It seems that every winter, a number of publications release their lists of recommending holiday reading, assuming their readers will be in a book-buying mood when they shop for holiday presents. Indeed, it the National Review’s Symposium on Christmas shopping, that journal’s editors noted that its list (collated from “regular contributors and friends) “as often is the case . . . is book heavy.” The folks at Powerline linked the Claremont Review of Books Christmas reading list. But, it doesn’t seem the Weekly Standard has offered such a list since 2004.
Doubting that there exists a gay conservative reading list, I thought I’d offer my own list of gay books that I recommend. Some of these writers’ might be surprised to find their books on the reading list of a gay conservative. Indeed, one of the authors raises money for the Democratic National Committee.
Back when I was trying to publish my novel, I used to read gay novels with great regularity, feeling it my duty to familiarize myself with what was out there. But, I found that most of them were self-indulgent, without focus, theme or moral, except to blame society in general and conservatives in particular for the plight of gay men. One novel even took infidelity as a matter of course in gay (male) relationship.
And that said, I did discover some gems. I’ll get to those in due course.
i wanted to start with the book (that I believe) is the most important book on gay culture or as its author subtitled it, “The Gay Individual in American Society.” That book is of course Bruce Bawer‘s, A Place at the Table. It was the first gay book I read which addressed concerns I had as I was coming to terms with my feelings. I underlined numerous passages, scribbled notes in the margin, noted important passages in the flyleaves.
Among the many insights Bruce offers is this observation on “professional gays,” among whom “there has been too much invective and too little effort to explain and clarify.” Seems like some of these people have turned up in our comments section.
He suggested that the “vociferous emphasis on ‘gay pride'” was a sign “that, deep down, many subculture-oriented gays don’t really have very much pride in themselves as individuals; for it would never occur to an individual with pride in himself to feel a need for group-oriented pride.” And this wonderful line: “I hate to see people cocooning themselves in victimhood and straightacketing themselves in stereotype.” For that and other insights, I highly recommend Bruce Bawer’s, A Place at the Table.
I have only read a few of the essays in Bruce’s BEYOND QUEER: Challenging Gay Left Orthodoxy. For those essays alone, the book is well worth the cost.
While most readers who have read both of Andrew Sullivan’s first two books prefer the first published, Virtually Normal, I found that tiresome and repetitive. I think his second book, Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival, is the superior, largely due to his essay on friendship. There he observes:
For a gay child or adolescent doesn’t really have a friend in the true sense of the term until he has a gay friend who knows and accepts the fact that he is gay. When he finds this friend, who is almost always gay himself, the relationship has a significance often far deeper than the first friend a heterosexual child discovers. Because, in a way, it is only when the gay child finds his first true friend that he can really exist at all. Until then, only a part of him exists, the public part, the part that has learned to act and portray a real person, while the essential person, his deepest self, remains hidden from view, even, in many cases, from himself and almost always from the people he cares about the most, his family.
I found Chris Bull and John Gallagher’s Perfect Enemies: The Religious Right, the Gay Movement and the Politics of the 1990s a thoughtful book on how social conservatives and gay activists were made for each other. Gabriel Rotello’s Sexual Ecology: AIDS and the Destiny of Gay Men considers how gay culture facilitated the spread of AIDS. In this post, I agreed with Larry Kramer who called this “one of the most important books ever written for and about gay men.”
Last year, I called Mary Cheney’s Now It’s My Turn: A Daughter’s Chronicle of Political Life a “must-read book for anyone who wishes to talk honestly about the Bush Administration’s record on gay issues.” In this short book, the vice-president’s daughter shows her father to be a far more decent compassionate than he has been portrayed in the media.
While most of the books I have read on gay marriage don’t deal with the meaning of the ancient and august institution, at least one writer understands that marriage is more than a right. In the first chapter of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, Jonathan Rauch addresses the key question, “What is Marriage For?” For that essay alone, the book is more than worth its cover price. Unfortunately, I found the second half of the book a bit sloppy. All that said, Jonathan addresses most of the key issues in the gay marriage debate and does so quite well. I don’t always agree with his points, but do value his insights.
(I have not read all the essays in Andrew Sullivan’s Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con, but those I have read suggest this is a solid collection.)
In this post, I republished a review I had written of Eric Marcus’s Together Forever: Gay and Lesbian Marriage, a study of gay and lesbian couples which shows that most of them have the same aspirations — and very often even the same lifestyle — of their straight counterparts.
From ancient institutions, I move to ancient (but enduring) ideas. When it comes to my field of study, I recommend a book by one of the nation’s authorities on feminine images in myth, Christine Downing (who just happens to be my dissertation advisor). Her Myths and Mysteries of Same-Sex Love explores same-sex relationships in Greek myth, poetry and philosophy as well in Freudian and Jungian psychology. As you read this book, you’ll find that some of the gay issues we’re considering today have analogs in the ancient world.
While I mentioned earlier that I found most gay fiction disappointing, I have discovered some gems. Back when I lived in Washington, I enjoyed the books of Jim Grimsley, particularly Dream Boy. While still a sweet novel, Winter Birds was not nearly as touching). In almost elegiac prose, Grimsley recounts an teenage boy’s first love in the rural south. The adolescence he evokes is so real, we believe he has lived this story. His words often remind us of the tenderest yearnings of our own youth when we were first becoming aware of our feelings for other boys. And how those longings often sustained us when our home life seemed bleak.
While most readers of this blog might avoid Gore Vidal because of his anti-American politics, I often approached his work because of his powerful prose. That said, whenever I read one of his books, I found it difficult to finish either because the story didn’t engage me or because he showed little regard for facts inconvenient to his conclusions. I did finish his gay novel, The City and the Pillar, a delight to read even if the ending was unsatisfying. And the book did offer some words of wisdom: “Since they did not understand one another, each was able to sustain an illusion about the other, which was the usual beginning of love, if not truth.”
From Gore Vidal’s well-written book, I move to two more light-hearted novels. I found Stephen McCauley’s The Object of My Affection a delightful read, sustaining me, as a recall, on a train trip from Washington, D.C. to New York. Another book which I could hardly put down was Louis Bayard’s Fool’s Errand, a delightful tale about one man’s search for a man who had appeared to him as if in vision. And what he discovers serves as an important lesson for all of us.
Earlier in the post, I mentioned a book by a man who raises money for the Democratic National Committee. That man, Andrew Tobias, published under the pseudonym of John Reid a book that some consider a classic of coming out. While you may not share his politics, I dare say you’ll find that in his book, The Best Little Boy in the World, he recounts a journey with which many of you can easily relate.
To be sure, these are not all the gay books I recommend, but some of the best. The non-fiction books raise serious issues about gay culture and modern society. The novels, even the comic ones, address important issues of the human heart. Those gay readers of this blog will find that these authors often say things that we are struggling to express on our own while the non-gay readers will find in these books ideas and images which will enable you to better understand your gay fellows.
To my readers, I encourage you to chime in with your own recommendations. Should you mention a book which I also enjoyed, I will update this post accordingly.