The gay character in fiction: still relevant, or past its sell-by date?

EVENT: From Witnesses to Drivers (Wednesday, 21 September)



Damon Galgut talks to Patrick Gale, Neel Mukherjee and Michiel Heyns about the currency of gay characters in modern literature.

An unexpected turn of events resulted in me, an intended uninvolved spectator-reporter at this event, taking a seat on the panel, recruited at the last minute to replace Motswana writer Wame Molefhe, who was unable to attend the event as planned.

Given the topic, and having in my time contributed some gay characters of my own to fiction, I was not entirely out of my depth.

The discussion was steered, firmly but undogmatically, by Damon Galgut, author of The Good Doctor, The Impostor and last year’s In a Strange Room.

Damon started by sharing an e-mail from British novelist (and panelist) Patrick Gale, in which Patrick had commented that the topic was perhaps rather ‘retro’; his own first novel, The Aerodynamics of Pork, from the late 1980s, now seemed dated to him. Is the topic dated, Damon asked, or does it just seem so in a few privileged corners of the globe? He quoted statistics showing just how alive and well homophobia is in many parts of the world, and how dearly people still pay for following the promptings of their psyche rather than the dictates of the community.

Neel, a fiction reviewer and debut novelist, proffered some interesting perspectives from India, his country of birth, in which homosexuality was until quite recently outlawed. Even now, he said, it is one thing to practise same-sex love, another to identify oneself as homosexual; the first may be tolerated, the latter often not.

I pointed out that even in South Africa, attitudes are not always as enlightened as our Constitution would imply; the South African Constitution is an admirable document, a flicker of light in a continent that is in this respect still preponderantly dark, but it almost certainly doesn’t reflect the opinion of the majority of South Africans. However, something to ponder, as Neel pointed out, is that a truly democratic Constitution would, for instance, entrench capital punishment, since most citizens are apparently in favour of it.

But is it a function of literature to combat prejudice? Aren’t books mostly read by educated people anyway, who are rather more likely to be liberal, and liberated, than the rest of the populace?

The panel seemed uniformly opposed to the idea of literature ‘preaching’; and yet there was also a strong feeling that, where young people are still often bullied and confused about their own sexuality, literature in which same-sex relations is normalised could serve to allay something of the adolescent anxiety that is driving many young people, even in apparently enlightened countries, to suicide, or to simply acquiesce to a life of misery and obscurity.

The authors seemed to agree that homosexuality in itself is no longer an interesting topic, but that it affords a usefully oblique angle on society. Damon said, which I concurred with, that as a novelist he feels he has gained a certain sharpness of perception from feeling himself to be on the periphery of things. But this perception need not be translated into overtly gay fiction: it can inform events without directing them.

Alan Hollinghurst was frequently referred to, in the first place because the awarding of the Booker Prize to his The Line of Beauty seemed to mark a watershed of sorts; the entry of overtly gay fiction into mainstream literature. But, as Patrick commented, he was notable also for ‘naming the parts’; that is, his explicit sexual descriptions – though, as Neel pointed out, he deviates from this in his latest novel, The Stranger’s Child, where such sex as takes place happens off-stage. Perhaps, it was suggested, this is another change of direction in gay writing. Damon felt that that the unexpressed, the implicit, is a more powerful force in fiction than the openly declared. In agreement, I pointed out that EM Forster’s only openly gay novel, Maurice, was not his best; that the sublimated and camouflaged relationships in his other novels created tensions that were more interesting than the starry-eyed gay romance that is Maurice.

Damon proposed that a character’s sexuality is not much more significant than his hair colour; but, of course, sexuality influences behaviour, whereas hair colour does not (except for the Blondes who are Preferred by Gentlemen). There was in fact a certain ambivalence, not to say contradiction, running through the discussion: on the one hand gay characters are just characters; on the other, their being gay must affect their actions and how they are perceived by others. A gay character, like any other, interacts with a community and, even if the fact of his or her gayness has ceased to be particularly significant to his or her own self-assessment, it may well affect the perceptions and behaviour of other people. This brings us back to the idea that sexuality, like so much else, is also a function of social environment. The gay novel in modern England is without doubt a very different thing to a gay novel, say, in Uganda, if such a thing can even be imagined. The Novel as Abstraction exists in a social vacuum, and so does the Gay Character.