people too. If I could visit any literary website and find a review or rumination on A Little Life, then it felt to me like we had finally made it! This was some years after I had been rebuffed in that Books-A-Million in Alabama, and it seemed like we were finally turning a corner. We were mainstream, at last. But I also remember thinking how predictable it was that a book all about queer people suffering was being adulated by straight people.
“Who wanted to read about coming out or AIDS or getting gay-bashed? Where were the stories about queer bucolic malaise?”
This is how cultural selection works when one inhabits a culture within an overculture. The larger culture selects the narratives that are the most readily translated into terms it deems legible. Shame, pain, and an intense desire to assimilate are the most legible aspects of queer life as perceived by the heteronormative overculture. Therefore, the art that it chooses to endorse often slots neatly into those categories. The coming-out story, violence against queer bodies, queer sexuality, the recapitulation of heteronormative family structures—all of these narratives position queer lives as either a simulacrum or an antithesis of straight lives.
But I think we need to recast this question of successful queer narratives entirely, and to delegitimize the overcultural gaze. That is: who cares what straight people think? Why is their approval the standard by which we measure the success of queer narratives? This is a problem that goes beyond which books are hailed in mainstream literary publications and stabs directly at the heart of power. It is a question of whose stories get to inhabit narrative space as legitimate and worthy, and whose stories do not.
In our current aesthetic framework, queerness is a charged state—it has the effect of reconfiguring the context of everything it touches such that those objects become activated with meaning. When a character is queer in a story, there is an expectation on the part of the reader that their queerness should enter into things in some way, that there must be a reason that a character has been charged in this way, or else why has the author gone through the trouble of designating them as such?
Queerness, unlike heterosexuality or whiteness or being able-bodied, is not a neutral state, and as such seems to command some contextualizing energy in order to justify its presence within narrative spaces. One must do work in order to explain why a character is queer or else it is seen as an extraneous fact, a superfluous detail, a distraction. I have been in many workshops where I have been asked to provide background information to explain how it is possible for a person to be attracted to both men and women, that if a character has only slept with women but finds themselves involved with a man, that there has been some mistake in the writing of this, that their sexuality has come as a sudden and startling surprise. The underlying assumption is that any deviation from the experience of a presumed white, cis, heterosexual, neurotypical person of some means is seen as an undue tax upon the reader’s empathy and worse still, some kind of indulgent idiosyncratic quirk on the part of the writer—avarice.
“Who cares what straight people think? Why is their approval the standard by which we measure the success of queer narratives?”
When I was just beginning to write stories, a guy I liked at the time asked me, “When are you going to write about straight people?” Another friend of mine asked, “When are you going to stop writing about relationships?” These questions hounded me. I found myself unable to write anything at all. I knew that I wanted to write good stories. I knew that I wanted to write about queer people. I wanted to put down our experiences in a way that felt organic and real and true. But in workshop, these two motivations felt at odds with each other. It felt that there was nothing worse than writing issue fiction or writing in a way that felt charged. As it was conveyed to me, the highest virtue in art was a simulation of the colorless, genderless white heterosexuality insisted upon by my peers, and if I was to become a good writer, I would have to make my stories as transparent as glass, as devoid of the charge of queerness as possible. I would need to write away from the legibly queer or else, directly into its tropes. I felt trapped. It felt impossible.
In a 1990 interview with Bill Moyers, Toni Morrison was asked the question of whether or not she could conceive of writing a novel that wasn’t about black people. The exchange is excerpted below:
BILL MOYERS: I don’t mean this to be a trick question, it just occurs to me, though, is it conceivable that you could write a novel in which blacks are not center stage?
TONI MORRISON: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: You think the public would let you, because the expectations are you made such a… you’ve achieved such fame and made such a contribution by writing about black people in your novel that they now expect you to write about black people.
TONI MORRISON: I will, but I won’t identify them as such. That’s the difference. […]
The eye cannot gaze backward at itself. The place from which the gaze originates is the center. When blackness is taken as a given, as the prevailing state of the story, there is no need to designate, categorize, call attention to it. When one writes of blackness in direct terms, in the most basic terminology of hue and color and tone, then one is acknowledging one’s place embedded within a larger, whiter framework. But when you stake blackness at the center of a story and hold it constant and steady, then there is no need to contextualize, neutralize its charge.
My friends and I often exchange movie recommendations—movies because my friends aren’t especially bookish and prefer film and television to novels or short stories—and for a long time our group chat was just a string of links to various trailers or streaming sites. Almost without exception, the films we recommended to each other were about queer people, specifically gay men.
We watched them all: Weekend, Shelter, August, Free Fall, Rock Haven, Boys, Brokeback Mountain, Come Undone, A Question of Love, Love Songs. The films I favored were the slate-toned French films prone to melancholy and to long, slow scenes unfolding on trains, or the quietly frustrated claustrophobia of seaside homes in Normandy. I was drawn to films where the majority of the energy was subterranean, powering subtle variations in facial expressions and voice. I was in love with the way that French boys suffered and how their suffering was of a piece with their daily lives—in French queer film, that which is unbearable is not a distinct, queer register but hums throughout the whole of a life, as derived from the cruelty of family as from queerness itself. I wanted to write these kinds of stories because they were about queer people but not about being queer, and that was how I thought fiction should work. What use did I have for stories about queerness, those had all been told. Who wanted to read about coming out or AIDS or getting gay-bashed? Where were the stories about queer bucolic malaise? That’s what I wanted, a purity of aesthetic, a queer neutrality derived from a central queer experience.
It is tempting to imagine that this is the way things ought to be, tasteful meditations on the human condition with queer people at their center, that the supposition of a queer default means an abandonment of trauma narratives and queer suffering. That everything will be alright when we’re finally writing of ourselves in our everyday lives, everything smooth and bourgeois and immaculately styled.
But that would be a grave miscalculation, a failure to understand the fundamental nature of the problem at hand. Queer people live their everyday lives under the threat of violence and political persecution. Queer teens would rather die than continue living in a world that is actively hostile to them. Our narratives must remain alive and vital to that pain, to the very real suffering we endure. To assume a central queer gaze is not to pass judgement on narratives of queer suffering at all, but to allow queer people to continue to tell their stories, to write into their own narrative spaces without the need for a heteronormative overculture. After all, it is the heteronormative gaze that renders these narratives problematic. It is their place of prominence in the overculture that presents the problem, not the narratives themselves.
It is not enough to merely write queers in comfortable bourgeois captivity. You have not conquered some artistic challenge. You are not artistically pure for turning away from queer suffering. Our comfort and our agony are of a piece. They reflect one another across the length of our experience. The answer to Michelle Hart’s question about the state of gay literary fiction is this: we must move toward a queer aesthetic, which permits the true simultaneity of queer experience. We must stop waiting for permission. We must stop looking to the overculture for legitimacy. Within a queer aesthetic, we weep and we laugh and we withdraw and we advance. Queer suffering and queer joy dominate the ordinary instant. We are everything at once.