We Are the Stories We Tell: Patrick Ness’ [More Than This]

(Major spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned!)

Front cover of Patrick Ness' More Than This

Front cover of Patrick Ness’ More Than This (2013)

“People see stories everywhere,” Regine says. “That’s what my father used to say. We take random events and we put them together in a pattern so we can comfort ourselves with a story, no matter how much it obviously isn’t true.” She glances back at Seth. “We have to lie to ourselves to live. Otherwise, we’d go crazy.” (Ness 217)

The notions of storytelling and narrative are central to Patrick Ness’ 2013 young adult novel entitled More Than This. As can be seen in the quote above, Regine, an important character in the novel, demonstrates awareness of the cognitive function of narrative: it is a method of organizing the world to make sense of it and to interpret it. In other words, it is an ordering or sequencing of events that conveys a particular set of ideas, beliefs, or functions. Through the implementation of metafictional elements and characters who are aware of the nature of storytelling and narration, Ness’ novel brilliantly subverts many of the grand narratives present in young adult literature, and fiction in general.

More Than This is a young adult novel that is difficult to describe. On one hand, it is a philosophical exploration of narrative, the afterlife, the nature of storytelling, and reality. On the other hand, it is a young adult dystopian novel that explores topics such as death, sexuality, family, and friendship. More than a novel, Ness’ work is an exhilarating narrative experiment: through the exploration of adolescence in a post-apocalyptic context, Ness pushes us to question the value of stories in our lives, regardless of whether said stories are real or fabricated.

In the novel’s introduction, Ness challenges the expectations that we have of narratives by beginning the story in an unexpected fashion. Although death is traditionally viewed as the endpoint of a narrative, it marks the beginning of the story being told in More Than This. The novel opens with Seth, the protagonist, committing suicide by drowning himself at sea. He immerses himself into violent and cold waters found in the Pacific Northwest area of the United States, and he is thrashed against some unforgiving rocks by the relentless waves:

The impact is just behind his left ear. It fractures his skull, splintering it into his brain, the force of it also crushing his third and fourth vertebrae, severing both his cerebral artery and his spinal cord, an injury from which there is no return, no recovery. No chance.

He dies. (Ness 3)

The introduction of the novel is thus a reversal of the usual teleology that we have come to expect in traditional narratives (particularly young adult narratives) which focus on the linear development or the transition of a protagonist from point A to point Z. Like most young adult novels, More Than This does focus on transition–but said transition is triggered through death rather than adolescence.

After killing himself, Seth awakens in a perverse version of his childhood home in England. Although Seth recognizes this home, he notices dramatic differences between the place that he knew and its current condition: thick ashen dust has covered nearly every surface, and everything seems abandoned and mistreated–as if nobody has lived in the house for decades. Seth soon realizes that he is alone in this strange place, and he comes to the conclusion that he is living in “A hell built exactly for him” (20).

What is fascinating about More Than This is its ambiguity. At first we are led to believe Seth’s interpretation of his surroundings as a personal hell, but as the novel develops, we receive conflicting events and pieces of information that make it difficult to fully understand and know the setting of the novel. Various theories develop as the narrative progresses. Although Seth believes that he is in hell, paying consequences for actions he committed in life, the narrative takes a dystopic, post-apocalyptic turn. It is revealed that Seth is now living in the “real” world, and that the world that he used to live in was merely a virtual (online) space that society created to escape the pressures of living in a decaying and fractured world (this is actually a very complicated part of the story that’s difficult to summarize, so bear with me).

The novel, however, complicates the reader’s ability to fully believe this dystopian narrative. Seth understands that the presence of a digital alternate reality does explain many things about the “real” world, but he also admits that this explanation is full of gaps. Further complicating Seth’s ability to trust in the “real” post-apocalyptic world are the inexplicable coincidences that he encounters regularly: loose ends tie a little too nicely, Seth is always rescued from danger at the last possible moment, and things sometimes materialize when he thinks about them. His distrust in his current reality begins to peak when he encounters two other people, Regine and Tomasz, who rescue him right before he is attacked by an ominous, Death-like presence known as the Driver, who travels around in a black van: “Something’s still not right about this. These two just happened  to be there when he was running toward the hill, just happened to stop him before he made contact with the black van, just happened  to find  the perfect place to hide from the Driver?” (183, emphasis in original).

Because of the factors mentioned above, Seth begins to believe that what he is experiencing is simply a “story that he’s telling himself” (250)–and this is where the novel becomes increasingly interesting from a (meta)fictional perspective. The novel’s metafictional aspects are highlighted earlier in the novel, when Seth encounters a book that he read as a child. While re-reading this novel, he reflects on the nature of books, and how these objects are able to contain a reality within their pages: “A book, he thinks at one point, rubbing his eyes, tired from so much focused reading. It’s a world all on its owntoo. He looks at the cover again. […] A world made of words, Seth thinks, where you live for a while (135, emphasis in original). Although Ness uses italics to mark thoughts that are substantiated in Seth’s mind, one cannot help but notice how these italics inevitably highlight key phrases and ideas. These italicized words bring many thoughts to mind:

  1. Seth is a protagonist who literally lives in a world made of words.
  2. Through reading More Than This, we as readers end up living in a world made of words for a while.
  3. It is possible that Seth’s current reality is nothing more than a world made of words.

The possibility of Seth’s reality being a story that he is telling himself becomes even more of a possibility towards the end of the novel, where he makes predictions based on past narratives that he’s encountered before. The most jarring of these predictions occurs after Seth, Regine, and Tomasz first destroy the Driver:

The Driver seems clearly dead, but Seth notices how slowly they’re all moving, as if at any second they expect it to surge back to life and attack them.

That’s what would happen if this were a story, Seth thinks. The villain who wouldn’t stay dead. The one who has to be stopped over and over again. That’s what would happen if this were all just my mind trying to tell me something. (407, emphasis in original)

As can be expected, the villain does not stay dead. Towards the novel’s conclusion, the Driver appears out of nowhere to stop the characters from re-entering the virtual world with their current knowledge of the “real” world. After defeating the Driver, once again, Seth, Regine, and Tomasz question whether the reality they are currently experiencing is no different from the virtual world that they managed to escape–whether they are all, in due course, a figment of Seth’s imagination. This is especially true after they witness Seth’s ability to predict the outcome of events that they face. The novel, however, refuses to provide readers with any answers to this question, and instead embraces ambiguity as an alternative to knowing:

He’s uncertain what’s going to happen next.

But he is certain that that’s actually the point.

If this is all a story, then that’s what the story means.

If it isn’t a story, then the exact same is true. (471, emphasis in original)

More Than This is thus a testament to the power of fiction and storytelling. Seth is the story that is told… we all are the stories that we tell. Regardless of whether said stories are true or fictional, they still have the power to produce meaning, to produce knowledge, and to produce selves. The narrative refuses to provide readers with direct answers, but this refusal, in due course, gives us the power to make what we want out of the story. We do not know if Seth is experiencing the “real,” whether he is living a narrative that his mind created to cope with his suicide, or whether he is simply a character lost within a sequence of random events. But this novel is precisely about not being able to know–and how by not knowing, we are able to stitch together an infinite amount of patterns and events to comfort ourselves, to orient ourselves, and find ourselves.

This post does not do justice to the philosophical richness, complexity, and brilliance of Ness’ work. More Than This also contains illuminating discussions on notions such as queerness, sexuality, loss, and relationships. Seth is also one of the most complex gay characters that I’ve encountered in young adult fiction (yes, the protagonist is gay, and his sexuality is a major component of the narrative). I wholeheartedly concur with John Green’s assessment of this novel: “Just read it.”

You can purchase a copy of More Than This by clicking here.

Work Cited

Ness, Patrick. More Than This. Berryville: Candlewick Press, 2013. Print (paperback edition)

Cover/featured image by Diane Yuri. Original version cropped and flipped.

On Happy Endings and Gay Fiction: E.M. Forster’s [Maurice]

Front cover of E.M. Forster's Maurice

Front cover of E.M. Forster’s Maurice (1971)

“A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam in the greenwood. […] Happiness is its keynote–which by the way has had an unexpected result: it has made the book more difficult to publish.”

(E.M. Forster, Terminal note of Maurice – p. 236)

Maurice, a central text within the gay literary canon, is by far one of the bravest creative works written within the genre of LGBT literature; arguably, it is one of the bravest texts of the early twentieth century. The novel is an essence a Bildungsroman that traces the emotional development of the eponymous hero as he deals with the repercussions of being homosexual in Edwardian England. During his time at college, Maurice Christopher Hall becomes involved in a romantic (yet strictly chaste) relationship with his Cambridge colleague, Clive Durham, until the latter decides to marry a woman–leaving Maurice desolate and heartbroken. Through his attempts to “cure” his homosexuality through hypnosis and other means, Maurice meets Alec, a gatekeeper at the Durham estate. He becomes involved both romantically and sexually with Alec, and decides to start a life with him–all while affirming his “Wildean” identity to Clive as an act of socio-cultural resistance. As Maurice admirably states in his declaration of queer embodiment to Clive:

I was yours once till death if you’d cared to keep me, but I’m someone else’s now–I can’t hang about whining for ever–and he’s mine in a way that shocks you, but why don’t you stop being shocked, and attend to your own happiness? (230)

Although written by E.M. Forster during 1913-14, he refused to publish the book during his lifetime because of the negative legal and moralistic attitudes toward homosexuality that permeated England during the advent of the century. While bravery isn’t necessarily reflected in Forster’s (perfectly reasonable) decision to withhold publishing the text during his lifetime, it is reflected in the novel’s content: to envision a world, fictional or realistic, in which two men could “fall in love and remain in it” was beyond the scope of most modernist writers. It’s also brave in terms of its optimism, for in a world in which literary merit is driven by pain, suffering, depression, and unhappy endings, writing a novel with a happy ending is indeed a deviation from the grim albeit expected nature of the “literary.”

It is no coincidence, however, that Maurice was written just before World War I. One could only imagine how this optimism would be affected if the novel were written a year or two later. Forster did edit the novel during the 1960s, and it was known for having an epilogue in which Maurice’s younger sister (Kitty) encounters him and Alec working as woodcutters (and the consequent hatred she develops once she puts two and two together). Forster decided to discard this epilogue because the novel’s action is set in 1912, and the epilogue would’ve taken place a few years later in “the transformed England of the First World War (239). Thus, even though the novel is edited decades after it was written, its narrative essence and its optimistic outlook remained unchanged because it is meant to be approached as a snapshot of homosexual love during a period in which issues of class, aristocracy, politeness, and appearance are crucial to character development. This, in conjunction with the fact that the novel was published almost sixty years after it was written, leads it to be approached as a period piece (even though it was not written to be read this way).

Given the fact that the novel was written so early during the twentieth century, it is surprising to see how forward-thinking the novel is in terms of its views on sex, homosexuality, and queerness. Maurice is shown from his early teens to sense some discomfort in terms of heterosexual courtship. This is particularly noticeable when Mr. Ducie is explaining the act of heterosexual intercourse (with diagrams and illustrations traced on sand) to a fourteen year-old Maurice at the beach. The young teen is unable to grasp the adult’s approach to the birds and the bees: “He was attentive, as was natural when he was the only one in the class, and he knew that the subject was serious and related to his own body. But he could not himself relate it; it fell to pieces as soon as Mr. Ducie put it together, like an impossible sum (7, emphasis mine). The design and mechanics of heterosexual intercourse do not mesh with Maurice’s sensibilities, thus linking homosexuality to organic or perhaps even genetic roots. Indeed, this biological perspective goes in accordance with the view of homosexuality as pathological during this period, and the hypnotist that attempts to cure Maurice of his “trouble” in the novel goes as far as to diagnose him with a case of “Congenital homosexuality” (167). This diagnosis may indeed seem problematic, but before jumping to conclusions, I want to focus my attention on an exchange that happens between Maurice and Lasker Jones (the hypnotist/therapist) during the last failed attempt to cure the former of his so-called ailment:

“And what’s to happen to me?” said Maurice, with a sudden drop in his voice. He spoke in despair, but Mr Lasker Jones had an answer to every question. “I’m afraid I can only advise you to live in some country that has adopted the Code Napoleon,” he said.

“I don’t understand.”

“France or Italy, for instance. There homosexuality is no longer criminal.”

“You mean that a Frenchman could share with a friend and yet not go to prison?”

“Share? Do you mean unite? If both are of age and avoid public indecency, certainly.”

“Will the law ever be that in England?”

“I doubt it. England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”

Maurice understood. He was an Englishman himself, and only his troubles had kept him awake. He smiled sadly. “It comes to this then: there always have been people like me and always will be, and generally they have been persecuted.”

“That is so, Mr Hall; or, as psychiatry prefers to put it, there has been, is, and always will be every conceivable type of person. And you must remember that your type was once put to death in England.” (Forster 196)

Although homosexuality is approached as pathological in most of the novel, Lasker Jones and Maurice seem to come to the consensus that homosexuality is simply a way of being that has been policed and suppressed in an effort to further wedge the divide between the cultural and the natural. This passage is emancipatory in that it problematizes the view of homosexuals being unable to assimilate to cultural norms through an inversion of agency: the problem is not the homosexual’s inability to mesh with society, but rather, society’s inability to mesh with the homosexual (i.e. people who have existed, exist, and always will exist). This is precisely why a happy ending for the novel, as Forster put it, was imperative.

Forster could have played it safe to assure that Maurice was published during his lifetime: “If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well, for there is no pornography or seduction of minors” (236). But ending this novel in a tragedy would’ve not only followed the formula of countless other novels with gay content published during the time, but it also would go against the possibility of creating an active and effective identity politics. True, tragedy (and backwards feelings), in its own macabre way, has a way of inspiring and igniting a politics of identity; after all, it is pain that establishes the need for a politics of identity in the first place. However, considering all of the pain already portrayed in the novel, would it be necessary for characters to embrace death as a way of demonstrating the unfairness of the status quo? Forster suggests, in due course, that perhaps the shears needed to unravel the knot of (hetero)normativity are not found through death, solitude, and pain, but rather, through life, union, and happiness. Maurice, rather than basking in solitude, finds strength through Alec, and assures him that they “shan’t be parted no more, and that’s finished” (225). And although the forever-ness present within the lack of this parting may only be found in fiction, it is a fiction I’m willing to live through vicariously.

You can purchase a copy of Forster’s Maurice here.

Work Cited

Forster, E.M. Maurice. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1971. Print.

Queer Times: An Analysis of David Levithan’s [Two Boys Kissing]

Front cover of David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing

Front cover of David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing (2013)

In the notes and acknowledgments section written at the end of Two Boys Kissing, author David Levithan states that “This isn’t a book I could have written ten years ago” (199). Levithan is absolutely right. Back in 2003, when I was still a sophomore in high school, I could never fathom the possibility of finding a book that so openly and proudly embraces gay themes. Could you imagine walking through a bookstore in 2003 and identifying a single book written for a young reader with two boys kissing on the cover? Absolutely not. Levithan rightfully acknowledges that his book is symptomatic of the major events, challenges, and changes that the LGBT community has been facing for decades. However, Two Boys Kissing is much more than a focal point of gay and lesbian history. As I was approaching the end of this novel, I could sense that this book will trigger (or already has triggered) a major paradigm shift in the realm of gay (young adult) fiction. This is the book that we’ve been waiting for; this is the book that will change the game.

The heart of this novel’s plot is a narrative focused on two teenage boys named Craig and Harry, who are attempting to break the record for the world’s longest kiss in order to challenge heteronormative attitudes and ideologies present in their lives. But in addition to this central narrative, Levithan weaves the stories of other queer youths that are somehow connected to this record-breaking kiss: Neil and Peter,  who are in a relationship that would’ve been deemed impossible a couple of years ago; Avery, a pink-haired FTM transgender teen, and Ryan, a blue-haired boy Avery meets at an LGBT prom; Tariq Johnson, a teen who was gay-bashed–an event that inspires Craig and Harry to give a shot at breaking a world record; and Cooper Riggs, a gay teen who “could be outside his room, surrounded by people, and it would still feel like nowhere” (5). All of these narratives weave a complex web that attempts to illustrate the state of gay youth today, focusing not only on the progress that has been made throughout the decades, but also the issues that still need to be challenged in order for a progressive politics to take place.

There are two things that I find absolutely ground-breaking in terms of this novel: first and foremost, the novel is an overt attack on the lack of futurity that supposedly haunts queer lives. Rather than viewing queerness as limiting and as a domain of identity that embraces the “death drive” (think Lee Edelman), Levithan constructs a narrative that tries to disrupt these limits by constructing the future as a space that lacks precise definition but that is full of possibility. As the narrators of the novel eloquently put it:

What a powerful word, future. Of all the abstractions we can articulate to ourselves, of all the concepts we have that other animals do not, how extraordinary the ability to consider a time that’s never been experienced. And how tragic not to consider it. It galls us, we with such a limited future, to see someone brush it aside as meaningless, when it has an endless capacity for meaning, and an endless number of meanings that can be found within it. (155)

The second thing that I find groundbreaking comes into perspective when focusing on the passage above. Who are the narrators of this novel? Who are these subjects with such a limited future? The novel is narrated by the collective voice (i.e. Greek chorus) that consists of “your shadow uncles, your angel godfathers, your mother’s or your grandmother’s best friend from college, […]. We are characters in a Tony Kushner play, or names on a quilt that rarely gets taken out anymore. We are the ghosts of the remaining older generation” (3). Indeed, the novel is narrated by a generation of gay men who succumbed to AIDS during the advent and rise of disease. What we have then is a web of the present, weaved by the voices of the past, in order to enable a future. It can be argued that Levithan’s novel queers time to the extent that the boundaries of the past and present are no longer valid, turning the present into a state that can be perceived, scrutinized, and observed by voices from the past.

The attempt to bridge the past to the present creates a lot of tension within the novel, not only because the narrators seem to inhabit a space where time has no control, but also because these voices are unable to alter or change anything happening in the present. The voices are given the gift of knowledge, but they are unable to do anything with this knowledge other than observe, or give advice to the reader rather than to the characters of the novel itself (this is done several times when the narrators break the fourth wall to address the audience). Despite this tension, I think that the novel is novel in terms of altering the typical discourse of gay fiction. This discourse is altered by working towards a futuristic and emancipatory queer politics, while still keeping hold of the past–a past that triggered the need for a queer politics in the first place. Many gay works that perpetuate a sense of futurity do so by sacrificing the pain and torment found in the past. Levithan’s novel, on the other hand, embraces and highlights the pains and joys of the past-but also depicts this embrace as one that is willing to loosen its hold on queer subjects so they can continue moving forward. The past, in this case, becomes a launchpad to futurity rather than the binds that prevent any forward movement.

I think this novel greatly addresses questions pushed forth by Heather Love in her book Feeling Backwards: Loss and the Politics of Queer HistoryIn her book, Love constantly asks the reader to assess whether or not it is possible to have an awareness of the past without being consumed by it. Furthermore, Love ultimately wonders if it is possible to look back while still moving forward, or in other words, whether it is possible to work toward an emancipatory future without forgetting the past that necessitated this work in the first place. I don’t know if Levithan is familiar with Love’s work, but his novel seems to be a response, and perhaps, a solution towards the temporal issues found in queer lives. If he is not familiar with Love’s work, I think that Two Boys Kissing is the product of the same cultural demands that drove the creation of Love’s book in 2004.

Given that the genre of gay literature is usually saturated with perspectives that are driven by temporal extremes (i.e. the past and the future), it is frankly amazing to encounter an author that has been able to channel both the past and the present in order to envision a queer future. Thank you, David Levithan, for writing this book. Although you are right to establish that this book is a product of many past and current events, you are ultimately the agent that channeled a progressive queer history that still pays its homage to the past (and for young readers, nonetheless). I am more than certain that Two Boys Kissing will shift the paradigm of young adult and LGBT literature. The novel has already been nominated for the 2013 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and I’m sure that this is only the first of many nominations and accolades to come.

You can purchase a copy of Levithan’s novel by clicking here.

Works Cited and Consulted

Levithan, David. Two Boys Kissing. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Harvard University Press, 2007. Print

Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children

Front cover of Steven Bruhm's and Natasha Hurley's Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children

Front cover of Steven Bruhm’s and Natasha Hurley’s Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children

What is a queer child? What happens when a child moves away from accepted conventions of sexuality and adult heteronormativity? What are the repercussions of protecting children from the inevitable discovery of sexuality? How do storytellers control, regulate, or contest the notion of childhood sexuality? Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children is a collection of thought-provoking essays regarding the juxtaposition of children’s studies, sexuality, and queer theory compiled by Stephen Bruhm and Natasha Hurley that attempt to answer the questions above.

Curiouser approaches the notion of childhood queerness in both its sexual and traditional sense, using the term to depict any deviation from normality. Thus, the essays in this collection not only study children who don’t conform to the (non) sexual roles that are assigned to them, but also children who are “defined by and outside of what is ‘normal'” (x). Bruhm and Hurley make insightful claims not only about the presence of gay children, but also about the presence of gay and lesbian figures in children’s lives. In terms of the latter, they point out that it is deemed acceptable for children to know of gay individuals as long as they uphold and secure “the fantasy of a preferred future” (xiii). But in order for this future to be upheld, a dichotomy must be imposed between the state of childhood and the “threat” of sexuality.

Many of the ideas posited in the introduction of Curiouser were intriguing, but at times I caught myself wondering if the issue of childhood sexuality could be discussed and debated without encountering some backlash or apprehension from an audience. For instance, at one point in their introduction, Bruhm and Hurley point out that “remembered childhood experiences can be traumatic or pleasant; the problem that interests us most here is how to make sense of a child’s pleasure without pathologizing it or reducing it to ‘trauma'” (xxix). On one hand, I agree that it would be questionable to assert that children don’t feel pleasure, and it also would be questionable to deny that children possess some degree of sexuality. But, does this recognition entail that something is wrong with the child? How is this notion of childhood pleasure problematized when taking pedophilia into account? Although there indeed may be a case where a child feels pleasure through a sexual encounter with an adult, does this mean that this action is correct from a moral stance, especially when taking into consideration that the adult is typically more powerful than the child (in terms of experience, body size, and influence)?

Although the questions above aren’t entirely answered (or at times contradicted), the essays in this book collection attempt to demonstrate that children live beyond the fictions of childhood and innocence that we construct for them. This is particularly evidenced by the very existence of the queer child, who by definition goes against established norms and parameters of childhood. The essays are divided into two major sections: one focusing exclusively on the issues of childhood sexuality and the erotic child, driven primarily through the ideas of James R. Kincaid, Richard D. Mohr, among others; the other half focuses on the sexual connotation of queer as it pertains to the study of children and childhood. Among these essays, we find Kincaid’s “Producing Erotic Children,” which perpetuates the idea of the construction of the child, arguing that “erotic children are manufactured–in the sense that we produce them in our cultural factories, the ones that make meanings for us. They tell us what ‘the child’ is, and also that ‘the erotic’ is. I argue that for the last two hundred years or so, they have confused us, have failed to distinguish the two categories, have allowed them dangerously to overlap” (10). These notions become even more complex as we realize that the child, according to Kincaid, is defined “according to what they do not have” (10). From this perspective, the issue with childhood and eroticism is that we impose a divide within two categories that are not well-defined and that are very subjective, putting into question the accuracy and validity of this dichotomy in the first place.

True to the aims of queer theory, the essays in Curiouser expose constructed binaries imposed on society, and deconstructs them by highlighting their inability to be held or sustained in society. These binaries include but are not limited to childhood/eroticism, childhood/adulthood, innocence/experience, pleasure/trauma, among others. The book also does an excellent job of exposing the unwritten rules that are at play when analyzing the concept of childhood in juxtaposition to gender and sexuality, as seen in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s discussion of the war on effeminate boys, where she (somewhat facetiously) questions why the bulk of the discourse on queer children is aimed at steering the child away from homosexuality rather than steering them towards it. Other essays, such as Richard D. Mohr’s “The Pedophilia of Everyday Life” go as far as to present childhood as a concept that “cannot do the moral work society has created it to do” (29). Mohr’s line of inquiry was intriguing because he approaches childhood as a “security blanket” (29) designed to provide a balance for a society characterized by depression, violence, and bleakness. Yet, we come to realize, especially with the advent of the queer child, that even children are capable of possessing the very traits that we are protecting them from. Even more so, as adults, we enforce children to embody traits and characteristics that we ourselves are incapable of upholding.

Work Cited

Bruhm, Steven and Natasha Hurley (Eds.). Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. Print.

Queer Commodities: Contemporary US Fiction, Consumer Capitalism, and Gay and Lesbian Subcultures

Front cover of Guy Davidson's Queer Commodities

Front cover of Guy Davidson’s Queer Commodities

The process of commodification is commonly viewed as antithetical to the notion of queer. While many people within LGBT communities or subcultures have widely embraced the increasing presence and assimilation of gay culture into mainstream culture (which includes an increasing representation of gay and lesbian characters/issues in the media, the nationalization of LGBT rights, among others), some have resisted this embrace due to the implications of commodification (which resonate immensely with the assimilationist strand of queer activism). Does an embrace of consumerism and modification entail a betrayal of a political queer agenda, which thrives not only on the challenging of the status quo, but also on the explicit efforts to avoid normalization or categorizations? 

By focusing his attention on the relationship between LGBT sexualities, liberatory politics, and consumer culture in five contemporary American novels, Davidson’s Queer Temporalities attempts to demonstrate the inadequacy of celebrating or condemning this relationship. This inadequacy leads Davidson to argue that commodification not only has a necessary but varying effects for gay and lesbian subcultures, but he also focuses on how these subcultures can “resist or transform some of capitalism’s more oppressive or pernicious dimensions” (2) through commodities.

Davidson begins his discussion of the relationship between LGBT subcultures and commodifictation by focusing first on the Stonewall Riots, acknowledging how the event led to the development of gay and lesbian urban culture; however, he questions the efficacy of marking this event as the political origin of the gay liberation movement. Drawing from activist John D’Emilio’s “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” Davidson posits that the reason gay and lesbian lives were able to exist, and the reason why LGBT politics were developed in the first place, is due primarily to the existence of capitalism. The deviation from a family-based household economy to our current model of free-labor, essentially paved the way to a system outside of the normative heterosexual family that was possible.

According to this perspective, capitalism is the entity that not only propels LGBT politics and identity, but it is ultimately the phenomenon that created this identity domain in the first place. Davidson then goes on to suggest that attacks against the commodification of the LGBT community, despite their sophistication, are driven by “an unachievable desire for a gay and lesbian community that is politically radical and unified in purpose” (7). Because of the impossibility of community given the socio-cultural and political diversity within LGBT individuals, Davidson draws from predominant lines of thought in (Marxist) cultural studies in order to approach queer subjects as a subculture rather than a community. I think that this move is very clever and appropriate, especially when considering that the notion of community goes against the “world-making project” (14) of queer culture, because it is unable to sustain various factors such as the existence of more members than can possibly be identified, a formation of identity based on experience rather than birth, and an identity that is not necessarily tied to space or geography.

Davidson thus uses the term subculture because it still denotes a body of people who identify themselves as part of a group based on things they have in common. However, this body of people is still considered deviant according to the expectations and practices of a larger group of individuals. Within the use of the term subculture, Davidson is particular interested in the use of spectacular style, (which alludes to visible markers of identity, in addition to combinations of dress, dance, slang, music, attitudes, among others), and how this concept is/was crucial to pre- and post-liberation queer subcultures.

In due course, Davidson highlights that commodification has multi-faceted and unpredictable effects in queer subcultures: it can provide a venue for assimilation by sacrificing the “politics” of queerness, it can provide the possibility of resisting and altering the status quo, it can offer the possibility of futurity, or it can be used to refute futurity altogether. Nevertheless, despite of how commodity is embraced, rejected, ignored, or attacked within the queer realm, one must admit that commodity is the center of the past, present, and potential future of queer subculture.

Work Cited

Davidson, Guy. Queer Commodities: Contemporary US Fiction, Consumer Capitalism, and Gay and Lesbian Subcultures. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.

You can purchase a copy of Davidson’s book here.

Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History

feeling backward cover

Front cover of Heather Love’s Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History

We supposedly live in a time where it is “okay to be gay.” This growing sentiment can partially be accredited to the nationalization of gay media and representations in our society. When I was a child, finding gay representations in television and movies was a challenge–it was only in my teen years that gayness became commonplace with media. Ellen Degeneres came out in 1997. Dawson’s Creek portrayed the first  kiss ever aired in network television between two men in the USA. Will & Grace portrayed the lives of two gay men in New York City. Even shows targeted at children and teenagers, such as Degrassi: The Next Generation (2001-2009), had a gay protagonist within its ensemble. These representations portrayed not only the possibility of queers being accepted within society, but also the notion that LGBTQ people are no different than straight people.

Despite the ever-increasing positive representations of LGBTQ individuals in the media, despite the growing number of states that have legalized same-sex marriage, and despite the fact that we’re told that we live in a more accepting society, some LGBTQ individuals continue to face “backwards” feelings when it comes to sexuality, including but not limited to shame, regret, loss, depression, among others. I particularly think that with the current advent of LGBTQ censorship and oppression going on right now in Russia, backward feelings (which include depression, melancholia, despair, secrecy, among others) as pertaining to queerness have especially been under the radar during the past year. Gay acceptance is taken for granted, and any invocation of the dark past of queer identity is accused of being a non-progressive and archaic turn–but what happens when we consider communities labeled under the guise of LGBTQ that are still considered subaltern in a sense, such as queers of color, queers of low socio-economic status, queers in Russia, or even those who have been affected by AIDS? Is it possible that by focusing so much on the progress and on the positive aspects of LGBTQ politics, that we have come to ignore or brush aside the negative feelings and events that demanded a need for progress in the first place?

The questions above are just some of the ones that Heather Love explores in her book titled Feeling Backwards: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Her book begins by questioning the possibility of exploring the past of communities that have undergone historical injury: is it possible to explore the past without becoming consumed by it? Can history be explored and analyzed without letting it damage the possibility of a future? Through an exploration of various 19th and 20th century texts that contain homosexuality as an undertone or as an explicit topic, Love intends to create an “archive of feeling” (4) that would allow her to not only understand feelings of “queer” authors who wrote before the modern advent of homosexuality, but that will also allow one to asses the corporeal, psychic, and historical costs of homophobia. By focusing on backward feelings, Love intends to advocate futurity based on an explicit embrace of the past. She also argues that despite the privileging of progressive and emancipatory visions in queer politics, it is important to also focus on backwards feelings because they

serve as an index to the ruined state of the social world; they indicate continuities between the bad gay past and the present; and they show up the inadequacy of queer narratives of progress. Most important, they teach us that we do not know what is good for politics. (27)

Thus, Love tries to tell a history of 20th century representation that focuses on backwardness (shyness, failure, melancholia, loneliness, immaturity, self-hatred, etc.) in order to put the notion of “progress” into question, and to demonstrate that “in a moment where gays and lesbians have no excuse for feeling bad, the evocation of a long history of queer suffering provides, if not solace exactly, then at least relief” (146). The call for backwards feeling becomes even more relevant within queer studies and gay activism when realizing that backwardness has played a major role in defining queer politics in the first place. Love refers, for instance, to the re-appropriation of the term queer, which reclaimed the word “from its homophobic uses and turned to good use–while still maintaining its link to a history of damage–was crucial to the development of a queer intellectual method” (157).

What Love’s book makes absolutely clear is that it is impossible to even think of a transformative politics without possessing awareness of what (or why something) is being transformed. Within some approaches to queer theory and gay activism, there has been a trend in which the past has been discredited as no longer being relevant to the conditions of today’s society. Even more concerning is the fact that some scholars and activists have chosen to ignore the past completely. However, can we achieve progress and transformation only by turning our backs on the past? Love tantalizingly suggests that even though queers may feel compelled to envision a more Utopian future, an awareness of the injuries of queer history make this “orientation toward the future difficult to sustain” (162).  Most people are aware of the repercussions and costs of being queer. Given this awareness, the issue is not a matter of learning how to develop hope “in the face of despair”, but rather, learning how to “make a future backward enough even that the most reluctant among us might want to live there” (163). In other words, I take this to mean that the past has to be kept alive not to the extent that it will destroy us, but to the extent that it can provide some sense of comfort and recognition to queers who are apprehensive of their own queerness.

Work Cited

Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Harvard University Press, 2007. Print