Books: The boy's own story

Michael Arditti argues that the great chronicler of American gay life still has some questions of ethics to answer; Edmund White: the burning world by Stephen Barber Picador, pounds 20, 310pp
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The Independent Culture
VIRGINIA WOOLF famously issued instructions to "save the letters till we're dead", and it is given to few living writers to feature as the subject of a full-length biography. This accolade has now been accorded to Edmund White, currently the most celebrated gay novelist in the English- speaking world. White has reflected - and, to some extent, defined - the emerging gay identity of the last 30 years, both through his work ( in particular the autobiographical trilogy A Boy's Own Story, The Beautiful Room is Empty and The Farewell Symphony), and through his life. He was even drinking in the Stonewall Bar in New York on the night of the ground- breaking riot.

The Burning World has been written with White's full co-operation, and it shows. Barber uncritically records White's life from his birth in 1940 to his present eminence as the first member of the American Academy "to have been known as a gay writer virtually throughout his career". He makes absurdly unsubstantiated claims, for example that White is "the pre-eminent writer of the contemporary city".

White's lifelong preoccupations have been apparent since his schooldays, when he both submitted an essay on Marcel Proust and notched up more than 100 sexual encounters. On moving to New York in 1962, he pursued his literary interests, working on unpublished novels and unperformed plays while employed as a staff writer and editor at Time Life. At the same time he indulged an appetite so voracious that, when Bette Midler gave one of her legendary performances in the Continental Baths, he found it irritating "because everybody stopped their sexual activities to listen to her". He wrote a seminal sex manual, The Joy Of Gay Sex (as a counterpart to Alex Comfort's heterosexual one), before embarking on States of Desire, a chronicle of US gay life at its hedonistic height.

Barber rightly focuses on White's sexuality, for it has always been his primary point of contact with the world. Of his Roman sojourn in 1970, he wrote that "Rome wouldn't have belonged to me unless I'd slept with half the people. Or tried to." When he moved to Paris in the Eighties, he conducted his cruising on the Minitel, which Susan Sontag memorably described as "commercially organised lechery by telephone".

Such promiscuity was, in White's view, the cornerstone of gay identity, distinguishing it from monogamous heterosexuality. Yet, however strongly he may have believed that the personal was the political, in practice, this often amounted to little more than "I fuck therefore I am".

Moreover, his initial awareness "that gay culture could be perceived as equal or superior to mainstream heterosexual culture" came when contemplating the orgiastic experiments at the baths. It is instructive to contrast this with Ned Weeks's celebrated litany of his cultural heroes in Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart. For all the special pleading implicit in Kramer's words, at least he is endorsing an identity that is not banal, superficial, repetitive and spiritually dead. Both White and Barber revile critics of these anonymous - and often wordless - encounters as Puritans, yet Derek Jarman, hardly the most puritanical visitor to New York, declared that "this life could become as wearying as a treadmill in a rodent's cage".

Barber writes of White that "His books had helped to form gay life". But, if he is share the credit for its achievements, he must also share the responsibility for its excesses. While the validation of gay experience is an entirely laudable fictional aim, the writer must first ensure that the experience itself is valid.

In the case of bath-house culture, this is something that neither White nor Barber is prepared to do. It is particularly dishonest that Barber refuses to confront the most contentious aspect of White's life: his defence in interviews at the time of The Farewell Symphony's publication of HIV positive gay men who knowingly engaged in unprotected sex. .

White's reputation as both a supreme stylist and the master-chronicler of US gay life is assured. While Proust may be his literary mentor, his own talents place him closer to Pepys. Indeed, substitute coffee-houses for bath-houses and an actual plague for a metaphorical one, and the resemblance is marked.

White once wrote of gay culture that it was "oppressed in the 1950s, liberated in the 1960s, exalted in the 1970s and wiped out in the 1980s". He subsequently suggested of gay fiction that it was institutionalised in the 1990s. This overly reverential biography is the result.

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