My friend B. is a successful gay writer. To me this means he has been and continues to be published and read. He may not agree with either the designation or the definition, but then he is the one who's had to live on what he's earned from writing and teaching. Perhaps, for B., success is not something he has ever defined. Perhaps, like happiness, it is something one thinks about and dreams of until it has happened and then one thinks of other things; money and comfort, security and fame, all the things we are made to understand as defining both success and happiness in America. I don't know. He has never said.
Years and years ago, when we met, B. was a young man and so was I. I worked in a bookstore, even then. B., as I remember it, worked at a publisher, editing. B. wrote a novel and it was good. The times were such that many publishers, major publishers, were looking for gay fiction. It was, to borrow a phrase, a Boom Economy for young gay writers. As I said, B. wrote a good novel, a coming of age novel, a gay novel. From that novel came all that came after for him; more books, teaching positions, travel. He knew happiness too. I know. I was there. He had a lover, well, more than one, but only one that made him happy, so far. I remember them together, how sweet they were, how kind to one another, how much they laughed. They rented a little house together, had a dog together named Grace. It was a joy to be in that house with them, eating together, laughing, smoking ridiculous cigars, drinking. They were beautiful and young, which of course, as Keats might have said better, comes to the same thing.
When B.'s lover died, as so many lovers did then, I rather despaired of my friend surviving the loss, and in a way, he didn't, in a way, none of us did. We were all changed by our losses, B. as much or more than most. I didn't know, can't know, just how much he lost. I do know that he wandered then, drifting as much as traveling. I know that his dissatisfactions and disaffection came to be burdensome in a way they might not have done had he still had what he'd had before. There were times for my friend, later when we were in cities far from each other, when my friend walked in Hell, to borrow from another poet. I know I was no help to him then. I wonder he survived.
But why then call my friend's life a success? Because, selfishly, I can read what he wrote, because he never stopped writing. Oh, he didn't always write every day. Who writes postcards from Hell? But he wrote, and wrote well and continues to write and write exceptionally well to this day. He will always write. It is who he is now; a writer, no longer young, not so beautiful as he once was, though I think I like him better now and can't think but what some man ought to see exactly what I see in him: the full radiance of time, held and treasured, but not selfishly, not greedily, held up, through his writing and his teaching, so that others might see by it, might laugh as we laughed, know love, and sorrow, and learn.
B. is writing an essay just now, for a newspaper, at B.'s own suggestion, about if it is a good thing that he is defined as a gay writer, that his books, whatever their actual subject, are kept in the category "Gay" and that this may limit their sales, curtail his audience, effect his income adversely. It's a good thing for him to write. He is the man for the job. I'll be curious to read what he writes. As a bookseller, I understand why this happens to writers, how they are tagged for the convenience of readers, made to fit in a niche they may long since have outgrown. It must be frustrating, being as clever, as amusing and as accessible and as accomplished a writer as B., to still find himself invariably shelved with Queer theorists, self-help books, soft porn, no matter what he writes. If he decides that that is indeed an injustice, I'll believe him, not that he would write anything so portentous as that, he is too good at what he does, his touch is lighter, his vanity chastened, his sympathies broad. I doubt he'll even reference his own accomplishments without dismissing them, as he habitually does, as "flop novels" and small books.
So I thought I'd just write something here, something brief and earnest and unfunny, by way of compensation for his inveterate humility, as a pendant to his as yet unwritten piece, by way of thanking him, not as a friend, but as his constant reader since our shared youth. I for one at least am grateful to have read so good a gay writer, and to have read in him so much that made my own life better, richer, happier. He can write what he pleases for the papers. I understand his success perhaps better than he does himself. I do not doubt I am not alone. I have my friend, thankfully again, and I have had and will always have him in his books, in all their earned and considered, finely shaded gaiety. Call himself what he will.