Will Grayson, Will Grayson – John Green & David Levithan (2010)

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I’m always fascinated when two people write a novel together.  What is the actual process?  Do they write alternate chapters, like the husband and wife who write as Nicci French, with one writer ending in cliffhangers that the other has to get out of or does one do the bulk of the work and uses the name of the writer with the bigger reputation to help sales, as I suspect some of our more prolific writers who are writing in tandem with others must operate.

 I found out how the writers of this 2010 Young Adult novel worked in a conversation between them printed at the back of the book and this partnership and process makes sense.  The novel is about two American teens with the same name who meet up in complex circumstances befitting a YA novel midway through the proceedings.  The boys have alternate narratives throughout the book helmed by one of the authors.

 John Green’s Will Grayson is overshadowed in every sense by his larger than life gay best friend Tiny Cooper.  They have stuck together since Little League with Will’s strong sense of justice proving him always ready to come to the defence of his friend from those who disapprove of him.  This is in spite of Will’s philosophy for life being to keep quiet wherever possible and to try not to care, which just isn’t working, particularly when he gets interested in Jane, one of Tiny’s entourage and another member of the High School Gay-Straight Alliance.

 David Levithan’s Will Grayson is prone to depression, has a simmering anger, knows he is gay and doesn’t yet feel the need to proclaim it.  He writes entirely in lower case, which I initially really didn’t like as it’s hard to follow but I get why the author has done this for what it says about Will’s self-perception.

 This is a brash, very American book.  Tiny decides to mount a musical production of his life story and he is the link between the two Wills.  It took quite a while for me to see Tiny as anything else but cartoonish and implausible but he did manage to win me over.  There’s such great self-assurance in these characters, if only they can tear themselves away from social media, even from those who claim to feel anything but self-assured.  I think if I were a British teenager reading this such confidence would alarm me.  A whole musical gets staged without seemingly that much effort and their put downs to one another seem so resolutely sharp that I longed for more comradeship between them.  This is, after all, a novel about friendship.  The characters seem ready to rush into relationships without having friendship in a way which made me feel, well, just old and out of touch with modern youth.

 I do know that I’m not the target audience here but I think that even as a teen I might have liked the tone pitched a little subtler and a little less casual and I cannot recall a YA novel where a significant location is a porn shop.  However, if you come across this novel at the right age and with the right frame of mind I’m sure it could become a highly valued book with its own particular bespoke message to tell.  It does have a big heart at its centre and it did make me laugh out loud.

 Since the publication of this novel in 2010 John Green has achieved major bestseller success with “The Fault In Our Stars” and David Levithan’s subsequent work has been praised for its strong young gay characters.  I think they probably have both done better work independently but I did largely enjoy this collaboration and see it as a brave attempt to inject some serious sparkle into the Young Adult genre, which can at time take itself a little too seriously.

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Will Grayson, Will Grayson was published by Speak books in 2010.

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David Bowie Made Me Gay – Darryl W Bullock (2017) – A Rainbow Read

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Subtitled “100 Years Of LGBT Music” Darryl W Bullock does a thorough job with his overview of popular music and the role played by LGBT artists.  If there is a central character then that is David Bowie whose “otherness” struck a chord with a whole generation who felt they didn’t fit in.  I was a little too young to comprehend the seismic shift which occurred in popular culture when Bowie appeared on the scene. Viewers who saw him put his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson on early evening “Top Of The Pops” (we obviously were not used to men touching then) were instantly divided into those who “got Bowie” and those (largely but far from exclusively split along generational lines) who most certainly didn’t. 

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In 1972 Bowie interviewed in “Melody Maker” said “I’m gay and always have been even when I was David Jones”.  How much of this was the fame-hungry Bowie looking for headlines?  This statement was revised over the years and we know enough about him to understand that his sexuality was not as defined as he suggested at the start of his career but these words ensured the music world would never be the same again.

 But the questioning of sexuality did not begin in 1972 and Bullock provides a largely chronological study. He begins in early twentieth century New Orleans with its ethnic mix, red-light districts, poverty and party atmosphere which saw blues, ragtime and jazz emerging from the dives and honky-tonks.  Gay pianist Tony Jackson was a leading light and blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith led the way in hitting the big-time often with female lovers in tow.

 As the music business got more profitable and big fortunes were to be made record label executives did not want to do anything to rock the boat and so closet doors shut firmly on artists such as Liberace, Johnny Ray and Johnny Mathis and in the UK, Noel Coward and Ivor Novello.

 By the 60’s and 70’s the sexuality of big stars became a tabloid newspaper obsession and artists such as Dusty Springfield, Elton John and Freddie Mercury were hounded waiting for them to be caught out.  Closet doors creaked open a little and then shut.  Dusty left the UK, Elton married a woman and Freddie died of AIDS.  By the late 90’s another much-hounded performer George Michael was able to turn the whole thing on its head when he was outed following a “lewd act” arrest (something which had more or less killed the career of Johnny Ray in the US decades earlier) and he came out unapologetically with the celebratory, joyous “Outside” single and video.

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Bullock does not just focus on the stars who made it and is perhaps even more illuminating on those who were unable to find success because of their sexuality.  Some forms of music opened doors (Disco, British 80’s pop, Folk music, New Romantics and Punk) and some did what they could to ensure LGBT artists would not succeed (Country, Hip hop, Reggae, Christian Rock).  Bullock examine these artists who have tried to change attitudes but it is a slow process in some areas.  In 2016 Trey Pearson of Christian Rock band Everyday Sunday’s coming out led to immediate axing from festivals and with the US veering more towards conservatism things might not change that quickly. 

In the UK more positive attitudes have ensured that an artist’s sexuality is not a kiss of death career-wise and this has meant that LGBT artists are now amongst our best loved stars – Elton, Freddie and George Michael have been joined as household names by Boy George, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys, Morrissey, Jimmy Somerville, Marc Almond, Andy Bell of Erasure, Tom Robinson, Will Young, Sia, Sam Smith etc.  That etc. suggests that we are hopefully fast approaching the point where sexuality does not matter. Since the 1980’s the British pop charts have been fuelled by the sound of gay and gay-friendly acts (Stock Aitken and Waterman had a significant part to play in this) but in other parts of the world this is not the case.  I like very much the scope of Bullock’s work and his ability to document the past and project into the future.  This made “David Bowie Made Me Gay” both a celebration and highly thought-provoking.

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“David Bowie Made Me Gay” was published in 2017 by Duckworth Overlook

The Sparsholt Affair – Alan Hollinghurst (2017)

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I’ve been really looking forward to the publication of this, Hollinghurst’s sixth novel in 29 years.  This highly talented British author is one of the few novelists whom I’ve read everything by.  I read his debut “The Swimming Pool Library” (1988) not long after it first came out and it is one of my all-time favourites.  The standard was every bit maintained for “The Folding Star” (1994) and both of these were my Books of The Year from when I first read them and have been re-read and much enjoyed since.  His Booker Award Winning “The Line Of Beauty” (2004) may very well be my favourite Booker winner.  This is an author I hold in very high esteem. 

But it is not all roses.  He has let me down in the past.  His third novel “The Spell” was nothing special and his last from five years ago “The Stranger’s Child” was good but didn’t make it onto my end of year Top 10 (and thus ended up at the charity shop).  I couldn’t shake off a slight disappointment over it.  His characters were strong but largely unlikeable and although I admired the epic sweep of British life from World War I to the present day I felt his “moments in time” structure a little artificial and felt that it led to him not following through with his characters.  It was undoubtedly haunting, but I also described it as “mannered and often dry.”

There has been five years between novels and I’ve been certainly eagerly anticipating the latest since the title was being bandied around in notifications of forthcoming releases at the start of the year.  I’ve changed a lot in the 29 years I’ve been reading Hollinghurst, but I’m not totally convinced that he has nearly as much.  He’s found his groove and has stuck to it.  Unfortunately, this means that the criticism that I aired for the last novel largely still applies, but this time more so. 

Once again he’s gone for a saga format with two generations of family and friends.  We move from Oxford during World War II to present day (ish) London.  A group of artistic friends notice another student working out which sparks an interest in him as a potential friend, lover or artist’s model (or some combination of the three).  We meet this athletic young man, David Sparsholt, at other times in his and his son’s life.

The most successful section features a tale of unrequited love.  David’s teenage son, Johnny, had a fling with Bastien on a trip to France.  A year later Bastien is with the Sparsholts in England and Johnny is keen to rekindle things but Bastien’s interest is now firmly in girls.  This is handled perfectly.  Once again, though, I found it to be too dry and mannered (which the first two novels are definitely not) and that I felt indifferent to many of the characters.  I think it’s that they take everything too seriously and there’s no humour in their relationships, which just doesn’t ring true with family and friends, where most of us need the humour to survive!  Also, a lot of the action in the lives, including the central “Sparsholt Affair” and most birth, marriages and deaths take place between the sections.  This reminded me of a production of “Madame Butterfly” I once saw where much of the action seemed to take place off-stage.  It leads to me feeling a bit cheated.  On that occasion I threw off Opera as being not for me, but I don’t wish to throw off Alan Hollinghurst, we go back such a long way!  I thought his early novels spoke to me directly as a reader in a way few novels of the time did.  As we have both got older this no longer seems to be the case.  The worlds he depicts, both in the distant and recent past and in the present feels somewhat alien and aloof. 

There are memorable sections and it is carefully plotted and so elegantly written and put together but there doesn’t seem to be much development from the last novel and it felt like I’d read it before, which after a five year wait and a nearly thirty years devotion to previous work made me feel somewhat disappointed on this occasion.  I’m sure that this is just a rocky patch between us but I hope I don’t have to wait another five years to find out.

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The Sparsholt Affair was published in hardback by Picador in October 2017.

 

Man’s World -Rupert Smith (Arcadia 2010) – A Rainbow Read

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This weekend the Isle Of Wight, where I live,  is due to celebrate its first ever Gay Pride event.  These take place now all over the UK and apparently the Isle Of Wight represented the largest population without one so it is undoubtedly time to put that right.  It will also be the first place in the world to have it set mainly on the beach with the hovercraft (Hovertravel being one of the main sponsors of the day) going backwards and forwards ferrying the acts from the mainland. 5000 people have registered to take part in the event which made national news when it saw the rapid departure of the island’s long-standing Conservative MP who made bigoted comments when addressing a group of sixth formers.  One of the pupils, Esther Poucher, posted his remarks on social media and achieved what many islanders and some in his own party had tried to do for years in forcing his resignation.

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The message for this year’s Isle Of Wight Pride is “#Love Wins” and it is perhaps appropriate that I have been reading this novel in the run-up to the event by gay writer and journalist Rupert Smith.

What’s the gender opposite of chick-lit? Dick-Lit inevitably springs to mind and has no doubt already been termed and it is an appropriate tag for this novel which is Smith’s sixth out of the eight books he has written under his own name.  He has also published nine racier novels under the name James Lear and a couple of novels aimed at the commercial female market (Chick-Lit then) as Rupert James. I have read his 2006 “Service Wash” which mixed soap opera with murder.  That was okay, this is better.

The front cover has a recommendation from Sarah Waters, a novelist who I care enough about to get me at least considering a book’s purchase. What we have here is literary fiction, with a gay emphasis and here with a historical element.

There are two narratives, one, a present day tale of London life from gym bunny Robert precariously balancing work, drink, drugs, friends and shopping, the other beginning with conscription to National Service in 1957.  Robert’s account is written as a blog and the second narrator Michael’s as a secret diary as it reveals information that could lead to his ruin at a time when homosexuality was illegal.  With Robert everything is out in the open, with Michael everything is hidden.  Sixty years have made quite a difference.  As one older character tells Robert towards the end;

“You think you invented it, don’t you?  But you didn’t.  You just bought it.  You had it all handed to you on a plate and you never stopped to wonder who put it there.  Your generation seems to have lost the ability to love or to care or to fight for change or to do anything other than fuck each other and shop.”

This is really Smith’s attempt to address this generation.  We’ve come on so far with equality and yet is the current state of play so great after all?  Robert and his friends have their freedom but are there lives any richer or are they any less lonely?  There’s a new set of problems and issues which are restricting happiness.  I began this novel really enjoying the tale of Robert’s shallow existence.  It was laugh out loud funny in that “Absolutely Fabulous” way.  Smith is actually quite strong with the humour throughout.  I felt quite disappointed when the National Service sequence began but I was soon drawn into Michael’s attraction to cocky muscleman Mervyn Wright.  The two narratives interlink nicely and the whole thing remains enjoyable throughout.  There used to be a lot more of this type of fiction around with independent publishers such as the Gay Men’s Press putting out work of variable quality and the last thirty years or so have given us some great gay themed novels (Alan Hollinghurst, Armistead Maupin, Sarah Waters, Neil Bartlett, Michael Carson, Graeme Aitken are amongst those who can take a bow here) but nowadays, either this market is not reading as much or there is not such a need for this type of fiction. It seems much harder to find in the real book world.  (LGBTQIA publishing is still flourishing as E-books).  I think this book would most likely appeal to a gay male audience but Smith’s handling of his range of characters and his recreation of two differing points of time would please a wider readership.

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Man’s World was published by Arcadia in 2010.