Research in Progress: Spring 2013

This semester, I am working on a series of very exciting projects relating mostly to gender and queerness as represented within the literary landscape. I just wanted to share my (tentative) goals and expectations for these projects in order to give you  sense of what I’ve been up to these past few months. If you happen to know of any readings or sources that can aid me in any of my projects, feel free to let me know. I will greatly appreciate it!

Project #1 – The Undercover Life of Gay Teen Fiction: Publishing Trends and Paratextual Differences in Hardback and Paperback Books

Many researchers have pointed out that despite the fact that we are constantly advised to not judge a book by its cover, we ultimately succumb to this practice when deciding what books to read or purchase. Publishing houses and firms are well aware of our tendency to be drawn to a book according to the rhetorical features of book covers. Because of this, different covers are deliberately designed for the same book in order to expand its appeal to different marketing segments and niches. Although a lot of research has been done in terms of scrutinizing the repackaging of Young Adult (YA) books in order to tailor them for different audiences, few researchers have delved into the nuances of the material or paratextual demands of particular genres of YA fiction.

My project will focus its attention on the genre of gay YA fiction, which are texts that are targeted to a gay audience, or that contain prominent gay themes, characters, or issues. My interest in this topic stems from the fact that the covers of gay YA texts are sometimes “repackaged” when distributed in paperback form. Whereas it seems that hardback covers of gay YA texts seem to conceal the fact that they discuss gay content, their repackaged paperback counterparts, which are usually released about a year after the hardbacks, display covers that openly embrace the “gay nature” of the text. By drawing from discussions of materiality and paratext, my intention is to develop a better grasp of the market of gay YA fiction and the ideas behind the conceptualization and practice of book cover design. This, in turn, will allow me to develop an understanding of the cultural forces and mechanisms that lead to such stark differences between hardback and paperback versions of popular gay teen novels. Using this as a foundational platform, I will then deconstruct and analyze the hardback and paperback iterations of five popular gay YA texts. Who is the target audience for these books and their repackaged versions? Does gay YA fiction embrace current trends of book design, or do they reject them? Why do paperback versions openly embrace the gay themes of the novels, while the hardback versions tend to avoid this embrace? More importantly, how do the different covers engage viewers into an interpretive exchange, and what does this say about the market’s perceptions of its target audience?

Project #2 – Recognizing and Validating Loss: The Performative Productivity of Queer Grief in Modern Sea Drama

In his discussion of tragedy in J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea, Daniel Davy discusses the paradoxical nature of the sea as a space of both creation and destruction. Despite the supposed impartiality of the sea, it can be argued that it is, in due course, a very human space that reflects immensely on the human condition. This notion holds particularly true when it comes to those whose lives and sustenance depend on the sea itself. The life of a sailor demands certain sacrifices to be made. These sacrifices include a rejection of meaningful relationships outside of the ship, the rejection of a stable home, and possibly, the rejection of progeny; thus, those who venture through the sea are removed from the promises of a land-dwelling life. A life on terra firma is viewed as a normative and productive choice that ensures not only happiness, but also futurity. Sailors are thus “queer” in the sense that they are not fixed on either side of the land/sea duality. Sailors inhabit both spaces, a notion that evidences the weakness of this dichotomy in the first place. The sea’s lack of futurity, the triangular tension between the earth, the sea, and the sailor, and even the massiveness of the sea itself disrupts most attempts at entirely fixing its meaning. These factors ultimately make narratives of the sea very suitable to queer interpretations.

My intent with this discussion, however, is not to queer the sea. The notion of the sea as a queer space is obvious for reasons pointed out above. My intent is to illustrate how the queerness of the sea and the sailor is invoked and channeled in modernist drama in order to increase the overall pathos infused within the plays. More specifically, I will argue that the queer aspects in modernist drama of the sea not only push readers to question what losses can or cannot be mourned, but also that it is through the very queerness of the plays that allows the audience the potential to recognize and reflect upon losses in ways that certain characters could not. In order to evidence this potential, I will focus my discussion on J.M Synge’s Riders to the Sea (1904) and Eugene O’Neill’s Bound East for Cardiff (1914), two plays that focus almost exclusively on the destructive power of the sea and its aftereffects. My hope is that this discussion will lead to a better understanding of how loss is represented and performed within these two plays, while in turn providing readers with an interpretive venue in which the lack of futurity and the lack of definition can be viewed as productive venues of exploration.

(Special thanks to Leanne MacDonald for helping me fine-tune the aims and goals of this essay! You can check out her blog on Medieval literature, saints, and women by clicking here).

Project #3 – Beyond the Heard, Beyond the Seen: Deafness and the Construction of Gender in Brian Sloan’s A Really Nice Prom Mess

Hardback cover for Brian Sloan's "A Really Nice Prom Mess."

Hardback cover for Brian Sloan’s “A Really Nice Prom Mess.”

Covering everything from a disastrous prom, shady drug deals in public restrooms, strippers, police chases through the slums of Washington D.C., and a secret gay relationship between a love-struck “nerd” and a stoic jock, Brian Sloan’s comedy of errors titled A Really Nice Prom Mess (2008) really sticks out from an ever-rising sea of gay young adult novels. Portraying a series of disasters and insurmountable obstacles in a fashion that would put a telenovela to shame, Sloan’s unique characters and impeccable comedic timing ultimately makes this outlandish novel, as Publisher’s Weekly puts it, “easy to swallow.” But in spite of the novel’s eccentric and downright bizarre plot, few readers have recognized Sloan’s work as being one of the few texts that portray queer characters who also happen to be disabled: a gay ex-football player who is half deaf, and a whimsical gay stripper who is entirely deaf. Although these characters are in no way the focus of the novel, they are both crucial to both the downfall and resolution of the novel’s plot. Even more so, the presence of these two characters ultimately serves as a platform that allows one to organically explore the intersection of gender, queerness, and deafness[1] not only as modes of representation, but also as comments upon the cultural and social assumptions prevalent within our postmodern society.

In his groundbreaking discussion on “The Deafened Moment as Critical Modality,” Lennard J. Davis, a pioneer in the area of disability studies as applied to literature, posits that while focusing on the representation and treatment of disabled characters in literary works has indeed been an emancipatory and innovative move in terms of raising awareness, it has also become restrictive as a critical approach. As he points out in his discussion, “there is a limit to what can be said—that disabled characters are usually villains or outcasts, but when they are not they are glorified and held up as testaments to the human spirit” (898). Seeing as Sloan’s novel is distilled through the perspective of a non-disabled protagonist, it can be assumed that indeed, there are definitely issues in terms of how deaf characters are constructed and represented. While many of these approaches are due to the main character’s misunderstandings about the deaf community, the biggest issues of deaf representation arise when the protagonist associates deafness with either stupidity or sexual stubbornness. However, as Davis argues in the conclusion of his discussion, “[A] consideration of deafness (or any disability) in literature can amount to more than a compilation of the ways deaf characters are treated in literary works” (898).

Although this discussion will lightly touch upon the issues of deafness as represented in Sloan’s novel, my chief aim will attune to the spirit of Davis’s discussion. In other words, I will not focus most of my attention on the treatment of deaf characters in the novel, but rather, on how deafness and Deaf culture allow both the characters in the novel, and us as readers, to challenge, and possibly reconfigure, our cultural assumptions of gender and queerness. In other words, rather than focusing solely on how deaf characters are represented, and how the novel obviously raises awareness of the challenges and obstacles that deaf individuals face, I will center my attention on how deafness within the novel becomes a motif that both illuminates and complicates notions of gender. More than being an aim towards inclusiveness  I will posit that the presence of deaf characters in A Really Nice Prom Mess adds richness and complexity to the issues of gender that are central to the work.

[1] By the use of words such as disability or disabled in this discussion, I am not referring to my own personal judgments or perceptions, but rather, I am referring to the constructed category that is imposed upon individuals who are classified or who identify themselves as part of these communities. When writing about sensitive issues such as disability, gender, and sexuality, there is always the fear of either misrepresenting the community or referring to the community in an insensitive fashion (especially if one does not belong to said community). That being said, I hope it is understood that I am trying to approach the issues in this paper as objectively and sensitively as possible.

Gay Assimilationists versus Radical Queers: The Death of Queerness?

Last week, while leading a discussion on queer theory, the issue of gay assimilation and radical queerness came up. In a nutshell, gay assimilationists seek complete integration within existing cultural norms and institutions, while radical queers reject integration because they view it as an embrace of the very values and institutions that have fostered sexual and gender-based oppression in the first place. Naturally, these opposing views have been the source of much debate among queer and non-queer communities. As pointed out by Jonathan Kemp in his discussion titled Queer Past, Queer Present, Queer Future :

In America since the mid 90s a fierce debate has raged between assimilationist lesbians and gay men and radical queers. The assimilationists want gay marriage, inclusion in the military, the right to adopt children–i.e., equal status within the status quo. Queers, on the other hand, want nothing to do with the status quo, instead regarding the most vibrant and radical aspect of homosexuality as being precisely its opposition to normative sexuality and society. (8)

This “fierce debate” began to rise during the mid 90s, and today, we can say that it has reached its pinnacle during 2013, with the well-documented and saturated debates of gay marriage in the U.S. Supreme Court (click here to check out the many articles posted on this topic in the Huffington Post). You also know that an issue has reached its apex when it appears on the cover of Time Magazinein which the magazine posits that the aims of gay assimilation, at least within the context of marriage, have been achieved: “The Supreme Court hasn’t made up its mind–but America has.”

Time Magazine Cover

Time Magazine cover for the U.S. April 8th, 2013 edition. Check out David von Drehle’s article “How Gay Marriage Won” by clicking here.

While gay marriage is now considered an “American” issue which capitalizes on the tension between gay and straight communities in the U.S. context, many people fail to realize that the tension is primarily a queer issue. On one hand, many deem that queer individuals deserve the same rights and privileges that heterosexual individuals have. On the other hand, we have people who view queerness as a threat to heteronormativity. Adding a third hand to this dilemma (and completely ignoring the facts of human biology), there are individuals who lament assimilation, for they view it as the death or obliteration of the traits that institute queerness in the first place. When discussing this tension between assimilationist and radical views, I showed my classmates a clip from Showtime’s infamous show Queer as Folk, which aired from 2000-2005.

For those who are unable to watch the clip above, here is a brief transcript of the argument that is taking place between the two characters:

Brian: You infected him with your petty bourgeois, mediocre, conformist, assimilationist life! Thanks to you, he’s got visions babies, weddings, white picket fences, dancing in his blond little head.

Michael: And you think I put them there?

Brian: Before you and your husband tied the noose around your necks, he was perfectly happy! And now he’s a defector just like the rest of you!

Michael: He was never perfectly happy! Waiting for years for you to say ‘I love you, you’re the only one I want’!

Brian: That’s not who I am!

I thought that the clip effectively illustrates the tension between assimilationists and radicals within the gay community itself. In order to provide some context for the clip above, what we are observing is an argument between the show’s two protagonists: Michael, an “assimilationist” who has married his partner, adopted a child, and brought a home within a suburb… and Brian, the radical queer who views marriage, babies, and “white picket fences” as everything that goes against queer communities. The argument arose when Brian’s boyfriend, Justin, broke-up with him because he was developing a desire for assimilationist pursuits that went against Brian’s radical queerness.

Leaving the over-the-top nature of the acting aside, this clip really does illustrate the tension that exists between these two views within actual gay communities. While it can be argued that Michael’s pursuit of happiness and his engagement with assimilationist practices should be a non-issue, Brian goes as far as to consider assimilation a disease capable of infecting other gay men (alluding to HIV and AIDS imagery that is constantly brought up in the series). Interestingly, while Brian approaches assimilation as a defection, Michael ultimately approaches Brian’s embrace of radical queerness as the element responsible for Justin’s departure:

Brian: And now [Justin’s] here in your house…

Michael: It’s a home.

Brian: It’s a farce! It’s a freak show!

Michael: Call it what you want, I honestly don’t care. But he didn’t leave because I ‘infected’ him. He left because of you. Who wouldn’t?

Which side won? As demonstrated by this scene in Queer as Folk, both assimilationist and radical queer views are complex and convoluted, and each side views the other as a major source of tension within queer communities. The issue, however, is that assimilation and radical queerness are often presented as opposing forces, but alas, I am not entirely sure about this.

Part of me wants to say that it is possible to be partially assimilationist and radical, but the more I think about this issue, the more paradoxical it feels. On one hand, I feel strongly assimilationist: I believe queer individuals should have the right to marry, to adopt/have children and raise them, to serve in the military, and to have the same rights and privileges that any U.S. citizen has. On the other hand, I often question the costs that this assimilation will have. If complete assimilation were to occur, would queer essentially cease to be queer? What will be lost in terms of gay culture and identity? Is this loss necessarily a bad thing? These are questions that I continue to ask myself every day.

But, something that I ultimately ask myself is whether a gain always entails a loss. Does assimilation imply the loss of everything that is beautiful and unique about queer culture? Perhaps not. The foundation of queer culture is based upon a fight for difference, a fight for justice, a striving to be whatever we are or choose to be, even if it does not fit within conventional social parameters. Even if complete assimilation were to occur, I think that queerness will still find a way to continue its fights and struggles, and it will continue to provide a venue in which oppression can be challenged and contested.

I think it is worth reflecting a lot more on the tension between assimilationist and radical queer views… and even more so, perhaps it is worth thinking about why this tension exists in the first place.