By Rob Rosen
When I started writing a good 10+ years ago, the gay literary world was a very different scene than it is today. Then again, going back 20 years it was equally as different. Gay bookstores abounded two decades ago, as did gay authors, many of whom typed on a… drum roll please… typewriter or, gulp, by hand. And many of these authors became famous, and remain so today. In fact, walk into any of the few remaining independent bookstores (because good luck finding many gay novels in a chain store) and you’re bound to still find their works on the shelves.
But is that because these authors were so good or because there are so few of us left these days turning out paperbacks? Or any publishers left to even print them? Or anyone even reading books anymore? Better still, if a book falls on a bookshelf and there’s no one around to read it, does it make a literary sound?
And, lastly, is desire enough to even write a novel these days?
See, when I started writing, it wasn’t to become famous (mostly) or for the money (again, mostly), but it was because I felt like I could be a writer. Felt it down to my very soul, like it was something I was born to do, meant to do. And, judging from my track record, I guess my soul was on the right track, so to speak.
But as I continue to write, as my fifth novel, Queerwolf, is about to fall onto one of those bookshelves, and I pray that someone will hear it as it slams into it, I watch as, one by one, the gay bookstores close up shop (R.I.P. Outwrite, A Different Light, Oscar Wilde Books, and Lambda Rising) and the gay publishers trickle down to a mere handful. And, though you might be shocked to learn that I actually make more money from a sold ebook than a paperback, it just doesn’t feel the same, like something has been lost in the translation, like a whole culture is slowly dissolving into the ether (or Ethernet, as it were).
I mean, think about it. Who was the voice of our people before we had a voice of our own? Before OUT Magazine and the Advocate? Before Will and Grace and Ru Paul’s Drag Race? Who was letting the gay disenfranchised know that they weren’t alone in the world?
Yep, it was the gay author. And, ironically, how many of them did you ever see on the cover of OUT or the Advocate? Then count how many straight actors you saw instead, and you’ll see the dilemma.
But the changes don’t end there. Two decades ago, when even the large, mostly-straight publishing houses were turning out gay books one after the other, I’d venture to say that the readership of these books was indeed gay. I mean, I doubt straight women were going into gay bookstores for their beach readings. Not so with the advent of Amazon, of course.
See, almost all my fan mail comes from straight women. Almost all the gay book review sites are run by straight women and edited by straight women. Almost all the gay book reviewers are straight women, and the readerships of these sites as well. Almost every publisher and copyeditor I deal with is a straight woman. Heck, even my erotica is read by a largely straight female audience (just go to Goodreads if you want easy proof of this). And before you suggest that this is a misogynistic rant, it’s not; it’s just a statement of fact.
So why am I writing now for straight women instead of the aforementioned gay disenfranchised? And do the disenfranchised even need the likes of us gay authors anymore? I mean, judging from what’s still on the shelves, and what’s still selling on Amazon, they have the voices of our past to the lead them, just like my generation had (as I write this, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is the #2 best seller of gay & lesbian paperbacks, Edith Wharton is #4, and, heck, Fried Green Tomatoes by Fannie Flagg is #15).
So is the desire all I have left?
If there are no gay bookstores (pray for the few remaining holdouts, please!) and fewer and fewer gay readers (sorry to the lesbian readers out there; I know you read way more than the gay guys do, hence all the lesbian publishers still hanging in there), then what’s the point?
To tell you the truth, my very soul aches to write such words.
What’s the point?
Sadly, I have no easy answers to any of these questions. Save for one, that is. Yes, desire is enough. I’m still thrilled that my books and short stories are read and enjoyed. That is the purpose of art, after all: to be enjoyed by others, despite who that audience might be, to bring forth something out of nothing, to create, even for creation’s sake.
Still, I’m sad for what’s been lost. And what will still surely be lost. For the joy of standing in a gay bookstore, gazing longingly at shelves and shelves of books that are making literary noise. Sad for all the gay authors who never will be because of all the publishers who are no longer. And for all the gay people out there who have forgotten who their voices were and still are.
So please run to that literary forest, folks. Because we’re all aching to be heard, yearning for our collective noise to reach your ears. And we’re still out there, slamming our books, our very hearts and souls, onto those few remaining bookshelves.
Rob Rosen is the critically acclaimed author of the novels Sparkle: The Queerest Book You’ll Ever Love, Divas Las Vegas, winner of the 2010 TLA Gaybies for Best Gay Fiction, Hot Lava, Southern Fried, and the soon to be released Queerwolf. His short stories have been published in well-over 150 anthologies. Please visit him at www.therobrosen.com