Reading in the Closet

Authors on the Books that Helped Them Come Out

Reading may be a solitary experience, but for some of us, it let us know that we were not alone. While everyone’s story is different, many of us are united by our love of books and our belief that they have the power to bring us together and to show us that when we’re different, as Nicola Griffith writes, “we can be glad to be so.” Growing up gay can feel like an excruciatingly isolating experience, particularly without the resources to understand what it is exactly that makes you so different. Books gave us not only a sense of who we were, but who we could be. So whether you hid a copy of A Boy’s Own Story under the bed or kept Fingersmith in your sock drawer, between the covers we were able to find a world for ourselves within the world.

To that end, we asked some of our authors what books spoke to them when they were coming out, asserting their identities, or putting a name to their desires. Below you will find a makeshift canon of works that served as “goads, guides, and balms” to FSG’s own Frank Bidart, Nicola Griffith, Jesse Bering, Maureen N. McLane, Carl Phillips, and Chris Adrian.

— Gregory Wazowicz and Christopher Richards, FSG

Frank Bidart: Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers

“Sex is anarchy; which is why there is a war between sex and the social order, a war that never will end. Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers came out in English during my first year of graduate school, in 1963; this was, for me, a tremendous event. Brilliantly translated by Bernard Frechtman, it was the profoundest, freshest gay writing there was. Now, in 2013, Genet’s criminals-turned-metaphysical-searchers are, I think, out of fashion. Some crucial darkness and against-the-grain-ness are now, perhaps out of optimism about the possibility of social change, largely imagined as irrelevant. Genet invented his own version of modernism not out of theory, but out of the need to invent fictions commensurate to the anarchy of his experience.”

Frank Bidart’s newest poetry collection Metaphysical Dog was released in April.

 

Nicola Griffith: Mary Renault’s Alexander, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword

“When I was four I knew I was a dyke (though not the word). It was a self-evident truth not worthy of comment. But at thirteen, at an all-girl Catholic school in the north of England, it dawned on me that I had a problem.

The problem was loneliness: all my friends were turning into squealing, boy-fancying aliens. So I turned to books. I wasn’t looking for queer role models—or perhaps I was but, hey, Catholic school, north of England—just people I could understand. I found them in stories of adventure set in unknown and sometimes dangerous places. It didn’t matter to me whether these adventurers were apparently ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events (the collapse of civilization in fifth-century Britain or galactic apocalypse) or extraordinary people stifled by apparently ordinary constraints (expectations of class or gender or strength).

What mattered was that they stepped up, every single one. They were all brave, all willful. All prepared to turn and walk against the herd; ready to follow their own star—or be the star for others to follow. Mary Renault’s Alexander, Frank Herbert’s Paul Atreides (Dune), Robin McKinley’s Angharad Crewe/Harimad-sol (The Blue Sword): singular characters. Different. And glad to be so.”

Nicola Griffith on coming out:

Nicola Griffith’s Hild, a sweeping historical novel about the rise of the most powerful woman of the Middle Ages will be released in November.

 

 

Jesse Bering: George Santayana’s The Last Puritan

“George Santayana’s semi-autobiographical The Last Puritan played some role in my decision to kick the closet door off its hinges once and for all. I was about 21, and I’d already come out to my family and some close friends. But I was a sad case—I was living an ascetic scholarly lifestyle and throwing myself into my graduate studies to somehow cultivate the illusion that I was ‘above’ sex. I saw aspects of myself in the character of Oliver Alden (in fact, I even faintly resembled the black-and-white etching of him on the jacket cover). And it really wasn’t a flattering sight. I found it irritating how Oliver was sublimating his obvious homosexuality in lofty philosophical abstractions. Santayana would allude to Oliver’s same-sex desires repeatedly in the narrative, but he refused to come out and say it. I remember thinking to myself, ’Oh, for Christ’s sake, Oliver, just come out already and get some action!’ I found his sexual cowardice—which was in fact a reflection of Santayana’s own—so pathetic and disturbing that it made me reexamine my own erotic austerity.”

Related: Jesse Bering on “DOMA’s Demise and Sexual Deviants”

Jesse Bering is the author of The Belief Instinct and Why is the Penis Shaped Like That? Our Scientific American imprint will publish Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us this October.

 

Maureen N. McLane: Queer Theory, Judith Butler, Adrienne Rich, Mrs. Dalloway, and the Romantics

“Some people think of queer theory as something abstruse, or by this point passé; for me it was a powerful somatic as well as intellectual experience and gave me vocabularies and vectors for thinking and feeling out longstanding complexities of desire and desiring. Judith Butler’s and especially Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s writing laid down new paths and connected me (and others) to existing paths—radical feminist writing (e.g. by Adrienne Rich), sex radicals like Pat Califia (Public Sex) and Susie Bright, and the long vexed tradition of psychoanalysis as a meditation on desire. Sex-positive feminists, and the pamphlet Just Say Yes! put out by the Coalition for Positive Sexuality (Chicago). Other nodes: Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex.” D. W. Winnicott; H.D., Freud, and H.D. on Freud. Bataille. Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus—a work I found profoundly traumatic and important. Virginia Woolf (especially Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves), Gertrude Stein. Olga Broumas, Frank Bidart, Anne Carson. Yvonne Rainer’s films and her writing. Romantic poets and thinkers: Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Sappho. Lyric poets, erotic poets. Whoever could follow desire as wayward, surprising, occasionally an affliction, a force to be followed and not administered: these were the guides, goads, and balms.”

Maureen N. McLane’s original work of criticism and memoir, My Poets, was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award and was just released in paperback. FSG will publish her third book of poems, This Blue, in April 2014.

 

 

Carl Phillips: Cavafy and Paul Monette’s Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog

“There are two pivotal books that I read a couple years before coming out, both of them differently getting me to think about the relationships between men. The poet Alan Dugan asked me if I’d ever read Cavafy—I’d never heard of him! Dugan told me to get Cavafy’s collected poems, so I did. Except for poems by Sappho, it seemed I’d never read poems so spare and honest, when it came to desire. But particular to Cavafy—to many of the poems, at least—was a sense of regret at not having acted on desire, a nostalgia for a single incident that, had there been courage enough, might have changed a life forever. That, plus Cavafy’s ability to write almost matter-of-factly about homosexuality, as if it were something almost mundane, had a great effect on me. Cavafy imparted a sense of urgency in me, as if there was no time to waste when it came to being honest with myself about who I was.

Around the same time, I read Paul Monette’s Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog. It moved me the way I think Howl must have moved people when it first appeared. Monette’s book is a sustained howl, of love, of rage, of loss, of tenderness, all four at once. I’d read nothing like it. I’d also not seen a man speak so directly to his grief over having lost a male lover, not anywhere in print or in movies, nowhere. Until this time, most of my sense of being gay came from pornography—hardly the stuff to suggest anything like love, romance, commitment, and the loss that can come in commitment’s wake.

Both books, in different ways, showed a courage and straightforwardness about being gay. As I say, I hadn’t come out yet, hadn’t really begun to understand my own gayness. Reading Cavafy and Monette, I felt both an affinity and a sense of danger at having been let in on something secret.

In fact, fear was a big part of what I felt, reading these poems. Fear of being caught reading them. Fear of being accused of being gay myself.

But somewhere also a fear of never having the kind of courage these two writers had. I believe they taught me how to have the courage to be honest with myself. I’m forever in their debt.”

Carl Phillips collection of poems, Silverchest was released in April.

 

Chris Adrian: Ralf Koenig’s The Killer Condom

I discovered Ralf Koenig’s “Kondom des Grauens” (The Killer Condom) in a seedy Berlin bookshop in 1989 while doing a high-school exchange year in Germany. I was nowhere near out yet, and wouldn’t be for another decade, but that novel-in-comics, so graphically sexual and graphically horrible and graphically hilarious, gave me a first nudge out of paralyzing shame. Koenig quite literally showed me the chief terrors of my life at that time, and managed to both bind them and unbind them with his humor. That was an artistic lesson and a life-lesson I would take years to learn, but it was very nicely inspiring to see it masterfully illustrated, and I think there was something about the encounter, which had me sweating and cackling among the giant double-ended dildos (I couldn’t afford to actually buy the book) that planted a new seed of belief for an eternally guilty-conscienced Catholic teenager, that being gay could be both the end of the world and the beginning at the same time.

Chris Adrian is the author of Gob’s Grief, The Children’s Hospital, A Better Angel, and The Great Night. Selected by The New Yorker as one of their “20 Under 40,” he lives in San Francisco, where he is a fellow in pediatric hematology-oncology.

 

“QUEER”

 

Lie to yourself about this and you will
forever lie about everything.

Everybody already knows everything

so you can
lie to them. That’s what they want.

But lie to yourself, what you will

lose is yourself. Then you
turn into them.

For each gay kid whose adolescence

was America in the forties or fifties
the primary, the crucial

scenario

forever is coming out—
or not. Or not. Or not. Or not. Or not.

Involuted velleities of self-erasure.

Quickly after my parents
died, I came out. Foundational narrative

designed to confer existence.

If I had managed to come out to my
mother, she would have blamed not

me, but herself.

The door through which you were shoved out
into the light

was self-loathing and terror.

Thank you, terror!

You learned early that adults’ genteel
fantasies about human life

were not, for you, life. You think sex

is a knife
driven into you to teach you that.

 

—from Frank Bidart’s Metaphysical Dog

 

A Look Ahead: LGBT titles forthcoming from FSG

The Tastemaker:
Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America

by Edward White (February 2014)

A revealing biography of the influential and controversial cultural titan who embodied an era.

Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir
by Mark Gevisser (April 2014)

An inner life of Johannesburg that turns on the author’s fascination with maps, boundaries, and transgressions.

The Road to Emmaus: Poems
by Spencer Reece (April 2014)

A moving, subtle sequence of narrative poems, from a sharp new poetic voice.

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