Thursday, May 26, 2011
A HISTORY OF GAY LITERATURE: THE MALE TRADITION by Gregory Woods
Don't let the Yale University Press logo and the author's academic Gay Studies credentials fool you. This is not yet another entry in the More Foucaultian Than Thou sweepstakes. A History of Gay Literature is an extraordinarily intelligent, well-argued, clearly written and enjoyably readable book. Indeed, this is about as close as literary history comes to a page-turner. A possible reason for this pleasant divergence from the run of the Queer Theory mill may lie in the author's nationality. He's a British Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies, and unlike too many of his American confreres he still values linguistic clarity and apparently still believes in that Phantom of the English Department, the 'common reader.' With a global reach and a range that runs from ancient Greece to contemporary New York, this ridiculously learned and near-encyclopedic book is a single-volume education in gay literature. The obvious writers and works are covered-- Shakespeare, Marlowe, Wilde, Genet, Ritsos, Arenas--as well as many less familiar names. However well-read you think you are, I guarantee that you will find discussed herein a great writer or book you have probably not read. (In my case, I discovered Hubert Fichte, Herve Guibert and Virgilio Pinera.) Even more impressive than the book's range is the author's critical acumen. Woods's reading of Eliot's The Waste Land as a gay pastoral elegy is worth the price of the book. Likewise his discussions of Marlowe's Edward II and Shakespeare's sonnets, of which he writes, "Reading the sonnets will always flush out the reader's attitudes to homosexuality. To that extent if no further, this sequence of poems is the key gay text in English literature." When I finished this book, I wanted more. I wished Woods had gone deeper into Samuel Delany (especially his key queer text, The Mad Man), explored the gay themes in Clive Barker's SF/fantasy novels, etc., etc. At nearly 400 pages, this book is still too short. It could have been almost twice as long. (Yes, I'm perfectly aware of the gay phallic rhetoric barely concealed by the loincloth of this complaint.) This is a marvelous book that might just change the way you read. It will certainly add at least a few more books to your to-read list. And isn't that, finally, the most important function of criticism at the present time?