From seven writers comes a literary revolution for gay community

May 22, 1994|By Jameson Currier | Jameson Currier,Los Angeles Times

For gay men coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, especially those growing up in rural areas or suburban enclaves, there were few gay role models. Television and film offered little beyond the stereotypes of hairdressers and designers. What positive role models did exist were writers who could be labeled as gay or whose work could be detected as gay-themed: Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal and William Burroughs are well-known examples. But while gay men were sometimes fully realized characters in their books and plays, they were still depicted as social outcasts, victims or doomed martyrs.

The writers who emerged in the 1970s, after the Stonewall Riots, marked a watershed in gay men's self-perception and transformed the fictional characterization of gay men. Instead of depicting outsiders, writers such as Edmund White (who formerly taught in the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars), Andrew Holleran and Armistead Maupin created protagonists who moved within a gay community. These writers gave many gay men a new role model, and, in so doing, contributed to the evolution of a lifestyle.

From 1980 to 1981 seven prominent gay writers met seven or eight times to share their reading and writing with one another. Known informally as the Violet Quill Club, these writers -- Mr. White, Mr. Holleran, Christopher Cox, Michael Grumley, Robert Ferro, Felice Picano and George Whitmore -- shared a desire to portray their gay experiences in print and to write expressly for gay readers without having to explain themselves to a heterosexual audience. Though these desires were prominent in several of these writers' already published works, the notoriety of the Violet Quill helped change the direction and image of gay literature.

In the introduction to "The Violet Quill Reader," a new anthology of short stories, essays, novel and diary excerpts by the seven writers, editor David Bergman reflects on how "the very act of representing gay life altered that life, by indicating that it was worthy of depiction, of creative energy. The VQ represented to other gay people a way of living a gay life that might not have otherwise seemed possible to them."

Dr. Bergman, an English professor at Towson State University, has organized this material in a roughly chronological fashion, beginning with Mr. White's letter to his friends Ann and Alfred Corn, detailing the Stonewall Riots, which he participated in on June 28-29, 1969 (the riots occurred after police raids on a gay bar in Greenwich Village). Included, too, are excerpts from several of the novels that were written and published during the heady disco era of the late 1970s, many of which are set in Manhattan and Fire Island, including Mr. White's "Nocturnes for the King of Naples," Mr. Holleran's "Dancer From the Dance," Whitmore's "The Confessions of Danny Slocum" and Ferro's "The Family of Max Desir."

These works were not universally embraced at the time of their original publication; indeed, many of the gay community's own newspapers and magazines found fault with them. One of the biggest complaints, and one voiced even by the gay news magazine the Advocate, was their persistent concern with the image and attainment of "the beautiful man" -- a sort of gay golden dream.

What is often overlooked about these novels, however, and is not specifically addressed in this anthology, is that the narrators of novels written by Violet Quill members are not so much exulting in the era's fast-paced, excessive lifestyle as straining to keep up with it. In so doing, the authors presented a far more accurate account of gay life than they have been given credit for.

The emergence of AIDS, of course, changed all of this -- changed not only the course of gay life, but the course of gay literature. Four members of the Violet Quill have been lost thus far to disease -- Cox, Ferro, Grumley and Whitmore -- and a fifth, Mr. White, has tested positive for HIV, the virus believed to be the cause of AIDS. In the later selections of this anthology, these writers grapple with the disease in both fiction and nonfiction.

Ferro's most notable accomplishment was the way he wrote about the effect of his gay life on his family, first describing his coming out to them in "The Family of Max Desir"; then, portraying the impact of his illness on them in his last book, "Second Son." "In the huge unnaturalness of the world," he writes in "Second Son," "the most unnatural thing is the death of a child, which is to say death out of order."

Death out of order touches many of these works. Included in "The Violet Quill Reader" is Mr. White's "An Oracle," one of the first and finest stories to deal with AIDS, a haunting account of an expatriate New Yorker's search for understanding, reflected through an affair with a young man in Crete. Also included is

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