Monday, 18 August 2014

The love that dare not write its name

Earlier this year, I was invited to write on Adrian Smith's blog, A Torch in the Wind

It had always worried me that The White Rajah is often judged as a 'gay book' because the main character is gay. This issue keeps on coming up, so I'd like to reprint my blog post here so that I can share my thoughts with people who may not have seen it on Adrian Smith's site.

When I was growing up, homosexuality was illegal. Most of the books discussed on this blog would have been considered obscene and publishing or owning them might well have exposed people to criminal action. Interestingly, some commentators consider that it is a passing reference to (heterosexual) sodomy in Lady Chatterley’s Lover that was one of the reasons for its prosecution.

Now, of course, we live in a more liberal and enlightened age. Anybody who wants to read about homosexual relationships will have no problems in finding books that cater for their interests. But I do wonder if we have, perhaps, not taken advantage of the hard-won freedoms of the gay community to make a more liberal publishing environment, but, rather, built a gay ghetto which is, in its way, as restrictive as anything that may have preceded it.

When I set out to write my first novel, The White Rajah, I was not planning to write a “gay book”. I was writing about real historical character, James Brooke, the eponymous White Rajah. I think there is little doubt that he was inclined toward his own sex, though it’s not clear, in those days, whether he had an active sex life. I wanted the reader to be able to see Brooke through the eyes of someone who travels with him and shares his adventures. I therefore invented a lover for him, and it is John Williamson who tells his story.

As I wrote, the relationship between John Williamson and James Brooke became more important to the novel than I had expected, and I ended up with what I thought of as quite a powerful love story at the heart of what is, in the end, an otherwise straightforward historical novel.

Against all the odds, The White Rajah was represented by a very reputable agent who pitched it to four leading publishers. All of them rejected it. The consensus seemed to be that it was “too difficult” for a first novel by an unknown writer. Now that could be that, being a first novel, it just wasn’t that well-written. As it’s a first person account by a mid-19th century writer, it certainly uses longer sentences and a more challenging vocabulary than a lot of modern novels. But I couldn’t help feeling that part of the problem was that there is a distinct absence of female characters but there’s still sex.

I decided that I would like to see the book published before my dotage, so I sent it to JMS Books, who specialise in LGBT titles. They took it straight away, for which I remain very grateful. The trouble is that it is now seen as an LGBT book. Unfortunately it fails to satisfy a lot of LGBT readers, who complain that it does not have enough explicit sex scenes in it. Straight readers, on the other hand, seem much more interested in the sexual orientation of James Brooke than in any of his quite significant historical achievements.

What nobody seems happy with is the idea that you can write about somebody who has adventures, achieves quite remarkable things in his life, and has a satisfying romantic relationship, but who just happens to be gay. For both straight and gay readers, the sexual orientation of the main character becomes the point of the book.

I find this quite remarkable. Living in 21st-century London, I accept that I will have friends and colleagues with a diversity of sexual orientations. My favourite comedy club was a gay comedy club, but that didn’t mean that the audience was exclusively homosexual or that the jokes all related to gender issues. I like drinking in a gay bar, because the ambience is more civilised than a lot of other bars and they sell the drinks I enjoy. When I first went in there, I was worried that I might not be welcome, but they are as happy to serve straights as gays and it’s simply a very successful town-centre watering hole. If I’m out dancing, some couples embracing on the dance floor will not be the conventional male-female pairing. I was talking to a gay friend about this and he said that a few years ago straight men would be uncomfortable dancing with other men, but this has become so normal that it is no longer an issue for most people.

It goes without saying that, particularly as I used to work in a “creative” industry, many of my colleagues were gay, although the business was a very mainstream publisher.

So when I work, drink, or socialise the sexual orientation of the people I am working, drinking, laughing or dancing with does not define what I am doing. Yet when I am reading, it seems that it does. I am either reading a “gay book” for gay people, which has to emphasise gay sexual behaviour or I am reading a “straight book” (or “book”) where everyone seems much happier if nobody is gay at all. (Often there’s a minor character who’s gay, so everyone else can demonstrate how liberal they are.) The distinction is particularly ironic as many of the writers of M/M fiction are heterosexual women, as are many of its readers.

It’s not just my personal paranoia. I was delighted when Foyles (one of London’s most prestigious bookshops) stocked my titles, but I was surprised to see that they were shelved in a department dedicated to GLBT literature.

Obviously, it’s a good thing that, after centuries of repression, gay people can write and read books that cater for them. A gay press was an essential part of the battle for equality. But is it still the best way forward? Or have gay readers and writers created a ghetto that is itself discriminatory and a sort of repression, all the more damaging for being self-inflicted?

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Book Reviews

I review the odd book for the Historical Novel Society. Here's a couple that are covered in the most recent edition of their magazine.

ENGLAND EXPECTS by Sara Sheridan
It's 1953 and Mirabelle Bevan, ex-SOE agent, is adjusting to the peace by running a debt collection agency in Brighton. It doesn't take much to get her playing detective, though, and when a woman asks her to recover the lost betting slips of her murdered brother, Mirabelle and her assistant, Vesta, are soon investigating. Mirabelle, with her helpful police friend, Superintendent McGregor, finds herself up to her neck in bodies. Is it all the work of the Masons? Will Vesta ever allow her boyfriend to make an honest woman of her? And can Mirabelle and McGregor ever be more than just good friends?
It's a solid piece of detective fiction, but the 1950s setting lets it down. Although it drips with period touches, details are wrong. ("Red tops" and "dolly birds" were not terms in common use in 1953.) More significantly, there is no feel for the social realities of the time. Did I not mention that Vera is black? There are frequent references to her colour, but a black woman working in 1953 Brighton would be a constant source of wonderment. Here, her colour is almost incidental. However angry people get, no one ever uses the N-word. You wouldn't know that this is the era of signs reading 'No dogs, no blacks'. There's a similar failure to understand the pervasiveness of sexism. Many pubs, even in the 1960s, wouldn't serve unaccompanied women. Yet Mirabelle and Vesta simply have to put up with the odd bit of male condescension.
Setting books in recent history is always tricky and readers may, by now, not expect too much accuracy. If the occasional howler doesn't worry you and you like light detective thrillers, this may hit the spot. But if you just want a detective thriller, why not buy a contemporary one? And if the 1950s are your bag, there are many stories written in that period that are readily available. Some of them are noticeably better than this one.

This is the sequel to Keane's Company and is probably best read after that book.
Keane is an exploring officer in the Corps of Guides under Wellington during the Peninsular War. In the story, Keane describes himself (and is described as) a "spy" and he often reports directly to Wellington. He moves from being a combat soldier to being a scout, to hunting down enemy agents as what we would nowadays call a counter-intelligence officer, and back to being a combat soldier. He kidnaps enemy generals and seduces their mistresses, advises commanders on the disposition of their troops, develops new ciphers and is attached to Portuguese irregulars to ensure that they stay loyal to the Allied cause. A summary of the plot comes close to suggesting that he wins the war single-handed. While there is a fair bit of reasonably convincing military detail, the plot eventually veers off into a series of Boys' Own adventures and implausible triumphs.
The Guides were actually more like scouts, tasked with mapping the land and observing the movement of enemy troops, and they reported to one of Wellington's staff officers. The version of the Guides that Gale gives us certainly makes for a better story than the real thing, and having junior officers talk directly to generals is a common narrative device in historical novels (although the Wellington we see here bears little resemblance to contemporary accounts). The degree of fictionalization in this approach combines with carelessness over details until the whole thing fails to ring quite true as a novel of the Peninsular War. On the other hand, it is pacily written and succeeds as a spy thriller set against a more-or-less credible historical background.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Paris: city of culture and beauty and really interesting sewers.

I’m working on another book about James Burke, this time set in Paris in 1814, so a weekend visit to Paris was in the way of another field trip.

We visited the Army Museum in Les Invalides, where I was able to look at weapons and uniforms from the period, including one of Napoleon’s famous bicorne hats. I took a photo, which, through glass and without flash, is far from impressive, but here it is.

Other Napoleonic relics include a uniform coat, spyglass and even his horse. Yes, the whole actual horse, stuffed and mounted in a corridor.

It’s easy to poke fun at the French obsession with Napoleon, but the English tend to downplay his achievements. He was not only a military genius, but he was an innovator, and enthusiastic about the administration of civil government as well. He identified the lack of a proper sewage system as one of Paris’s main problems and, under his rule, the first vaulted sewer network was built. It was only 30 km long, but it marked a major step forward in the disposal of Paris’s waste and he regarded it as the most important thing he did for the city. Of course, that meant we had to make a trip down the sewers as well.

Who says history can’t be fun?