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Literature in the Age of AIDS

A Report From the Key West Conference

June 1997

"Invigorating," "inspiring," "annoying," "confusing," and, sadly, even "disappointing" are some of the adjectives that come to mind when I think back on the week-long gathering "Literature in the Age of AIDS" that took place at the beginning of the year down in Key West.

The first part of the week was taken up with workshops for writers and poets, while the second part was a conference in which some of the most important practitioners of the literature of AIDS took part in a series of seminars examining different facets of the subject.

The outstanding list of participants included: playwrights Larry Kramer and Tony Kushner; novelists Edmund White, David Leavitt, Sarah Schulman, Dr. Abraham Verghese, and Dale Peck; poets Mark Doty and Rachel Hadas; publisher Michael Denneny; and Frank Rich of The New York Times. Some of the seminars generated astonishing electricity, while others, sadly, produced only heat.

One seminar in particular, "Searching for the Truth: A Matter of Life and Death," angered and embarrassed a number of attendees, including myself. (I discovered later on that my feelings were shared by Frank Rich.) The panel included novelist Ann Beattie, Tony Kushner, Frank Rich, Sarah Schulman, and Abraham Verghese. Far from being a search for the truth, it wound up being an attack by the writers from the left (Kushner and Schulman on the panel and Larry Kramer from the audience) on Beattie and Verghese. Both authors were attacked for lacking a political perspective in their writing. This included the spectacle of them being asked by Kushner to explain their views on the capital gains tax reform.

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Had Kushner bothered to read Verghese's outstanding memoir, My Own Country, about his life as an AIDS physician in rural Tennessee, he would not have launched such an attack. Verghese's attitude toward the indifference of the Reagan administration to AIDS, and toward Republicans in general, as well as those physicians who pursue the more lucrative areas of medicine rather than infectious diseases, speaks for itself.

If Tony Kushner never has another play produced on Broadway, he has carved a unique place for himself in theater history with his astonishing Angels in America. Unlike so much of modern theater drama, which gives the appearance of being a first draft for either the small or the big screen, his is a refreshingly imaginative, unashamedly theatrical piece. However, when he can simplistically say "the answer to AIDS is democratic socialism," he misses the point.

Fleming's discovery of penicillin in 1928 and Jonas Salk's polio vaccine in 1954 effectively addressed infectious diseases; likewise it is apparent that the answer to AIDS rests in the hands of science. That Kushner writes from the standpoint of a socialist needs no apology -- many of the greatest and most important writers of this century have come from the left. What he fails to appreciate is that a variety of motives inspire people to practice their art. After all, not all composers write symphonic pieces. Is a composition for a trio or a quartet any less worthy? With Verghese it is plainly the humanitarian impulse that drives his art, rather than how medicine and AIDS in particular function within the framework of a capitalist society. (How many AIDS physicians do you know who, like Verghese, visit patients in their homes?)

Kushner prefaced his comments to Ann Beattie by lavishly praising her work, saying that if he were to attempt to write a novel he would seek her out as a potential teacher. Having thus praised her, he then asked her why as a white, heterosexual woman, she didn't write about AIDS more in her work. She explained that she didn't want to exploit so powerful an emotional issue for cheap literary effect. She also feared writing about the subject badly. (Later Kushner told me that he had only read one of Beattie's novels and had found it "deeply boring." So much for the "search for the truth!")

After the attack on Beattie had been going on for an hour, the talented novelist Sarah Schulman, whose People in Trouble was the basis of the musical Rent, had the grace to publicly apologize to Beattie when she said, "It's a highly charged, highly coded discussion, and I'm sorry we've dumped it in your lap."

While the attack on Beattie was unpleasant to witness and brought little credit to her talented attackers, it nevertheless raised an extremely valid point about AIDS literature: Why have so few heterosexual writers tackled the subject?

I fear the answer is that they have not yet been emotionally engaged in the way that the gay population has. When you think back to Larry Kramer's searing polemic The Normal Heart, which has been seen all over the world, you cannot help but sense that it was written by a man possessed, a man who used a weapon at which he excels to bring the issue to the fore. (I do not think for one moment that it is a great play in the conventional meaning of the word. Sarah Schulman agreed with me during a workshop earlier in the week that in 50 years' time it will have a life only as a "period piece," whereas Kushner's Angels is a work of genius that will, I suspect, be performed long after AIDS has become history.)

During one of the sessions, I raised the point of why so few heterosexual writers have tackled the subject of AIDS. Michael Denneny, who has probably been responsible for publishing more gay writers of quality in recent years than anyone else in American, argued that, almost without exception, every gay man who died of AIDS came from a heterosexual family. While this is undoubtedly true, I would suggest that the majority came from families whose feelings about their gay sons were either ambiguous, ambivalent, or both. While they may have accepted their sons on a personal level, they were not comfortable about championing the cause of AIDS care and prevention in public. If successful therapies to AIDS are not found and the number of heterosexuals contracting AIDS increases, I think a wave of writing about AIDS from a heterosexual viewpoint will emerge at some time in the next decade.

One point I came away with is that, just as the virus is supposed to mutate, there has been a mutation in the populations affected by AIDS. Close to half of the new cases of HIV in this country affect people of color. AIDS is now the greatest single cause of death among young black women. (Tongues firmly in cheek, I suppose we should ask Messrs. Kramer and Kushner how many black women living with AIDS have appeared in their recent writings.) Indeed, at one stage during a seminar, Kramer was chided by a woman in the audience for failing to mention female and heterosexual people living with HIV in his comments.

Another woman said during the week that if Larry Kramer didn't exist, you would have to invent him. No man has done more in the fight against AIDS than Kramer. Whether it was the co-founding of GMHC or ACT UP, or bringing the subject of AIDS into the theater with The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me, or his journalism in Reports from the Holocaust, his commitment and energy have never wavered. Yet he succeeds in rubbing people the wrong way -- even those who admire and venerate him. His play The Normal Heart tells, among other things, of a man who starts an organization which then kicks him out when he proves impossible to work with -- a fate that befell Kramer with GMHC. On occasion Kramer seems to acknowledge that he is a man rarely at peace with the world. He said, only half-jokingly, that he doesn't wake up angry anymore now that he has a boyfriend!

On the last day of the conference Kramer was taking part in a panel discussion entitled "Reminiscences and Personal Reflections." Two members of the panel, David Leavitt and Dale Peck, read from their own work. Leavitt read a funny piece about phone sex, at which everyone (including Kramer) laughed, while Peck read about a sexual encounter. Kramer, who had been due to speak before Peck, and several other members of the panel ostentatiously left the stage before his turn and stood at the back of the hall. He didn't even bother to make a pretense of going to the john. Just as Andrew Holleran, the only other member of the panel not to speak, was about to begin, he went down the aisle and rejoined the panel. In his remarks -- the final remarks of the week-long conference, he ripped into his fellow gay writers, accusing them of being obsessed with sex. He referred pointedly to the subject matter of Leavitt's and Peck's short stories, asking, "Did Tolstoy write about sex?"

Ignoring the fact that Tolstoy lived in totalitarian Tsarist Russia where such literature could never have been published, as well as ignoring that as recently as the early 1960s a serious attempt was made to ban D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover in Europe, the author of Faggots attacked his fellow gay writers for their obsession with sex in their writings.

To some, Kramer's behavior was the sort of grandstanding that is to be expected from him. Many were angered by his behavior, though personally I was amused by it. Making sure that you have the "last word" is the first rule of debating, and I suspect that Kramer has been debating some issue or other for most of his 61 years!

The good that Kramer has done far outweighs his lapses in behavior. As Sarah Schulman pointed out during the last week, there are many people who are alive today to take their chances with the new medication thanks to Larry Kramer's commitment to the cause of AIDS. Long live Larry!


AIDS Literature Booklist

I asked Christopher Freeman, an Assistant Professor at St. John's University who teaches Gay Studies, to compile a booklist of AIDS literature. The list is obviously far from exhaustive, but is a good place to start. All the books are available in paperback.

  • Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature by David Bergman

  • The Gifts of the Body by Rebecca Brown

  • Heaven's Coast and Atlantis by Mark Doty

  • The Normal Heart and Reports from the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist by Larry Kramer

  • Angels in America by Tony Kushner

  • Borrowed Time by Paul Monette

  • Rat Bohemia by Sarah Schulman

  • My Own Country by Abraham Verghese

  • Martin and John by Dale Peck

  • The Beautiful Room Is Empty by Edmund White


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