Sarah Schulman says
her books are for everyone
by Michael Bronski
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
"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."
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.
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
"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
"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
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).