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Reading Across Orientations  
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Until the recent emergence of openly gay and lesbian texts, gay and lesbian readers have "homosexualized" heterosexual literature to make it relevant to their lives.

To start to read is to anticipate having an encounter, literal or symbolic, with oneself. That is why the best reading is not a simple act but requires creativity and imagination from the reader who becomes a co-author by making sense of the text, who changes the text and is changed by it.


Such is the power of reading to carry us across distinctions, definitions, and orientations that the process can be described as "cross-reading."

Consciously or unconsciously and in varying degrees, we all become cross-readers whenever we read books, no less than all of us--women and men, blacks and whites, gays and straights--become cross-viewers whenever we look at photographs or watch films, videos, and television. Whether I am a heterosexual reading Jean Genet or a homosexual reading Norman Mailer, I read the book and the book reads me.

The essential act of reading is a careful and disciplined "misreading" through which we orient ourselves by the text and the text by ourselves. We transform the suggestive symbolism of a parable into the explicit realism of a chronicle, and vice-versa, so that the distinctions between fact and fiction, belief and disbelief, become blurred and allow one character to represent many kinds of readers.

The best reading, like the best writing, takes place on a metaphorical rather than literal plane and relies more on connotation than denotation.

To cross-read is to clothe the text in difference, to violate boundaries, and to substitute orientations in order to broaden both one's own horizon and the text's. Even among nineteenth-century classics, that is how Simon Karlinksy uncovers the gay Gogol, how Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick discerns homosexual silence and panic in Henry James, how James Creech reveals Melville's Pierre, or The Ambiguities (1852) as a tale not of incest but of unfulfilled homosexual desire.

That is also why reading, more than any other single activity, continues to remain at the core of education in so many diverse cultures around the world. In the arguments over a nontraditional, multicultural, and minority-centered canon versus a body of more traditional majority-centered masterpieces, both sides share one deeply held belief: The power of reading to shape an individual's sensibility and reinvent reality is so strong that control of the process must be either seized or retained.

How Gay Readers Read Straight Authors

How do gay readers read straight writers? Not very differently, one suspects, from how straight readers read gay writers with the crucial exception, of course, that the majority-minority power dynamic is reversed, which means that a heterosexual reading usually pushes the text toward conformism whereas a homosexual reading pushes it toward rebellion.

But no matter how strict a methodology is adopted--and many contemporary gay critics diminish their own impact by relying on an esoteric and pseudo-scientific jargon that is impenetrable to most nonspecialists--reading is ultimately a selfish, not altruistic, act.

We read primarily for our own sake, only secondarily for the text's or author's. We declare our own personal masterpieces and define our own private canon. "Reading is transformational," declared master deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, but long before deconstruction became a critical ideal it proved a practical necessity for many gay and lesbian readers.

Throughout history, those readers have turned to themes, characters, structure, language, social-historical context, and the author's biography, all the time reading between the lines to determine whether the text is friend or foe--and to find out how to convert the latter to the former.

Most young readers--gay, lesbian, and bisexual as well as heterosexual--first turn to texts chosen for them. By necessity, they read what parents, teachers, and critics say or at least imply is "straight" literature, only to find out later that many of those authors and works are far from straight and that "coming out" brings these same homosexual readers closer to the texts, not further away from them.

The irony is that, in the end, so many gay and lesbian readers have managed to "homosexualize" straight literature much more successfully than the literature has managed to "heterosexualize" them.

Perhaps that explains why so much contemporary criticism of gay and lesbian literature is written, almost to the point of self-parody, from a first-person, quasi-confessional point of view that emphasizes the quality of reading over the kind of text.

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