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Novel: Gay Male  
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Since World War II, the gay male novel has progressively flourished in England and especially in America.

Defining the Gay Male Novel

The gay male novel is a form of fiction in which male homosexuality is central--not always a central problem but certainly a central concern. That said, few other absolute statements are possible. The protagonist of such a novel is likely to be gay, as are at least some of the lesser characters. Feelings of love arise; sexual acts occur; conflicts with the straight world--parents, teachers, friends, employers--happen.

One way to trace the emergence of the gay male novel is to measure the frankness with which such things are described. Common topics include discovery and acceptance of sexual orientation, coming of age, coming out (especially to family), relationships, and the pursuit of happiness; these topics can be handled positively or negatively. It would logically follow that writers of gay novels are themselves gay, but even this cannot be taken for granted.

Novels in which male homosexuality occurs are almost as old as the form itself; novels in which male homosexuality is central are a relatively recent phenomenon.

The Eighteenth-Century English Novel

Early in the history of English-language novels, John Cleland's Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749) finds Fanny watching through a peephole in fascinated disgust as two men cavort in an adjacent room. Cleland's bit of erotica is a good example of male homosexuality treated incidentally, and (at least ostensibly) disapprovingly; similarly, Tobias Smollett's Roderick Random (1748) bemoans in passing the increase in activities among the English.

Later in the eighteenth century, the appearance of various exotic subgenres of the novel provided opportunities to approach gay sex at least obliquely. William Beckford's Oriental tale Vathek (1786), for example, contains ambiguous erotic fantasies and visions.

In M. G. Lewis's Gothic novel The Monk (1795), the title character feels strongly attracted to the young postulant Rosario and is smitten with his boyish beauty. Rosario, however, turns out to be a female in disguise, and the monk's lust obligingly becomes heterosexual.

Both Beckford and Lewis were themselves homosexual and could, by removing their fiction to distant times and places, speak in a veiled fashion of desires forbidden in more conventional "realistic" fiction.

The Nineteenth-Century English Novel

With the growth of middle-class prudishness even before the Victorian Age, nothing like these fictions appeared in respectable literature for many decades. It has been suggested that in Oliver Twist (1838) Fagin taught his boys more ways of earning their keep than just stealing handkerchiefs. It may be so; Dickens surely knew the ways of the London underworld as well as any man, but in the spirit of the age even the most indirect allusion was impermissible.

The thriving Victorian pornography industry, however, included male-male sex, in narrations like My Secret Life (1890) or collections like The Pearl. Depraved elderly noblemen and eager teen-age servant boys were a common motif: These are a heterosexual's dream of naughty gay sex, and again they are only incidental, bubbles on a tide of heterosexual escapades. Indeed, they seem to have as much to do with Britain's eternal preoccupation with class as with sex: The titillation is that a lord and a page-boy are in bed together, not that two males are.

The precursor of modern gay fiction is widely acknowledged to be the 1890's novel Teleny. René Teleny is a concert pianist and is adored by Camille de Grieux whom he instructs in homosexual love, the acts of which are carefully described. After a melodramatic number of misunderstandings and betrayals, each attempts suicide. De Grieux is saved, but Teleny dies, surviving just long enough for a reconciliation to occur.

This novel is often associated with the name of Oscar Wilde, either as author or editor, but the attribution is speculative. Richard Ellmann's magisterial biography of Wilde does not even mention Teleny. Nonetheless it stands as an early example of romantic gay fiction.

Oscar Wilde was, however, responsible for a much more subversive book: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Although homosexual acts are not alluded to in the novel, an alert reading yields the underlying ideas: Physically, Dorian is extremely beautiful, he seems perpetually young, and he clearly despises women. Basil Hallward, the artist who painted the titular portrait, idolizes him (as passages found only in the serial version emphasize).

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Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray was powerfully subversive, though the book does not allude to homosexual acts.
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