Abs-olutely fabulous reads – gay books rely on lurid covers to sell

David Bahr

What did we want from our literature in 1998? Sex, laughs, and a buffed torso on the cover

As any good rent boy knows, nothing sells like a fab set of abs. And nowhere has the power of crunches been more evident than this year in gay publishing.

Doug Guinan’s California Screaming (Simon and Schuster, $24), that wickedly witty, pec-packed tale of a boy and his mogul, shaped up to be one of the biggest successes of 1998. The dust jacket of an embossed ripped torso proved that, at least in the discerning eyes of many men, packaging is still everything. Incidentally, Dennis Hensley’s Misadventures in the (213) (Rob Weisbach Books, $24), another fictional romp through the Hollywood Hills, offered a cover short on beef-cake and, according to some bookstores, came up shorter on sales.

No one best-seller list tells the story for all of gay publishing–and this story is based not on written lists but on informal reporting. But according to several of America’s leading gay and lesbian independent bookstores, stomach muscles weren’t the only body parts selling the written word. It was a good year for sex in general, say representatives from A Different Light in New York and California, Lobos Books in Texas, and Lambda Rising in Washington, D.C., as well as mainstream national operations Barnes and Noble, Borders, and Amazon.com. Hot titles for various booksellers included Straight? True Stories of Unexpected Sexual Encounters Between Men, edited by Jack Hart (Alyson, $11.95), Friction: Best Gay Erotic Fiction, edited by Gerry Kroll (Alyson, $14.95), and Best Lesbian Erotica 1998, edited by Tristan Taormino (Cleis, $14.95).

Indeed, no cost seemed too high for a glimpse at human flesh, photographed or drawn. David Leddick’s stunning paperback pictorial history of lads’ loins, The Male Nude (Taschen, $29.99), and the illustrated The Art of Tom of Finland (Taschen, $69.69) flew off store shelves despite hefty price tags.

The sexy cover of a partially undressed football player with, yes, great abs helped make Dan Woog’s Jocks (Alyson, $12.95) one of the biggest nonfiction titles of the year. A much-sought account of gay male athletes, Jocks also revealed readers’ lust for books on gay lives. The Best Little Boy in the World Grows Up (Random House, $23.95), Andrew Tobias’s sequel to his classic 1973 memoir, The Best Little Boy in the World (which was also reissued as a Modern Library hardcover 25th anniversary edition at $15.95), was wildly popular across the country.

Perhaps fueled by the Ellen controversy, Family Outing by Chastity Bono (Little, Brown, $24) topped many national lists, while Generation Queer by former bodybuilder Bob Paris (Warner Books, $23) performed well over the Internet and in superstores like Borders.

Demonstrating that gay and lesbian readers like to laugh as much as they like to make love, humor scored high on the sales charts. Buddy Babylon by caustic Kids in the Hall alumnus Scott Thompson (Dell, $12.95) and Don’t Get Me Started by America’s most respected Clinton, Kate (Ballantine, $22), made strong showings, particularly in the Midwest.

Combing gay men’s longing for love and laughs, Husband Hunting Made Easy by Patrick Price (Griffin, $12.95) was a literal runaway hit, with many store owners citing it as the book most frequently stolen–proving that finding a mate needn’t be a dour affair, even for those on their way to prison. And, not surprisingly, cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s two latest, The Indelible Alison Bechdel (Firebrand, $16.95) and Split-Level Dykes to Watch Out For (Firebrand, $10.95), were gotta-haves for many ladies and not a few gents.

As for unexpected winners, the well-reviewed An Arrow’s Flight by Mark Merlis (St. Martin’s, $24.95) was the sleeper hit of the season. Despite its lack of steamy cover art, the powerful novel that merged Greek myth with urban go-go boys scored big with literary fiction fans. In addition, Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star by William J. Mann (Viking, $29.95) and The Queen of Whale Cay by Kate Summerscale (Viking, $21.95), about Marion “Joe” Carstairs, speedboat racer and island owner, were critically acclaimed best-selling portraits of two openly gay 1930s dynamos.

In the realm of horror and mystery, Ulysses G. Dietz’s gay vampire novel, Desmond (Alyson, $13.95), Grant Michael’s latest sleuth thriller starring an ex-hairdresser, Dead as a Doornail (St. Martin’s, $22.95), and fantasy writer Nicola Griffith’s first-time suspense thriller, The Blue Place (Avon, $23), were just a few that made a killing in sales. Of course, the prolific Michael Nava remained a murder mystery mainstay with The Burning Plain (Putnam, $23.95).

A year of bawdy books also saw serious sales for heavyweights like Dorothy Allison, who sustained her mainstream success with Cavedweller (Dutton, $24.95), while David Leavitt’s The Page Turner (Houghton Mifflin, $24) did relatively well despite reportedly disappointing fans. Although Sarah Schulman’s dazzling novel set in the McCarthy era, Shimmer (Avon, $23), failed to achieve deserved commercial success, her academically inclined Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America (Duke University Press, $14.95) caught fire with theater buffs. For the gay philosophers among us, Andrew Sullivan’s intellectualized paean to friendship, Love Undetectable (Knopf, $23), fared best on the East Coast. And Michael Bronski’s dense musings on sex and culture in The Pleasure Principle (St. Martin’s, $24.95) managed to straddle atop Borders’ charts–proving that even brainy books benefit from brawny cover boys.

Bahr writes for The New York Times, Time Out New York, and New York magazine.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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