Tomorrow night, the winner of the Polari Prize for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) debut authors will be announced at London's South Bank Centre. Tomorrow also marks the fifth birthday of the monthly literary salon that gave the prize its name. The prize is the brainchild of Paul Burston, the editor of the gay section of Time Out magazine and the flamboyant MC of the salon. As a novelist himself, the author of The Gay Divorcee, Star People and other books examining and satirising contemporary gay life, Burston is acutely conscious of the difficulties facing LGBT authors in a tough commercial climate.
"I set up the prize because I feel that it's increasingly difficult for LGBT writers writing about LGBT themes to get published, and I think that the mainstream is becoming more and more cautious about publishing what they see as niche material," he explains. "If you are an author who happens to be gay and you're writing genre fiction, thrillers or whatever, then that's okay, but if you're writing fiction that's about gay lives, or lesbian or trans lives, then people tend to be quite cautious about it. It's different if you're writing literary fiction. That's a kind of fig leaf; as long as you reference lots of classical literature you can get away with scenes of cocaine and homosexuality." (Who can he mean, I wonder?) "But if you're writing fiction that isn't pitched as literary, it's a different ball game."
The Polari prize focuses on debuts and, unusually for a literary prize, will accept self-published and e-published works. Last year's winner, the singer James Maker's hilariously waspish memoir Autofellatio, was a case in point: self-published before being taken up in the conventional way.
The prize has not been without controversy. Burston comments: "I think there's always going to be an issue of [here he puts on a snarky voice] 'Why do you need a special prize for gay people?', which is the same argument as 'Why do you need gay bars?'. Well because you do! Otherwise, the wider world just seems to be straight – and not just straight but white, male and straight. It's why the [prize formerly known as the] Orange prize for women's fiction is also necessary. Anything that helps shine a light on stories, poems and books about what it means to be LGBT today is very necessary."
If there's one sweeping generalisation to be made about queer writing (I've been a judge for two years running), it is that it's often savagely funny. Judge a mainstream literary prize and you'll be overwhelmed by dark themes and sombre writing. This year's Polari shortlistees are North Morgan, a bitterly funny satirist in his London club novel Exit Through the Wound (Limehouse Books); the music producer Terry Ronald's Becoming Nancy (Transworld), a deliciously camp rites of passage novel; and Vicky Ryder's rollicking Ey Up and Away (Wandering Star Press), a series of almost poem-like vignettes about growing up in Nuneaton. But perhaps even more surprising is the discovery of two strong poetic voices in John McCullough (Frost Fairs, published by Salt) and Max Wallis (Modern Love, published by Flap).
The elfin Wallis has an unusual day job for a poet: when I caught up with him, he had just got back from a modelling assignment in Paris. He's also unusual in his choice of inspiration: the Victorian poet George Meredith who also penned a poem sequence called Modern Love. (Also something of a model, Meredith posed for the famous Pre-Raphaelite painting The Death of Chatterton.)
"I already had the idea for the book, and the title," says Wallis. "And I was reading pretty much anything I could find on love poetry for inspiration. I stumbled upon George and it fit so perfectly. There are so many links, because his narrative also is about shipwrecked love and doomed love. He was one of the first psychological poets."
Other contemporary influences include Jacob Sam-La Rose and Carol Ann Duffy: "Rapture [a Duffy collection charting a love affair] also had a massive impact. My writing brain is split between poetry and prose: I want to write poems that link together, then people can read the book as if it's a novel."
I tell him that I took the Meredith influence as a sign that the sequence is not to be read as autobiography, and he quickly agrees: "The best thing anyone ever taught me about poetry was in a drunken conversation in a pub with a performance poet. She just said, 'Max, the best thing to do in poetry is to lie'. And that's what I do all the time. I write a lot about doomed love but I'm in a happy relationship!"
On the importance of the prize, Wallis says: "Times are changing but we still don't see much of the LGBT world in literature. Or at least, it's not picked up on as much. I like that the prize does that." However, he did not personally experience much difficulty getting published. "I didn't have any problem. I wouldn't call myself a gay writer, but I am a writer who's gay. My next book is for children and is about a world that's gripped by an eternal winter, and a young boy's quest to save the Sun. I don't think that's come about because I'm gay, you know?"
Modelling and poetry make great bedfellows, and he plans a collection of poems about his experiences. "That's what I really want to do, combine the two worlds. It was not my plan at all [to be a model]. I grew up very sheltered, very introverted – typical poet! And then a friend threw me into the business and it started. I've never made it big or anything, and I don't take it that seriously. It's not a foolish industry or anything like that," he stresses, "but it's something you have to have your distance from and it's nice that I've got the poetry."
Modern Love, By Max Wallis
"... A final glance. Sigh as the door slams a wooden tongue. Do not look back as dawn carries her torch across the sky; he will stay. Tarmac claps footsteps toward day and then, within, something out loud to the world that he will never hear; 'I am sorry, you know'."