Gay literature: separate genre or marketing niche?

Sometimes literature is defined by its content and other times simply by its target readership. There is ‘black’ literature, ‘feminist’ literature, ‘Christian’ literature and ‘gay’ literature; and somewhere I’m sure there’ll be black, feminist, Christian gay lit too! It may be argued that these are simply marketing niches rather than literary categories or that they are sub-genre of broader literary categories. For example, is gay literature just romance with homosexual characters? Is a Christian historical any different from an ordinary historical? Is there a more overt ‘message’ when a niche readership is catered for?

The Crafty Writer interviewed gay novelist and short story writer Jay Mandal in the hope of shedding some light on the debate.
jay-mandal-the-dandelion-clockAfter graduating from grammar school in southern England, Jay Mandal joined a City bank, and it was while working in the world of high finance that he wrote his critically acclaimed novel, The Dandelion Clock. Jay is now a full-time writer and has written three novels and over two hundred short stories.

TCW: Is ‘gay literature’ simply a marketing category or does it go deeper than that?

JM: By classifying my books as ‘gay romance’ they don’t get lost among the enormous number of other romances. I find that my books appeal not only to gay men, but also to straight women. My books could be for any relationship and the ups and downs – both serious and humorous – they entail. The characters happen to be gay. There’s the underlying concern of some gay men that they won’t be accepted.

TCW: Is it a label you chose to adopt yourself or was it imposed by the critics / publishers?

JM: It was a joint decision by my publisher and me. You have to classify the book when you send the details to places such as Neilsen BookData and the more you are able to define a genre the more likely it will reach the right readership.

TCW: Have you published anything for a general readership?

JM: Two of my stories appear in the anthology Kaleidoscope – our royalties go to the The Myasthenia Gravis Association.

TCW: Of the seven books you’ve had published through BeWrite, four are short story collections. It’s often said that the short story is an endangered species, would you agree with that?

JM: In general, short story collections don’t sell as well as novels, although Brokeback Mountain from a collection by Annie Proulx, became an award-winning film. But they’re ideal for people who haven’t much time for reading.

TCW: The great Raymond Carver never published a novel in his life. Do you think there is still room in the market place for specialist short story writers?

JM: I hope so! According to a recent Public Lending statement, The Loss of Innocence was borrowed over one hundred times during one year, so it seems there is still a market for short stories, though maybe not a huge one.

TCW: Getting back to gay literature, could you recommend a starter-list for readers interested in exploring the subject further?

JM: The author who inspired me to write was Armistead Maupin, whose ‘Tales of the City’ series won the Big Gay Read. Tom Lennon; Trebor Healey’s ‘Through It Came Bright Colors’; David Levithan’s ‘Boy Meets Boy’; Mary Renault’s ‘The Charioteer’; and Ronald L. Donaghe’s ‘Uncle Sean’ series.

TCW: We are going to be giving away two free e-books of your best-selling The Dandelion Clock (courtesy of Be-Write Books) to readers who leave the most insightful comments on this subject. What can readers expect from it?

JM: The Dandelion Clock has topped Amazon UK’s gay chart. It’s a story of gentle humour and warmth, which shows that people, in love as well as in life, are all the same. David and Rob get talking in the café on Waterloo Station. There’s an instant rapport between them despite their differences: David, twenty-eight, with a good job and a house all to himself; Rob, several years younger, jobless and homeless. The solution to the latter seems obvious …

The Sunday Express reviewed it:

My personal recommendation is this excellent book … sensitively, humorously and believably related. An engrossing read.

TCW: Is there anything else you would like to share with the Crafty Writer readers?

JM: I’ve sent some of my short stories to other writers, and have received encouraging replies from people including Sarah Waters, Neil Bartlett and Hanif Kureishi. I’ve even found myself on ‘favourites’ lists on the Internet which came as a pleasant surprise. Gay Times said of A Different Kind of Love: “… sometimes funny, sometimes bitter-sweet … written with a good ear for dialogue … affirming and insightful.”

TCW:Thanks Jay, you’ve given us something to think about.

If you have anything to add to the debate of whether gay literature is a separate literary genre or just a marketing category, please leave your comments below. Remember, there are two copies of the Dandelion Clock to win, which will go to the two best commenters

We are delighted to send e-books to Rosalie Warren and Derek Collins, for their insightful and thought-provoking contributions to this discussion. Enjoy!

The Crafty Writer hopes to bring you interviews with other literary niche authors in the near future including a bestselling author of Christian ‘chick lit’!

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Related posts:

  1. Children’s Literature and the Quest for the Divine
  2. Niche markets: Christian ‘chick lit’
  3. What a publisher does – part 3:marketing
  4. Christian Speculative Fiction – a ‘lost’ genre?

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20 comments on “Gay literature: separate genre or marketing niche?

  1. Rosalie Warren on said:

    An interesting discussion. I have often wondered what constitutes gay literature – i.e. does it need to have a gay ‘theme’ or is it enough to have gay characters? As a straight woman, I surprised myself by writing a novel whose central relationship is between two young lesbians. That wasn’t what I planned to write but that’s what my characters decided they wanted to be. One of the themes of the book is the acceptance or otherwise of homosexuality in the Christian church. But I’m not sure my book could justifiably be classified as gay Christian lit.

    I was also a bit concerned about whether you have to be gay to write gay lit. But gay authors write about straight relationships, don’t they? I know Armistead Maupin (a favourite of mine, too) has both in his books. And Iris Murdoch, who I believe was straight, wrote about gays.

  2. Derek A Collins on said:

    Don’t know about black, feminist Christian gay lit, but felt I absolutely had to recommend Michael Arditti, surely the supreme example of Christan Gay lit in these islands. His first novel, The Celibate, is a harrowing account of a young priest’s struggle finally to reconcile his sexuality with his faith. It is beautifully written and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Of course, to define Arditti as ‘Christian Gay Literature’ is not to tell the whole story. His work deserves to stand amongst the greatest contemporary writers.

    Apart from Armistead Maupin, the only writer on Jay Mandal’s list that I recognised was Tom Lennon. However this may say more about me than about gay literature. But what exactly IS gay literature? Is it literature written by gay people? If so, are not the greatest examples Jeanette Winterson and Emma Donoghue? Or by including them do we reduce them by forcing them into a ghetto? Do they not simply write literature?

    There are clearly literary genres like ‘the short story’, or ‘romance’, but can we define a genre according to the ‘personal’ characteristics of the author? Is there really a ‘black’ literature or a ‘gay’ literature?

    I often go into W H smith, where they have a very large section devoted to ‘black writing’. When I ask them where their section on ‘Irish writing’ is, they look at me confused. But in London in particular, if you’re going to feature black literature in this way, shouldn’t you feature Irish literature as well?

    The problem is that these ‘genres’ only arise because of a colonialist attitude on the part of the literary mainstream, because black, gay – and yes even Irish voices tend to be silenced by the white, English, heterosexual hegemony. Gayatri Spivak, in her 1988 essay, Can the Subaltern Speak? asked whether it was possible for minorities to speak in their own voice. She concluded it was not because their representation in society is crafted, not by themselves, but by the dominant voices of the colonisers’ discourse, in which the colonised masses exist primarily as abstractions to be pointed to, not as real people with their own lives and views.

    The rise of ‘genres’ like ‘black’ or ‘gay’ literature is a process of a group becoming the subject of social discourse, rather than its object. Until this happens, the individual genres are necessary, but ultimately the goal should be that writers are judged on their literary ability (whatever that means!) rather than their gender, skin colour or sexual orientation.

    Gender, skin colour and sexual orientation will always be important themes in literature; the question is, are they featured as ‘subject’ or ‘object’.

  3. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    I went to Tesco yesterday in a hurry. I wanted peanut butter, red onion and cheese pasta salad and quiche (or as they say in South Africa, a quickie!) I left without them because Tesco has a nasty tendency of moving them around. Just when I think the salad fridge is near the fruit ‘n veg they go and recategorise it as ‘ready meal’. It’s the same with books. Whether or not we agree that there should be separate categories for gay lit or whatever, they exist, because retailers believe that’s how people shop. The problem for writers is whether or not we want our books to be limited to a particular readership. By having a category called ‘gay lit’ or ‘black lit’ or whatever, we run the risk of not being able to have gay, black or whatever characters in a book with universal themes. And does sticking a book on a ‘gay lit’ shelf (whether virtual or literal) actually increase our sales or simply limit our potential readership? Also, on Rosalie’s comments about whether there are particular themes that set gay literature apart from other lit, or whether it’s simply that they have gay characters. I wrote a radio play with the break-up of a gay couple as its inciting incident. Does this mean my play falls within ‘gay lit’ or does it need other qualities to receive that label? Perhaps readers or writers of so-called gay lit can comment on this. Jay? Derek?

  4. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Is this an example of White Lit? http://www.observer.com/2008/stuff-white-people-book-sold-random-house-least-350-000

  5. Jay Mandal on said:

    Although I write books and stories peopled with gay characters, I don’t consider myself an expert on gay literature, whatever that may be. If we wrote only about what we are/do, this would be very limiting. Most writers I’m sure would prefer to be judged on their literary merit.

    Only a handful of bestsellers make it to the shelves of high street shops. The others books, perhaps equally well-written, rely on online sales. Online stores have huge quantities of books, and it’s necessary to group them so that readers can find what they’re looking for.

  6. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    I agree Jay, it’s a commercial imperative, whether we like it or not. And many readers like to know what they’re getting into before they get into it. Labels like ‘gay’, ‘Christian’ etc help that, particularly when there are sensitivities about being gay or having a Christian faith or whatever. Perhaps we shouldn’t pander to it, but it’s a fact that we need to deal with.

  7. Andrew Philip on said:

    Ultimately, don’t we — writers and readers — diminish ourselves and our reading experiences if we make no attempt to resist such pigeonholing? Maybe it’s easier to achieve breadth in poetry, which is already a niche market in itself. That is, as long as you stay within the sub-niche labels such as “mainstream”, “performance” or “experimental”.

  8. Derek A Collins on said:

    I think I’d want to stick with my Gayatri Spivak idea. With all due respecept to you, Fiona, your writing a play about a gay couple would not make your play gay lit, because, with the best will in the world, your play will be about ‘them’ and will not be about lgbt people finding their own voice. Because of this colonialist dimension I believe it will be a long time before be can do away with genres of gay lot.

    Understand, Fiona, I’m not accusing you personally of prejudice, or of being insensitive to queers, simply that as a straight person (a straight writer if you like) you will always be one of the colonisers, and not the colonised.

  9. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Hi Derek, no disrespect taken. When I started this discussion, I was hoping people would raise issues themselves – my reference to my play, in response to Rosalie’s comments, was to provoke others to say, one way or another what may or may not constitute gay literature. I never for a moment believed that my play was an example of this. The gay couple in my play (one a nice guy, one a bastard) are used as plot devices. I wanted characters that, in 1957 London, would provoke the prejudice of the police – in order for a murder to not be investigated properly (crucial to the plot). It does not seek to explore in depth issues pertinent to the gay community.

    I actually do believe there is a legitimate literary category called ‘Gay Literature’ but, like you, it needs to be something defined from within not without. I object to the commercial categorisation of literature (or art for the matter) into convenient marketing niches, that force writers and artist to produce something to an externally defined spec. Like Andy, I believe this should be resisted as much as possible. I suppose, in your definition, this would fall under the realms of exploitative colonisation.

    However, if a gay writer chooses to explore gay issues (however loosely they may be defined) and to declare that their intention is to write gay literature, it is not for we commentators to say they are wrong and there is no such thing. That said, I fear that categorisations such as these may become modes of exclusion, rather than inclusion. What then are the boundaries of gay literature? Who can and can’t write it? Are there certain themes that every ‘gay’ book must address? Does this mean that gay people cannot write anything else? Does this mean that straight people cannot write about gay people without being accused of being ‘colonisers’? These are serious concerns. A similar debate, as I’ve said, may be explored relating to other categories, including ‘black’ and ‘Christian’.

    As a white person who grew up in South Africa, this issue of what constitutes ‘African’ literature, is highly pertinent. Can only black people write it? Can only black people read it? What if the black or white author of ‘African’ literature doesn’t intend it to be so narrowly defined? Will the publishing houses allow it to be marketed to a broader readership?

    I’m currently editing a book set in South Africa. I’m encouraging the writer to consider a wider readership than just South Africans. She’s now busy grappling with the idea of whether or not her book is ‘South African’ or ‘international’ and what changes, if any, are necessary to break through what, in my opinion, will be a restrictive marketing category. Does she want to address a broader readership or not? That is her decision.

  10. Harold "Smokey" Beucus on said:

    This is wonderful. Please send ALL the articles or information you have.

    Also please add to your mailing list.

    Thank you.

    Harold “Smokey” Beucus
    101 PIne Ridge Drive
    Bastrop, Texas 78602

  11. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Hi Harold. Just keep checing back on www.thecraftywriter.com for more articles. Or why not subscribe to my feed and you’ll be automatically notified anytime I publish new content. Thanks for stopping by.

  12. Kay Green on said:

    Hi,
    I have a point to add to this debate. ‘Pigeon-holing’ books isn’t something that starts after they’re written. I recently attended a lecture by a literary agent who has spent most of her working life as an editor for a major publishing house and her advice to wannabe authors was this: Go into a big high street book store. Look at the category titles above the shelves. If your work doesn’t fit clearly into one of them, re-write until it does. When it lands on an editor’s desk, one of their first questions will be, ‘which shelf does it go on in the shop’?

    I was left sitting there scratching my head wondering how they expect authors to do such a thing and yet produce ‘original’ ‘innovative’ and ‘authentic’ work – all adjectives editors often use to describe what they’re looking for!

  13. caroline on said:

    This is very interesting. I found this page by googling, ‘can straight people write gay characters?’ as I have an idea forming that involves having two male characters instead of the standard girl meets boy stereotype. The fact that they are both male is almost irrelevant to me, its not going to be about full on sex, just an increasingly intimate relationship. But I found the discussion about pigeonholing fascinating. Is it a matter of percentage of gay characters or interactions, is it how intimate they get, is it whether its making a point about the LGBT experience in a mainly straight world? To me it wouldn’t seem to matter, but, it seems to be a matter of comfort, of agents, of editors, publishers, bookshops (I work in a small bookshop) and readers. They feel more comfortable if they know where a book belongs. I guess its human nature. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were no such categories because people didn’t see the differences, the divisions?

    I also found myself wondering who took the risk on the Time Traveler’s Wife – romance, or science fiction?!

  14. Thanks for stopping by Caroline. I think the reader rather than the writer or content is the key here. Or at least the reader as perceived by the powers that be. Readers actively looking for ‘gay lit’ will look first and foremost to the gay lit shelf if it exists. But readers who are gay and don’t want to be limited to ‘gay lit’ will look elsewhere. What am I saying? I think you can have a novel chockablock with gay characters dealing with issues pertinent to the gay community and it will not become ‘gay lit’ until it’s stuck on that shelf. I would be reluctant to label something gay lit unless you had an overt intention to reach an almost exclusive gay readership. Good luck with the novel (I assume it’s a novel). Fiona.

  15. Penny Culliford on said:

    There’s another question here, expecially in Derek’s comment which has wide reaching consequences for any writer, in this case straight writers writing gay characters and their stories – can we write meaningfully about something we have never personally experienced? In one sense the answer hast to be yes, otherwise our stories would be severely limited. Most writers of detective fiction have never murdered and most, I would imagine, have never had anyone close to them murdered either. I’m sure Robert Harris wrote “Silence of the Lambs” without ever eating anyone. Is there a kind of authenticity that can only be reached through personal experience, or can good research and imagination reach the same level?

  16. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    I agree with you Penny. If we limit ourselves to what we know from personal experience that wipes out the entire historical genre! There is also the interview method. If we have no experience ourselves, speak to someone who has. In that way we become mediators rather than just imaginers. Of course tht brings into play issues of censorship, bias. filtering and so on, but that’s unavoidable.

  17. David Thomas on said:

    I have read with interest the repiles to this original and worthwhile discussion as i am a first time ( wantig to be published ) gay author. Yes i know that title can definitely subtract from the content and merit of a book or writer, but many will tell you that is not true. But by agreesing with everyone, it just goes to show that we are all individuals with indidvidual needs…i.e. e.g. we are all at a point in our lives when we want or need to discover, so we beging by exploring that need to partivcular genre or style, or niche for that matter. Then we discover others things, like different writers and admired styles of writing or stroy telling…and soon. However, in such a market driven world, if you want to get noticed and be sucessful you can do just that for them and create feed that niche, then move on to whatever you want to do/ write about, but then you will be controlled by the publishers…so you pay the price but that what you wanted in the first place wan’t it – success/ recognition?
    I am proud of my novel and the tact that it is written by a gay man and called a gaay novel, but it is much more thatn that, i know it is so…and i don’t want sucess but recognition; from there who knows?
    So, at the end, my thought remain with you all, all who know whatt hey want and deal with it. So it is the niche that you are already marketing and is alsoa known as gay lit; for now we live it and the book industry; it may help and hinder, but we are stuck with. Good writing will be seen but it wil take time to look back and see it in all its glory!

  18. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Hello David, thanks for stopping by. We had this discussion about two years ago now, but it’s still relevant today. Hopefully some of the ‘old’ correspondents will be notified of your contribution and swing over to say hi. Good luck with your novel.

    Fiona

  19. Jo Esdelle on said:

    Hi all,

    I know I’m about 3 years too late but I am in the process of writing my MA Publishing dissertation on the publication of gay literature in contemporary British fiction and whether or not it is still a niche market. I have found your discussions so far not only greatly useful to my thesis but also very interesting. I was wondering if you all still believed that gay literature is a niche market and whether or not there have been any steps made by the large publishers to change this and incorporate the genre into the mainstream?

    Jo

  20. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Hi Jo,

    I’m glad you found this useful. However, I don’t think I’m qualified to comment on whether or not gay lit is still a niche market. I just host a website and invite other people to share their views.

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