The Queer Art of Failure

The Queer Art of Failure
by J Halberstam
Difficulty: Hard
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I’ve been a little leery about including scholarly texts on this blog because I want it to be as accessible as possible, and many scholarly works aren’t interested in being accessible to the average person. They’ve all got interesting and important ideas in them, but many expect their readers to ‘learn the language,’ so to speak, and not everyone has time for that. Fortunately Jack (formerly known as Judith) Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure is geared as much towards the average reader as it is towards academics, which is fitting given the subject matter. As an example of this, it opens with a quote from Spongebob Squarepants.

Halberstam’s purpose, as evidenced in the title, is to explore what failure means in a modern society so enamored with success:

What kinds of rewards can failure offer us? Perhaps most obviously, failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods. Failure preserves some of the wondrous anarchy of childhood and disturbs the supposedly clean boundaries between adults and children, winners and losers. And while failure certainly comes accompanied by a host of negative affects, such as disappointment, disillusionment, and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life. (3)

To do this, Halberstam offers close readings of films and texts often considered to be ‘low’ culture, ‘un-serious’ works too popular or simple to be considered intellectual such as Finding Nemo, Chicken Run, or Dude, Where’s My Car? But he also explores other forms of failure, as in his chapters on “Shadow Feminisms” or the relationship between homosexuality and facism (I admit this chapter fell a little flat for me). And all of this analysis is written in a fairly straightforward, if verbose, style, complete with jokes and even pictures. It is in my opinion exemplary of the kind of public-facing scholarship academics have the responsibility to produce. That doesn’t mean you won’t have to bust out the dictionary occasionally, but you don’t need to immerse yourself in Lacanian thought the way you might for a text like No Future.

Halberstam’s title alone evoked a certain reaction from me. I felt I already knew, intuitively, what the queer art of failure was. Because aren’t all queer people failures in the eyes of mainstream society? Failures to marry (correctly), failures to reproduce (naturally), failures to conform to binary gender? It seems to me that this is something all queer people struggle with on some level, whether they’re aware of it or not. We lost the game before we ever had the chance to play. Coming to terms with that is a big part of accepting who we are, which is why books like The Velvet Rage have been so impactful as they guide readers to that realization. But once I got there, I found queer failure to be supremely liberating. My identity is no longer built around a desire to achieve an unattainable, heternormative model of success, and I’m much happier for it. I am free, in my failure, to define success for myself, to create a new game or attempt to change the old.

I wanted to offer up my own anecdote on the benefits of failure. I like to play Dungeons and Dragons, a fantasy roleplaying game (yes, that one). Part of the game is about defeating monsters, but another part is about collaborative storytelling, and that’s the part I really care about. Very often in these games there is a type of player that always frustrates me. This type of player is concerned almost exclusively with how powerful they can make their character. They want to be the strongest, the best, and to never lose. But I think losing, failing, is the best part of D&D. We know how the story is ‘supposed’ to go: the good guys beat the bad guys and save the world. That’s what we’ll get if we always win, and that’s a painfully boring and predictable story. What’s the point of having this complex role playing system if we never make proper use of it? Victory really only has one outcome, but failure has many. Who knows what will happen if we fail to break a door down or to trick the guard into letting us by? Failure demands more from the players than does victory. It forces us to think on our feet, to be creative and to subvert expectations. It takes a two-dimensional story about good and evil and makes it into a three dimensional one with twists, turns, and fleshed out characters. The game is better with failure, in fact, there’s no game without it. When you win, it’s over, and if there was ever an activity where the journey is more important than the destination, it’s D&D. Halberstam wants us to see failure as more than just an obstacle to success, and I think that’s an attitude worth taking with us into whatever it is we’re doing, whether it’s D&D or life.

Orlando

Orlando
by Virginia Woolf
Difficulty: Hard
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Here’s a summary of Orlando: a lonely young man with nice legs (very nice, we are repeatedly assured) gets dumped by a Russian princess after their ice river carnival was swept away in a sudden thaw. He’s sad for a while, and decides to go abroad as a royal ambassador. Then one night, in a flurry of trumpets and Spensarian theatrics, Orlando transforms into a woman for some reason (who still has nice legs). And everyone’s cool with it, though she does need to go through a lengthy legal process to retain ownership of her property now that she’s a woman. So she returns to England, and spends time writing poetry and hosting famous poets at her estate. Eventually, Orlando wins her lawsuit for her property and decides to marry a sea captain named Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine (seriously). They then live happily ever after for at least several hundred years.

I love Orlando for how un-seriously it takes itself. There aren’t many ‘great English authors’ who were willing to let themselves have this much fun. Even when composing parodies or satires they’re always very serious about their art and their reputations, but perhaps Woolf cared less because she had other reasons for writing this novel. Orlando is often called the ‘longest love-letter in literature’ because it was written for Woolf’s close friend and sometimes lover Vita Sackville-West, represented by the character Orlando. In Virginia’s eyes, Vita transcended the limitations of gender, time, and place, so Orlando does too (she must have had very nice legs too, if the pattern holds). I find it incredibly romantic that one of the most radical and celebrated novels of the 20th century sprung from such a relationship. What a monument to the lover!

While Orlando is one of Woolf’s most accessible novels, it’s still written in dense, high-modernist fashion and may prove a bit difficult at times. Goofy as the plot can be, it’s not really a laugh-out-loud comedy though it does have its moments. It’s a bit difficult to say how the character Orlando would be labelled in our current moment. The concept of transgender didn’t really exist at the time, and Orlando continued to dress as both man and woman as it suited them, suggesting that neither their male or female version is more correct than the other. The obvious term might be ‘genderfluid,’ but Woolf had some slightly different ideas about the relationship between the masculine and feminine. In A Room Of One’s Own, she muses upon the necessity for the artist to be “man-womanly” or “woman-manly” in order to consider all points of view and achieve lasting art. I find this interesting to consider in our era of names and labels. What if, fifty years from now, we discover we’ve had this whole gender thing wrong the whole time? Or some other aspect of sex and sexuality that we treat as fact today? Orlando helps us think about those questions, and so it remains one of the more important LGBT+ books yet written.

The Motion of Light in Water

The Motion of Light in Water
Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Hard
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Oh boy it’s Delany again! My bias should be pretty clear by now, but I can’t help it if the man is responsible for so many essential texts in gay literature, and in so many different genres. This time around it’s a Hugo award-winning memoir covering portions of Delany’s childhood up through the early years of Delany’s extensive writing career. The book offers a fascinating window into both the author and his environment, a newly bohemian, pre-Stonewall East Village. Among the numerous experiences he recounts are his marriage to the lesbian poet, Marylin Hacker, his foray into folk music, a nervous breakdown, and brushes with famous personages such as Bob Dylan, W. H. Auden, and James Baldwin. And of course, descriptions of New York’s homosexual underworld (the memoir is subtitled Sex and Science Fiction Writing after all).

There are a lot of reasons to read this book. The obvious reason is, of course, to gain a greater insight into the mind of a popular science-fiction writer, but that’s only one dimension of it. Interracial marriage, open relationships, pre-Stonewall gay life, mental health, the writing process, civil rights, hitchiking, these are only some of the topics covered by Delany’s memoir. By the age of 21, Delany had already written and published three science-fiction novels and was an active participant in the city’s avant-garde art scene at the time. Perhaps the overflowing creative forces around him contributed to the nervous breakdown that serves as the centerpiece of the memoir. Delany is quite open and matter of fact about it, as he is about everything, from the reality of being a professional writer to the ins and outs of anonymous sex in the city. It’s this frankness which forms much of the book’s appeal.

Besides it’s subject matter, what sets The Motion of Light in Water apart from other memoirs is the intense open-minded gaze Delany brings to bear upon himself. He is unafraid to criticize himself, or to plumb the depths of unpleasant and even traumatic memories. And he does all this with the skill of a grandmaster storyteller. The events and people he depicts are every bit as vivid as those in his science-fiction and makes the memoir feel more like a novel. There are moments throughout the text where Delany descends (or ascends) into the abstract and philosophical, usually when discussing art, and these can feel a bit confusing. But I found that as I read more of Delany’s experiences, I gained a better understanding of what he was talking about. In sum, Delany’s deft depictions of complex and wide ranging issues during a time of significant social change makes The Motion of Light in Water a seminal and essential work for any reader interested not just in gay history, but in 20th-century American history as a whole.

Angels in America

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Angels in America
by Tony Kushner
Difficulty: Hard
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Blurb from the Goodreads page:

“In two full-length plays–Millennium Approaches and Perestroika–Kushner tells the story of a handful of people trying to make sense of the world. Prior is a man living with AIDS whose lover Louis has left him and become involved with Joe, an ex-Mormon and political conservative whose wife, Harper, is slowly having a nervous breakdown. These stories are contrasted with that of Roy Cohn (a fictional re-creation of the infamous American conservative ideologue who died of AIDS in 1986) and his attempts to remain in the closet while trying to find some sort of personal salvation in his beliefs.”

Angels in America is a pretty legendary play, even outside the gay literary world. It won numerous awards, including two Tonys as well as the 1993 Pulitzer prize in Drama. It’s long for a play, so long that it’s actually split into two parts: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, but don’t let its relative length scare you off. It’s still much shorter than a novel, and just the right length for a TV series, like the 2003 HBO mini-series (which is pretty good). The ideal way to experience it is, of course, to see an actual production, but Kushner included enough stage direction that it’s fairly easy to read too. And these stage directions are important to the experience of the play, because Kushner is constantly calling attention to the story’s existence as a play. He writes, for example, that the angel should be suspended from a very conspicuous, very visible wire. It’s supposed to look campy, even fake and unbelievable, which is something the T.V. series fails to capture.

AIDS can be difficult to talk about, especially through a literary form. When we’re confronted with something so agonizing and terrible, viewing it through an artistic lens can be like staring into the sun. It’s too raw, too real, and far, far too human. That’s why some artists, like Kushner, may have looked for ways to soften the blow, ways to divorce their story from reality because reality was just too much. Perhaps it is from a place of grief such as this that Angels in America takes inspiration for its more fantastic elements. And these elements serve an important purpose in communicating Kushner’s ultimate message: that this will not be the end of us, it will not stop us, and we will continue to live and grow and change no matter what happens.

What’s Left of the Night

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What’s Left of the Night
by Ersi Sotiropoulos
Difficulty: Hard
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To be honest I’d never heard of Constantine Cavafy before reading this book, which I purchased on a whim because I liked the cover. For those who are as clueless as me, Cavafy was a 20th century Greek poet now considered to be one of the most important of the century. He published few poems during his lifetime, possibly due to the explicit homosexual themes in many of them, instead sharing them mostly with friends or small newspapers. I’ve read claims that his poetry loses much of its meaning in translation, though I can’t confirm how true that is. He was admired by English writers such as Auden and Forster, so that should count for something.

What’s Left of the Night follows a younger Cavafy during a trip to Paris, well before he has become the accomplished poet we know he will. It’s a formative time for Cavafy, and Sotiropoulos depicts, in expressive, lyrical prose, his struggle with his sexuality, his family’s poor standing, and the numerous events shaping Europe at the turn of the century. It’s a window into the mind of a developing writer, one full of extended meditations on art and frustrating, even torturous struggles against his nature.

For me, the chief appeal of this book lies in the beauty of its prose. I do enjoy long beautiful sentences, and both the author and translator ensured that there are plenty of them. I have mixed feelings about the actual content. Knowing very little about Cavafy and Greek culture, there were numerous scenes in which I felt I was not able to grasp the entirety of the narrator’s internal commentary. But at the same time, I was exposed to many ideas and perspectives I had not previously considered. I enjoyed the book all the way through, but I’d be hard-pressed to explain what specifically made it so enjoyable to me (besides pretty sentences).

Dark Reflections

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Dark Reflections
Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Hard
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From the Dark Reflections Goodreads page:

“Arnold Hawley, a gay, African–American poet, has lived in NYC for most of his life. Dark Reflections traces Hawley’s life in three sections — in reverse order. Part one: Hawley, at 50 years old, wins the an award for his sixth book of poems. Part two explores Hawley’s unhappy marriage, while the final section recalls his college days. Dark Reflections, moving back and forth in time, creates an extraordinary meditation on social attitudes, loneliness, and life’s triumphs.”

Dark Reflections might have been a better known book if it weren’t for an unfortunate publication history. Right before its release, Carroll & Graf, its publisher, was purchased by another company and Delany’s editor was laid off. As a result the book received very little publisher support, but still managed to pick up nominations for the Stonewall Book Award and Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction. There are depressingly few African-American authors writing gay fiction. To my knowledge, only three have done so successfully and at length: James Baldwin, E. Lynn Harris, and Samuel R. Delany. But while Delany has written many people of color into his science-fiction, the experiences of those characters sometimes feels far removed from the experiences of people of color today, which is why this book is a valuable one.

While Dark Reflections stands very well on its own, the book takes on interesting new dimensions when considered in the context of the author’s life and work. Arnold Hawley is something of a dark reflection of Delany himself, an exploration of the ways his life may have gone had he been a different person, and the ways in which it might be the same. Chief among these differences is Arnold’s rejection of his sexuality, something Delany wholeheartedly embraced. But Delany is careful to present Arnold’s life in an unbiased and neutral way. While I personally found it to be very sad at times, I’m not sure if Arnold would have considered it to be sad. The reverse chronological structure of the story created some interesting foreshadowing moments and gave the narrative a natural velocity that made it easy to read through to the end, even if the beginning can be a bit slow at times. The book definitely doesn’t deserve its obscure status, and I hope that future readers and critics will recognize its value.

Corydon

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Corydon
by André Gide
Difficulty: Hard
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André Gide was an extremely influential, very prolific French author known for his autobiographical and moralistic works. Though he considers it to be one of his most important books, Corydon is one of his least discussed, at least in anglophone literary communities. This may be attributed to his full-throated defense of pederasty, homosexual relationships between adult men and pubescent or adolescent boys, a practice he engaged in throughout his life. Despite this complication, Corydon still has much to offer a modern reader.

Gide’s book is a series of four Socratic dialogues in which the eponymous Corydon defends the existence of homosexuality (and pederasty specifically) to an unnamed, rather obtuse narrator. His arguments range from the philosophical to the biological and historical in his attempt to prove that homosexuality is not only natural, but can also be virtuous and uplifting. He also criticizes other homosexuals for their refusal to be out and open about their sexuality, and allowing the public condemnation of them to persist.

Gide’s arguments are a mixed bag. Some have aged well, others less so, and some of them come across as weak and self-serving, even for the era. Regardless of these problems, Corydon is still an important landmark in the discourse of homosexuality, and we can see how some of his arguments contributed to the development of the current movement. One thing I found to be particularly interesting about Gide and this text is the fact that he speaks with demonstrated conviction. When he was 47 (well before Corydon was written), Gide eloped with the 15 year old Marc Allégret, and the two remained together for 11 years before Allégret discovered he preferred women. They stayed close friends even after this and Allégret went on to a successful career as a filmmaker, in part thanks to the connections he established during his time as Gide’s lover.