Edmund White has always struggled between appeasing the gods of his art and paying off the princelings of politics. Endearingly, and sometimes infuriatingly, he insists on doing both, and the result often leaves his pockets rather empty. Thus in his book of selected journalism, The Burning Library, he can move from a sublime celebration of Nabokov’s ‘greatness’ to a demand that ‘even the hierarchy inherent in the concept of a canon must be jettisoned.’ It is how he is able, in a piece about Robert Mapplethorpe, to argue that ‘passion, like art, is always irresponsible, useless, an end in itself, regulated by its own impulses and nothing else’ and to propose in another that the best gay writing should be a combination of confession, reportage and witness.
His deepest aesthetic impulse, one suspects, is for a priestly withdrawal, surpliced in the vestments of concealment; but his heart, his politics and his obvious humanity keep him very much a senator of the loud city-state that is gay aesthetics and politics.
White’s journalism is often strange because it appears to borrow crazy opinions without wanting to own them. Its pulse rate is slow. It is always humane, intelligent, but without serration. There is hardly a critical word for anyone in The Burning Library. Like his fiction, it is loose, free, occasionally idle and sometimes beautiful (White has a Nabokovian capacity for the splash of metaphor). Unlike his fiction, it has no talent for intimacy. His style is not very natural. The sentences refuse to lie down, and often he turns the page into a lecture hall. Even the best essay in the book, his fine celebration of Nabokov, has a kind of aural clatter: ‘I may also seem to be saying that if Lolita, the supreme novel of love in the 20th century, is a parody of earlier love novels, we should not be surprised, since love itself – the very love you and I experience in real life – is also a parody of earlier novels ... If I made such an assertion, or if I attributed it to Nabokov, I would be subscribing to the approach to literature and art advanced by Roland Barthes.’ White’s journalistic style is frequently lustreless, in striking contrast to the gloss of his fictional prose: ‘In another passage the harsh power of clichés is invoked.’ He can be pedagogical while being platitudinous: Christina Stead ‘resists the evil reductionism of our culture and never “totalises” the self (an ugly but useful word)’; ‘In great fiction the language is not only satisfying in itself, but it also fulfils larger purposes of design.’
This suggests that White is not a very natural critic, which matters little because he is so clearly a natural writer. His reports on gay identity and sexuality collected in this book are generally much more robust and engaging than his criticism of other writers. They tell a story – both personal and collective – of tentative beginnings, discovered confidence, sexual freedom and increasing politicisation. Aesthetically, the shift of the book is away from the high art of Nabokov towards a literature of witness and anti-canonical sweat. We watch a civilian militarise himself.
In the first piece in the book, ‘The Gay Philosopher’, written in the late Sixties, White provides a journalistic account, in effect, of the world of his autobiographical novel of childhood, A Boy’s Own Story, when he writes of the damage done to homosexuals by society’s determination to see their sexuality as an illness, a crime or a sin. White was 29, and had himself been in ‘corrective’ analysis. ‘Obviously if homosexuals regard themselves as “sick”, and most of them I know do, that belief cannot help but have a disastrous effect on their self-esteem.’ He toys with a notion that only a few years later will become axiomatic, that of the homosexual ‘as a member of a minority group, like the Jew or Negro or possibly the worker. Employing this metaphor can produce a whole range of fascinating insights.’ Eight years later, in his essay ‘Fantasia on the Seventies’, White is appraising a decade in which, apparently, only half of the Sixties capital had made any interest: there is lots of sex, but political militancy has proved unsuccessful. ‘Sexual permissiveness became a form of numbness, as rigidly codified as the old morality. Street cruising gave way to half-clothed quickies.’ Life was psychically easier – ‘We don’t hate ourselves so much’ – but ‘gay liberation as a militant programme has turned out to be ineffectual, perhaps impossible.’ In 1983, as Aids is just beginning its destruction, White writes in ‘Paradise Found’ that ‘today, 14 years after the Stonewall Uprising and the beginning of gay liberation, there is a great deal more self-acceptance among gays, even a welcome show of arrogance.’
It is the last moment of political serenity in the book. By the late Eighties, the garden gates have been shut. White writes elegiacally that ‘what seems unquestionable is than ten years ago sex was for gay men a reason for being. Not simple, humdrum coupling, but a new principle of adhesiveness.’ But all this has disappeared, and White’s aesthetics, politics, even diction, quicken their step. In literary terms, this is not always very attractive or coherent. In ‘Aesthetics and Loss’, written in 1987, White proposes a gay art about Aids which will ‘witness to the cultural moment’, and which must be tactful, angry and without humour, for ‘humour, like melodrama, is an assertion of bourgeois values.’ ‘Cultural moment’, ‘bourgeois values’ – White’s language begins its theoretical apprenticeship. It has ceased to belong to him. When it is not in theoretical uniform, it is in ragged civvies. Attending, in 1991, an Out/Write Writers’ Conference in San Francisco, he writes disapprovingly of canon formation, ‘the process by which powerful critics select a few books to become classics, to be taught in college curricula and earmarked as the essential books of our civilisation’. ‘Earmarked’ – the word itself is telling.
The slide away from ‘irresponsible’ aesthetics towards responsible politics culminates in the last essay in the book, ‘The Personal is Political’, written in 1993. A coda was provided a few months ago in this journal, when White wrote about the importance of a new kind of gay writing – ‘autofiction’ – which combines documentary witness and sexual confession, and which runs from Proust to the late novelist and autobiographer Hervé Guibert. Both essays propose a separatism: ‘If previously I’d written for an older European heterosexual woman, an ideal reader who helped me to screen out in-jokes and preaching to the converted, I now pictured my reader as another gay man.’ Of the new autofiction – a combination of ‘an apologia pro sua vita and a sexologist’s case history’ – he notes that the ‘defining characteristics ... are that it is unapologetic, that it is addressed primarily to gay rather than straight readers, and that it conceives of homosexuals as an oppressed minority group rather than as victims of a pathology’.
These ‘characteristics’ are then filled with aesthetic gold and dropped to anchor the entire argument. The condition of this fiction is taken to be an aesthetic quality. The artist ‘is a saint who writes his own life’. Confession is seen as in itself something good in art. Proust, for example, is praised for writing, in a documentary way, about cruising, male brothels and sadomasochism, and praised for halo-ing his own martyrdom: ‘Proust recasts his own sexuality, conceals his Jewish origins and ascribes a social importance to himself that apparently he did not enjoy, but he nevertheless does not fail to portray himself as a martyr to love and to art.’ Note how everything in Proust other than confession is made to seem a little sneaky (‘conceals his Jewish origins’) or aesthetically beside the point. White the artist, the unmolested soul, does not believe a word of this – or did not. In his essay on Nabokov, written ten years ago, he praised the ‘deliciously slippery’ concealments of Nabokov’s autobiographical art, and praised in Proust not his quality of confession but its opposite: ‘Many writers proceed by creating characters who are parodies of themselves or near-misses or fun-house distortions ... One thinks of Proust, who gave his dilettantism to Swann, his homosexuality to Charlus, his love of his family to the narrator and his hatred of his family to Mlle Vinteuil ... In this sense (but this strict sense only) every novel, including Nabokov’s, is autobiographical.’ It appears that the strictness has relaxed itself over the decade.
This is not the only contradiction in White’s late position. In his essay, ‘Out of the Closet’, written in 1991, he appeals to the idea of literary universality when he writes that Aids has stimulated literary production by gay men because it has made them ‘more reflective on the great questions of love, death, morality and identity, the very preoccupations that have always animated serious fiction and poetry’. But in his most recent journalism, universality is mocked. White complains that minor gay art is called ‘gay’ while major gay art is called ‘classic’ or ‘canonical’. There is muttering against ‘the bourgeois recuperation of all dissident literatures (and of gay literature in particular) through an appeal to universalism ... At this point it might be worth mentioning that whereas identification with an oppressed minority is seen as limiting (“gay writer”) no limitation is assumed if the individual belongs to a dominant group (“white writer”, or “heterosexual painter”, for instance).’
But there is a difference between ‘identification’ with a group and ‘belonging’ to it – the very distinction White explores in an earlier essay when he writes that ‘if one is gay, one is always in a crucial relationship to gayness as such, a defining category that is so full it is nearly empty ... No straight man stands in rapt contemplation of his straightness unless he’s an ass ... No homosexual can take his homosexuality for granted.’
Theoretically, White simply runs from one side of the road to the other, apparently excited that he can interest crowds on both pavements. It makes little sense, yet one of the most attractive qualities of White’s writing is its openness to self-contradiction. It is like a water bed – if one argument is pushed too hard, another pops up somewhere else in the work (which makes it easy for critics ...). In particular, and most important, his fiction has tended to disobey most of the theories he has been espousing in recent years – which is why he is an interesting writer and Hervé Guibert is not.
Indeed, when his fiction becomes either confessional or documentary – as in the second half of The Beautiful Room is Empty, and in some of the stories in Skinned Alive – it loses pressure, and becomes uninteresting. When White is documenting, he chokes on cognitive novelties. The strangeness of new encounters is taken to be sufficient for narrative; the descriptive bubble is lost in the exotic pool. This is noticeable elsewhere in writing about gay life – for instance, in the work of Gary Indiana – and tends to emerge as a kind of loose gossip. It may have something to do with the rapidity of certain encounters in gay life (White writes that ‘the appeal of gay life for me was that it provided so many glancing contacts with other men’), but it is certainly not confined to gay writing, and may be typical of one kind of literary response to late 20th-century American bloat and detail (you can find it almost as an article of faith in the ‘blankness’ of mimetic apprehension in the work of Bret Easton Ellis and others).
A moment like this occurs in White’s essay, ‘Fantasia on the Seventies’, when he visits a club
where a go-go boy with a pretty body and bad skin stripped down to his jockey shorts and then peeled those off and tossed them at us. A burly man in the audience clambered up on to the dais and tried to fuck the performer but was, apparently, too drunk to get an erection. After a while we drifted into the back room, which was so dark I never received a sense of its dimensions, although I do remember standing on a platform and staring through the slowly revolving blades of a fan at one naked man fucking another in a cubbyhole.
There are similar scenes in The Beautiful Room is Empty. In a lesbian bar, ‘a butch entered squiring a blonde whore tottering along on spike heels under dairy-whip hair.’ This is certainly ‘witness’, but it is not literary creation. The language cedes its individuality, and rests on idle formulations (‘pretty body’, ‘burly man’) or on a ready-made public language (‘butch’, ‘blonde whore’).
Something similar occurs when White writes about sex. The language disappears, becomes familiar, shared, public. This is not, of course, an affliction confined to White (and White writes well about sex as often as he writes ordinarily about it) nor to gay writing. The problem with writing about sex in most fiction by men is that men apparently find it difficult to keep fantasy and wish fulfilment out of such moments; and that men, apparently, have tediously similar fantasies. Sex is often unwittingly comic in contemporary literature because the act of greatest intimacy is revealed to be the least individual of all our activities, and hence the least private. Sex demonstrates our similarity to each other. Barthes famously said that ‘I love you’ is a quote; if so, sex is a kind of plagiarism.
All this emerges in White’s work – as it does in most writers’ – most obviously as repetition. For example, in at least three points in White’s work, a hero stands in front of a man and drops his clothes ‘in a puddle’. In A Boy’s Own Story, the narrator imagines a sports teacher masturbating: ‘his dark hand pulls open the pajama flap and grabs his penis, which in a moment is as hard as hickory.’ In The Beautiful Room is Empty, the narrator, having dropped his clothes ‘in a puddle’, stands in front of a lover and sees ‘the hickory-hard straining of this cock’. Elsewhere in the same book, the narrator imagines his ‘rock-hard college boy erection’. In ‘Pyrography’, one of the new stories in Skinned Alive, we come across ‘Howard’s erection was so hard it hurt’; later, in the wonderful story, ‘Reprise’, about a middle-aged man recalling a botched first love affair, we read: ‘I’d been erect so long my penis began to ache, and I could feel a pre-come stain seeping through my khakis.’
White’s sexual descriptions tend to resemble each other. There is a conformity. Intriguingly, he writes in one of his essays that so powerfully consuming was sex in the heyday of Seventies gay life that it made artistic activity seem unrewarding: ‘Even so, sex was, if not fulfilling, then at least engrossing enough at times to make the pursuit of the toughest artistic goals seem too hard, too much work given the mild returns.’ It may be that what White describes as a life-choice happens helplessly in literary terms, at the level of style. The powerful heat of sex burns away rival vapours; so engrossing – so fulfilling – is the evocation of sex that real creative notation disappears and melts into something close to pornography. Pornography, in that a ready-made public sex-language is preferred to an individual literary style; and the human being disappears: ‘his stomach, so taut from all his sit-ups a dropped dime would have bounced on it’; ‘I met a pretty Korean ... He’d take it like a man, bite the pillow if I hurt him, and nothing had ever felt quite so good as those small taut muscles under the chamois-soft skin, the colour of cinnamon when it’s sprinkled on cappuccino’; ‘revealing strong tan calves above crisp ribbed athletic socks’; ‘the next morning, lightly silvered in hangover sweat, he finally let me plunge into that strong ass, but not before he’d greased me up with KY’; ‘that long flat stomach’; ‘extra muscles, the long sexy kind – the interior ones gripping me now ... The moment I looked at what I was doing to him, I could feel myself ready to explode.’ In the new stories, the narrator of ‘Reprise’ remembers his first love, ‘that big tanned body’ and recalls putting ‘my slender calf against his massive one, my knobbly knee against his square majestic one’.
Most of the diction is from pornography not literature: ‘nothing had ever felt quite so good’; ‘ready to explode’; the reliance on the adjective ‘sexy’, and that telling obliquity ‘that strong ass’, where ‘that’ is substituting elegiacally for original descriptive work. Again, this is not a unique weakness of gay writing about sex. What is John Updike’s offensive description of a woman as ‘poignantly breastless’ in Roger’s Version if not a moment of heterosexual fantasy, simply inverted?
All one needs to do, to verify that such passages are weak stylistically, is compare them with the brilliance of White’s non-sexual portraiture: ‘a face sprouting brunet sideburns that swerved inward like cheese knives towards his mouth’. In this world the eccentric, the comic and the fallible are, unusually, allowed their place in the sexual: ‘His jockey shorts had holes in them. Around one leg a broken elastic had popped out of the cotton seam and dangled against his thigh like a grey noodle’; ‘so massive and quivering were her breasts and hips under the slip that the garment seemed to be the body of a vaudeville horse which at least two people were inhabiting.’
All White’s writing has such moments – it is difficult to forget the scattered gorgeousness in his fiction. Clouds ‘lit up like internal organs dyed for examination’; a sun that ‘pulsed feebly like the aura of a migraine that doesn’t develop’. And my favourite from The Beautiful Room is Empty, as the narrator stands watching a city’s lights come on from an apartment window: ‘slowly constructing itself like coral under incoming tides of light’.
It is strange that a writer of this talent would exchange these precious stones for the rocks of ‘anger’. In ‘The Personal is Political’, White theoretically rewrites all his work, and suggests that it has always been political. He describes A Boy’s Own Story thus: ‘What I wanted to show was the harm psychotherapy had done to homosexuals and the self-hatred that was forced on a young gay man by a society that could conceive of homosexuality only as a sickness, sin or crime.’ Does anyone reading that wonderful novel recognise inside it this glum silhouette? After all, one of its many comedies is that the young narrator priggishly chooses to undergo analysis because ‘I wanted to overcome this thing I was becoming and was in danger soon of being, the homosexual.’ Dr O’Reilly, the famous analyst selected, is not merely some appalling agent of the homophobic hegemony, but a comic creation who ‘was not a good listener. He was always scooping up handfuls of orange diet pills and swallowing them with a jigger of scotch.’ Were the book anything like White’s retrospective description it would be not only dull but most certainly limited in appeal; this is precisely the difference between identification with a gay cause and belonging to gayness.
Skinned Alive shows us that, for all his confusions, White has lost none of his artistry. In ‘Running On Empty’, Luke, a sick translator, returns to his family in Texas. It is a world of conservative women – aunts, great-aunts, cousins. It is religious and rural. The story beautifully charts the awkwardness of Luke’s homecoming. The artist in White sees the Southern Baptists with much comedy and tenderness. ‘Then there were cheerful moments, as when Luke recounted the latest follies of folks in Paris. “Well, I declare,” the ladies would exclaim, their voices dipping from pretended excitement down into real indifference. He was careful not to go on too long about a world they didn’t know or care about or to shock them.’ Luke’s tact is matched by the author’s: just as Luke tries not to shock his cousins, so the author respects their otherness.
Other old ladies, all widows, stopped in to visit, and Luke wondered if Beth was ready to join grief’s hen club. Girls started out clinging together, whispering secrets and flouncing past boys. Then there was the longish interlude of marriage, followed by the second sorority of widowhood; all these humped necks, bleared eyes, false teeth, the wide-legged sitting posture of country women sipping weak coffee and complaining about one another.
Note that ‘weak coffee’. Luke, like White, is an HIV-positive artist from Paris. But White, in creating Luke, has done what Rilke did when he created Malte in his autobiographical The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Rilke put it like this in a letter: ‘Since you last heard of him Malte has grown into a figure completely detached from me and has acquired a being and an individuality which interested me more and more strongly the more they differentiated themselves from their author.’ This is a long way from autofiction; but it is certainly art.