The literary death – and legacy – of sexual identity

by on September 21, 2008  •  In Culture

In an elegant essay in the current Boston Review, novelist Stacey D'Erasmo traces the diffusion of four tropes – the closet, passing, transformation and double lives, all central to the construction of "the gay novel" – into post-identity literature. Following is a short excerpt; if you're a fan of  literature or literary criticism, follow the link and read it in full.

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? ….

…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….

Like electricity, ideas travel. Sparks fly unpredictably, ignite previously solid structures, and we are changed. Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of these tropological exchanges in modern fiction is the abundant evidence they offer to the effect that categories, whether of marketing or of identity, are so obviously permeable. We look at one another, we read one another, and something happens, on both sides. We connect. We long to be like, to be similes. We can’t help it, and, in fact, it may be that there is no other way to get there, to whatever that place is toward which art relentlessly drives. It is an odd sort of falling in love, writer to writer, book to book, metaphor to metaphor. It happens both with and without us, but the profundity of its effects is undeniable.


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