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Cross-over dreams

Sarah Schulman says her books are for everyone

by Michael Bronski

Sarah Schulman's sixth novel, Rat Bohemia (Dutton Books, 232 pages, $19.95), is a popular and critical success in the gay-and-lesbian press. But Schulman is not particularly optimistic about the future of lesbian or gay writing in the mainstream - especially lesbian writing.

Rat Bohemia is a strangely comic, powerful novel that deals with the decay of urban life, the effect of the closet on lesbian and gay culture, and - most provocatively - the myriad ways in which gay men and lesbians are hurt or dismissed by their biological families. Its main characters are Rita Mae Weems, a lesbian rat exterminator; David, a gay writer who is living with AIDS; and Killer, a chronically under-employed woman (and Rita's best friend) who is newly in love. The book is a mix of somber hysteria and giddy meditation, and its difficult themes led to Schulman's recent pessimism.

"Usually, when you write a whole novel," Schulman says, "you end with a catharsis. But with Rat Bohemia, I got so deeply involved with the material that I ended up on another level of bitterness. The rejection of gay people by their families - on a whole number of levels - is the one thing all gay people share. And there is a reason why no one has addressed it very much in literature: it is just unfair, too painful, and very hard to face . . . . Who wants to admit that their family rejects them because of one of the most important aspects of their lives, their sexuality?

"Usually, when I finish a novel," she says, "I have some closure, but in this case I'm still dealing with this material. I've started work on a non-fiction book about the difficult and harmful relationships gay men and lesbians have with their families."

While Rat Bohemia pushes its readers to deal with difficult topics, its narrative form is essentially conventional, with some experimental touches. Schulman's previous works cover a wide range: After Delores uses the detective genre and parodies it at the same time; People in Trouble is a straightforward, conventional narrative; and Empathy is blatantly experimental in its construction and technique. Indeed, style and technique - as well as their implications for sales - are very much on Schulman's mind.

"I wrote about each character here differently," she says. "David and the other gay men are constructed - channeled - out of the real words of friends who have died: John Cook, Michael Callen, Bo Houston, Phil Zwickler, John Bernd. It's my attempt to bring together the public and private discourses about AIDS. For Rita, I used a conventional style - the cavalier lesbian - that I'm very used to. It is easy and fun to read. For Killer, I took on a more experimental style, because I thought it was important to deal with being in love - a very conventional fiction narrative - in a less-than-formal way. This was hard, because experimental writing has to be accessible, not obscure; everybody has to be able to understand it.

"But most mainstream publishers would much rather have conventional narratives," says Schulman. "It is seen as being a prerequisite for having a crossover book. And gay and lesbian books have to cross over to a straight readership if they are going to make the money that the publishing companies expect them to - and if gay and lesbian authors are going to get the advances and the royalties that they need to live on."

And what makes a book cross over?

"The problem is not in the writing, but in the marketing." Schulman explains. "The reality is that books with primary lesbian characters are not treated as American literature. This is a little less true of gay male characters, but the problem is still the same. They are relegated to a marginal place in reviewing, and have to compete against one another in a quota system within the reviewing industry.

"Right now," she says, "I am in competition for reviews with Urvashi Vaid and her book Virtual Equality, even through our books could not be more different - mine is a novel; hers is political analysis - simply because we both wrote `lesbian books.' It's insane. No one would ever pit the new novel by Paul Auster against a book of critical cultural analysis by Edward Said. Last week in the New York Times Book Review, there was a `New in Paperback' notice that linked Harry Kondoleon's The Diary of a Lost Boy with Norman Wong's Cultural Revolution. Why? These books are nothing alike."

Kondoleon's novel, a sharp, mordantly funny comedy of middle-class manners about a man living with, and dying of, AIDS, could not be further in style and content from Wong's more traditional investigation of sexual and ethnic identity. The only connecting thread here is that both authors are openly gay men.

"Until the publishing companies confront this, there will never be a real crossover book. . . . The publishers have to constantly reinforce the idea that gay and lesbian books are for everyone, and they have to stop marginalizing gay and lesbian writers. Fifteen years ago, publishers decided to sell black writers - Toni Morrison, Terry Macmillian, Alice Walker - to white readers, and because the identities of white readers were not threatened by black writers or content, they bought and read the books. All too often, the identities of heterosexual readers are threatened by the idea of reading a `gay book.' They feel implicated. We have to find ways around this. We have to establish and reinforce in everyone's mind that gay and lesbian books are part of our national literature. Publishers should get famous straight authors who are concerned about gay issues to blurb, promote, and help market lesbian and gay books.

"A major result of this," says Schulman, "is that if you write a book with primary lesbian characters, you are marginalized. If you remove them, you are rewarded. It is very simple, and there are no exceptions. What happens is that the publishing industry is blaming writers who are out - and who write about openly lesbian and gay characters - as not being commercial enough, which is not the case. We have to find a way to universalize gay and lesbian fiction, to allow heterosexual readers to read works by gay men and lesbians and understand that they speak to them - to everyone. Until this happens, gay and lesbian writers will be forced not to write about gay characters, or, if they do, to be marginalized, underappreciated, and underpaid."

Schulman has begun to receive positive reviews for Rat Bohemia in the lesbian-and-gay press and is anxiously awaiting a response in the mainstream media. Will they grant it - whether the reviews are positive or negative - the fairness and respect it is due? Over the past 12 years, Schulman has produced six novels and a much-lauded collection of essays. She has proven herself as a writer, critic, and political thinker, yet mainstream media attention has been scant, hesitant, and sometimes overtly homophobic. To paraphrase Schulman: will Rat Bohemia - which deals, as much as any contemporary novel, with the difficult questions of what it means to be human, to love, to live, to make decisions, and even to die - be viewed as an integral part of our national literature, or simply as a novel about how some homosexuals live in a gay ghetto in Manhattan? Sarah Schulman, and many other lesbian and gay writers, is eager to find out.

Michael Bronski is a frequent contributor to gay-and-lesbian and literary journals. He is also the author of Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility (South End Press, 1984).

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