Review: Is The Gay Novel Dead? by Paul Burston

Sophie Hamilton reviews Paul Burston's lecture for Insights. Is the gay novel dead?

Sophie Hamilton
18th February 2021
In commemoration of LGBT+ history month, writer, journalist and activist Paul Burston gave a lecture exploring the axiom ‘the gay novel has had its’ day’, as claimed by Allan Hollinghurst.

Burston takes us on a virtual cultural tour of the eighties – A climate of no mainstream gay media, David Bowie having offered the first lifeline advocating for misfits who don’t fit a mould. He describes to us the climate of the late eighties in the midst of the AIDS pandemic, a time when Burston was an ACT-UP activist, following the precedent set in New-York. The political and social flux for gay people at the time is precisely the catalyst for “nutrition” for novelists writing about the experience of being gay that Hollinghurst speaks of. But, as someone with the lived experience of that time and still writing contemporary gay fiction in the present, Burston can only disagree with such a hypothesis.

Not only is the need for gay stories in all forms of media a transparent and ubiquitous truth, there is even a demand for it. Given the reception of Channel 4’s It’s A Sin becoming the network’s most-watched drama series ever. Burston touches on this in the lecture as he himself, as a long-time friend of the showrunner Russel T Davies, was one of the prime people that Davies consulted in writing the script, developing the bonfire scene of the third episode based on Burston’s anecdotes (which Davies discusses in an interview with the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain.)

Not only is the need for gay stories in all forms of media a transparent and ubiquitous truth, there is even a demand for it.

And while retrospective retellings of the throes of the AIDS crisis are still crucial for combatting residual stigma that still exists, there are plenty of tribulations vis-à-vis being gay in the twenty-first century that serve as “nutrition” – For Burston, this nutritional fodder has come in the form of a roman à clef, (The Closer I Get) a narrative based on personal experience being embroiled in a situation with a stalker. In a time where there is no aggravation law relating to homophobia, the legal challenges of implicating somebody on this basis are that the sentences will be naturally more lenient and less people are held to full account. Stories like this are vital to ensure that liberation continues on an upward trajectory.

The novel is just one of many mediums that queer stories can be expressed and articulated through thoroughly queer perspectives but Burston believes in its’ power, having established the award-winning Polari literary salon in 2011, awarding an annual book prize to writers of LGBT+ fiction. Gay stories are as pertinent as ever and we can learn from Paul Burston’s dedication to the form that there will always be opportunities and investment into nurturing such stories.

Featured Image: YouTube

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