Dear Jon . . . (#14) Re: On Waste Lands of Straight People

I had not thought death had undone so many.

-T.S. Eliot

Dear Jon,

Well, I hope you had a merry Christmas time. One way to address your question is to refer you to my very early reading this year in which I made a sally into the 1700s. I read Robinson Crusoe, I read Gulliver’s Travels, I read Tristram Shandy. And the last of these showed me clearly that the madcap and what might be called ‘the experimental’ is inherent to the canon. That cray was there, all the time. You can see why both Joyce and Woolf saw much in that book. So, I don’t think my view of the canon has changed. I think, in a way, every writer has their own canon. Every book even. They all have their chosen forebears. When I think canon, I often see big thick Victorian tomes, and often have the yearning to go back to them, these books that I was particularly drawn to when I was young. Works by Dickens, Hardy, Dostoyevsky. There are feasts to be had in these books, and I read them a long time ago, and actually I think re-reading them would bring a lot of pleasure, though I struggle to find time to do that these days. It’d be a valuable experience; was it Nabokov who said that all reading is re-reading? Really what my reading does, regardless, is make me want to read more. Now admittedly, these days, that’s more likely to be a 20th century modernist (though these are just as much canon these days, right?) than a hefty Victorian paperweight, but still I think the year to come will provide opportunities to encounter both. Talking of the new year, I’m assuming you’re roundabout now peeking over the fence and thinking about future reading? When you make lists, excluding for particular purposes, what are the criteria at work in your noggin? Or maybe a better way to say it would be: what are the instincts at work in your instinct place*? Or would it? You tell me. 

Also: to rewind slightly: One thought I had while considering this capacity that literature can have in expanding empathy, and imagination is that this not only applies to others, but also to oneself. Not to be egotistic, or effusive about the modern preoccupation for self love. I am talking about the ability to imagine oneself or see oneself in the culture in which you exist. Of course, we are told that the world is swarming with gay men. They are in every novel, every TV drama, every situation comedy, every advert. They are everywhere, all the time. Inescapable. It must be so difficult for the heterosexual to cope, and tiring for the homosexual – mirrored constantly in the culture everywhere he looks. Why this request for representation? The gays are everywhere (they aren’t). Why do I have to watch/read this? (you don’t). This request for representation is essentially about this ability to imagine oneself in the world. My memories, as a kid, of seeing myself in the world in this way are scant. Glancing. I never had the luxury of any other openly gay people in my family, or in my friendship group, or in my school as a whole. It was (forgive me) a waste land of straight people.  

My initial memories of seeing gay men in the culture, stepping around the question of porn, wasn’t actually through literature – to own a book with such people in it (people like myself, people who I might like like, people who might like like me) seemed unthinkable, strangely terrifying, too physical in some way. Actually these memories are watching Youtube. There’s an odd genre of Youtube video that’s simply young gay people sharing their coming out stories, even coming out to camera, or coming out on camera to unsuspecting parents. I remember watching these, over and over. The last of these, always to increased heartbeat, tensely folded hands.* 

Literature came to me after I came out. There was Forster, was Baldwin, was Burroughs, was Isherwood, was Gide, was Vidal, was Genet. The sentimental, the profound, the pornographic, the angry, the grieving – anything gay, anything man-on-man and boy meets boy. And these books are, because of when and where they were written, always simultaneously outsider books. Maybe there will always an outsider aspect to books that deal with life as lived by gay people. It’s this outsiderness I wanted to dwell on – in relation to you and the role fiction has played in your life, particularly around adolescence. These books (for you I’m thinking of American Psycho, The Beach) often engage with alienation, and I wondered if that seeing-yourself quality was something that maybe you could subscribe to? Is that something to do with empathy, even if it is a kind of self empathy or recognition? Or in these cases, even an empathy about a lack of empathy? 

Yours Almost New Yearly,


P.S. Come back from Guern-Land soon; Leamington is less fun and full without you.

*Not a euphemism. Why would it be? What?

*I really wanted to talk about Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature, the Reading Revolution and the expansion of empathy, and how maybe that's not quite happening in social media in the same way as it did with the advent of the printing press but I ran out of room and breath and words and coherent thoughts to put into words and also time I ran out of time which is a shame because I wanted to maybe think about that in relation to your earlier post and to what I said in my last post but there was no time and space to draw them together in such a way that was satisfactory or interesting and so I didn't which is shame as this post could have been interesting it could have been but wasn't as instead I wrote I had not thought death had undone so many, and went on from there.