by Dale Peck

A History of Gay Literature:The Male Tradition
by Gregory Woods Yale University Press 448 pp $39.95 April

The invention of the genre now referred to as "gay literature" was many things--a representational corrective, a marketing ploy, perhaps even part of a larger social revolution. But in aesthetic terms, it was nothing more than a bit of whimsy, and, as such, the compiling of its canon has been a guessing game, an exercise in idle speculation and historical revisionism. I mean, there's Greece, sure, the Romans, whatever, and of course Shakespeare's sonnets. Well...

And so the guessing begins.

In fact, I do think there is an empirically definable body of literature that can be characterized as "gay," and I include in that body neither the sonnets nor the literature of Greece and Rome. The vast majority of gay books have been written in the last three decades by writers who explicitly viewed themselves and their work as part of the social, historical, and political project that was, in fact, the creation of gay literature. There certainty begins, and there it ends. The idea that a coherent tradition of homosexual literature has existed for much more than a century is a fantasy. A compelling fantasy to be sure, and one that I, as a gay writer of fiction that often incorporates gay subject matter, have longed for at times. But longing doesn't create a literary tradition. Though I have sometimes, as Gregory Woods does in his invented History of Gay Literature, queered readings of canonical texts to suit my needs (or, more often, my whims), I have had to find my true gay precursors among more recent writers.

The problem is epistemologicalor, less grandly, definitionaland it centers on two intertwined questions: What makes a book a gay book, and when can a number of gay books be said to form a gay tradition? Let's start with the second question. Though Woods, a reader in lesbian and gay studies at the Nottingham Trent University, demotes the word "tradition" to subtitle status, it's essential to the construction of a canon. "Tradition" implies the passing down of a set of values from one generation to the next; it also implies that those values are received, consciously or unconsciously, by their successors.

Woods himself locates "the birthplace of gay literature" not on some Assyrian ruin from which the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu first emerged, nor on the banks of the Nile where inscriptions speak of the relationship of Seth and Horus; but in one of Oxford's relatively unloved Victorian buildings. I am thinking of some space where impressionable youths sat at the feet of men like Walter Pater or Benjamin Jowett, or solitary garrets where the same youths read the classics in Greek and Latin and where they made lists of mythic and historical figures who felt the same as they did on catching sight of a muscular physique. Those lists would eventually turn into the contents pages of our gay anthologies and our histories of gay literature.

By his own admission, then, the appearance of homosexuality in literature significantly predates the emergence of homosexual literature. If Woods had stuck to this position and simply compiled a catalog of, well, let's call them "homosexual and homosocial moments in literature," then his book wouldn't find itself mired in a definitional conundrum. But as suddenly as he raises the issue, he sidesteps it by informing readers that "homosexual people have been involved in the retrospective creation of a culture of our own which is to say, the appropriation of disparate cultural products and producers, and the elaboration of a fiction: that of a continuous `male love' tradition" extending from classical Greece to the contemporary Western world. While this is certainly true, it's also true that ex post facto acts of appropriation don't constitute an ongoing, generation-to-generation tradition. What Woods seems to argue is that if the relationship between successive appearances of homosexuality in literature wasn't causal, it was at least circumstantialbut, alas, it's precisely that distinction which distinguishes a tradition from a mere catalog of appearances, which is what, prior to the mid-nineteenth century, writing about homosexuality was.

Admittedly, my dispute with Woods over the nature of a tradition could be seen as nothing more than a quibble: If a critic decides to proffer a selection of gay books in chronological order, does it matter whether the resulting work is called a history or a catalog? It probably doesn't, but it would help if the books included were actually gay books. And so we come to the second question: What makes a book gay? The established answer to that question has long been that a gay book is written by a gay author or about gay characters. While there are more than a few acknowledged problems with this definition, it does narrow a field that could easily become hopelessly large, vague, and unmanageable. But such strictures are too narrow for Woods's purposes, and so, applying revisionist techniques, he expands the already problematic by-or-about definition of gay writing to include "any literary material which has anything to say about matters which we now think of as pertaining to gender roles and to the spectrum of sexual experience." This is tantamount to saying that if you look hard enough, then just about any text can be said to be a gay textand believe me, Woods looks hard enough.

Woods's History is plagued by two tics that, besides destroying the credibility of his claims, are simply, and repeatedly, annoying. One is his habit of avoiding a problem by pretending it doesn't exist; the other is his tendency to construct arguments he assumes critics might make against his work and then, rather than refute them, proceed to commit the sins of which he has accused himself. Take, for example, his brief chapter titled "The Orient." After perfunctorily citing Edward Said's warning against manufacturing cultural generalizations from a few isolated artifactsbad, bad, very bad, Woods seems to agreehe then does just that, listing a dozen or so texts from the last thousand years as evidence of a "rich vein" of "homo-erotic literatures" in the East and also using those texts to make judgments about attitudes toward homosexuality in their respective cultures and times.

But perhaps the most egregious of Woods's vacillations is his use of a definition of "gay literature" that he himself admitsin the same paragraph he posits itis "unworkable." In fact, such a broad definition is not only unworkable but useless, except as a sociological, or, at this late date, a marketing phenomenon. Indeed, the only real accomplishment of Woods's History is to demonstrate that neither a recognizable style nor a coherent theme unites the broad array of "literary material which has anything to say about matters which we now think of as pertaining to gender roles and to the spectrum of sexual experience." What gay literature did at its inception was forcefully establish the ability of homosexuals to write and to read about themselves. About all the idea of gay literature does now is provide overeager readers such as Woods with an excuse to tether all of Western literatureand, in his embarrassingly truncated chapters "The Orient" and "Black African Poetry," all the literature of the worldto a single if not quite clear theme, a critical feat about as possible as balancing an elephant on the head of a pun.

Consider, for instance, his reading of The Canterbury Tales. After citing a line that may or may not refer to the sin of sodomy, Woods narrows his discussion of Chaucer's massive allegory to a single quotation, which he situates in a sentence that is emblematic of his critical sleight of hand. "In the General Prologue," he writes, the Pardoner "is famously described as `a geldying or a mare,' which most commentators take to mean, after all the niceties of definition have been worried over for a sufficient period, that he is homosexual." There is first of all the word "famously." Famous to whom? Medievalists? Chaucerians? The British? Homosexuals? People who read? I certainly don't remember it from the Chaucer unit in my medieval lit class in college, but perhaps I was distracted by the other five hundred pages of Chaucer's text. Unqualified, the word suggests little more than Woods's desire to insinuate into existence a literary tradition as monomaniacally obsessed with homosexuality as he is.

"Famously" is followed by the equally vague "most commentators." Who are these commentators, with what authority do they speak, and what, exactly, do they and their minority opposition have to say? And then there is the phrase "niceties of definition." Is this a bitchy aside, part of Woods's determined, if doomed, effort to inflect his argument with the language of camp, or is it evidence of some obfuscation? Perhaps the Pardoner is merely a man lacking in virility; perhaps he is a eunuch, or even a hermaphrodite; it is impossible to say without seeing more of the text. Thus is the greatest English poem from Beowulf to Shakespeare dispensed with in less than a page.

Woods might well counter that a project of this scale precludes detailed analysis, and that, of course, is precisely my point: A summary of five thousand years of literature necessarily relies on generalities, and though it is possible, if just barely, to imagine a scenario in which so many generalities could add up to something believable, let alone interesting, Woods simply doesn't pull it off. In the same chapter in which he discusses The Canterbury Tales, Woods hears in "the cries of `Soddoma' on the lips of Dante's sinners in Purgatoryan expressive self-identification, an assertion of difference. Even through the tones of shame and repentance, one can hear the voice of a culture which will not be silenced." To which, I'm sure, Dante would have loved to reply: Siamo qui, siamo queer, abituati.

In the end, the only pertinent question seems to be: Why take exception to Woods's invention of a received gay literary tradition? Why bother? Esoteric disciplinarians have always carried on private conversations with one another, and sometimes just with themselves; why shouldn't Woods? Of course, there are simple standards of intellectual rigor and clarity at issue here. Woods's arguments are full of holesas is, for that matter, his selection of texts. Perhaps I'm merely taking umbrage at my single, misquoted appearance in the book. But the real crime of Woods's history is that it diminishes the accomplishment of the men and women who created a self-conscious gay literature, a political rather than aesthetic battle that has not yet been won and will never be won as long as critics like Woods continue to confuse the issue.

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