Literary-hetero-potentates Rule, OK?

Robert Dessaix (ed.): Australian Gay and Lesbian Writing; An Anthology (Oxford University Press).

The title is wrong, of course, and the stupid scandal, which the book’s promoters no doubt thought a coup, could have been avoided, if anyone wanted to avoid it, by naming the book honestly. Not an anthology of gay and lesbian writing, this is a collection of writing about gays and lesbians. And, either way you look at it, an inadequate one.

The “literary association of homosexuality”, Dessaix writes in his introduction, “with an abnormal closed social system [of Australia’s convict period] has given Australian writers the freedom to explore homosexuality by locating it inside other kinds of microcosms — in particular prisons, boarding-schools, ships, the armed-services and hospitals.” I don’t get it. What sort of “freedom” is that? A literary association with the abnormal and the closed gives writers a freedom to explore homosexuality by locating it in other kinds of microcosms, which also happen to be (it can’t be by chance!) abnormal and closed systems. This freedom, which does not look to me like a freedom at all, is apparently the same sort of freedom that allows Dessaix to put Patrick White and Elizabeth Jolley into the same category of “mainstream writers, none of whom would have identified themselves as ‘gay’…” The problem with White is that, although his homosexuality was not his ‘identification’, he did not hide it; he is the prime example of a ‘gay’ writer whose subject matter does not line up neatly behind his sexuality.

And that is Dessaix’s — and his anthology’s — problem. This anthology is a demonstration of how narrow the concerns of gay writers can seem if one starts with the (unspoken) premise that gay writers are writers who write from the position of their sexual preference about matters relating to that preference. The truth is, of course, that gay writers and their writing in Australia are not limited in this way; and White is only one of the proofs of this.

It would not have been hard to construct an anthology of writing by gay writers, men and women, that included work about heterosexual relationships and everything else. Such an anthology would have had the double advantage of showing that gay writers write about more than sex and their own sexuality, and of being a true anthology of gay writing. Instead, Dessaix retells the big lie: when gay writers write about sex they are writing about sex; when straight writers write about sex they are writing about life.

This first major error leads Dessaix into others, equally damaging. He asks, for example, since much gay writing (by men) is short and fragmentary (so he claims), whether the form of the novel is “inherently heterosexual, unconsciously based on heterosexual paradigms about the generation of meaning through heterosexual coupling and reproduction …” David Leavitt, who provides a blurb for the book, might have thought this funny, if he read it at all. At least four important Australian novelists might at any time wander onstage and spoil Dessaix’s fantasy. Literature, after all, is the business of stating untestable truths; but I am not so sure we should allow anthologists the same licence.

And why shouldn’t Australia’s literary-hetero-potentates be allowed to put their shoulders to the wheel of gayness? Supporters implore prospective purchasers to consider their commitment to the higher good of good writing, which is to be enjoyed despite the anthology’s short-comings. Leaving aside the real scandal that would greet an anthology of aboriginal writing that had whities in it, or the realler scandal of an anthology of writing about aboriginals that forgot to include great slabs of beautifully written bigotry — it is true that this anthology contains some fine writing. Dessaix must be praised for that, and for finding and acknowledging Jon Rose’s At the Cross: Growing Up in King’s Cross, Sydney’s Soho, though he does not publish any of it, I suppose because the permissions could not be obtained. He has chosen a good part of Dennis Altman’s The Comfort of Men, a book that is nearly important, and would have been, had it found a good editor. Peter Rose, Dorothy Porter and David Herkt make significant contributions to the weight of the poetry (a good deal of which is slight and clichéd).

There are also mistakes. Dessaix thinks that Nigel Krauth’s novel, JF Was Here, is “brilliant.” I’m not convinced. I laughed out loud when I got to part describing the “club-club of fearful hearts”; and this book is infamous for its crass depiction of how someone dies of AIDS.

Dessaix chooses a non-chronological approach in order to avoid, he would have you believe, the trek from oppression to celebration (as though Dessaix’s battalion of hetero-potentates would know anything about that!). AIDS does not figure in that appallingly simple-minded reckoning. The non-chronological presentation serves the interests of Dessaix’s preference to depict homosexuals as transgressive, asocial outcasts. He has simply left out much of the best new writing available for him to publish.

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