Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Literature Introduction

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Literature

For further information on Gay and Lesbian Literature, see CLC, Volume 76.

Literature written by and about gays and lesbians has been highly visible and have attracted considerable critical attention since the 1960s in the United States. Whether through fiction, drama, poetry, or autobiography, homosexual literature typically explores issues of gender and identity, as well as the influences of ethnicity and social class on the individual. Since the act of openly declaring oneself gay or lesbian can sometimes inspire personal, economic, and social prejudices, many homosexual writers have heavily utilized metaphors and allegories in their works rather than address overt themes of gender identity or sexual preference. One of the most prevalent trends in homosexual literature has been an examination of issues surrounding the AIDS virus which has exerted a powerful impact on many gay communities since the 1970s.

The literary and the personal are often intertwined in discussions of gay literature. For example, autobiographical and fictional works such as Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982) by Richard Rodriguez and How Town (1990) by Michael Nava have been noted for their authors' intimate depictions of individuals who are doubly marginalized by being both gay and a member of an ethnic minority. Critics have also discussed the importance of style in homosexual literature, arguing that word choice and narrative structure can frequently reflect the sentiments of the author or characters. John Vincent has asserted that poet John Ashbery uses his own personal blend of “peculiar poetics” to depict his feelings about the “peculiar” experience of being gay. Mark Lilly has traced the expressive sense of weariness in the prose of Andrew Holleran—particularly in Dancer from the Dance (1978) and Nights in Aruba (1983)—commenting that the weariness reflects the frustrations of Holleran's gay characters as they struggle to find love and acceptance. Severo Sarduy's works are filled with images of imminent danger, mirroring the sometimes hurtful and even violent experience of being gay in the modern world. Homosexual writers regularly address issues of secrecy and shame, and the coming-out novel has remained a popular and enduring subgenre in gay literature. David Leavitt's The Lost Language of Cranes (1986) is widely considered to be a prime example of a forceful and discerning coming-out narrative. John J. Clum has argued that, in the late twentieth century, significant strides have been made towards addressing homosexual themes and concerns in the genre of drama. Productions such as Tony Kushner's Angels in America (1991), Terence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994), and Naomi Wallace's In the Heart of America (1994) have helped broaden the scope of contemporary theatre, bringing a new emphasis on gender roles and sexual politics to the stage.

Lesbian literature confronts many of the same issues as literature written by gay men, but it also addresses several singular themes that are unique to same-sex relationships between women. Many scholars have discussed the treatment of lesbians and lesbian relationships in works by Sara Maitland, Brigid Brophy, Jeanette Winterson, and Emma Donoghue, among others, tracing the progression from oblique references in early works to frank treatments in contemporary lesbian literature. Lynne Harne and Tara Price-Hughes have explored the variety of roles available to women in lesbian literature and have additionally compared how women and lesbians are viewed in world cultures—suggesting that women in these settings are offered a wider spectrum of roles than in Western culture. In such discussions, Harne and Price-Hughes have focused on texts including Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead (1991), Louise Erdrich's The Beet Queen (1986), and Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982) to explore the roles available to lesbians and women in societies that differ from a traditional patriarchal order. Scholars and critics have emphasized that lesbian relationships need to be viewed as separate and distinct from either heterosexual or gay relationships, due to the additional pressures on women living in a male-dominated world. Overall, there is a strong political component within both gay and lesbian literature, as the worlds these literatures depict are routinely filled with characters who suffer from violence, discrimination, marginalization, and ridicule.