"The Violet Quill Reader: The Emergence of Gay Writing After Stonewall," by David Bergman, Ed. 410 pages. New York: St. Martin's Press. Paperback, $14.95
David Bergman undertook a noble, ambitious task. He assembled selections of the best published and unpublished chapters, short stories, essays, personal letters and diary entries of America's most prominent gay contemporary writers. Moreover, he explained the literary, historical and social significance of their work. The result is a sophisticated tome that should appeal not only to academics or gay people interested in their cultural heritage, but to lovers of good writing as well.
More than a compendium, "The Violet Quill Reader" introduces us to a wickedly brilliant, often ironic, sometimes bitchy but always incisive group. From their informal gatherings, eight altogether between 1980 and 1981, these New York writers created The Violet Quill Club. Their purpose was to share, critique and support each other's work. The sex, the gossip, the late dinners and colorful coterie they attracted was coincidental. More importantly, however, what emerged from private, subcultural salons was the birth of a body of affirmative, 'N non-pornographic, unapologetic and proud gay literature. Included in this distinguished circle are Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano, Michael Grumley, Robert Ferro, Christopher Cox and George Whitmore.
In re-introducing these writers, Bergman delved deep into their private lives. Half of this incestuous group, for example, were lovers. Some of them died of AIDS. Eight pages of interesting photographs give faces to the names and stories.
Although the chapter containing the brilliantly farcical "Aunt Persia and the Jesus Man," by Christopher Cox, has no gay theme, most portray facets of modern gay life in ways that stir the collective gay consciousness. They eloquently describe the alternating joy and terror of coming out, the vicissitudes of intimate relationships, AIDS, homophobia, sexuality, gay humor and even, portentously, gays in the military. The excerpts from Andrew Holleran's "Dancer From the Dance" and Edmund White's "A Boy's Own Story" made me want to go back and reread the books.
"The Violet Quill Reader" acknowledges the importance of the era in which the authors wrote. The Stonewall riots had just occurred - considered by many to be the beginning of the American civil rights movement for gays. The pre-AIDS, highly sexually-charged New York gay scene then turned into the HIV pandemic. Reflected in the eyes, souls and writings of the Violet Quill, gays were becoming more angry, defiant and demanding while society polarized between the tolerant and the intolerant.
Bergman points out the industry's shift in publishing the works of these writers. Previously, publishers worked under ". . . the notion that gay fiction, because it was gay, could not be good" ". . . gay characters . . . played minor roles in [heterosexual] stories, . . . lived lonely, tragic lives which end in murder or suicide. . ." or they were pornographic. The works of the members of The Violet Quill Club marked the first time that
mainstream American publishers produced stories about the gay experience in its own vernacular. This and the joy of the prose itself make "The Violet Quill Reader" a must-read for the complete gay library.
Kenneth Morgen is the author of "Getting Simon: Two Gay Doctors' Journey to Fatherhood" (Bramble, 1995). He is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Towson.