Every year, the search for the Great Gay Novel proves to be more challenging than the last. A few rare exceptions sprout up annually: in 2014, Toronto writer Greg Kearney was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for his debut novel, The Desperates. In 2015, The Atlantic praised Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, about a 30-something group of long-standing friends growing apart, as “the most ambitious chronicle of the social and emotional lives of gay men to have emerged in years.” This year, the darkest literary horse in the race – and the wildest stallion rushing toward 2016’s finish line – is Nick Comilla’s Candyass. The 28-year-old New York–born author is best known for his poetry, but his debut novel is a beautiful, brazen read firmly planted in today’s tech-obsessed age.
Published by Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press, Candyass takes place in two big flaming cities: Montreal and New York. Comilla, who currently splits his time between the two urban centres, attended schools in both – Concordia University and the New School – while penning the novel, which started as a series of poems. Mirroring Comilla’s own experience, Candyass focuses on the life of a 17-year-old gay writer named Arthur, a punk-loving, out-of-sorts introvert, born of what the author calls “a resistance to gay literature of the past.”
There are plenty of frustrated writers like Comilla who identify as gay and write fiction containing sexually active LGBTQ characters. In fact, we’re seeing more of them than ever before, thanks in part to the trans-rights movement and resurgence of Queercore (a mid-80s cultural movement that connected LGBTQ people with punk ideals). Tragic events, such as the recent hate-crime shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, have brought gay rights to the forefront once again and propelled new dynamics of expression in and out of the print world. Despite the recent reinvigoration of Pride and sexual liberation, many gay writers still face a pressing issue: how do they make their stories relatable enough to appeal to the masses andultimately get published?
In a much-shared – and hotly debated – post on Salon called “Where’s the buzzed-about gay novel?” writer Daniel D’Addario revealed a few of the publishing industry’s major inconsistencies. Although diversity is something that many book publishers deem coveted, D’Addario makes the point that the industry still fears characters outside of the spectrum of what is considered appropriate. “The publishing business is catering to the interests of an audience comfortable with gay people but not necessarily comfortable with stories that don’t cohere with a mould recognizable from, say, the most recent Michael Cunningham novel about a bougie, respectable art dealer.”
For Vivek Shraya, trans author of six books – most recently, even this page is white (Arsenal Pulp) – queer literature should counter mass appeal and not follow its lead. As someone who has built a decade-plus career out of writing that isn’t considered particularly relatable to all – or, at times, easy to digest (the author and her work both challenge the concept of gender) – Shraya’s success is proof that being openly unorthodox benefits publishers, readers, and writers.
“I think that many LGBTQ rights and acceptances have been framed through the lens of love,” she says. “All we hear is ‘love is love,’ ‘love wins,’ or ‘love won,’ and I find that is a way to ignore desire.” In giving space to individualist writers, Shraya feels new avenues of storytelling would find fresh ground to break.
“There is a deep need for LGBTQ writing that speaks beyond the bullying or coming-out narrative because these styles have become tropes,” Shraya adds. “A lot of queer people are growing up in a much more liberal environment than what I grew up in and these younger writers can speak to what it is to be queer in this particular moment in a way that a lot of us can’t.”
Comilla was inspired at the age of 22 to write Candyass because “there were no novels out there that were showing me or reflecting what I was experiencing,” he says. The author interlaces text messages, poems, and webcam dialogue as casually as one of his heroes, the late Frank O’Hara, wove quotes and headlines into his stanzas. Comilla was also inspired by author-screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis, though he never identified with Ellis’s characters, who tend to be 20- or 30-somethings.
Regardless of age, class, or education, Comilla wanted his characters to represent our times: “What bothers me is how so much literature today is essentially in denial about living in this accelerated culture of dating.”
Comilla has a valid point. According to a recent article in The Advocate, millions of users of the geotargeted dating app Grindr – which offers access to more than one million men at any given moment – revealed that the average daily use of the platform has increased 33 per cent in the past three years. An estimated 90 per cent of Grindr’s users are millennials, and the average user is on the app for close to two hours a day.
“We’re communicating through screens most of the time,” says Comilla, whose characters in Candyass have their schedules and fates change at whim as a result of impromptu app hookups. “These apps have affected our approach and our ability to form authentic conversations with each other. They’ve also changed gay relationships completely.” This is not to say Comilla’s novel is a parable about the dangers of sex or technology. The writer unabashedly embraces both, describing bedroom encounters with meticulous detail and a sense of defiance. “It’s an injustice that sex this explicit or that a gay novel [like this] hasn’t been written yet or hasn’t existed,” he says. “Brokeback Mountain had one gay sex scene! The Mysteries of Pittsburgh had one gay sex scene! I remember reading [the latter book] when I was 19 and being so excited. Finally, the gay sex scene … though there’s hardly any description. No wonder when bottoms lose their virginity they’re so surprised!”
Author-playwright Sky Gilbert represents the opposite of D’Addario’s theory. He has five novels to his name and his writing has never been considered palatable prose. In fact, two of his commandments in writing are: “You don’t pander or waver to anyone, ever” and “Conformity is the enemy of art.” The 62-year-old Torontonian’s most recent novel, Sad Old Faggot, published in September by ECW Press, certainly stays true to his golden rules. In the book, Gilbert refrains from censoring himself, blasting popular theatre-goers (“Rent and The Rocky Horror Show were just written to make straight people horny”) and members from his own community (“Gay people hate me – especially guys who wear linen suits and pretend to be normal”).
Leave it to Gilbert, the founder and former artistic director of Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre – one of the first and only remaining queer theatres in North America catering specifically to LGBTQ themes – to lay his cards on the table. As the writer behind controversial literary works such as Ejaculations from the Charm Factory (ECW) and plays such as Drag Queens on Trial: A Courtroom Melodrama and Ban This Show, Gilbert would describe himself to the press as a “drag queen slut” during his tenure at the theatre. His ballsy work made him the enemy of the conservative newspaper the Toronto Sun for years and would often get him accosted on the streets of Toronto.
“Here’s the thing, though,” he says. “I’m still here. All those artists and people who played it safe or didn’t even bother to come out at all or talk about sex? They aren’t here. If I were to tell you their names, you would have no clue who I’m talking about.” As for the state of gay literature today, Gilbert – whose writing in Sad Old Faggot remains as mutinous, humorous, and articulate as his public persona – encourages young writers to take risks.
“A friend of mine used to say, ‘the middle of the road is where you get run over,’ and I think that’s a very good dictum to remember in publishing. If anything, we should gravitate toward rebels to save the next generation,” he says. According to Gilbert, who – like the rest of us – sees the conservative side of gay relationships being marketed in bank and cereal ads, radicals are the LGBTQ community’s only true signposts.
“The sad trajectory we see right now for a young gay man is this: you go to the prom with your high school sweetheart, then you get married to him or someone else and then you have a heterosexual lifestyle,” Gilbert says, sighing. “There is a vast gay world filled with drugs and promiscuity that happens on Grindr, and in clubs and bathhouses. When AIDS happened, it supported this narrative that gay men are sick, sad people. And we’re not. It makes me angry that we can’t get out of that narrative and we need to. We’re not all sad and we’re not perfect family guys either – there are whole worlds that aren’t addressed in gay and queer lit and they should be.”
For his part, Comilla is intent on filling the literary void. The best chapters in Candyass are candid and graphic when it comes to sexual encounters. It is precisely in the moments between the sheets that Arthur’s emotional fragility is revealed, regardless of whether he dips into hardcore kink, S&M, or cuddling. Chapters outlining many of the erotic connections Arthur has with two of the most significant lovers in his young life – a sex worker named Jason and a sometime drag queen named Jeremy* – are so convincing they often make the reader feel as though they are taking part in a threesome. Arthur’s post-coital thoughts, such as, “He takes pleasure in my getting pleasure from him. He does nothing, and afterward, I want more of him, while he has everything of me,” and questions like, “Does using condoms when we have sex mean that he cares about me more? When he does it raw with other people, does it mean he’s closer to them,” draw the reader in, past mere voyeurism and into a territory that is awkward and authentic. Many of those pages, Comilla says, were plucked from real life and a bold sense of duty to tell the truth.
“Unless a novel is labelled ‘young adult,’ where are the fucking teenagers in gay lit?” he asks. “These teenagers exist and they have sex – lots of it. These things happen and they are rarely written about. These gay and queer teens get into clubs and bars with fake IDs and meet people online – like it or not – and they frequently get kicked out of their parents’ houses. It bothers me that they are ignored.”
*Correction, Dec. 9: An early version of this article incorrectly named the character as Jeffrey.