What are gay books? What is gay literature? Felice Picano knows. Not only is he a bestselling author and gay literary pioneer. He was also an editor in New York for two decades not so long ago. He founded one of the first gay publishing house in America during the mid 70s, SeaHorse, and was one of the pillars of Gay Press New York until its closing in 1994. Last year he published a memoir based on these years.
First a few complaints. The memoir, Art and Sex in Greenwich Village (Caroll & Graf, 2007) is printed on a very thin and cheap paper. The title selected is certainly not the best... There is no table of contents, no index! Felice Picano is not the most humble person in town and sometimes he even seems to be settling a score with former business acquaintances. He certainly pushes too far at times. But his memoir is nevertheless an important little book, full of interesting details on the publishing industry and on the gay literary life in the last quarter of the twentieth century!
During an interview more than ten years ago Picano answered that there was no gay literature before the mid 70s... Of course there were famous homosexual male novels in the decades before. But they did not reflect "the post-Stonewall gay world, but instead an earlier era, an earlier mindset - one in which the Stonewall Rebellion and gay politics were not only never anticipated, but also a complete improbability."
As Felice Picano remembers, only a handful of books with gay themes were published every year by mainstream editors: "highly commercial usually, but always 'safer' in terms of material and story lines, and usually fiction - predominantly novels". Poetry, drama, short stories, satire, humor, history, memoir or autobiography were ignored. The situation changed only in the 90s "when gay lit became a genre - like children's books, or self-help, or cookbooks". Therefore when Picano started SeaHorse Press he was little worried about finding books to publish. His main problem was to learn fast enough how books were actually made and marketed! He choose as his first author... himself. This meant, no advances to be paid out, and "no other artistic ego to deal with immediately"! Other authors followed: Harvey Feirstein (Torch Song Trilogy), Dennis Cooper, Brad Gooch, Gavin Dillard, Robert Peters who had written a powerful memoir (Feather: A Child's Death and Life), Martin Duberman, etc.
Several pages are a first-hand account of the Violet Quill Club, a group of seven gay writers including Picano, Andrew Holleran, Edmund White, George Whitmore and Robert Ferro. They met regularly to discuss their works and share their concerns for their art between 1979 and 1981.
The book brings back the atmosphere of New York, and specially Greenwich Village, in the 70s and 80s, with its sexual liberation context. It is filled with very sharp and lively portraits of writers and intellectuals of the period, many of whom would die of AIDS in the subsequent years. The gargantuan Harvey Feirstein with his hoarse voice in his small cramped Brooklyn apartment telling his life story and showing his closet, filled with women's clothing: "In truth, he had far more women's clothing than men's clothing. No surprise really, when he told us that he'd been dressing in drag and doing his own makeup since he was fifteen years old." The mysterious and distinguished Charles Henri Ford, living in the Dakota Apartments with his younger partner, who together with Parker Tyler was the author of The Young and Evil, "thought by many to be the first true homosexual novel, and probably the first 'coming-out' book", published in 1993, and reissued by Gay Presses of New York. The academic specialist of French literature George Stambolian who had published a study of Proust and put together for SeaHorse a book of in-depth anonymous interviews with gay men, Male Fantasies/Gay Realities. And there are also portraits of famous authors with whom Felice Picano flirted without actually concluding: Cocteau, Purdy and Vidal. Because he was very involved with the design of his books, Picano took great interest in potential artists for their cover. Robert Mapplethorpe was one of them. One evening, after a previous very business-like conversation in the afternoon, he summoned Picano to his apartment in order to take a picture of his genitals... Picano obliged, and, in a typical tone, remembers: "As I was leaving his studio an hour later, he showed me a file cabinet drawer he said was filled with photos of men's genitalia he'd taken over the past decade while having sex with them - among which I wasn't too surprised to recognize a few dicks I'd seen and had myself. He had hundreds of such photos he said, and he was premeditating a huge exhibit of them all once he was better known, and, crucially, once he'd reached the magic number of one thousand. He'd then add his own cock, Robert said, and call it One Thousand and One Nights."
Entertaining and informative. Read it while playing Patti Smith's Horses on your stereo.