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Gay Literati Celebrate New Era of Acceptance : Publishing: The number of books by and about gays is increasing, as is the number of specialty book stores.

March 07, 1990|VICTOR F. ZONANA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — When Mark Thompson was named book editor of The Advocate in 1980, books from publishers seeking reviews would trickle in at the rate of three to five a month.

A decade later, that trickle has turned into a torrent. "Now, I get three to five books every day," Thompson said.

Thompson's workload is just one indication of the explosion in gay literature--books by and about homosexual men and lesbians.

Another sign of the boom is the burgeoning number of bookstores catering primarily to gays and lesbians: 37 nationwide, compared to seven a decade ago.

A Different Light, with stores in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, stocks 11,000 gay titles, including novels, short stories, biographies, plays, histories, self-help books, mysteries and science fiction. The chain carried 900 gay titles 10 years ago, said Richard Labonte, manager of the San Francisco store.

Thompson and Labonte were among the 1,200 gay literati last weekend at OUT Write '90, a national conference designed to celebrate and sustain the boom in gay publishing.

Those in attendance--gay and lesbian writers, editors, publishers, booksellers, agents, critics, journalists and readers--participated in two days of workshops and discussions on subjects as mundane as finding an agent and as weighty as "AIDS and the responsibility of the writer."

"We are here to mark the coming of age of gay and lesbian literature," said Jeffrey Escoffier, co-publisher of OUT/LOOK, the national gay and lesbian quarterly journal that sponsored the event.

"We are creating a literary infrastructure," added George Stambolian, who teaches gay literature at Wellesley College and is the editor of three anthologies of gay fiction titled "Men on Men." "We have gay newspapers, magazines, reviews, bookstores, readings, awards--and now conferences."

In addition to this gathering, a daylong symposium on gay literature will be held at UCLA on April 21, and Seattle's Alice B. Theatre will be host of a gay and lesbian theater conference in July, with activist playwright and novelist Larry Kramer ("The Normal Heart," "Reports From the Holocaust") as keynote speaker.

Though it remains relatively rare for gay books to cross into the mainstream and sell widely to heterosexuals, they increasingly are being taught at universities, winning prizes and critical acclaim.

Last year, Minnie Bruce Pratt, published by the lesbian-owned Firebrand Press, won the prestigious Lamont Prize from the Academy of American Poets for her collection of poems, "Crime Against Nature." And Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library has begun to accept the manuscripts, journals and letters of important contemporary gay and lesbian writers.

Why this outpouring of gay and lesbian literature? Why didn't it occur in 1969, the year usually associated with the beginnings of the modern gay movement, when homosexuals rebelled during a police raid of a New York bar called the Stonewall Inn?

Because, said OUT/LOOK's Escoffier, "it has taken 20 years for us to . . . develop our audience and reach a critical mass."

"This is the literary reflection of an enormous social transformation," said Michael Denneny, a founder of Christopher Street magazine and a senior editor of St. Martin's Press, where he nurtures a line of gay and lesbian titles. "This is what happens when 25 million people stop thinking of themselves as sick, sinful or criminally deviant, and begin to affirm themselves and their lives."

"There is a desperate urge to define ourselves as a community, and one of the ways we are able to do that is through books," added David Groff, a senior editor of Crown Books and a founder of the Publishing Triangle, an organization for gays and lesbians in the publishing business.

Many point out that the new gay writing is more than self-affirming. At a time when AIDS is decimating the ranks of gay men--10% of the homosexual men in San Francisco have either died of or been found to have fully developed cases of AIDS, and another 40% are believed to be infected with the HIV virus--writing has become a means of achieving immortality for writer and subject alike.

"There is an incredible need to leave a written record," said John Preston, editor of the anthology "Personal Dispatches: Writers Confront AIDS."

"I wish to leave a proper testament of what my people have gone through," added Paul Monette, author of "Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir," the critically acclaimed account of his lover Roger Horwitz's illness and death. "The impulse to write the book was very much to leave a record for the future."

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