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Updike’s complaint: Gay fiction – and what belongs to us

 Jean Broc’s “The Death of Hyacinthos” (1801, oil on canvas, Musée Sainte- Croix) considers the tragic end of the god Apollo’s homoerotic relationship with the youth Hyacinthos. Plenty of readers would prefer not to go there.

Jean Broc’s “The Death of Hyacinthos” (1801, oil on canvas, Musée Sainte- Croix) considers the tragic end of the god Apollo’s homoerotic relationship with the youth Hyacinthos. Plenty of readers would prefer not to go there.

Aaron Hamburger, the short story writer and novelist, begins his laudatory review of Garth Greenwell’s “rich, important” debut novel “What Belongs To You” in the Jan. 31 edition of The New York Times Book Review by indulging in a remembrance of a review past.

He recalls John Updike’s 1999 New Yorker piece on Alan Hollinghurst’s novel “The Spell,” in which Updike – who wrote many sexy novels – complained that Hollinghurst’s “relentlessly gay” fiction bored him because “nothing is at stake but self-gratification.” “What Belongs To You,” Hamburger writes, provides the “ringing” retort to Updike’s complaint.

I suspect that Updike may have been not only bored, though, but frightened and even repulsed. For gay fiction, like gay sex, presupposes the male as love object. And that might’ve been an uncomfortable exploration for the alpha male who wrote the “Rabbit” series and “The Witches of Eastwick.”

But he is not alone. “I’m all for gay rights. I just don’t want to know what they do,” an acquaintance of mine said in regard to my homoerotic series “The Games Men Play.” She’s a lovely woman whose heart is in the right place even if her mind is somewhat limited.

A publicist-colleague, also lovely, explained the appeal of my debut novel “Water Music” – or lack thereof – from a PR standpoint thusly: “You may make the best coconut cream pie, but if no one wants to order coconut cream pie off the menu, it doesn’t matter.”

OK, fair enough. You can’t make people like what they don’t. It’s one thing, though, to reject something because it doesn’t appeal. You’re allergic to coconut, or you don’t like its taste. It’s quite another to reject something due to prejudice.

When it comes to gay fiction, I think there are two things going on here: One is the genuine fear, amply on display this campaign season, of anything that is “other,” and that goes doubly for something that may involve the exchange of bodily fluids. Sex – for all its titillation – has a high “ew” factor. Many who enjoy it don’t want to talk about it. And they certainly don’t want to think about some people doing it, like their parents. Throw gay sex into the mix, and, well, fuhgedabout.

But there’s also the possible objectification of those characters who share the reader’s gender and, thus, of the reader him or herself. Even in romance fiction, with its endless supply of heaving bosoms and tenacious female following, the emphasis is on the male character. Chiseled pecs trump heaving bosoms anytime.

I, on the other hand, am of the mind of the website Because Two Are Better Than One. If one male love object is good, two are better fictionally. And why stop there? Men have long objectified women and imagined lesbian sex as a prelude to a threesome with them as the centerpiece.

My own interest in men, however, transcends mere physical concerns. For me, homoerotic fiction, while doubtless spicy, serves as a metaphor for many of the issues that bedevil women, including the struggle for power in a relationship with a man. It’s a distant mirror – one that some gay and women readers don’t mind gazing into, because they can do so safely.

Or, as Hamburger writes in his review of Greenwell’s book, fiction is “a lens that can introduce readers to characters of all stripes.”

The question remains, when will the general reader – particularly the heterosexual male reader – begin peering into the lens of gay fiction?