Eminent Outlaws is one juicy anecdote after another that builds up into a sweeping history. I found this book almost gossipy at times, yet incredibly thought-provoking. It reminded me of Randy Shilts' historical "non-fiction novels," except this one is about famous men, not regular people. This book is only about gay male writers, so it doesn't cover any lesbian or gender non-conforming writers. The author Christopher Bram explains that he needed to narrow the scope, because it was already a big topic, and that lesbian literature deserves its own historian. Fair enough, and Bram mentions writers like Audre Lord, M.E. Kerr, Susan Sontag, and Ann Bannon when they enter his story. Eminent Outlaws is also focused solely on literary fiction, poetry, and plays. I was hoping to hear about science fiction legend Samuel R. Delany, and he's mentioned briefly. But Bram didn't try to make his book all things for all people; he stuck to what he is clearly very passionate and knowledgeable about.
Each chapter focuses mostly on one particular writer, but includes material about other writers that keeps the narrative colorful, connected, and flowing. You get to hear about Gore Vidal throughout the entire book because he's so long-lived. The book is divided into decades. My favorite parts were the Fifties and Sixties. It was such a different time, with such virulent homophobia. Reading about Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams especially, I got such a sense of how corrosive and damaging prejudice and self-hatred are, not just to human beings but also to writing. These guys were so talented and yet a lot of what they wrote was so wacko (from my modern-day viewpoint, which is the only one I have.) A lot of this early work sounds interesting historically, but the last thing I want to read is some story about a tortured, unhappy queer person who comes to a bad end (like being eaten by cannibals.) Apparently Christopher Isherwood was the first writer to have non-tragic gay characters who are happy, in The World In The Evening.
One thing that was really striking was that these fellas had such bad shrinks and literary agents! Tennessee Williams' therapist told him to stop having sex with men; James Baldwin's agent told him to burn Giovanni's Room. The only instance of good advice was when Allen Ginsberg, still a nobody, saw a dollar-a-session therapist in Berkeley who told him he should go ahead and live with the guy he liked if he wanted and he didn't have to live as a heterosexual. "You're a nice person; there's always people who will like you," he said. Ginsberg ended up staying with the guy he liked until the end of his life forty years later.
Another thing that I can't stop thinking about is the description of how the magazine Christopher Street opened in 1976, creating a space for a new generation of gay writers. The editors imagined that gay writers would have desks stuffed with unpublished gay-themed work that they could now send to Christopher Street. But in fact all the submissions were newly-written. This makes so much sense to me. Writers aren't morons. Generally we don't write for magazines that don't exist. And that makes me think two things, 1) That is as true today as it ever was. What are the holes in our literature now? What is not getting written? What audiences don't get to read stories that reflect them? Because I'm a YA writer, the first thing that comes to mind is that there is no YA novel about a transgender character that is written by a writer who is transgender. Where are the YA editors who are not just open to transgender stories, but who will go down in history for recruiting and championing the Great American Transgender YA Novel? 2) But some writers ARE that crazy, to write for markets that the publishing industry does not believe exist. That's what all the Eminent Outlaws in this book did. Thanks, guys! Much appreciated. I do get a real sense of "standing on their shoulders."
The section on the Eighties was a big downer, as you can imagine. It's tough to read about all these promising writers dying, or their friends and lovers dying. I was a little surprised at what a negative portrayal Larry Kramer got. Some of the things that he did that Bram described as "shooting himself in the foot" seemed pretty sensible to me (like leaving GMHC, which he had helped found, after not being invited to a meeting that he had made happen.) I also can't understand Bram's critique that Kramer criticized Mayor Koch too early and too often. Seriously? How could that even be possible? Larry Kramer clearly had a harsh, abrasive personality and gave unwarranted bad reviews to other writers. But he doesn't seem any worse in those departments than James Baldwin or Truman Capote, and they were described lovingly. I think maybe it's because unpleasant literary pioneers are cast in a warm glow of forgiveness once they are dead, and their struggles are not our struggles so we can't be so judgmental. Whereas Larry Kramer is a contemporary figure and, I dunno, maybe Bram has seen him at a party being a jerk and he just can't stand the guy.
My favorite part of the Eighties section, and not just because it was peppy and upbeat, was the part about Charles Ludlam. I saw Charles Ludlam as Camille and I saw The Mystery of Irma Vep, and as funny as the parts Bram quotes are, they were even more funny in real life. Those plays were probably the funniest things I have ever seen, so it was a pleasure to read about them.
I learned a lot from this book, like who the Publishing Triangle's Ferro-Grumley awards are named after. (I always figured it was some guy named Ferro-Grumley, but no.) And I learned about a bunch of writers I had never heard of, like Matt Crowley, Melvin Dixon, and Frank O'Hara (I had kind of vaguely heard of him, but had him mixed up in my head with both John O'Hara and Frank O'Connor.) And Eminent Outlaws has made me want to read or re-read some of the novels mentioned in it. I have to say that my least favorite aspect was Bram's literary evaluations, comments like that Gore Vidal was smarter than Tennessee Williams, or what James Baldwin's worst novel was. But I think that's the price you pay to read literary history.
If you've never heard of all these people and you think you'd find this book boring, I really doubt it. I got Eminent Outlaws out of the library at the recommendation of my high school art teacher/Facebook friend. It looked so long and dull that I left it unread and kept renewing it. Only when I could renew it no longer and it was coming due did I crack it open, promising to read at least fifty pages before I gave up. Twenty pages and I was totally sucked in. It's seriously dynamite. Famous people wander in and out of the book, in little incidents like JFK getting cruised, Ian McKellen deciding to come out, Jerome Robbins dancing with Lauren Bacall, Lincoln Kirstein coming up with the title "Breakfast at Tiffany's." I don't have the expertise to judge, but it sure seemed like a solidly-researched, factually-accurate book to me. I think it's a work for the ages.