Monday, September 22, 2008

Boston Review - The End of Sexual Identity

This is an interesting article from the Boston Review about gender and sexuality in fiction. Stacey D'Erasmo is arguing that it's all been done -- there can no longer be any surprises in dealing with sexual identity in fiction. Or can there?

The End of Sexual Identity

Fiction's new terrain

We’ve come to the end of sexual identity. Not, that is, in the real world, where sexual identities of all sorts still roam, both free and fettered, privileged and disenfranchised; love is still exciting; sex still matters. Real people still come out, or don’t, and consequences still attach to those choices. In art, however, the sturdy house of the novel of sexual identity, with its secret passageways and walk-in/walk-out closets and tempting garden paths and labyrinths, lies in ruins. We don’t really care who enters or leaves it; we pretty much know what goes on inside; we are not trying to peep through the windows.

One can no longer write, or hide with any degree of conviction, a novel such as E.M. Forster’s Maurice, with its tortured Cambridge student and its luscious gamekeeper. After Jeanette Winterson’s first coming-out novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, she went on to describe many others in the basket. Will there be anything, really, in Susan Sontag’s forthcoming journals that will shock us? But if we are no longer compelled by the dramas of who may be in the house, we seem to remain attached to what is left of the charmed structure itself, to its glamour, its mystery, and its strangeness.

And yet, post-gay, like post-colonial, does not mean that the old architecture has been swept away. When I visited the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis a few years ago, I was struck by the fact that the eighteenth century stone foundations, walls, and ingenios of the old sugar plantations had simply been left where they stood, neither dismantled nor rebuilt as tourist attractions. The wind ranged through the half-open spaces. The ruins, worn down to biomorphic shapes and covered with vegetation, had become part of the island’s modern topography.

In contemporary novels, I have noticed a similar devolution of the tumbled walls of the novel of sexual identity. We seem to find ourselves, as writers, standing amidst the last century’s discarded tropes of sexual identity. Recently, writers of all sexual permutations have been recycling this narrative architecture; reworking its stones and walls and windows; borrowing and transforming the old, four-square structures of identity into Gehry-like fantasias, curves, and spires. Detached, to whatever degree, from their original purpose, these tropes are experiencing a surprisingly transformative disapora, passing from one writer to another, from one era to another, and changing as they go. In the culture generally, it may be that identity sorting only becomes more rigid and balkanized by the day. Witness the micro-categories of identity and ultra-specific consumer targeting via Facebook searches (Anglo-Irish Jewish gay men’s science fiction with a dash of cyberpunk, anyone?) and shelves marked “gay men’s fiction.” But we are, in fact, polyglot, polymorphous, and, narratively speaking, polygamous. Love’s mansion has many rooms, and the occupants tend to shift around quite a bit, particularly in the middle of the night. This is sometimes inconvenient in life, but it is, or should be, a bonanza for art. As is nearly always the case when one culture comes into contact with another, no matter what the official policies and restrictions are, intermarriage and intermingling take place; categories dissolve; we enter one another’s fantasies and get under one another’s skin. The imagination reveals itself once again to be protean, ungovernable, a constant seeker.

We do not seek coldly or politely. In regard to sexual identity, fiction writers today not only display some sort of civic obligation to “imagine” the other, but also reveal a profound curiosity, a hunger, to try on the other’s tropes, to exchange them, to press ourselves against them and be transformed. We want to know how other people do it—make narrative, that is. We want to do it the way they do and see what happens. Chain bookstores might prefer to herd shoppers into categories under fluorescent lights, but writers and readers have a way of wandering around in the dusk, curious, appetitive, mutable. From that wandering, new forms and new ways of seeing emerge. We look through the eyes of the other not via identity—this is what it’s like to be you—but via a way of making narrative—this is what it’s like to tell a story, to frame the world, the way you do—and suddenly we are able to apprehend the world anew.

What follows is a very rough map of this new terrain. It is characterized by the tropes of the closet, passing, transformation, and double lives and discontinuous selves. This is by no means a complete list; I hope it is the beginning of a conversation. (And, in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I know some of the authors discussed here; one or two are friends.)

Go read the rest of this essay.

Each new generation of readers looks for the books that speak to them directly, which requires new approaches to old themes. My guess is that the inventiveness needed to explore all the possibilities will continue to unfold in new and meaningful ways.

1 comment:

voyager3000 said...

Thanks for posting this, Bill.

Its new territorry and I observe very similar developments in Europe and its manifestations in film literature and personal growth, gender issues.