International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Review
Leavitts Collected Stories
I told you that a writer was best known for a) having the first
published gay story in The New Yorker, and b) getting
sued by poet Stephen Spender, the most famous poet that no one can
remember a line hes written, for allegedly plagiarizing parts
of Spenders autobiography World Within World for a novel of
his called While England Sleeps, what odds would you lay on that
writer being any good?
If you said slim
and none you would be correct. Well, the writer is David Leavitt, and
the book is his Collected Stories, published in 2003 by Bloomsbury,
which consists of the three prior published collections of short stories
that Leavitt wrote over the last quarter century: Family Dancing
(1983), a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize and National Book Critics
Circle Award, A Place Ive Never Been (1990), and The
Marble Quilt (2001). If you still had any doubts as to the low level
of writing you could expect to read, chew on this- the New York Times
labeled Leavitt, born in 1961, as one of his generation's most
gifted writers. Talk about a Sicilian Kiss! And if you still had
doubts, know that he is a career Academic, who teaches at the University
of Florida (firstname.lastname@example.org), and is the recipient of fellowships from
the National Endowment For The Arts, and The Guggenheim Foundation.
In short, if the word hack had not already existed, it would have to
have been invented for a writer like Leavitt. Thats not to say
that he did not have some talent when young, for the best of his three
books is easily his first, published when he was only twenty-two. That
said, even those tales are far too long. One of the things that workshops
do is they rent the notion that concision has value in writing. Leavitt
goes on and on and on in his terminally dull tales, although the early
ones often end with nicely phrased observations, or fillips. The two
later books show a hack at the height of his corrosive powers. Another
problem that damns Leavitt is that most of the later tales are simply
stories designed to show off the gay lifestyle. Yes, we see characters
fucking, but little else occurs, which only reinforced the negative
idea that gays are only obsessed with sex and define their whole lives
by that notion alone. While I certainly have no problems with sex, gay
or straight, being portrayed, if the only reason a throbbing cock appears
is to try to titillate, isnt that best saved for Penthouse Letters,
not literary fiction? Unfortunately, Leavitts characters are wholly
defined by their sexuality, and thus are cardboard cutouts, and his
tales merely long winded masturbatory salves.
Fortunately, the earlier tales show some ability to move beyond sexuality.
In Aliens, a mother tries to talk with Nina, her eleven year
old daughter, Nina, about Ninas delusion that she is an extraterrestrial.
Yet, Leavitt tries to play the tale for laughs rather than a serious
exploration of why a child, or an adult, might believe in such a thing.
The former approach being the far more interesting, thus difficult,
approach. In The Lost Cottage Leavitt writes of an estranged
husband and wife, on their last vacation together, as their child tries
to conjure up literary sounding names for their summer residence. Territory,
the famed New Yorker story, tells of a boys coming out of his
closet to his parents. Yet, even in this first book, an astute reader
sees that Leavitt has an extraordinarily narrow purview on life. All
of his families are cut from the same cloth, and all deal with the suburban
themes that are New Yorker staples, only not handled nearly as
well as by a John OHara, a John Cheever, nor even an Alice Adams.
The mothers are almost all sensitive, nurturing types, while the fathers
are remote, if not wholly absent. If there are children, the daughters
are fat or bitchy, and the sons confused, sensitive, and gay. And the
children are usually even more clichéd than the adults. Is one
simply to overlook this manifestation of severe limitation merely because
it has one thing countless other tales before it lacked? I say no. A
piece of hackery is a piece of hackery- gay or straight.
Things get no better in the second book, A Place Ive Never
Been. In the titular tale, which picks up from the same fictive
universe as his first book, a familiar character named Celia is overwrought
by the problems of her gay friend, Nathan, also a crossover from the
first collection, and his HIV-positive lover Martin. In Spouse Night,
a bereaved man and woman have an affair after meeting at a support group
for terminal patients and their families. In Ayor, the title
is an acronym for At Your Own Risk, a gay subcultural term.
I See London, I See France follows the aforementioned Celia as
she travels with a new lover, and visits a villa owned by his rich friends,
The tales crisis? Celias ashamed of her déclassé
Queens, New York roots. In Roads To Rome, we get yet another
comparison American and European views of sex and sexual loyalties.
In Houses, a gay realtor is faced with choosing between his gay
lover and his wife. If one can see that Leavitt is not pushing any boundaries,
artistically, then one must ask why hes under the delusions that
trite tales that only have one difference- a gay character or theme-
are somehow better than the straight versions of such tales. Just to
show that hes a PC sort of guy, the gay Leavitt tackles lesbians
in My Marriage To Vengeance. There, a lesbian named Ellen has
to attend the wedding of her former female lover who, Heaven forfend!,
figured out shes not gay, and wants to marry and have a family.
Of course, these later tales also all have no psychological depth. The
closest thing to a deep moment any of them have is when the gay realtor
declaims, I realized that while it is possible to love two people
at the same time, in different ways, in the heart, it is not possible
to do so in the world. So, are we to deduce that Leavitt is making
some sort of statement that homosexuals can be as vapid and clueless
as heterosexuals? And if so, these sorts of bon mots are worth reading?
Apparently, as all the gay men that Leavitt follows are full blown perverts,
as well-porno addicts, transvestites, phone sex addicts, email porno
addicts, scat addicts, coprophagists, etc.
Things get no better in Leavitts third book, The Marble Quilt.
In The Infection Scene, a young teen psychotic from San Francisco
decides it is best to get AIDS and just get his life over with in a
Romantically tragic way. Leavitt contrasts this with a take on Oscar
Wildes lover Bosie, the infamous Lord Alfred Douglas. Why? You
got me. In The Marble Quilt, murder dominates, as the survivor
ruminates on his dead gay lover. Why there was any need for the gay
theme is never fully explored. Sure, gays get killed and suffer indignities,
but if there is no specific reason for the tale to involve homosexuality,
which is raised, and then never made anything of, why is it there? In
Crossing St. Gotthard, an American family, yet again traveling
in Europe, at the start of the Twentieth Century deal with fears as
they enter a train tunnel. This is a good premise that just fizzles
out. The List is an email epistolary story, between gay Academics,
that goes nowhere. In Black Box, yet another bereaved partner, this
time of a gay man killed in a plane crash, has to deal with the vagaries
of another of the crashs survivors, a psychotic who ghoulishly
wants to sell footage of the crash to major media outlets. Again, a
solid premise, but again a poor follow through.
As in the earlier books, heterosexual life is shown to be a sham, yet
homosexual life is shown to be even more hollow. Is this some great
sociological statement? No, just a writer who can only scratch out minor
variances on two or three themes, as shown in the above capsule descriptions.
In Out Here, from his first book, it is no coincidence, as example,
that a daughter who rejects the traditional nuclear family bears the
least emotional damage from her parents deaths. Yet, Leavitts
writing is utterly devoid of humor, of the sort which lifted Raymond
Carvers best domestic tales above mediocrity, and his descriptions
of sex, gay or not, are awkward, and I find it difficult to believe
all but the most horny queers could possibly be turned on by them.
In fact, Leavitt has been bitterly criticized by some gay groups for
supposedly endorsing unsafe homosexual sex practices and beliefs in
his fiction, such as when the kid in The Infection Scene believes
the rules of safe sex are a lie, perpetuated by Dead White Males
in order to suppress the freedom of gay people. These critics
have attacked Leavitt as demonizing AIDS sufferers and promoting a sex
technique known as bareback fucking, or simply not using a condom. In
reading some of these screeds against Leavit (easily Googlable) I was
depressed to see that not one of these writers attacked Leavitt for
what he really is-a bad writer who took whatever little early artistic
potential he had, and flushed it down the toilet. I dont give
a damn whether or not Leavitt is a self-loathing gay, as others accuse
him of. My beef is hes an artistic hack whose bad writing has
killed far too many trees, and bored too many readers. But, hey, if
a bunch of hate-filled Leftists can rip him for ripping sex without
condoms, well, lets simply forget his reams of bad art, for Leavitt
proves that gays can be as dull and uninteresting as anyone else, as
well as riders of slow creative declension.
Witness these two engaging ends to tales from his first collection.
Counting Months follows a dying woman, stricken with cancer, on
supposedly her last day of life, yet who ends up at a party instead:
She looked down at the dwarf girl, who looked up at her.
The dwarf girl held a glass of water in her tiny fat hand; the owl eyes
in the huge head seemed gentle, almost pretty; in the bright light of
the kitchen, she wore an expression that could have indicated extreme
stupidity, or great knowledge.
Unmoving, the dwarf girl stared at Mrs. Harrington, as if the big woman
were a curiosity, or a comrade in sorrow.
Note how we get an inversion of the main characters perspective,
and end with a poetic description. Now, on to the end of The Lost
He keeps his eyes focused on the window above her head, making sure
never to look at her. The expression on his face is almost simple, almost
sweet: the lips pressed together, though not tightly, the eyes averted.
In his mind, hes already left.
Again, a nice, punctuated end, with a bit of philosophizing. Compare
those two ends with this one, from Leavitts third book, from the
tale The Marble Quilt:
I walk away. I have no idea if the seminarian is watching me, if
he is lifting a monstrance or an obelisk to smash against my skull.
Instead I have my eyes on the floor. These Escher-like interlardings
of color really do create the most peculiar illusion of depth
yet if you fell into them, they would break your nose, You couldnt
lift it off, once youd been spread out on that table, and the
marble quilt had been drawn over your eyes.
Now, reread all three again, and the difference is, if not stark, certainly
quite detectable in the decline of poetic power, concision, and dramatic
tension. The third ending is heavy-handed, dull, trite, and prosaic,
which is all that one might expect from someone whose two major claims
to fame are writing gay tales for highbrow magazines, and incurring
the wrath of
.Stephen Spender and Left Wing queer activists. Its
spelled H-A-C-K. Dont make me spell it out again.
Schneider April 2009
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