NO ONE AT THE University of Wisconsin Press expected Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men From the Rural Midwest to be the presss breakaway success of 1996. But Will Fellowss oral history of thirty-seven gay men who grew up on farms struck a chord with gay readers between the coasts, as well as with urban gay men who had grown up in small towns. The book sold six thousand hardcover copiesa nice chunk of change for the pressand garnered respectful critical attention. Esquire magazine named it one of the best books of the year.
This kind of commercial success was a first for the scholarly press, whose reputation as an academic publisher was established in the slower-selling fields of anthropology, literary criticism, and African studies. But even though Farm Boys proved a financial boon to the state-subsidized press, some conservative Wisconsinites were riled by the books gay themes. The Wisconsin arts board stopped Fellows from delivering a talk titled "Growing Up Gay on the Farm" at the states folklife festival. And Scott Fitzgerald, a conservative state senator, demanded that Wisconsin Public Television cancel an episode of In the Life, the PBS program devoted to gay and lesbian topics, in which Fellows was interviewed about Farm Boys. "I do not think it is in the best interest of public television or the University of Wisconsin to be spending taxpayer dollars to act as a catalyst for the gay rights movement," Fitzgerald told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The show was aired over his objection.
But is there life after Farm Boys? It seems there is. This spring, Wisconsin debuts Living Out, a series of trade-oriented forays into gay autobiographical writing. In establishing such a series, however, the dilemmas of issuing commercial (and controversial) fare at an academic house become clear. Does the acquisition of more trade books by academic publishers mean more revenue and therefore greater freedom from state legislatures? Or does the extra publicity make those publishers vulnerable to the whims of state legislators? And what happens to less commercial scholarly works that have traditionally been the backbone of university press operations?
"Until recently, our mandate was to publish excellent scholarly books," explains Raphael Kadushin, the humanities acquisitions editor at Wisconsin. "Now another mandate is to make money. Were trying to become self-sufficient or even make a profit, and obviously, we need to do it in a quality way. When I go to the faculty committee that approves all our titles, often the hardest sell I have is with traditional scholarly monographs."
For Wisconsin, Farm Boys has provided an irresistible entrée into trade publishing. Now in a paperback edition, the book sold more copies last year than any other Wisconsin title. Hoping to attract some of those same readers, Living Out will offer a number of relatively highbrow titles, beginning with Taboo, a lyrical memoir by the poet Boyer Rickel. The series will include the first English translation of a memoir by the gay Jewish Holocaust survivor Gad Beck, which did very well in Germany. It will also offer Eminent Maricones, in which the Latino novelist Jaime Manrique explores the gay lives of Manuel Puig, Reinaldo Arenas, and Federico García Lorca in order to understand his own artistic development. Conservative state legislators may not like it, but its precisely niche-oriented books like Farm Boys and Eminent Mariconesbooks that big publishers are giving up onthat will help the press depend less on taxpayer money.
DOES THE ACQUISITION OF MORE TRADE BOOKS BY ACADEMIC PUBLISHERS MEAN GREATER FREEDOM FROM STATE LEGISLATURES?
"You can make money publishing titles that will sell five thousand or so copies, but as publishing conglomerates get more and more corporate, theyre less interested in doing it," says Michael Denneny of St. Martins Press, who was the first openly gay editor at a major trade house in New York. Five years ago, Kadushin says, Wisconsin wouldnt have had a shot at a title like Eminent Maricones. In what Denneny calls a "bubble" in the serious gay market, gay-themed books like Urvashi Vaids Virtual Equality (Anchor, 1996) were generating a buzz and attracting six-figure advances. But Virtual Equality and other books like it did not recoup the publishers investments. And once the bubble burst, Kadushin found himself approached by agents who had never before called a university press but saw Farm Boys as a beacon for their gay authors; thus the Living Out series was born.
As the series evolves, Kadushin plans to steer clear of the mainstays of gay autobiographythe "I Was a Gay Male Hustler" school of confession and the sentimental, feel-good coming-out memoir. "First and foremost," says Kadushin, "weve gone for literary value." But this could turn out to be a problem down the road. Publishers hopes of securing a large and literate gay readership may have been based on a "misunderstanding of the place of books in gay culture," says Daniel Harris, author of The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture (Hyperion, 1997). He argues that books have long been fashionable accessories for gays, serving a sociological functionbringing an oppressed and geographically scattered minority together, sending signals within a subcultureas much as a literary one. As gay lives become increasingly integrated into the mainstream, he believes, the readership for books that are not "gay truism books" (those whose intellectual agenda amounts to saying "Im Glad to Be Gay!"), on the one hand, and hot, trashy gay fiction, on the other, may dwindle.
But for now, at any rate, Wisconsin is betting it can beat the risks. A sign of confidence: When the paperback edition of Farm Boys came out, the press replaced the stock farm image that had adorned the hardcover jacket with a slyly beefcake shot of a shirtless, pitchfork-wielding farmer.