I entered a gay bar for the first time the month I turned
21. Having been raised in a rural community where the few gay residents were
all pretty much closeted, I felt as if I’d stepped into a candy store. Eventually
I moved into an apartment less than a block from that same bar, but by the age
of thirty, I completely stopped frequenting gay bars.
Back when I was young and first coming out, an expression I heard frequently was “he doesn’t have a pot to piss in.” The gay men in my small circle of friends used this idiom to put down people who didn’t make a lot of money. I wondered at the time if they said the same thing about me, because I certainly wasn’t wealthy. I didn’t own anything, didn’t drive a fancy car or have expensive clothing. I had no class or refinement, knew nothing of the arts. I had never traveled.
One evening while at a dinner party, one of the other guests complimented the shirt I was wearing and asked the name brand. I had no idea and told him it was generic. He grabbed me by the shoulders and spun me around to inspect the tag, then gasped. “You’re right! It really is generic!” He then shoved me away as if I was diseased.
A couple weeks ago I wrote a blog about the difference between m/m romance and gay fiction. I tried to convey my perception that within the established gay literary community exists a misperception that “gay fiction” is of higher quality than m/m, that it is more literary and therefore superior. The incident that sparked the blog post was a review I’d read by a gay fiction author, actually praising the work of another author and in the process dissing other m/m authors whose styles were less nuanced.
My blog focused on the merits of gay fiction and m/m romance and contrasted them. I tried to make a case for m/m, stating that it wasn’t the same as gay fiction, but that did not make it lower quality. What I failed to convey in the blog is that I love a variety of gay-themed literature, regardless of the label we use to describe it. Yet as much as I love the writing of many authors, I equally abhor some of their attitudes.
For the past five years or so I’ve sold myself as an unpretentious author, one who writes stories in plainspoken language minus the purple prose and who tells stories from the heart. I write about ordinary, working class people with average lives. I don’t use a lot of impressive, obscure adjectives. I doubt if my readers have to use their dictionaries to plow through my books.
I recently told one of my readers I did not consider myself to be exceptionally talented, and she thought I was just fishing for compliments. But truthfully, I don’t think my writing is remarkable, and I’ve read the critical reviews where I’ve been called “amateur” and “mediocre.” I just read a review today where the reviewer mocked me and said my style was “paint by numbers”.
Perhaps those authors who are highly educated, well-traveled, cultured and sophisticated, have every right to look down on me and cringe. And when they brag about how nuanced their writing is, how they’ve mastered the subtly of voice, they well can make a case for the fact that I haven’t done very well in that regard.
I remember meeting many of my peers for the first time at the GRL Retreat in New Orleans a few years ago, and I had dinner with a couple of them one evening. As we walked back to the hotel, one of the authors, a highly-educated, well-traveled man about 20 years my senior, placed his hand on my shoulder and condescendingly informed me that he too came from a very humble, working-class family and that if I just kept working on it, he was sure my writing would improve.
I find myself in awe of the gifted writers who produce eloquent prose, and I strive with every story to improve my own craft. Yet I sometimes wonder if the criticisms are really about the lack of talent. I’ve seen authors win top honors and prestigious awards who did not seem to demonstrate exceptional word-crafting or story-telling skills. Instead, they seemed to simply have connections.
So I wonder how much of the gay fiction-vs-m/m debate is really about quality. I wonder if maybe some of it is just good old fashioned snobbery. Perhaps I’m not qualified to make that determination. Maybe my brash, far-from-subtle narratives serve as evidence that I’m in no position to judge. In other words, I might not be intelligent or sophisticated enough to understand. I just don’t get it.
Of course, all things artistic are subjective. Beauty remains in the eye of the beholder, and thankfully for me, there has been a very supportive audience of my simplistic, sometimes gritty, often sappy style of storytelling. Maybe some of those readers appreciate it for what it is, not unlike the generic shirt I wore to the dinner party. And maybe others—perhaps the majority—will never settle for less than a designer brand.
The reason I stopped going to gay bars was because I got to a point where I realized that it was all about appearances. When I no longer had a 29 inch waist and full head of hair, I became invisible. Many gay men, as they age, compensate for their declining beauty by throwing money around. Actually, that works quite well, from what I’ve observed, but it’s never been an option for me because I still “don’t have a pot to piss in.”
If you’re an author who’s developed your skill to the point you eloquently wax poetic in your narrative, I salute you. When you go to the conferences, I’m sure you’ll find several peers who will love to sit around and exchange stories about how clever you are. Maybe you can compare Lammys if you can find a free moment when your fans aren’t mobbing you. You might even be able to drop the names of a few celebrities with whom you’ve previously rubbed elbows.
I’ll be over at my table, wearing my generic shirt, talking to the handful of readers who’ve so graciously accepted me for who I am and who I’ll always be: an average person who loves to tell stories.
Posted by Jeff Erno.