My debut novel, The Fall, was published last month. As an author, especially a first-time author, you try not to set your expectations too high, so as not to spiral into depression when your book is received with resounding silence.
I was thrilled, then, to check Amazon.com this week (another thing authors should try not to do very often) and discovered that The Fall had hit a couple of Amazon's best-seller lists. On one list--best-selling Gay & Lesbian Fiction--my book had even made it to #1. I admit I did a little fist pump. But after the triumph sunk in, I settled on an emotion that was distinctly more conflicted.
Here's the thing: my book's not gay.
Well, maybe it is. Or part of it is, but not all of it. Look, fine, there's a main character who comes out of the closet. And there's that one scene (OK, three scenes) that leads to masturbation. But the other main characters--a girl and a football player (who masturbates just as often as his gay counterpart)--are straight. See, it's not just a gay book.
But there it is anyway, The Fall, with its tranquil, college campus cover imagery sitting atop a best-seller list dominated by covers (15 of the top 20) that feature shirtless male torsos, or men embracing, or both.
Don't get me wrong, I'm extremely proud to have written a book that's #1 on a best-seller list. But the fact that June is GLBT Pride month has left me even more conflicted about my book's gayness. I should be proud to celebrate how gay my book is, right?
And yet, when I took to Facebook and Twitter to report on my book's success, it was my ranking on a different best-seller list that I was most proud to tout: #2 on the list of best-selling Sports Fiction books, sandwiched between none other than John Grisham and a wonderful novel called The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.
Looking at these lists side by side, I began to wonder: If Grisham's book had a gay character in it, would that make his book gay? Harbach's novel has several gay characters. In fact, you could accurately characterize both The Art of Fielding and The Fall with the following description: "A coming-of-age campus novel in which two thirds of the main characters are college athletes and one third of the main characters are gay (and some are both)." And yet, The Art of Fielding is found nowhere amidst the abs and pecs adorning the Gay Fiction best-seller list.
Maybe my book's gayer than Grisham's and Harbach's because I'm gay. When I was in college, I was on the ski team. Most of my friends were other student-athletes, and while in almost every case they were supportive when I came out during my sophomore year, there was a common thread of surprise in their reactions. "You don't seem gay," is a line I remember hearing often. "Uh, thanks?" What did they mean by that? I suppose what they meant was that there was a gay label floating around out there and even though I was gay, that broad, stereotypical label wasn't a very good fit for me.
I actually embraced the label of "gay-athlete." It made me different--just as different from most gay stereotypes as I was from most athlete stereotypes. That differentness made me self-aware, and that led to confidence (both as an athlete and then later as a writer). But for some reason, to hear that I'm a "gay writer" who writes "gay books" gets under my skin. Maybe that's because my performance in a ski race was never judged as gay ("That's a gay gold medal you won today!"), while booksellers are eager to slap that label on my book.
What I've come to realize now is that it is not the label itself that bothers me. Our culture relies on labels. We use them constantly. "Gay Fiction" and "Sports Fiction" are just labels used by booksellers to communicate to readers. And those labels, like most, are wildly insufficient in fully identifying what they're supposed to be describing.
If having a gay character come of age in my novel makes it Gay Fiction in the same way that having a college football player as a character makes it Sports Fiction, great. But grouping a coming-of-age campus novel (to throw out some more bookseller labels) with titles whose main premise is lusty homoeroticism is a disservice to readers. It's an archaic way of thinking, which is something the book world could use a lot less of. To my diverse, post-DADT, post-gay marriage generation of writers and readers, a non-straight, non-white character's non-straightness and non-whiteness is not a headline. It's just another characteristic that may or may not be pivotal to the story's plot.
That is what bothers me most. The Gay Fiction tent has gotten too big, and these diverse books make for impossibly strange bedfellows, so to speak. It's time to acknowledge that all gay books are not homogenous.
This is an important debate to raise not because of my discomfort with the inadequate classification of books, but rather because thinking about what makes a book Gay Fiction--or Sports Fiction, or African-American Fiction--isn't much different from thinking about what makes you or me who we are. And that is what The Fall is about. It's about identity. The main characters defy stereotypes, and each of them, whether gay or straight, straddles that dramatic gap between the end of childhood and whatever they'll make of themselves next.
I don't want readers to come to The Fall looking for erotic tripe and leaving disappointed for lack of throbbing and thrusting. I want readers to come intrigued, and then leave entertained and a little more conscious of this world we live in.
Good Fiction, after all, entertains us while at the same time making us think. If there's a list for that, that's the list I want to be on.