In an attempt to argue for a continuous tradition in “gay male lit,” Christopher Bram’s “Eminent Outlaws” emphasizes two “crossroads figures,” Gore Vidal and Edmund White — each the “magnet” that drew his “generation” together, per Bram. Their friendships and rivalries are the cloth out of which Bram cuts the pattern of his history of the genre.
What this does is perpetuate the myth that you can’t possibly be a good writer if you don’t already have famous writer friends, and the related myth that you have to be upper-middle class (or at least middle class with enough pretension and education to “fake” upper middle, like White) and live in a cultural capital like New York, San Francisco, or Paris, in order to make a name for yourself.
I’m sure these myths are nothing more than a side effect of literary historians like Bram trying to make connections and tell a unified story about their subject matter. As a historian, it’s easier to make transitions from one generation to another if you can use a friendship or a mentorship, for example, to talk about batons being passed (a phrase which Bram uses very specifically and weirdly, in describing a photograph of Edmund White and Truman Capote, even though he himself admits that the two were “running in different races” and even though it was Vidal, not Capote, whom Bram has identified as White’s predecessor). It’s also bound to be the case that cultural capitals like New York are easier to write about because they provide so many examples of people running into one another and either becoming friends or bitter enemies. The lonely writer out in the boonies is not nearly so interesting, from a literary history perspective, because there’s less activity and motion — just somebody sitting at a desk, writing — so he (they’re all “he” here because it’s about gay male lit) is in danger of being ignored altogether, not only during his own lifetime, but by history, too.
I feel strongly about this because I used to believe it. I was a non-famous kid from northwest Alabama who wanted to be a gay writer and who, by those rules, didn’t stand a chance. (Yes, Capote was from Alabama, too — but his childhood best friend, Harper Lee, was another famous writer! And mine was not! I was doomed!) I got over that. I wish Bram (whose background is much more similar to mine than it is to the patrician Vidal’s) had, too.
Worse, this concentration on the tony, incestuous social circles around these two slick dudes (which, let me be fair, include some very, very powerful and important writers — tony and incestuous and also talented and influential) also allows him to ignore or glide over a ton of other very powerful and important writers who didn’t run in those circles — early, vital, and brashly uncloseted writers like James Purdy, for example. How do you leave out James Purdy? Makes no sense. The seminal (pun intended) John Rechy can’t be avoided, but he is mentioned only as a publishing phenomenon. There is not one mention of Quentin Crisp! Samuel Delany, possibly the best writer of the bunch, is mentioned, but only once, when he gives a speech at Out/Write.
Once we get to the 80s and 90s, Bram focuses on Michael Cunningham and Tony Kushner (two fine writers indeed), as well as the later work of Vidal, White, and so on. Writers as different from one another — and as major, each in his own way — as Dennis Cooper, Hilton Als, Martin Duberman, David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs and Ethan Mordden are all notable by their absences. David Leavitt is mentioned in passing, twice — the first time because he had something memorable to say, once, about Edmund White, and the second time in the context of a discussion about book sales.
Otherwise, I liked the book okay.