The Gay Canon: Great Books Every Gay Man Should Read. – Review – book reviews
The Gay Canon: Great Books Every Gay Man Should Read * Robert Drake * Anchor * $12.95
I find it ironic that many of the world’s greatest male writers have been gay, yet their bodies of work are claimed by the straight world–just think of William Shakespeare, Herman Melville, or Henry James. And we let them get away with it. Gay lit remains a bunch of poems about cute sailors. No wonder they don’t respect us: We’re not claiming our patrimony.
It has been explained to me that this argument is intellectually specious and that gay lit must confine itself to works dealing with same-sex love. OK, for the time being I’ll go along with that. In fact, I’ll keep it foremost in my mind as I describe and evaluate three new books.
The first and most valuable is The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature. Edited by Byrne R.S. Fone, it is quite an undertaking–one of those things you’re glad somebody did but that still seems a little daunting. The great virtue here is the scope. It starts with ancient Sumerian texts and proceeds to Greece, Rome, the Italian Renaissance, Elizabethan England, and those wild Frenchmen, then all the way to AIDS and the current day. Most intriguing are the side trips it takes to places like Russia, Egypt, Spain, and Latin America. This is the sort of book you will keep on your bookshelf for years, taking it down occasionally to improve your mind, a task that will invariably turn from a study of Sumerian texts to a compulsive search for all the poems about cute sailors.
Just as good in a different way is A History of Gay Literature by Gregory Woods, a British poet and academician. It is a survey course but an excellent one. Covering much of the same territory as Columbia Anthology, it puts everything in a social and aesthetic context, and its observations are measured and well-reasoned. In other words, I agreed with nearly all of them.
I most certainly did not agree with everything in The Gay Canon by Robert Drake. He attempts to name
the 100 books that “gay men need to read … books that formed and influenced the gay heart, mind, and soul.” A noble goal, to be sure. There’s only one problem: He picked the wrong books.
Never invite me and Mr. Drake to the same dinner party. We will start arguing over the soup, and by the nuts we will both be bloodied and still screaming at each other. Eminent Victorians? Brideshead Revisited instead of Vile Bodies? And I find his put-down of the Violet Quill (Robert Ferro, Andrew Holleran, Edmund White, et al.) particularly annoying. He blames them for all sorts of imagined ills, when it was their talent and bravery that created the atmosphere that now allows Mr. Drake to make a cushy living teaching at some college I never heard of.
The Gay Canon is probably a much better book than I am willing to admit. Half of the choices I have no problem with, and best of all, it proposes that you gather together in groups with other gay men (perhaps at “the neighborhood pub”) to discuss these works, rather like my parents did with their Great Books club. Mr. Drake does caution, though, that you might want to get everybody to sign a “promissory note” guaranteeing they will actually show up. I find this touch the most endearing moment in the book, the perfect setup for a new Terrence McNally play. McNally is, by the way, yet another wonderful gay writer inexplicably missing from this curious list of nonentities and old warhorses.
Plunket is the author of Love Junkie and My Search for Warren Harding.
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