Friday, December 1, 2017

AIDS Literature and its Continued Importance

Does anyone still read AIDS fiction, and what stories remain relevant today? Of course my answers are "Yes," and "All of them." But given the state of things these days, with greater crises upstaging the epidemic, which is still a major health concern worldwide, the need for new stories remains in question for some.

While ruminating on this as a form of commemoration on World AIDS Day, I'll link lists of some of the great works of AIDS fiction, and borrow from other published lists. 

Why? Because while three of my novels include aspects of the AIDS crisis, I'm working on another novel that focuses on its effect on gay men facing AIDS in a different setting. It's too large a life experience to wrap up in just one novel.

Most early and bestselling fiction works about AIDS focus on urban gay men in the 1980s and afterward. It's understandable, given the time and number of cases in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. (book links are for reference; do buy from independent bookstores whenever possible!)

But is the genre "over?" The Guardian asks why there are now so few novels about it.
Why are there so few? We’ll never know how many books on the subject were lost when authors were claimed by the virus; how many died with the intention to write about their experience and never managed to.
The most prominent author of AIDS fiction, or metafiction (and scathing essays) would be David B. Feinberg. Eighty-Sixed remains a landmark of the genre, as do his works Spontaneous Combustion and Queer and Loathing. Feinberg was one of the first notable authors to be kind enough to read my early (and unremarkable) early attempts at fiction.

His close friend John Weir (also a friend and colleague, I'm proud to say)  also penned the classic novel The Irreversible decline of Eddie Socket.

Related to them is, of course, Larry Kramer. I should include his award-winning play The Normal Heart as required viewing and reading in any format or production. And since I'm cheating by including plays, Tony Kushner's Angels in America (both parts) remains a stellar classic of American theatre literature.

The list of gay male authors who wrote about and died of AIDS-related causes is so long, it would take pages to list. Many friends shared such lists of their friends and lost partners on social media for World AIDS Day. Have we become numb to this vast array of lost souls? I hope not.

Bo Huston, Paul Monette, David Wojnarowicz, all the members of the historic Violet Quill literary group are among the great authors of intimate stories about AIDS. The thankfully still-living Edmund White, Andrew Holleran and Felice Picano also helped set the standard for the urban AIDS tragic novel.

Rabih Allemeddine manages to pen award-winning mainstream novels about fantastic storytellers, a widow in Lebanon, and other subjects, in between his artful stories Koolaids: The Art of War and  The Angel of History. His works upends the traditional "be happy, then get sick and die" narrative in unique ways. 

And Lewis De Simone's The Heart's History offers one of the genre's more subtle takes on AIDS, with the narrative switching between the POV of several close friends.

For those with a taste for epic novels, Jack Fritscher's Some Dance to Remember captures San Francisco's 1970s and '80s gay culture before and during the time of HIV.

Women authors who've written novels about AIDS include Sarah Schulman, Carol Rifka Brunt and Rebecca Brown, whose characters are women whose lives are changed when men they know die or seroconvert. And Stephanie Nolen's 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa represents perhaps the new stories of AIDS, with a global impact (nonfiction, but worth a mention). 

And the newest novel in this area, Chicago author Elizabeth Andre, known for lesbian romance novels, published Tested in 2016, a work about a gorup of friends in the early 1990s facing the disease.

But what about rural settings in America? I don't recall many such stories, Fenton Johnson's Scissors, Paper, Rock being an outstanding example. Even nonfiction (which will not be the focus of this blog post) covers the stories where more people died and or have survived, in major cities.

What new aspects can be told in an age of Truvada and preventative drugs, where barebacking has once again become commonplace? That's a question that needs to be addressed.

This Huffington Post essay by author John Whittier Treat asks if the genre itself is dead.
I worried that my own novel about AIDS and gay men in Seattle in the early 1980s, The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House, was 30 years too late. Who wants, I thought, to relieve the times before a test, before the drug cocktail, before Truvada? But then again, no one says such things about Holocaust literature, our monuments to the greatest catastrophe of the first half of the 20th century. Our appetite for that seems insatiable. How is AIDS different, when it has claimed even more victims?
Having recently published two novels in the romance genre, my readings of many other books in that genre offer a few clarifying sentences about being "clean" or disease-free (problematic terms, to say the least). Since the genre is about escapism and fantasy romances, that's fine. 

But trying to set a male-male love story in a world where the decades of deaths are non-existent or deliberately avoided helps further the dismissive and deliberate inattention to the real past gay men have endured.

My novels Monkey Suits and Cyclizen are both set in New York City, in 1988 and 1992, both at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Message of Love, my (mostly) Philadelphia-set fifth novel, tracks the encroaching epidemic before it even had a name.

In each of these books, someone dies. Others seroconvert and live, at least for the duration of the novel. It's a tough decision to make, dramatizing the death of characters. Perhaps that's why authors of lighter fiction avoid it.

Wikipedia entry shows few books, but offers a basic start. Electric Literature shares a good list, and Out Magazine's slideshow of book covers is a bit simplistic, but shares 25 titles.

This GoodReads list is a bit more expansive, and of course includes purchase and review links. For Kindle readers, Amazon has a list of ebooks dealing with AIDS/HIV. Lambda Literary Foundation's list is more compact, but includes some classics.

Many of these novels take on AIDS directly, or through artistic forms of narrative style. The holidays are coming soon, and while such books may not seem like the perfect gift, perhaps a reminder of those times through these books would be right for you, and for anyone you know who is too young to have experienced these difficult times.

Further reading: my other essays about AIDS and writing include Two Memorial Days, Floored, Unremembering AIDS, a harsh critique of the late NYC Mayor Ed Koch and my ACT UP days, and a rumination on reality versus fiction when telling stories about those days in books and in film.

For some of us, remembering AIDS and its then-overwhelming and now still-present existence remains a part of our lives, more than a once a year commemoration. Those who endured should not be silenced, and continue to tell their stories. And we should read them.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful list. Chronicling the mysterious arrival of AIDS in the City, the Lammy Finalist: "Some Dance to Remember: A Memoir-Novel of San Francisco 1970-1982."