Straight Reading Gay (On a Bench)
Early Friday evening, it was still light out and I was sitting on the small bench outside my small home, reading a book. One of the great joys of my life is reading on that bench. One of the hazards of reading on that bench is that any acquaintance who happens by immediately assumes that I am looking for conversation. I could tell these chatty people that if that were the case I would not have my nose in a book, but that would be rude. So on early Friday evening when I was sitting on the bench reading a marvelous novel by Stephen McCauley called Insignificant Others and an acquaintance happened by, I patiently closed my book. We’ll call the acquaintance, a male, X. Here is the conversation that transpired:
X: What’s the book about?
Me: Well, soon after it opens, the main character discovers that his longtime partner is having an affair with another man. But no sooner does the reader start feeling sympathy for the main character—so harsh, discovering it via text message!—than the reader also discovers that the main character has had his own affair going on with another man for quite sometime. It’s very good.
X: Oh. So all the characters are gay then?
Me: Well, not all the characters. The women aren’t and a fair number of the men aren’t either, just the main ones.
X: I see. I started to read a gay book recently but there was a lot of in-your-face sex right at the beginning, so I stopped. I wonder if a woman would have the same reaction.
A couple of things could have happened at this juncture in the conversation. I might have asked the title of the book so that I could be the test woman for its frank depiction of gay sex. I might have asked X if he had similar reactions to books with in-your-face straight sex so I could better deduce if my acquaintance were a true reading homophobe or just generally put off by graphic sex. But neither happened because another acquaintance came wandering by, also assuming I’d prefer to talk than read, and the conversation ended there. It’s stayed with me in the days since, however, sparking a series of cartoon-like thought bubbles to appear over my head. The following are some of the thoughts that filled those cartoon bubbles.
How did I, a straight woman, wind up on a bench reading a book by a gay man about a gay relationship?
There’s a pretty straightforward answer really. I’d returned books to the library and was looking through the New Fiction section when the title caught my attention: Insignificant Others. I hadn’t heard of the book before, which can sometimes be a good thing, and the title promised intelligence and humor, so I pulled it from the shelves. The cover was not hugely appealing—I didn’t care for the combination of colors of the two men’s ties depicted—but beneath the author’s name, Stephen McCauley, it said “author of The Object of My Affection.” Since I’d enjoyed the movie made from that book, I decided to read the inside flap. I didn’t read the whole thing. Instead, my eyes were drawn to the fifth paragraph, which was enclosed in quotes, a brief excerpt from the book: “In the three years I’d known Benjamin, I’d come to think of him as my husband. He was, after all a husband, and I saw it as my responsibility to protect his marriage from a barrage of outside threats and bad influences. It was the only way I could justify sleeping with him.” Since I was in the mood for something intelligent and humorous depicting the folly of we mortals, I added the book to the growing stack in my arms and continued browsing.
As the first cartoon bubble filled over my head I realized that had I been browsing the bookstore instead of the library, I’d never have picked up this book, not unless the publisher had paid for front-of-store co-op. I’d have never picked it up because I never would have even seen it.
Back in 2003, just prior to my first novel being published, I joined an online community of readers. It seemed like a good place for me. I figured that these people were my kind of people, the kind of people who, were they to ever walk by me reading on my bench, would understand, simply waving their own books at me as they walked on by. The community also had a fairly large population of writers within it as well, also a good thing but an expensive thing—expensive because in an effort to support other writers, I began purchasing their books. One day I went to the bookstore looking to buy The Year of Ice by Brian Malloy and More Like Wrestling by Danyel Smith. First I checked the front tables but found nothing. I suppose I could have asked a clerk for assistance at this point, but having spent eleven years working in a bookstore and having a fair level of confidence in my grasp of alphabetical order, I looked under M and S on the General Fiction wall. Still no luck. Well, I did want to buy these books so I went finally to the Information Desk and said I wanted to order two books.
Clerk: Did you check the shelves first?
Clerk: Well, it says here that we have The Year of Ice.
Me: You do? (thinking maybe my alphabetical grasp was not what it once had been) Where?
Clerk: In the Gay & Lesbian section. Looks like we have More Like Wrestling too.
Me: And that’s in…?
Clerk: African-American Studies.
Well, I tried to tell myself, isn’t this nice. We live in times so enlightened that there are dedicated sections for certain kinds of books. When I was growing up there was never anything like this. Look how far we’ve come as a society.
But the telling-myself-positive-things routine wasn’t working. Truth was, all I could see it as was book segregation. Oh, it’d be fine with me if the books were cross-shelved, with copies in both the dedicated sections and the General Fiction section, so that people looking only for a certain kind of reading experience could find them but so too could any reader just looking for good fiction regardless of sexual orientation or skin color of authors or characters. But this other system? Something like that says to me that the underlying belief is that only a certain kind of person would be interested in those books and that they are not books the general public are expected to care about.
How annoying is that, the idea of there being “a certain kind of person” for any book? If I’m a certain kind of person at all, when it comes to reading, I’m the kind who reads eclectically. I don’t need or want to read books strictly about people who look or act like me. I want to read books about all kinds of people with all kinds of viewpoints and I want the happy serendipity that happens when I’m browsing, unsure of what I’m in the mood for, and having a book like Stephen McCauley’s Insignificant Others find its way into my hands. Books written by or about gay people—it’s not a separate genre, not in the way that Science Fiction is or Romance is, where the books follow distinct genre constraints. They’re just books about human experience. Yes, the human experience in a book like Insignificant Others is different than my experience, but so what? I’m not a lawyer but it doesn’t stop me from reading legal thrillers if I find one that looks good.
Okay, so maybe I just think the entire universe should be ordered, and that books should be shelved, in the way I deem best. Is that so terribly wrong? I don’t ever want to miss out on a good book because someone else somewhere thought that someone like me would never be interested so they shelved it where I’d be unlikely to find it.
Of course there is one area of the bookstore where I don’t encounter subject segregation: the Young Adult section. In YA, it’s almost always one big melting pot. That’s how I ended up bringing home Out of the Pocket, by Bill Konigsberg, about a popular senior student, a star quarterback who finds himself outed by a close friend. Standing in the YA section always gives me hope because it seems to me that kids these days are becoming generally less hung up about the things that bothered the previous generation. Kids just want to read well-written and entertaining books and authors like David Levithan (Boy Meets Boy; Love is the Higher Law) enjoy huge popularity as an equal not separate part of the YA world.
And then there’s the library, also a great melting pot of books. If books were segregated there, I doubt I’d have read Insignificant Others and that would be a shame. It turned out to be as intelligent and humorous as I thought it would be. The main character, who works in HR at a software company, is not the most sympathetic character nor are many of the other principals. What they are is human and Mr. McCauley’s great strength is that he gets the reader to want good things for these deeply flawed human beings.
Here is my favorite line: “The degree to which one is obliged, for the sake of tolerance, to be tolerant of the intolerant has never been clear to me.” Close runner up? “‘Why is it,’ I said, that in these now-or-never situations, people always assume “now” is the best choice. Isn’t there a 50-50 chance that “never” would be the better option?’”
I loved this book. I’m guessing you will too.
Books mentioned in this column:
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Lauren Baratz-Logsted has sold twenty-three books to six publishers since 2003. Her published novels include The Thin Pink Line and Vertigo for adults; The Education of Bet for teens, Me, In Between for tweens; and the first five of The Sisters 8, a nine-book series for young readers, co-written with her novelist husband Greg Logsted and their ten-year-old daughter Jackie. Later in 2010 she'll have two more books published, including the sixth title in The Sisters 8 series and the YA novel The Twin's Daughter. Lauren still lives in Danbury, CT, where she writes and reads pretty much all the time. You can read more about Lauren’s life and work (and contact her) at her personal website and the Sisters 8 site. Contact Lauren.