Friday, January 13, 2017

Birthday: "When I was young, I despised old people. I was provincial and narrow-minded. It's the reason I stayed stupid so long. If you only get involved with young people you don't learn anything about the world."


Interviewer: Did being a famous gay writer allow you to have a lot more sex?

White: Not really. I always think it’s not much fun being a famous gay writer, because nobody puts out for that. They all want to be famous gay writers themselves, whereas, if you were a famous straight writer, you seem to get a lot of sex… or so I’m told.

Edmund White, in The Creative Independent

Edmund Valentine White III (1940-   )
Author, critic

He was a Cincinnati boy, from an eccentric family that exuded none of the conservative respectability that has defined that city since the earth cooled. The penny dropped for him as a teen; “I had to come out to my parents to get them pay for the therapy,” he reminisced. In the mid-Fifties, one sought cures and wrestled with being a societal outcast. As did most who went through that, he looked back on it as a largely self-defeating, destructive exercise.

Pariah-in-the-making he might be, but White was bright, and graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Chinese in 1962. He faced a choice: graduate school at Harvard, or boyfriend in New York?

He chose New York.

Through the 1960s and early ‘70s, White made a name, and a good living, and a journeyman editor and magazine writer. He spent eight years with Time-Life Books, freelancing for Newsweek.

After a sojourn in Rome, he worked as an editor for Saturday Review and the quarterly literary magazine, Horizon, while freelancing for Time-Life and The New Republic. He was also a fast mover in the gay circles of New York and San Francisco (he took part in the 1969 Stonewall Riot and wrote one of the few eyewitness accounts of it).

His first novel, Forgetting Elena, came out in 1973 and won praise from no less than Nabokov, but neither fame nor riches. White, for his part reciprocated, telling The Paris Review his admiration of Nabokov

wouldn’t be his intellectual high jinks, but his passion, his sensuous detail, the wonderful rendering of the physical, visual, material world around us. It’s almost a spiritual way he has of describing the world; he makes it so glowing, so mouthwatering and so precise that you feel it has somehow been irradiated. Writers can use literature as a mirror held up to the world, or they can use writing as a consolation for life (in the sense that literature is preferable to reality). I prefer the second approach, although clearly there has to be a blend of both. If the writing is pure fantasy it doesn’t connect to any of our real feelings. But if it’s grim realism, that doesn’t seem like much of a gift. I think literature should be a gift to the reader, and that gift is an idealization. I don’t mean it should be a whitewashing of problems, but something ideally energetic. Ordinary life is blah, whereas literature at its best is bristling with energy. Somebody once said Balzac’s only fault is that he makes all of his characters into geniuses, like himself. What a wonderful fault!

White, working as a public relations flack for a multinational chemical company, desperately wanted to escape what he increasingly considered a living death. But how to do it? He told The Paris Review,

I was writing gay books well before gay liberation and before there was a recognized gay reading public. One actually existed, although no publisher was aware of it. There was also a tremendous amount of self-repression among gay editors. A gay editor would turn down a gay book because if he admitted to liking it he would have to defend it in an editorial meeting, and that might lead other people to suspect he was gay.

Rescue came from the most implausible source possible. An English publishing house book packager contacted White, offering him the chance to “audition” for a sex manual. The publisher was riding high on the sizzling worldwide sales of Dr Alex Comfort’s manual for hippies, The Joy of Sex, and they thought it would be cool- and cheeky in the extreme- to do sequels for gay men and lesbians. The American Psychiatric Association having decided being gay wasn’t a mental disorder just two years before, the pent-up need for some DIY books was felt.

So White buckled down to crank out some sample segments for the book (he later wrote the assignment was like Method Acting) which was to be arranged topically and alphabetically. He got the gig (over nine others), and found himself paired with his own therapist, Charles Silverstein, to turn out the whole book in a few months. So badly did he need to money, he got a new shrink to keep the contract.

The Joy of Gay Sex was published in 1977 and over the past forty years has been one of the most regular targets of book banners in American literary history, even unto its third edition a few years ago.

That book was very successful,” White recalled in an interview.  “People made fun of me for writing it, but Americans love money and anything that makes money they end up by respecting.”

The book also vastly exceeded the sales anticipated by its 75,000-copy first printing, and revealed a market not known to have existed:

It was a political act for me to sign the The Joy of Gay Sex at the time. The publisher could not have cared less, but for me it was a big act of coming out. Charles Silverstein, my coauthor, and I were both aware that we would be addressing a lot of people and so in that sense we were spokesmen. We always pictured our ideal reader as someone who thought he was the only homosexual in the world. States of Desire was an attempt to see the varieties of gay experience and also to suggest the enormous range of gay life to straight and gay people—to show that gays aren’t just hairdressers, they’re also petroleum engineers and ranchers and short-order cooks. Once I’d written States of Desire I felt it was important to show one gay life in particular depth, rather than all of these lives in a shorthand version. A Boy’s Own Story and its sequel, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, grew out of that.

White followed on with his first gay-themed novel, Nocturnes for the King of Naples (1978); the autobiographical A Boy’s Own Story (1982) made him a best-selling name. Between books, he became an activist. One of the founders of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, White was its first president.

He moved to Paris for a decade on a Guggenheim Fellowship; coming home was a bit of a shock:

French people are extremely formal and they don’t call you up all the time, whereas in America total strangers look you up in the phone book and want you to read their nine-hundred-page manuscript...In Paris people cultivate social life as an art form; in New York people cultivate it as a form of self-advancement.

White has alternated between books- fiction and nonfiction alike- on the gay experience in America; and essays, literary criticism, and biographies (Genet, Rimbaud and Proust among them). All told, White has twenty-seven books to his name. Married ("Just like Barack Obama, my views on gay marriage have evolved, and now I am a reluctant groom," he joked), he teaches creative writing at Princeton.


Interviewer: John Waters famously said that if you go home with somebody and they don’t have books you shouldn’t sleep with them. Seems like a good rule of thumb.

White: I love that. That reminds me of something. Way back before gay liberation, I was in group therapy with a bunch of straight people, and there was a very cute, young guy who was like 19 or something in our group. He was straight, but he was a hippie. Then, one day he announced that he had met a guy in Central Park and really liked him, and was having sex with him. They were all horrified, these straight people. “Oh my God, you’ve become gay! This is terrible.” Then, like three weeks later, they asked him about it and he was, “No, I broke up with that guy because he made me listen to Barbra Streisand.” I guess we all have our breaking point.

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