Monday, April 30, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Okay. You’re homosexual, you’re living in a society that doesn’t tolerate that sort of thing, and you’re bursting to write. But you can’t write about the thing that most directly concerns you, unless you want your books banned or confined to a covert under-the-counter readership. You could go all coy and not mention your sexuality at all (like Osbert Sitwell in his voluminous memoirs). You could write an openly homosexual novel but leave it unpublished (like E.M.Forster’s Maurice). But really, you do want to write about intimate relationships and you do want a mass audience to read your work.

So what do you do when you write for the general public?

You write in code. Or you write evasively. Or you devise cunning ways of dealing with personal pronouns, sometimes leaving them indeterminate so that a mass readership will assume you mean “she” when you know you mean “he”.

Of course sophisticates can see through your stratagems. Yes of course they smile knowingly at the way the main (male) character just happens to be “visiting” the horrible Mr Norris all the time in Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains. Yes of course they twig that Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is more likely to have been based on a male pick-up that on a fey gamine. Yes of course they recognise what sort of man Blanche DuBois is really talking about when she reminisces in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Yes, they can see that the “straight” couple in Brigid Brophy’s King of a Rainy Country isn’t really straight at all. And, by George yes, they notice what’s really going on in all that mateship stuff in Frank Sargeson’s short stories.

But on the whole the great unwashed doesn’t notice. They take all these stories at their apparent and face value, as stories of heterosexuals having peculiar experiences.

What has been created is the language of camp, and for the authors and sophisticates a heady sense of superiority.

They (nudge and wink) know something that the great unwashed don’t know. It may have begun as a necessary survival strategy for its times, but it’s delightful to have put something over the masses like this. And delightful to feel you’re part of a special in-group.

The historical value of camp literary language is obvious. It tells us about a certain time when frankness was not permitted. But does it serve any purpose now, when gays can be as loud and proud as they like and when any sort of verbal expression of sexuality is permissible?

When I read old camp books of the sort I mention above, I feel impatience more than anything else. So Frank Sargeson’s novella That Summer has a guy not realizing that a “woman” is in fact a transvestite, and it’s supposed to be a big revelation when at last it’s made plain. Forgive me if I stifle a yawn. I feel as unedified as I am by the weaker detective stories in which information is concealed solely to make the conclusion look ingenious. Okay, it was a big deal in the 1940s when it was written. Okay, E.M.Forster praised it. But what, if anything, does it say to us now? That people were sexually less knowing then? Or that the story’s main character is particularly na├»ve? Is there really any enduring human value here? Or is it of historical interest only?

I suppose you can enjoy yourself reconstructing the time in which it was written, and imagining how challenging it would once have been. But this quickly becomes as sterile a game as finding all the “naughty” bits in Hollywood movies from the 1930s to the 1950s, that covertly bucked the old censorship codes. (Look! Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep is really talking about sex when he’s pretending to talk about horse-racing. Wow! Weren’t we sophisticated to notice!).

It also means a lot of time is spent “talking up” things that are fairly trite.

Recently, I looked up Roger Ebert’s review of Douglas Sirk’s glossy 1950s soap-opera Written on the Wind. Ebert remarked – quite truly – that this is the sort of film that appealed to high-brows and to low-brows, but not to middle-brows. The low-brows thought it was serious drama. The high-brows picked up all the covert camp references and realized how much piss-take was involved. And the middle-brows? Well, they just saw it as trashy soap-opera and moved on.

I’m not sure which category I fit into. I readily recognize all the camp nudges and winks, but in a matter of minutes I’m over them. Soap-opera is still soap-opera, even if it’s dressed up in this way. The camp stuff is just an irritating stylistic ornament.

What’s the killer image I’m looking for here?

Years ago, Ronnie Barker on The Two Ronnies had a sketch in which he read the weather forecast. It went: “It will be dull in Hull, cool in Goule, dry in Rye, choking in Woking and the people living in Lissingdown are advised to carry an umbrella.” Gales of laughter at the expected, but unspoken, rhyme.

A few years later another English comedy show (it may have been the Monty Python boys, but I think it was Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones ) deflated the sketch simply by reciting it thus: “It will be dull in Hull, cool in Goule, dry in Rye, choking in Woking and pissing down in Lissingdowe.” No laughter because (as intended) when actually spoken, the naughty words were painfully unfunny. The bluff of nudge-and-wink innuendo had been called.

Literary camp is nudge-and-wink innuendo, and really serves no purpose now. When stated plainly, the things that were hinted at in old camp works are things that are commonplace. They no longer have to be dug out from a code which was mistaken for subtlety or regarded as clever subtext.

So some people are gay? Jolly good. I’m interested in reading about them if the writing is good. It is good, for example, in the works of the current English out-and-open gay writer Philip Hensher. He says what he means, and doesn’t patronise readers with nudge and wink. So we get clearly gay and straight characters, some nice, some nasty, some sympathetic, some bloody awful, but clearly identified as who and what they are. The reader is respected.

It’s pissing down in Lissingdown.


  1. I have no problem reading writers who happen to be gay, and possibly I exhibit a certain prejudice in choosing among self-declared gay writers, those such as Peter Ackroyd and Colm Toibin who do not write predominantly about homosexuality or do not write about it at all. One could view authors who feel obliged, or were obliged, to disguise or dissemble their own homosexuality in certain of their characters as meeting a challenge with some ingenuity.
    I have enjoyed the novels of Francis King but consider as less interesting his latter ones with stated homosexuality once he had outed himself. King is never prurient or explicit and for me it was not because the homosexuality was stated but rather that his later novels had lost a certainn edge. They had ceased to be allusive, when they once enablied the reader to infer or speculate on whatever was unstated.
    Writing predominantly or exclusively about gay themes and explicitly marketing of aiuthors’ and themes’ gayness may actually be limiting readership. I have read nothing by the gay and lesbian writers Alan Hollinghurst, Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson, and Edmund White. In book shops I have seen their works held in separate sections labelled “Gay Writing”. Just as I currently I am not interested in books held by bookshops and libraries in sections labelled “Science Fiction” and “Thrillers and Mysteries” though I have enjoyed such and undoubtedly will choose some again, I may try those unread writers at a later date.

    1. Thanks for this comment. I was going to go on with my "Something Thoughtful" to make the further point that out-and-open gay writing sometimes has the odd effect of ghettoization. The majority of (non-gay) readers simply passes it by, which in an odd way means gay writings can be less included in any general cultural conversation than they were is the days of coded writing.

  2. But isn't most "high literature" full of coded references which the minority of the audience gets (and is therefore able to feel part of the in-club) the the majority don't get (and therefore feel excluded).
    The beauty of the lissingdown style of comedy is that it actually makes the majority of the audience feel included. This makes the sketch perceived as low-comedy. Meanwhile you get poems which require you to know the Greek Myths, or have read a 19th century book, in order to get the point of the poem(I'm not wanting to use an example, because it would be unfair to pick on one individual, so many do it). This is actually using the same sort of cryptic crossword technique as lissingdown.... but is far less clever. It's not even trying to reach the majority of the readers.
    If you're right and gay literature which hides it's gayness is only of historical interest, that still gives it more contempory interest that most works older of literature.
    The majority of readers of Breakfast at Tiffany’s didn't get the gay subtext and yet the novella still resonated with them on some level (perhaps largely as a sexual fantasy, but nevertheless a hetrosexual one). This hetrosexual reading of the novella, and the resulting film, has now overshadowed any gay subtext in the work. So in that sense the work of fiction continues to live, what the gay subtext has become only of historical interest.

    1. I don't really disagree with this comment, but I do think there is a big difference between expecting an audience to get an allusion and disguising the subject that one is really talking about. I'm arguing for frankness.