PRINT October 1992



Here is an anthology dressed in the editorial equivalent of a black leather jacket. Its cover decorated Deadhead style with a black-and-white skull-and-crossbones printed behind the legend Discontents spelled out in red Gothic lettering, it looks like what would happen if the Hell’s Angels set themselves up in desktop publishing. But an unexpected subtitle warning New Queer Writers issues a battle cry both to wary straight readers and, presumably, to the merely gay- and/or lesbian-identified homosexual. More provocatively, the back cover promises “a maelstrom of more than 50 transgressive works.” Inside, the authors, their names laid out alphabetically in no-nonsense, Macintoshy typeface, are heralded by cut-the-bullshit L.A. bad-boy Dennis Cooper, in an editor’s introduction spanning a terse paragraph.

“This collection taps into the vast, diverse, and growing antiassimilationist queer movement,” Cooper enthuses, offering a sampling of “writers and comix artists who refuse in different ways to make the kinds of compromises necessary for mainstream success.” To classify established authors like Sarah Schulman, Eileen Myles, Robert Glück, and Gary Indiana, and also cartoonist Alison Bechdel, as outside the lesbian and gay mainstream strikes me as somewhat misleading. But Cooper’s anthology includes contributions by writers and editors from “brave, handmade magazines,” or ’zines, like Fertile LaToya Jackson Magazine, Bimbox, Screambox, Holy Titclamps, and Fist in Your Face. It is with these “postliterate” selections, primarily, that Cooper hopes to send a “wakeup call to future gay literary anthologies.”

What, then, have Vaginal Creme Davis, Johnny Noxzema, Dumb Bitch Deserves To Die, Carrie, Candy, and Jelli Cleaver to offer that the ordinary homo-compilation, edited by Edmund White or David Leavitt, allegedly lacks? Well, it is refreshing to read a gay and lesbian anthology in which lesbians actually appear. Indeed, with strong contributions from Schulman, Myles, Bechdel, Dorothy Allison, and Pat Califia, they dominate. Also represented are drag queens (Vaginal Cream Davis), professional clowns (BlastOff), and omnisexual porn stars (Annie Sprinkle). The fiction is interspersed with comic strips and interviews, as if to keep the overall tone from getting too Literary. Cooper seems eager to recreate the feel of a fanzine, in a volume encompassing adolescent silliness as easily as AIDS anxiety, teen suburban boredom as well as grown-up urban rage.

But there is that word “transgressive,” which suggests something original, not just in the selection of writers, but in the writing itself. And I had difficulty determining what was new or fresh about much of the presented work, unless, of course, the inclusion of pornography and body objectification is considered striking in a collection edited by a gay man, or the depiction of body mutilation and snuff sex is surprising in an anthology compiled by Dennis Cooper. And while I am sure some feminist critics will disagree with me, I do not find it ground-breaking or encouraging to learn that when lesbians write explicitly about sex, they are sometimes capable of the same numbing, dehumanizing blandness of language and feeling that characterizes most gay male pornography.

By “pornography,” I mean not just any writing about sex, but, specifically, writing that reduces human interactions to a series of nouns and verbs and boring adjectives, used over and over, in relentless succession. The big, dirty secret about most pornography is that it degrades everybody because it’s just so dull. And Cooper’s collection contains some of the most banal and predictable writing about lust and desire since Ernest Hemingway’s Robert Jordan noted, in For Whom the Bell Tolls, that “the earth moved.”

Thumb through Discontents at your neighborhood bookstore (despite its “alternative” packaging, I’m sure it can be found at Brentano’s) and notice the hungry butts, the buckets of cum, the screaming orgasms, the capacious cunts, the fat dick-heads, and the dribbling spit that clog page after page. “Every rhythmic thrust made her gush rivers of cum,” Debra-Lynn Wilson writes, in codified pornographic language that expresses nothing except cliché. “Intestines feel so good when ya run back and forth back and forth along the bottom of your balls and jerk off with fuckshit crap on Bosley and lick a fuckshit heart,” Michael Jones advises, substituting nonstop sentences and deliberately shocking sentiments for true intensity. To Craig Lee, kissing an unavailable boy is “like going through a mirror backwards.” What does that mean? It’s an arresting image only because it’s a nonsensical one. But nonsense is not the same as insight, just as repetition isn’t necessarily emphasis, and monotony is not an aphrodisiac.

Some of Cooper’s writers manage to hide their inability to communicate either feelings or ideas with any grace or range of human emotion behind narrative devices. Eric Latzky speaks in second-person-imperative voice (“Focus your attentions on the canvas laid out in front of you. It is a complicated, textured surface”) as if he were narrating an exercise tape for the mind. In “Reproduction,” Gary Indiana, a recent convert to the literature of evisceration, accumulates scene after scene of sexual cannibalism, as if he were Walt Whitman, listing all the kinds of people he saw on Broadway that morning. His point seems to be that heterosexuality is the true obscenity in a homo- and sexophobic culture. But he doesn’t evoke any feelings more profound than distaste, or inspire any thought too complicated to be spray-painted on a highway underpass.

A few selections in this anthology demonstrate how sex and shocking images can be used to deepen understanding or invoke an emotional response. In “Robin,” Myles writes poetically about an obsessive affair in which the narrator is attracted, in spite of herself, to a woman whose coldness appalls and excites her. The first time they have sex, the woman urinates in the narrator’s mouth, then coolly asks to play some music. “I lay on the bed,” the narrator says, “fascinated by the acrid taste of piss, yet horrified at the inadequacies of my tape collection.” The narrator’s honesty is hilarious; Myles particularizes sex, describing the exact sequence of motion and response, in language that is specific, not pornographically fuzzy. Dale Peck’s “(Untitled)” is equally precise about the details of a character’s death from AIDS, and the narrator’s alternately detached and horrified reaction. And Schulman’s “Surrender” subtly and unselfconsciously links the intimacies of sex-play to national and communal tensions of undeclared war, as two lovers break through to each other on the eve of the war with Iraq. Schulman perceptively grounds sexuality in political relationships. Her deeply layered writing is charged with eroticism, because her characters, unlike the stick figures inhabiting many of the stories in this collection, resonate fully.

But I wouldn’t say that Myles, Schulman, and Peck, or, indeed, any of the writers in this anthology, constitute a literary movement. “Some queers can write, but most of them can’t,” strikes me as the most palpable lesson of Discontents. I still don’t know what “transgressive” means. But I found myself wondering, after the “frank talk” about sex, the typographical errors, and the intermittently slipshod syntax, whether this wasn’t, after all, primarily just a bunch of dykes and fags trying hard not to look like sissies, or members of the Gay Men’s Chorus. I sympathize with Johnny Noxzema’s impulse to assassinate musical-comedy queens (though, with my Stephen,Sondheim collection, I would be among the first to go). But the volume’s street tone and tough-guy design made me suspicious. I couldn’t help wondering if it wasn’t all just so much butch assurance.

John Weir is a writer living in New York. His most recent book is The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket.