Books

This week: Richard Davenport-Hines delivers the Kinsey report; Carole Angier on Ivan Klma; plus a beardie bonanza: Hugo, Bryson and Pratchett; Sleeping partners; David Leavitt could do no wrong until he "stole" Sir Stephen Spender's life. Now, he has exploited his own gay affairs. Or has he? Richard Canning reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Can gay writing achieve "cross-over" success? In 1997, almost 20 years since modern gay fiction's genesis, the question seems redundant. It was in 1978 that major US publishing houses launched four key titles by Armistead Maupin, Andrew Holleran, Larry Kramer and Edmund White. Maupin's witty Tales of the City are now known the world over. White has enjoyed unprecedented highbrow regard following the 1983 publication of A Boy's Own Story, and recently hit the bestseller lists with The Farewell Symphony.

In the meantime, a second wave of gay novelists has emerged. In Britain, Patrick Gale's books reached the same wide audience as Maupin's. Alan Hollinghurst's The Folding Star almost took the Booker Prize in 1994. And in the States, fiction by a score of younger gay writers has been feted. Most conspicuous of these has been David Leavitt, who as a student penned the first "gay" story ever to appear in the New Yorker. His first book of stories, Family Dancing, was an instant success in 1984.

In his twenties, Leavitt could do no wrong. Despite some sense of ground being retrodden in the novels The Lost Language of Cranes (1986) and Equal Affections (1989), readers and critics continued to welcome his sharp dissection of the bourgeois American family in crisis. Gay readers appreciated his portrayal of a "normal" homosexuality. His characters experienced neither the extreme highs or lows of much gay literature. They avoided suicide, and said no to drugs. They tackled their average problems with average ability, and - a clear first - average looks.

Problems began with the proposed publication in 1993 of While England Sleeps, Leavitt's account of a love affair between an upper-class English writer and a Communist worker on the London Underground. The depictions of England and Spain in the 1930s struck critics as familiar. When pressed, Leavitt admitted using Stephen Spender's memoir from 1951, World within World, as a "springboard" for the work. He stressed the different treatment he had given the story.

Leavitt's narrator, unlike Spender, retold scenes of graphic sex. He deployed expletives in a way which reflected Leavitt's post-liberation sensibility - though the resulting mixed argot did not convince every reviewer. One US critic condemned the "utter implausibility" of the narrative voice.

Spender, meanwhile, resented the sexualised reworking of what he had termed the "friendship" between himself and Jimmy Younger in World within World. When he began a legal suit, Leavitt's publishers, Viking Penguin, backed off. British copies of While England Sleeps were pulped.

Leavitt, angered by what he saw as cowardice in the face of "enemies of the imagination", took a revised manuscript to Houghton Mifflin, who published it in the US in 1995. A splenetic preface by Leavitt noted the irony of Spender's patronage of Index in Censorship magazine He acknowledged he had to "respect [Spender's] anger - although I could not honour his apparent desire to see the book eradicated entirely". The new While England Sleeps remains as sexually forthright as the original, though Leavitt has altered all the details suggesting parallels with Spender's life.

This April, Houghton Mifflin sought to restore Leavitt's reputation with the US publication of Arkansas, a collection of three novellas now issued here by Little, Brown (pounds 14.99). Pursuing Leavitt's earlier success with a wide literary readership, the US publishers placed one of the tales, "The Term Paper Artist", with Esquire magazine.

The coup backfired when, at the last moment, the magazine's editor-in- chief pulled the story. Andrew Wylie, Leavitt's sabre-toothed agent, charged the magazine with homophobia, alleging that Esquire had caved in to pressure from an important advertising client, Chrysler. The charge gained extra currency when Esquire's literary editor, Will Blythe, resigned in protest. Houghton Mifflin did their best to conceal any disappointment by seeking to capitalise on the free speech vs censorship debate.

What is poignant about the affair is that Leavitt's experiences over While England Sleeps had inspired "The Term Paper Artist". Accused of plagiarising another writer's life, Leavitt resolved to "steal" his own story and embroider it. His story tells how the narrator, a novelist called David Leavitt, "was in trouble. An English poet (now dead) had sued me over a novel I had written because it was based in part upon an episode from his life". Fictional Leavitt, chastened after the spat, retreats to LA. Suffering from writers' block, he writes EngLit essays for intellectually- challenged (but physically promising) male, heterosexual students. In return, they give him sexual favours.

Leavitt's blurring of fiction and autobiography certainly worked for some. Edmund White, himself an old hand at the technique, took the bait, commending the story's "shocking revelations". However, Esquire's reaction to the story, hardly explicit by modern standards, reveals the different preoccupations of other readers. Leavitt's casual references to oral sex and use of the f-word proved too much for a magazine whose advertising revenue had already slumped.

Whatever all this illustrates about the matters of free speech, it underlines the fragile nature of gay authors' cross-over success. There are other examples of the literary mainstream defending itself from the spectre of gay novelists who dare to describe homosexuality as, well, sexual. White's The Farewell Symphony was ripped apart by resident Late Review heavy Tom Paulin for its sexual "boasts". A S Byatt and Germaine Greer both condemned the erotic pursuits of Hollinghurst's narrator when discussing The Folding Star's Booker shortlisting.

For this reader, Leavitt's move away from the world of his earlier books is welcome. Their middle-class domesticity allowed for the treatment of gayness on a superficially equal basis - but more as a social abstraction than as a sexual reality. That the three new novellas are more explicit is not the point. That they ring truer is. The fuss over "The Term Paper Artist" has overshadowed the Forsterian craft running through Arkansas.

"Saturn Street" in particular sees Leavitt at his most accomplished. This story tells of an Los Angeles. screenwriter, confident of his emotional largesse as a deliverer of lunches to homebound Aids patients - until he falls hopelessly in love with one of them.

But with this collection, Leavitt may find himself in choppier critical waters if the old objections to "gratuitous" gay themes recur. "AYOR", an earlier story, was narrated by a self-confessed "good boy" who realises that he has vicariously enjoyed his friend Craig's accounts of sexual hedonism. Hearing that Craig has been raped, the narrator blames himself: "I had been encouraging him to live in the world's danger zones".

Arkansas marks Leavitt's own timely shift from the safety of discretion to the critical danger-zone inhabited by franker description of gay life. It is a clear return to form after the uncertainties of While England Sleeps (which appears in Britain next year). In fact, Arkansas is something of a literary triumph. If it is not acknowledged as such, no-one - including Leavitt - should be that surprised.

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