In February, I wrote about how I’d talked myself into programming a gay arts festival. Of course, there was a certain conceit involved. I wasn’t really programming an entire gay arts festival. Myself and Rupert Smith from the House of Homosexual Culture were putting together a literary event for LGBT History Month.
The event went well. We had 200 people packed into the basement at Freedom. Neil Bartlett was moved. Maureen Duffy was declared a national treasure. People sold books. We even made a small amount of money. Really, we should have been happy. But we weren’t. This was all very well, we thought, but why were we doing all this work with no acknowledgement from the wider literary establishment?
A week after we had this conversation, Smith and I found ourselves at the Southbank Centre, being invited to curate a season of gay literary events as part of the London Literature Festival. ‘You look surprised,’ said Rachel Holmes, the Southbank Centre’s head of literature and spoken word. ‘We are,’ we replied, before explaining that despite publishing some 20 books between us, we’d never been invited to take part in a mainstream book festival before, let alone curate one.
Smith and I aren’t the only gay authors who feel snubbed by the major book festivals. While a few big hitters like Alan Hollinghurst and Sarah Waters do make it through to the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Hay Festival, the vast majority of lesbian and gay writers are sidelined. Speaking to colleagues about the way gay writers are perceived, one common assertion is that gay books are regarded as genre fiction. Someone else suggested that gay authors are overlooked at literary festivals for the same reason chicklit authors are ignored – they’re just not literary enough. But how does this explain the exclusion of someone like Maureen Duffy? Duffy has been writing novels since the 1960s, but has never once been asked to take part in a major book festival (well, not until now). Her work is unquestionably literary. It is also decidedly lesbian.
Given this, you’d think that authors would jump at the chance to appear at the Purcell Room or Queen Elizabeth Hall, with the weight of the Southbank Centre behind them and Foyles selling their books out front. In many cases you’d be right. Some people said yes straight way, among them Julian Clary and Stella Duffy. Some were pleased to be asked but couldn’t make the dates, among them Neil Bartlett and Sarah Waters. And some were just plain rude. Jeanette Winterson replied to our invitation saying that she considered gay events ‘divisive and unnecessary’. I hope lesbian readers will remember that comment the next time she has a book out. Not that lesbians are her only readers, but my guess is they still buy the bulk of the fruits of her labours. (Interestingly, Ms Winterson does appear at women-only events but she won’t do a gay event where everyone is welcome. I wonder, which is the more divisive?)
But let’s accentuate the positive. In a few short months we’ve managed to put together three major literary events for one of the country’s leading arts institutions. Under the umbrella heading The House of Homosexual Culture, our events form one of five strands at this year’s festival. We have leading literary lesbians including Diana Souhami and Duffys Maureen and Stella. We have household names including Julian Clary and Brian Paddick, and rising stars Karen Mcleod and David Llewellyn. We have singers including Andy Bell and David McAlmont, who’ll be sharing their taste in gay literature at The Lavender Library. We have gay rapper QBoy who’ll provide the musical element to our urban event, City Lights. And we have strippers of both sexes who’ll be flashing flesh at our celebration of erotic fiction, Dirty Books.
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time gay programmers have been invited to add some queer spice to a major British book festival. Fingers crossed it won’t be the last.
The London Literature Festival runs July 5-19 (www.londonlitfest.com). The Polari Launch Party for the London Literature Festival is on Jun 30.