a little life is not your father
y'all is hanya-pilled
This one is for the homosexuals. Grow up.
I should explain.
At dinner recently, a friend asked me about a book I had blurbed. He had recently picked it up after reading an article, ostensibly a review, of the book. He asked me what I thought, and I said that I had liked the book. I found it funny and smart and enjoyable. I’d read the book during a strange and difficult span during the pandemic. It had been one of the few books I was able to finish during that time. I was quite happy that my friend was going to read the book, because I was curious what he would make of it though I sensed that there would be things in it that he liked. Then my friend told me that the article about the book had presented it as an alternative to contemporary gay literature, and without it being explained, I knew exactly what kind of essay my friend was talking about.
It has appeared in places like Granta, Gawker, The Yale Review, Astra.
Gay men are writing this tiresome genre of Oedipal essay in which they decry the status of contemporary gay writing as being too serious or not serious enough, too sad or too happy, too focused on trauma or too irreverent, too ironic or too sincere, too much about sex or not enough, not realistic about apps and hook ups or too realistic about apps and hook-ups. Contemporary gay fiction is a place where one can arrive and leave satisfied and by satisfied, I mean, with sufficient cause to be annoyed online and in their little Google docs across media. They type away, sneering and furious, or sad, or horny, or bored, or distracted, or amused, or glad, or perhaps, they aren’t typing at all. Perhaps, they are dictating. Or holding forth in a bar, gesturing, trying to get a thought or set of thoughts to cohere, trying out arguments for the death of Big Gay Literature on their friends. Telling them provocative, mildly homophobic, acidic things about how gay novels with gray book covers have so maimed the public consciousness that we’re all just tender faggots full of feeling. Or something. The Homosexual Essayist is perhaps drinking something clear or something dark, something vinegary, something like piss, something not at all like piss that they imagine to themselves that they will describe as being like piss. Perhaps they flick ashes from their cigarettes and type a little note to themselves on their phone. Musing all the while about all the great thoughts they will one day fashion into a slinky, amusing little number that is by turns serious and unserious, faggy and masc, camp and delightful, full of allusions and alliteration, full of all the shaggy shambolic things stripped out of art by the Emotion Industrial Complex of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—which, did you know, was a CIA thing?
I get it.
Sometimes, when you are mad and wild with hunger, you think to yourself, I should kill a God. You think, Everyone who reads my work thinks that I’m trying to do what that faggot over there is doing but I am not like them because I think bareback sex is funny but also not funny and once I let a man spit on my lower back and sometimes I do coke in public, and also I read Marx while stoned one summer and I think that these novels are bourgeois and dishonest and we have to stop them. Don’t we all feel that way as we watch people do what it is that we want to do in a way that feels slightly too close to the way in which we want to do it? Particularly when our sense of ourselves is not robust and not strong, when we are full of doubt and anxiety. The first we way know to secure the ego against death is to kill. To rend and make the God over in our own image.
This is the way of capitalist cultural reproduction. A procession of divinities. A conveyer built of status totems. Each replaced by the next generation, layer upon layer, not in cooperation, but in repetition and ultimately replacement. It’s Oedipal. And in this case, the father is, well, A Little Life.
When Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel came out, it became a bit of a cultural phenomenon. It was hailed and lauded and came very close to winning major awards, and did win others. It sold like gangbusters. And became kind of a moment, no? The novel, if you are unfamiliar, is about a group of gay and gay-ish men living in New York. The novel tackles themes of abuse, violence, trauma, sweater porn, aspirational wealth, etc. It’s one of those novels that people read and then spend their whole lives telling people, I sobbed. All the way through. I mean, it was fine. I didn’t sob. I didn’t feel anything. It gave fanfiction, if we are being totally honest. And I understand that very brilliant people (some of whom are dear to me) have made robust critical arguments on behalf of the novel and its importance, and I believe that they feel that way. And I think the arguments have merit and stand on their own. It just was not one of my favorite books, though I have learned not to be surprised that books take hold of people in mysterious ways. Life is a rich tapestry.
I bring up A Little Life because it represented something of an aberration. The novel on its surface is as commercial and generic as you can get when it comes to a bestseller. It’s a sweeping, multi-decade epic about a small kinship group that chronicles the changes in their lives and relationships against a vaguely familiar urban American backdrop. Where it diverges is that at the center of this novel is not a white family or a troubled but charismatic ethnic family, but a found family of sorts. A Little Life represents a kind of mainstreaming of queerness, coinciding with marriage equality and all that Obama optimism and Drag Race, of course. At its core, the novel is sentimental. It affirms and reaffirms bourgeois family values. There is violence in the novel, yes, but even this violence, which might have turned the novel gothic if not for the fact that even in its darkest moments, it affirms a belief, quite homophobic, that deep down, perhaps some people aren’t meant to go on and that some people are forever disfigured by their trauma and their wounds. And, like, yeah, that kind of seems wild and provocative, but I am not sure the novel actually…has the guts to back up that claim? Like, spoiler alert, Jude, the abused character, dies by his own decision. And, in doing so, exerts agency for the first time in his life. Because to live would have been for the benefit of others, and, like, yeah. But also…the final gestures of the novel is that his loved ones accept this decision and they view it as a way of loving him, and in this way, the loop is closed and we’re back to sentiment. Like, the novel is not actually that deep. It’s actually the least surprising thing in the world that a sweeping multi-decade epic about a family’s changes in a shifting America would be a commercial success? The surprise was that it was about gays.
But times have changed. Slightly. In ways mostly measured in capitalist accumulation. Which is to say that people feel that A Little Life spawned a genre of books about harrowing trauma and difficult life circumstances, and that such books painted contemporary queer life as being one-dimensional and uniformly sad. Where was all the cum guzzling? The felching! The fisting! The delicious right of strobes over a slick linoleum dance floor? Where was the orgy of pleasure, sensation, the hedonistic blitz and glamor that had launched a thousand boyhood fantasies of moving to large urban centers and going home with men who looked like their PE teachers? WHERE WAS IT?! All we had were lyrical novels of contemporary experience! Men being sad in bathrooms! Men being sad after sex! Men getting raped by trusted family friends or being attacked for being femme! No one got attacked for being femme anymore! RuPaul was on TV! Lin Manuel Miranda said Love is Love! It’s giving misery porn, my loves. It’s giving trauma porn, my loves. Where is the porn, my loves? Call Me by Your Name didn’t even have barebacking! Where are the gay romcoms! Where are the gay love fests?! Where are the gay spy dramas! I wanna see Daniel Craig grip them ankles! Mine or his!
I sometimes wonder what to make of these critiques from both the so-called TenderQueer squishy gays and the…I don’t know what to call them, but you know, the ones who read Marx and tweet memes online and listen to podcasts. Those ones. I wonder what to make of their alternating charges of too much sex, too little sex, too much drugs, not enough, etc. Particularly because the platonic homosexual experience over which they are scrapping in the representational field is ultimately a white, cis, and abled homosexual experience, no? Like, the mean internet homosexual socialists and the tenderqueer Heartstopper Tumblr goblins are ostensibly arguing over how the cis white gay male should be represented in narrative. Where the field of combat is Twitter, the narrative in question is, well, movies and television or whatever streaming counts as these days. Where the venue of combat is the essay, then the narrative is often a novel or a film you might watch with your Mubi subscription or whatever. Yet the terms of engagement often remain the same. How best to let our white dolls fuck in the made-up stories we play in our minds. Or not fuck. Or do ketamine. Or not do ketamine. Whatever. Like, when these people are arguing about gay fiction being humorless or gay fiction being too sad, they are not arguing about, like, a genre of gay fiction that includes my work or the work of someone like Bryan Washington or James Hannaham or Saeed Jones or Robert Jones. Jr, even. They are arguing about depictions of white gays. Cis white gays. And they dress it up in concerns re:what is bourgeois or what is not bourgeois enough, etc. Black people. Blackness. Does not figure into their critique or their arguments, because in their minds, the general case is a white case. The exception is Ocean Vuong’s work. But in that case, they foreground his style in their critique without dealing with, like, the fact that his work grapples with the experience of living in a diaspora shaped by colonial violence? Like??? And you could say, like, Yanagihara is not a white man! And I agree. And her novel isn’t about white people! Most of the cast is black! And yes, that is true. On its surface. But, like, do the white people who read that book know that? I would argue that that book is a kind of passing fantasy because most of the characters in it achieve a level of functional whiteness that was aspirational for certain people. Like, I think Yanagihara’s book is interesting re: race in a meta way, and I would love to have that conversation, but that is very much not the conversation happening around that novel.
People, and by people, I mean gay men, seem to feel quite trapped by the publication of novels like On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous and What Belongs to You and Cleanness and of course A Little Life. Can you even write a novel about gay fiction and not mention A Little Life? No, you can’t. But it just feels like there is a small industrial complex being built around feeling oppressed by Garth Greenwell. As though the critical success of his gorgeous, evocative novels is somehow a barrier to people publishing their…whatever it is that these people want to publish or see published. It’s unclear to me.
One of the tentpole arguments of this genre of essay is that gay fiction is humorless, dry, self-serious, self-negating, etc. In the essay “Why So Serious,” published in The Yale Review, Spencer Lee-Lenfield states:
“Queer fiction today tends toward the serious and bleak, telling stories of suffering either fatal or heroically redeemed.”
“Recent years of queer prestige writing have often operated from the implicit position that, in verse or prose, even moments of happiness or ecstasy must exhibit solemnity in order to attain the status of art,”
while writing for Gawker in a piece called “Gay Sincerity is Scary,” Paul McAdory says:
“What is more beautiful than a flattened emotional landscape, in which humor has been extinguished, the cacophony of possible affective responses to duress and sadness silenced, and every sundry happening linked to some determinative, still-open wound suffered by the narrator, who is to a greater or lesser extent a stand-in for the author?”
and in a recent review of Paul Dall Rossa’s truly excellent collection of short stories, A Vivid and Exciting Inner Life (you all should read it, both for Paul’s sharp, dry wit and also the taut beauty of his lines), the writer Bobuq Sayed writes:
It is a novelty to behold because much contemporary gay fiction still hasn’t shed the expectation to perform respectability politics, by which I mean gushy love stories or painfully earnest paeans to coming out.
It is true that some people, myself included, do feel that even happiness is kind of sad. But that is simply my experience and my perspective. It is simply the filter through which I write and articulate my fiction. I had a sad life! I’m sorry! But it is also true that there are gay writers for whom this is not the case. Evan James, for example, whose deliciously farcical novel Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe is filled with multivalent humor—at times biting, at times sweet, at times moving, at times somber. There’s also James Gregor’s Going Dutch, a millennial comedy of manners about the strange ways self-identity mutate under extractive labor and personal conditions in a grad program. Also, Bryan Washington’s stories are filled with moments of joy, and real humor. Beats of relief and dramedy, all in this effortless, unmannered way. There’s also Nick White, who writes funny, strange stories about Southern life. There’s James Hannaham who is singular in his sheer screwball antics. Brontez Purnell is so vulgar and perverse and sexy and black as fuck and biting that I spent most of 100 Boyfriends cringing and cackling.
I got into this in the essay on the trauma plot, but people really do seem very suspicious of responding to the brutal urgencies of life with ambivalence, exhaustion, sadness, terror. Like, sometimes it is okay not to laugh at hard things. As a move, that’s actually kind of played out at this point in history. There’s only so much laughing at catastrophe that a person can do before it’s no longer irony and instead it constitutes an emotional imbalance. Which, again, could be funny. But also, some things are just fucked up. And that’s okay. This allergy to sentiment, to meeting sentiment head-on and trying to bear witness to it, to articulate the exact parameters of the brutal shit life threw your way. I don’t know why we got this idea that if something is serious, you laugh at it. And if it’s not, you take it seriously. Like. I understand that we all had the 90s and the 2000s, hysterical realism, irony, etc. But we live in the world. And irony has gone cold on us. We can’t keep trying to counter-intuit our way into some fresh new sensation. We can’t keep trying to jolt ourselves back to life by taking the unexpected play. The unexpected has become the expected. What’s harder to do now is to face up to shit. And not in the cloak and guise of irreverence. But take shit seriously. That’s what makes the best moments of Girls good. Those moments when there’s no way to funny your way out. When there are no more jokes. When it’s just you and your apartment. And a splinter in your ass. And a ruptured ear drum. And all your friends hate you. When you can’t laugh your way out. Why the fuck are you still laughing?
Gay fiction isn’t humorless. It isn’t overly morbid. Or if it is, it’s always kind of been that way. Gay writers have been weird for a long time. And I can see being irritated that the books selling many many many many copies are not your favorite weird Genet derivatives or whatever, and, like, okay. But that is a frustration with commerce, not art, as my friend Garth likes to tell me.
Also, I feel like when people make arguments like this, what they mean is, I did not enjoy my experience reading Garth Greenwell or Ocean Vuong or Hanya Yanagihara, or, perhaps, now, Douglas Stuart. In McAdory’s words:
The mainstream critical success of books like Shuggie Bain, Cleanness, and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous bespeaks, I think, a discomfort on the part of certain readers with affective complexity. And complexity, or its artful representation, can be a joyful thing.
Like, you’re not annoyed at “gay fiction.” You’re annoyed or disappointed in like, three or four writers, my friend. Maybe you should read more. Or better. Or both. Either way, grow up. I mean that both in the sense of “what a fucking loser” and also in the sense of “mature psychologically, please.” All I feel when I read sentences like this is a discomfort with directness and a discomfort with sentiment. The snappy, snide retreat into irony is such a clear indication of an inability to deal with emotion and feeling in a direct way. And what happens is that a personal discomfort is manufactured into an aesthetic discomfort. That is, your personal problem becomes an aesthetic problem that you project onto everyone else and their work. Because. Well, that’s between you and your therapist.
I am also not entirely sure I am 100% there with the read of these authors in these essays? Like, in each essay, there’s this weird impulse to flatten what Greenwell, Vuong, and Yanagihara are doing into one thing? And that’s not true. Greenwell’s narrators are not always even sincere. They can be elusive. Deceptive. Needful. Sneaky. Sly. What is consistent is that the narrating intelligence that drives his work is sincere. It is direct about the interior winds of those narrators’ lives, so that while the narrators themselves might be engaging in self-negation or evasive emotional maneuvers, the narration itself is filled with sentiment. That is, we are never out of contact with the emotional texture of the narrator. That is quite different from Yanagihara’s writing, which is a far blunter instrument. There is no fine gradation of psychology in A Little Life or in To Paradise. Yanagihara shapes interiority with a bulldozer and C4. The effect on the reader is similar. She blasts her way down to sentiment. Vuong's writing is oblique. Glancing. He takes into the slippery stream of experience. And Douglas Stuart is, well, a pseudo-Jamesian. Sneakily contemporary. He is kind of the inverse of Yanagihara in that he is all psychology.
What these writers have in common is that they write about people in difficult situations and circumstances, but their reflex is toward earnestness instead of toward, well, jokes. That isn’t to say that jokes bad. I mean, where would we be as a society without South Park and Family Guy to help us process the traumatic absurdity of 9/11. And, like, yeah, it’s kind of hard to realize that we’ve gone from Robot Chicken and Moral Orel and South Park to Steven Universe. Like, yeah. There is something sad and absurd about that. I do miss sometimes that mean, bright edge to culture. And yeah, it can feel sometimes like we are drowning in tender feelings and affirmation. But, that’s not all there is out there. That’s not even a little bit of what is out there. And it seems petty and small to accuse writers of something they aren’t even doing and then to blame all the ill sof the contemporary literary marketplace re: gays in literature on them. It feels really dumb, honestly. Not very smart. It’s giving Incel. Hanyacel. Y’all are Hanya-pilled. Y’all saw them gays in tanktops and totebags bearing that book cover, and you thought, Not on this land!!!!
I feel like at the bottom of all of these essays is this Oedipal impulse to murder A Little Life and all it represents because that novel and novels like it represent some inaccessible realm of sentiment or set of aesthetic moves that lie outside of the interest or mode of the person doing the projecting. No one is making them or you or me or anyone write anything. You are free. Nobody is going to make you put a sad gay boy in your book. No one is going to make you make your character come out to someone in order to get a book deal. The barrier between you and your goals is not Hanya Yanagihara or Garth Greenwell or Ocean Vuong or Douglas Stuart. They are not holding your dreams captive.
No. You are caught in a mimetic cage of your own making. You are the one with the keys.
Which I say with love and understanding. For a long time, I felt this way about the work of certain black writers. That I had to prove that I wasn’t one of those negroes who was going to write about poverty and the agony of being racially profiled. That I was going to write a novel like my heroes Ben Lerner and Knausgaard. A novel about contemporary life and subjectivity. I wouldn’t stop to identity and race and all that other jive bullshit, etc. No, I wouldn’t be reading those midcentury negroes. What did they have to teach me, a contemporary bleck homosexual with graduate degrees! I had Proust. I was a counterintuitive bleck.
But then, you realize that even James Baldwin had to murder his father. He brutalized Richard Wright. The same way Hemingway had to brutalize Sherwood Anderson. The way we all cut our teeth chewing on the bones of those who made us. It is a natural part of growing up. But the key there is that one must grow up. One must set aside childish things. Because at their core, these essays are not really about aesthetics. Because what are they arguing against? The portrayal of pain in gay life? The portrayal of seriousness in gay life? The theme of sadness? Sex? Not enough sex? Like, those are not aesthetic arguments. Those are not real things that have anything to do with art. That is childish griping about books other people wrote while you yourself have not written a book. That is anxiety about your own future at work. It is fear.
Maybe I can put it another way.
I used to have a lot of thoughts and opinions about representation in movies and stories and tv and all that. I used to get on Twitter and be angry and snide and have strongly articulated principles. But then, when I started to write and publish little stories in little places, I stopped caring so much about representation in other people’s work. Now, I care insomuch as it sometimes is fun to write about a book or a movie or a play. It’s fun to take it apart and try to understand it. But now, I feel that I’m taking apart other people’s work with less mimetic jealousy in my heart. Or, another way still.
You are the one in control of your destiny. You may be your own father. Put the knife down, bestie.
this!! is so good! When I was younger, I invested a lot of energy (for some reason) in decrying the way that queer people were depicted in media. But as I've gotten older, I just don't have the angry energy for attacking other queer people for the types of stories they want to write. I'll still make fun of the occasional big media schlock-fest, but otherwise, none of us will get out of our ambivalence about marginalization through yelling at people on Twitter. Should being gay be normalized, legal, mainstream, and safe? Or should it be cool and edgy and involve lots of drugs and orgies? I don't know, and I don't really want to tell other people what to think. I'll just write my little things in the corner.
A Little Life struck me strangely. For the first hundred pages I was enchanted, then I figured out where it was going, and going, and going. Eventually each new
porn plot twist had me howling. Truly. The great camp classic of the new millennium. Now Mommy Dearest can rest in her grave.