Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Dirty Little Secret: Violence and the Lives of Gay Men

Two decades ago, I was working as a counselor for a sexual assault advocacy agency. The years I spent in that job were eye-opening in many ways, but one thing that has stayed with me through the years is that sexual assault occurs more frequently against men than society is willing to acknowledge, and that too often these victims are young gay men. Additionally, when you work in sexual assault you end up working with victims of domestic violence - the two areas are inevitably intertwined. The worst part is, the numbers of GLBT victims of domestic violence are largely under-reported and under-acknowledged by institutions that might readily provide support and resources to hetero-oriented victims.
My novel Gentlemen's Game was born largely of frustration. I was horrified by the tendency of today's youth to eroticize rape in media, song, literature, on the internet. I have seen the face of rape in many a victim's eyes, I hope spoken to perpetrators - I know what it looks like from the inside - and I wanted to speak to that. At the same time, some little voice was prompting me to tell in book form the story of a violent incident between gay men who loved one another.  

Much of the controversy surrounding Gentlemen's Game, and the resulting conversations, has been the product of some people's discomfort with the themes of domestic violence between gay partners. The reality of domestic violence amongst gay men contains many of the same dynamics that domestic violence between hetero partners does: issues are gray, people do things they should never get away with, people forgive things they probably shouldn't forgive, "I'm sorry" isn't enough - or when it is enough, it never should have been. Things get complicated, answers are not easily found, and every couple comes with a unique set of circumstances. The novel is not about perfect people, it's about real people.

It is estimated that in the United States, domestic violence occurs in one of three to one of four gay relationships (compared to about one in four hetero relationships). This number is difficult to arrive at because the incidence is likely under-reported and/or under-documented by law enforcement. Although there are many dynamics that a violent gay relationship has in common with a hetero one - one partner who is controlling and who has developed a pattern of belittling the other verbally and emotionally, escalating to physical assault - there are many elements unique to domestic assault in a gay relationship that contribute to gay victims remaining far more isolated and lacking in support than do their hetero counterparts.

-  As is true with a hetero victim, the gay victim of domestic assault may be ashamed of coming forward (if I am so stupid as to be with this person, will anyone want to help me?), and may be conflicted by feelings of loyalty and affection toward the partner despite abuse. However, there is an added layer for gays: will reporting and seeking help be a betrayal not only to the partner but to the gay community? In a societal atmosphere where gay acceptance is a daily battle, will the image of a violent couple tarnish the reputation of gays and further the myth that gay relationships are inherently abnormal and unhealthy?

-  The gay community is often its own worst enemy. According to LAMBDA: "The lesbian, bi and gay community is often not supportive of victims of battering because many want to maintain the myth that there are no problems (such as child abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, etc.) in lesbian, bi and gay relationships." Consequently, resources within the gay community are scarce for victims of domestic violence. At the same time, there is a widespread failure of mainstream agencies to deal appropriately with gay victims. (See this article on a gay man seeking help from such an agency.) 

-  The gay victim may not have come out to society or family or all friends, may perceive reporting as being forced to come out with all the stress that entails; the victim may even be threatened by the abusive partner with being outed in retaliation for reporting or seeking outside help (this is unfortunately a common situation).

-  There is a severe failure both within the gay community and in greater society to understand how domestic violence occurs between men and how either one could be the "victim".  In the landmark publication Men Who Beat the Men Who Love Them (1991), authors David Island and Patrick Letellier state that domestic assault is second only to HIV and substance abuse, as the third most important issue to the health of gay men in the U.S. 

The authors  paint a vivid picture of the dynamics of an abusive relationship between men of equal physical strength. One partner, whose life and reactions have not been shaped by a history and comfort with violent behavior, succumbs to the partner for whom controlling patterns and striking out with a fist is comfortable and acceptable. The incident often happens quickly - before the victim can compose himself sufficiently to react or defend himself - and the momentary hesitation is enough to provide enormous advantage to the perpetrator of violence. Additionally, the state of mental confusion caused when a loved one physically threatens, is enough to give the violent partner the further advantage:

"...violence in the home can happen with lightning speed. Within 45 seconds, Patrick has been shouted at, threatened, pushed up against the wall, punched in the ribs, hit with a fist on the side of his head, and struck in the face and chest. And, the perpetrator of all the violence is his lover."

It is my experience that people - gay or straight - who have themselves had  their lives touched by violence more readily understand the story and thus the difficult themes of Gentlemen's Game, and are far less resistant to some of the starker realities it presents.  People who have not experienced domestic violence tend to ask, "Why doesn't she/he just leave?"  or "How can anyone forgive that?" But those who have experienced it know that these questions are far, far more complicated than that.

As awareness and acceptance of the gay community grows, society will be forced to rise to the challenge of fixing the holes in the net when victims seek assistance. The first step will be in legalizing gay relationships so that (1) victims have access to and support from, the same legal options that a hetero partner does - such as legal aid for victims of domestic violence, and (2) that gay partners who gather the courage to leave an abusive relationship do so with the security that assets combined or acquired during the course of a long-term committed union are equitably divided. 

A second important step will be stretching the societal mindset around issues of domestic violence to include the scenarios and unique dynamics of violence in gay relationships. This will mean that community resources, whether they be law enforcement, medical resources, or counseling/advocacy organizations, will need to offer their workforce training specific to working with gay victims. 

The other layer to the issues surrounding gays and intra-relationship violence is one of rape. Statistically (according to the FBI) almost all male rape occurs by other males, and often in a group. Male victims in general have added difficulties in dealing with rape when compared to women: foremost is a feeling that "allowing" oneself to be assaulted sexually, reflects upon one's masculine worth.  For this reason above all others, they often fail to report the assault to authorities or seek medical or legal assistance. But for a gay male it gets much more complicated.  The assault may cause him to deal with feelings of low self-worth on top of any feelings already present due to sexual orientation. There may have been homophobic verbal assault during the sexual assault. And as is true in domestic violence, reporting may bring up the choice of whether to out oneself or not.

The psychological damage to a gay male can be enormous. As is true with a heterosexual woman, his entire ability to trust men may come into question for years after the assault. And like a hetero woman, he may suffer semi-permanent or permanent fears around sexual contact or being penetrated, leading to severe difficulty with establishing healthy sexual relationships. The gay male victim of sexual or domestic assault (and remember that too often the two occur simultaneously, from the same abuser) may suffer the symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) for years after he has freed himself of the relationship.

Gentlemen's Game is the story of only one such situation. It is one young man's struggle to overcome violence and to somehow reconcile his life and his mind to its aftermath. His choices would not be the right ones for all of us, but in the real world these choices are not black and white, and each victim has to come to terms in a way that makes sense for him alone. 

We need to make certain that as the gay community gains societal power, we insist upon putting resources in place that help each victim of violence find his own path back to safety, reconciliation with the event according to his own values and needs, and sexual and psychological fulfillment.

Further reading and resources on domestic violence in the GLBT community:

Hear me speak about Domestic Violence in the gay community in this podcast:

 Gay Men's Domestic Violence Project:

(NOTE: Although I focused on male adult victims in this article due to the subject matter of my novel, issues surrounding lesbians and GLBT teen victims of sexual assault and relationship violence are equally complex and important, and we as a responsible society will be equally obligated to provide adequate resources for these populations in the future.)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Book Reviews - More Evil Than Good?

If you are a reader, do you read book reviews? Do you trust them when you do? Perhaps you shouldn't.

If you are a writer, do you seek them out? Do you cringe when you see one that you didn't solicit? How valuable are they, in today's marketplace? Do they help or hurt the sales of your books?

If you follow news in the publishing world, you already know that the business of marketing books is going through an enormous transformation. For the most part, those changes are needed and exciting. But as is the case when any entity goes through transformation, there are growing pains and hiccups: nowadays it is difficult to know where to go for a reliable, legitimate, well-done book review.

This is an issue that should concern readers and writers alike. As a writer and reviewer, I often notice glowing reviews of books that simply aren't that good in the technical sense:  I have to wonder how a reader can possibly know what to spend money on without wasting it.  I think that maybe the key is that a well-informed reader learns to consider and understand the source of the review. Writers need to do this as well.

For the writer, it's a confusing and fast-moving world once a book hits the marketplace. Reviews come from many places - some the writer asks for, many just pop up and are out of the writer's control. Reader reviews at sites like are valuable in that they can indicate how the book is being accepted by the public; after all, in the end if a badly-written book is making money, that may be all that matters to the writer.  Conversely, a few good reviews of a quiet well-written book that is never going to be a runaway best-seller may be all the writer needs to feel the book was worth the blood and tears it took to get it written.

I see some signs that we are headed toward reviews being held to higher standards. At present, the problem I see is threefold:  first, the marketplace is flooded with "reader reviews", from sites like Amazon and Goodreads, that may hurt a book even when they praise it. Secondly, the internet is full of self-proclaimed reviewers who are simply not qualified to be judging a book on technical merit - they are glorified readers. Thirdly, the practice of writers paying for a review is long-standing and common, and is coming under scrutiny only in recent years. Added to this, some writers review their own books under a different name, thereby promoting sales.

 A reader review such as those at Amazon and Goodreads can hurt a book badly. Readers make two big mistakes when reviewing. First, they tend to give a summary of the entire plot (never necessary for a review!) and give away the story, thereby discouraging sales; if the potential buyer knows the plot, the enticement is gone. The other thing they do is give more a personal opinion than a review - and that is exactly what Amazon intends. But "I didn't like this book because I usually don't like it when there isn't a happy ending" is a sales-killer.  The problem with a site like Goodreads is that its entire concept revolves around social networking; a clique of friends ends up passing a book around and if several of these like-minded individuals give a bad (based not on technical merit but emotional reaction and personal opinion) review, the sales of the book can be hurt, even if it is well-written and would have appealed to a more anonymous assortment of individuals.

Self-appointed review sites on the internet are also frequently unreliable. The vast majority of these "reviewers", I have found, are simply people who like to read, but have no real background in writing or publishing, and frequently no real understanding of structure of a novel, use of language, history of literature, genre - all of those components which allow a person to write a truly well-informed review of a book.  I learned this the hard way when my first novel came out. I approached a reviewer I heard about from a friend, and in my naivete sent him a copy of the book (a common courtesy from a writer when seeking a review) and trusted in the merits of the writing itself. Big mistake. The man, while admitting in the review that the writing was great, ranted about the dark theme of the book and the lack of a sweet happy ending. He in fact stated outright in the review that he read to escape from problems in life and didn't want to read a book like that. I was astounded.  So . . . the book was well-done, but deserved his public tongue-lashing, based on his own personal biases?  I'm sorry I sent it to him. It was my first real big review, and I was devastated at the time. Over time, better - and fairer - reviews began to appear, and the wound healed. I am grateful to have learned the lesson.  Now, when I stumble into the website of a reviewer, I check the site for the person's credentials. If I don't find them, I assume they don't have them.

What about the last category - writers reviewing writers?  While considering what I was going to say here about this, I did some soul-searching. I do review other writers, and perhaps 4 out of 5 ask me for the review. I think I have established a good reputation as a person who does have the background to say something fair and informative, and they trust me. I do try to be as honest as possible, and write the review for the reader primarily, not the writer. (I may say something privately to the writer about technical issues.)  I sincerely do not believe that I am lenient with writers because I share their profession.

As writers - and by extension readers - what can we expect from a legitimate book review?  I would propose the following be held up as a standard.

1  The review should not contain much in the way of summary. It just isn't necessary, removes the joy of discovery for the potential reader, and is a mark of an amateurish review. A review should never, ever give anything away. It shouldn't scream "Spoiler ahead!" - another mark of an amateur!

2  The review should itself be well-written, devoid of spelling and grammatical errors. If the reviewer can't write, he/she should not be judging someone else's work.

3   The focus of a review should be on telling the reader what he/she is buying, in terms of a reading experience. Is the story one that moves along with suspense? Does it inspire with the music of its language? Does it paint an accurate picture of an historical period? Are there structural issues that make the story incoherent?  These are the types of things a reader needs to know.  The bottom line for the reader is Will I waste my money if I buy this book?  Nothing else is more important in terms of the gist of the review.

4   A professionally-written, legitimate review should not feature the reviewer's personal opinions. In fact, I would personally go so far as to say that personal opinion - when it does not address the technical merits of the book that influence reader comprehension - should never enter into it at all. No reader gives a damn - nor should they - what the reviewer thinks about the theme. The reader just wants to know whether he himself would be wise to buy the book, given his own preferences.  All of us being human and what we are, it is tempting as a reviewer to rant about something you didn't like in a book, but I think that as reviewers we have an ethical obligation to keep it professional out of respect for readers.

5   Technical skill of the writer should be discussed only so far as it informs the reader. For example, a book with logic problems (a character is 24 in the beginning, but three years later is said to be in their mid-thirties;  or a character loses an object, only to present it three chapters later as part of a conversation), structural problems of the type that hamper reader experience/comprehension (illogical chronological twists, flashbacks that don't work), language problems (dialect written so heavily that the reader won't understand; foreign words added in such a way that the writer is showing off and the reader has no idea what is being talked about).  If it does not have to do with reader experience, it doesn't belong in a book review, but in private correspondence between reviewer and writer: to do otherwise serves only to humiliate the writer, and bore the reader to tears.

6  A good review doesn't make blanket statements without support. When a big point is made about the book, it should be illustrated by a quoted passage and brief discussion.

Am I being too anal about all of this? I don't think so. As readers we need to be able to trust book reviews, and unfortunately the state of the business at present is that few decent reviews are being written.  A book review is a valuable tool for the reader to weed out books - even good books - that would be a waste of that particular reader's time and money. Writing a good book review is an art in itself - a good book review serves the reader - not the writer or the reviewer.  If the book merits it, the review also sells the book.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Poems and Music Videos: The Art of Gathering Impressions

I have been reading a lot of poetry lately, thinking about what makes a good poem and what doesn't. It seems that many uneducated "poets" believe that writing a paragraph of prose with some haphazard line breaks and even - oh my! - some bad rhyming here and there, makes a poem. Not so. A poem is not prose, it is not narrative. (I have to wonder if, in this time of popular music being easily and constantly available, one has come to confuse the technique of writing a song lyric with that of writing a poem; they are two different entities!)

A poem, at its best - even a "prose poem" as was a popular technique when people like Wordsworth were writing - is not so much narrative as a collection of a writer's impressions of life.  A poem, perhaps more than any other literary form, does not seek to state a truth directly, but to hint at it in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of something familiar - a truth shared with the author - a moment of realization that we all share the same struggles and joys. It is that glimpse of the familiar and the mutually identifiable that sends a thrilled chill up the reader's spine and makes the poem unforgettable.

Thinking about this characteristic of a good poem has led me to notice something about that art form and another: the music video. As is true with poetry, a  great music video is made up of impressions, not of documentary-style statements. Often the meaning of a music video is vague until the end. The viewer glides through 3-5 minutes of visual images, one flitting by after another, hardly giving the mind time to ponder the meaning of any one image. But by the end of the video, the light-speed images taken as a whole suggest a theme, a message or truth conveyed by the video and by association the song. Consider two good examples.

First, the new music video by The Script, centering on their song Hall of Fame. It might be argued that a person would have to view this 4-5 times before understanding the mini-stories within, and yet the combination of the lyrical chorus and the dozens of images on the brain pounds in the message by the end.

Now take a look at Adam Lambert's Never Close Our Eyes. This video has taken some pretty straight-forward lyrics and offered an alternative interpretation/scenario/theme.  Again, the images fly by quickly, each imprinting a brief impression on the viewer's mind; the use of color and symbolism is brilliant here to convey an overall thought by the end of the song.

In the case of both of these videos, nothing is bluntly stated - all is given in fleeting visual impressions. The viewer is not condescended to, but challenged to participate in that he/she is forced to analyze a bit to make sense of the video.

When writing poems, a writer needs to understand basic and classical formats and techniques of the past. It is like gathering tools from which one may choose to best create something new. A painter who understands how to use oil, pastel, watercolor, tempura, acrylic, has a plethora of tools from which to choose, and has the advantage and joy of comfortably selecting and combining the best tools for a specific project. Likewise, a poet who understands basic tools can choose what works from a variety of tried and true techniques to create the most impact for the reader.

But the serious poet needs more than the experience of some education about poetry: he or she needs to understand how to tap his or her own subconscious. He or she needs to learn to convey impressions and feelings about, rather than explain the world he sees. This can be done in brief description, or in metaphor. When a poet fails to use these skills, you get a string of narrative masquerading as a poem. It looks cheap and amateurish:

I am sitting at my keyboard but the
Words wont come
I am lost in the fog of 
Confusion and I don't know
When I can come out or
Lost in confusion. 
Lost in fog.

Yes, it gets this bad. The above is simply not a poem, no matter how many line breaks the author sticks in there. Rather, it is a paragraph of narrative, with some line breaks. There are no impressions - save perhaps the comparison of confusion to a "fog", but that is so common a metaphor that it doesn't count.  Now look at this one, which I came across today:


by John Lavan
In early April, cruel showers
turn and splash and fade,
without a plan or auto-cue
or credits rolling at the end.

No sleep is possible in this wind
- memories of camping rain
spatter and splatter and splat again
my rooftop tingling brain.

Memories! A tent flapping,
ghosts insistent for remembering
- calling but uncalled for.

Almost, they breathe, look,
aching for texture
as wind and rain let up.

Within the confines of this post, I don't want to go into the many metaphors, wonderful description, the skill of use of language in this poem, that betray the high skill level and experience of the writer. Suffice it to say that this is poetry at its best. The writer has chosen freeform mixed with some classic format - the 4 lines/4 lines/ 3 lines/ 3 lines is tried and true. Notice that the poet has chosen not to be confined within a box of having to rhyme. But the rhyming in the second stanza of rain, again and brain is not accidental: the poet has used this to emphasize the tap tap tap of rain pelting a roof.  Brilliant use of language!

And consider the metaphors -  language where one object is suggested by, or compared to, another - and plays on words. How many do you see?  I love the idea of soft April showers described as "cruel"; as showers personified as not having a plan; memories as ghosts; ghosts calling but uncalled for; ghosts and memories "aching for texture". At the end this poem full of rain holds a surprise - the last line is "as wind and rain let up". The storm of memories ended.

Can you recognize how the poet here doesn't state anything outright, but simply fires a series of impressions - visual impressions if you will - into the reader's mind, inviting certain feelings?  In this way the theme is conveyed more emotionally than intellectually. This is the way a great poem works!

Let's finally consider a poem where the language is more straightforward. This is Robert Frost's beloved poem "The Road Not Taken".  I offer it in its entirely, out of respect for a great writer.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

Frost comes from an era where narrative poetry and conventional rhyme was popular. His meter (the beat or rhythm you hear when reading the poem out loud) is a common classical one. Notice the regular rhyming - but his skill is such that his rhymes come easily: they never feel forced or like he put much thought into them (although of course he must have!). 

But more importantly, notice the impressions: A path trodden lightly "and wanted wear", a bend beyond which one cannot see, scattered leaves on the ground.  The thing is, this is not a poem about two paths in the woods, although Frost had a gift for evoking images of Nature. Rather, this is a poem about Life's paths, about the unforgiving permanence of decisions we all make:  ...knowing how way leads onto way / I doubted if I should ever come back... one doesn't get a second chance.  In the end, the narrator offers that he took the path that lacked wear, the one that few others had taken ... and that has made all the difference.  Note that the title of the poem is not "The Road Less Traveled" but "The Road Not Taken". This is significant, and not an accidental choice.

The bigger point is that even though Frost offers straightforward sentence-like lines, and the images are less vague than in the previous poem, one would be mistaken to take this poem literally because in doing so one would miss the theme altogether. Frost is speaking in metaphors of the highest form:  the road is a path in Life. Impressions, not statements. He asks the reader to see deeper meaning, to chew on his words, to do some mental gymnastics to get at the meaning.

A good poet must be adept at tapping into that odd state of mind that lies between conscious consideration of the world, and dreamlike impression. A poet must cultivate a relaxed state from which he or she can glean impressions that lie just above subconscious thought and pull them out and apply them to paper. (Many believe that poems are best written with pen and paper than on a computer, since the former taps more easily into subconscious thought.)  A poet deals with emotion, feelings, in conveying the world. He/she doesn't deal in concrete thought.

Next time you sit down to write a poem, think about the last great music video you saw. Think about what is suggested, rather than stated outright. Think about how giving the reader some impressions from your subconscious thoughts is enough, and can speak louder than stating a narrative. Give your reader the respect and gift of having to work to find meaning. Give feelings more than thought.  Then you will have a real poem!

# # #

A few recommendations:

A. V. Barber writes deceptively light poetry: he understands the value of understatement and impression. Check out his new collection of thought-provoking and sometimes humorous poetry: Me, My World and I.

James Schwartz writes skilled verse based upon life experience; full of impression and emotion. His book The Literary Party: Growing Up Gay and Amish in America is a combination of narrative and poetry.

John Lavan's website:

Thursday, October 4, 2012

What, Exactly, IS a "Good Book"?

"Literary fiction, as a strict genre, is all but dead. Meanwhile, most genres flourish."  - Dean Koontz

"True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, as those who move easiest have learned to dance. - Alexander Pope

Today, as never before, a person with little writing skill and a good idea for a story can easily and successfully enter the publishing marketplace. A century and a half ago, a "writer" was someone fortunate enough to have had the upbringing that afforded formal education; after that, he or she would have to either have the means to live a life of leisure and have no need of earning a living, or he or she would have to have the talent and good fortune to be taken under the wing of a sponsor: that is, a wealthy person who wanted to support literature as an art form and to see the particular writer succeed.

Now, the tradition of sponsorship in the arts has greatly changed and is nearly non-existent. (An "artist" may come into a year or two of financial assistance in the form of a grant from an institution, but no longer will a wealthier person pay all living expenses for years on end.)  Most writers must burn the midnight oil, working around kids, family obligations, and a 9-to-5 job. Writing is an enormous time commitment; and it is often a financial sacrifice as well.

But beyond the obvious concerns of having the practical means to write, what makes a writer? What makes a really good book?  Let me stop here and say directly to the reader that I don't presume myself to have achieved any sort of pinnacle in terms of these questions: but I do know a good book when I see one. As a reviewer, editor and writer, I am constantly turning over the questions in my mind around what really great writing looks like. It interests me as a writer wishing to better myself, and as a person interested in the continual advancement of literature as an art form worth respecting.

What is the difference between, say, Mary Had a Little Lamb and Beethoven?  Is one - in the grand picture of human endeavor - more valuable or important than the other to civilization?  What is the difference between the latest radio hit and a timeless folksong?  Is one more deserving than the other?  Is Dr. Suess as valuable to the world of literature as is Dickens?

One may define success of a song or a painting or a book in terms of financial success. But I believe that would be misleading: the market evolves and changes and often has little to do with promoting quality. One may define success in terms of length of life: a hit song may be forgotten within months, but a classical symphony is played three hundred years after its debut.  Has the symphony necessarily brought more joy than has the hit song?

Both of the quotes at the beginning of this article speak to the quality of literature, and to the differences in quality amongst books. In the modern world, there are many writers who write books that give readers entertainment - and this is always a worthy pursuit. Those who do it best, and do it consistently, make some money. A precious few like Dean Koonz know how to write a quality book and make it entertaining to the masses as well; their books have tapped into a social psyche nerve - they speak a language that hundreds of thousands understand.

And so a book need not be a quality book in order to succeed financially or in terms of popularity. But the term "literary fiction" still implies a work that is of high quality, and I believe that it is a concept worth protecting and preserving, primarily because the most innovation happens in the highest quality of literature, and also because the highest art elicits the most revelatory emotion from the viewer/reader. It celebrates the human spirit in the truest sense.

What is real quality in terms of a book?  I believe that at its highest form literature contains the following elements:

- It uses language in an innovative way, and it strives for beauty. This may occur in the form of inspiring and original metaphors, it may be that the prose reads with the music and rhythm of poetry. But in this highest form of literature, language is presented in a way that celebrates language for its own sake.

- It offers innovation. This may be in terms of theme, message, or use of language. Innovation moves the art form forward, raises the bar, challenges future writers.

- It honors literary forms and techniques that have survived the test of time. It may borrow from the greatest of works in terms of theme and structure. It nods to the most moving literature of our past.

- It offers a structure that pulls the reader in, that best and most profoundly conveys a message.

- It contains not only a story message, but a universal message about mankind. It causes the reader to consider his or her own life, values and ideas. This message may be dark, or light.

- It is sophisticated in the sense that it presents a writer that understands the basics of literary form and structure.

- It flies in the face of rules of genre; it shows no boundaries - the story and message is all-important.

Each of us, as professional writers, has to determine what sort of book we will write, and consequently what sort of writer we will be. Some of us want to entertain the masses, some of us want to entertain a few and do it well. A few of us aren't as concerned with selling books or with entertaining as we are with saying something that needs to be said. A few of us write because we love language - we love its music, we love innovative use of words, we love the artistry of it, we fight to find and present beauty in it.  This last category is the type of writer that found a sponsor 150 years ago, the type of writer whose book might be read and reread 150 years from now.

I believe that there is room in the world - and certainly in the market - for all types of writers. I don't agree with Mr. Koonz: the literary novel is alive and well. It is all over Amazon if one searches. Beautiful language is still invented, and still appreciated, even if it sells less to a population that is suffering from having been educated more about computers and economics than about language.

Each of us decides what we will be, what we will sacrifice, what we will embrace. In my own field, there is a difference between M/M romance, and literary fiction with a gay theme. One is based upon a basic formula: a gay couple finds one another, has a conflict, resolves the conflict through much angst, and ends up together. Ninety-nine percent of M/M books follow this formula, and when they don't readers get very testy.  These novels vary in quality of writing; some are written in very simplistic language with no innovation in language at all. However they are entertaining and the authors are laughing all the way to the bank as they deposit the royalty check. Do these books advance literature? No. Do they convey some important, soul-enlightning universal message? Never. Do they entertain? Sometimes. Will they be remembered in thirty years? Not likely.

Gay literary fiction seeks to do a bit more. These books rarely follow a pattern - the story might go anywhere. A happy ending is not necessary, and often forcing such an ending would ruin the book. These books present universal, timeless themes, and seek to convey a message about the state of humanity. They are not for the weak of heart, but they are for those who love language and literature for its own sake, and for those who like to learn something about life when they read.  Do these books make money? Rarely. Will they be remembered? Maybe. Do they contribute to the advancement and respect of the art of literature? Hopefully. . . Yes, often they do.

I have chosen to write literary fiction. As a writer of this type of book, I have endured the angry emails of readers who were incensed to have been denied a happy ending. Never mind that they just might have been forced to think, to feel something scary. That they might have been changed, or have experienced a moment of painful psychological growth. In a society where our schools have failed to teach the value of sophisticated literature, people get pissed off when a  book demands too much of them.

I have learned the lesson well: if I insist upon writing this type of book, I will get angry emails. They hurt: a letter that complains about a work of literary fiction is a letter that criticizes the writer's life philosophy, that condemns the writer's view of life. It is a very personal thing. One doesn't just write such a book; one bleeds such a book. One births such a book.

And I have learned that I will get beautiful fan letters as well. Personally, I would rather be told that my book had pissed off, but then moved, and finally changed a person, than that my book entertained him or her for a few hours.

But that is the choice I have made. I wish to stand with those who try to state something about the world in which we live. I am not interested in providing fodder for a happy day - I am interested in forcing thought, pulling forth hard emotions, demanding answers. I want to find my way into the music and make my words sing for a reader. I strive to write something enduring. And I am learning to live with the darker consequences.


Want to get pissed off, moved, and perhaps elated?  Read "Gentlemen's Game" by Lichen Craig, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble online - where you can order it for either Kindle or Nook - , and hard print here at this website. Or order it at your favorite bookstore.