"I wish I knew how to quit you," says Jack to Ennis in a climactic scene in the hit film Brokeback Mountain, the award-winning and (some would say) groundbreaking story of a gay relationship between two ranch hands. Given the box office success of the Ang Lee film (based on a story by Annie Proulx), not to mention the eight Oscar nominations, one might expect gay fiction—in manuscript and proposal—to be making the rounds at New York houses, emboldened by the crossover success of a tragic gay love story and promising to be "the next Brokeback."
But a sampling of high-profile agents and editors shows that, to the contrary, big publishing is finding it easy to quit Brokeback, whose success they see as unrelated to gay themes and not a harbinger of more stories like it. Paradoxically, independent and academic publishers, who seldom enjoy success on the level of Brokeback, recognized instantly how the movie normalized "gay" stories for all those people at the film's sold-out screenings and how it expanded, for their own purposes, the definition of gay literature and storytelling.
Not Buying It
That mainstream publishers have fallen off the saddle post-Brokeback defies logic. Not only did the film achieve both critical (it captured three Oscars) and commercial success ($174 million gross worldwide), it did so without controversy. Even conservative religious groups could not help admiring director Ang Lee's sensitive handling of what could have been, for American audiences, a divisive and incendiary tale (only one theater—in Utah—refused to show the film). Yet the industry professionals from mainstream houses and agencies interviewed for this article believe Brokeback's success has not much to do with its "gayness." They see the story and the movie as "art" and, as such, don't expect its success to rub off on any prospective gay novelists or short story writers. "The film's not going to do anything for gay writers because it's not by a gay writer," declares Ira Silverberg, an agent at Donadio & Olson, who has long repped gay novelist Dennis Cooper. "If it was, it probably wouldn't have been made. The whole idea that gay work is going to break out after the success of Brokeback is just nonsense. The story stood on its own because it's good."
Keith Kahla, an editor at St. Martin's Press, concurs that Brokeback is a success unto itself. "There is almost no crossover from success in films to success in terms of novels or printed words in any form—it just doesn't work that way. The success of the Lord of the Rings films didn't lead to any noticeable increase in sales for the style of heroic quest fantasy of which it was the progenitor. Or, to use examples from TV, the relative success of Queer as Folk, The L Word and the various nonfiction/reality shows on Bravo haven't led to any noticeable spike in sales of books that, presumably, would speak to the same topics or audience that is being addressed in those shows." Although Kahla's point may fly in the face of fact—the film Narnia and the renewed interest in C.S. Lewis certainly owes to the Rings' success—there are still other reasons to downplay Brokeback's enduring influence. Ellen Geiger, an agent at Frances Goldin, points to the story's tragic nature as the single element that struck such a chord with moviegoers. "The tragic nature of love and the impulse toward sacrifice and the heroic are definitely transcendent themes. Don't forget: the two gay characters ended up, in one case, dead, and in the other, miserable. If either or both of their stories had ended happily, the picture never would have been made."
Neither Geiger, Kahla or Silverberg say they've seen any noticeable increase in submissions in gay-themed fiction since the movie's success, even though the film certainly gave life to sales of the title it was based on. Scribner issued a special paperback "Story to Screenplay" edition of Proulx's tale, and both that edition and the collection in which Proulx's story was originally published, At Close Range: Wyoming Stories, became bestsellers. Scribner publisher Nan Graham reports that the company shipped 500,000 combined copies of the books.
Graham, who is Proulx's editor at Scribner, also shies away from putting too much emphasis on the gay theme. It's the author's "unique temperament," she says, that put the story in a class by itself, not something that would signal the start of a trend. "We all know there's only one Annie Proulx, and she told a story that, among the hundreds of westerns that have been published in America, no one had really told before," Graham says. "Annie caught an old cowboy in a bar watching some younger guys play pool, and something in the way he tracked their bodies made her wonder what it would be like to be gay in that world. Brokeback wouldn't be a story if it were set in New York or San Francisco or London."
A Different Light
If the effect of Brokeback Mountain has not made so much as a ripple at the major publishing houses, the movie has given a boost to academic publishers and smaller, independent publishers of gay fiction. The Ohio University Press saw an uptick in sales for a memoir of a gay man's experiences growing up in the mountains of West Virginia. Numbers on Loving Mountains, Loving Men by Jeff Mann doubled in January 2006, the month Brokeback Mountain won the Golden Globe award for Best Picture. Yet according to acquisitions editor Gillian Berkowitz, the book was purchased as part of a series of books on gender and ethnicity in Appalachia, not as a "gay" book. "There was a need," she says, "for that type of book in that region."
Indeed, the classification of a work as being "gay" now can fit more easily into a larger whole as gays themselves become more homogenized in society. Richard Nash, publisher at Soft Skull Books, says Brokeback's success is more symbolic than anything else. "What Brokeback Mountain represents is not more Brokeback; it represents more gay everything," he says. "What you are seeing in publishing—and society—is a kind of 'normalization' of gay. We have gay radicals, feminists, conservatives, cookbooks, gay young adult romance, a linked story collection by a transgender author that 'covers' each song on Springsteen's Nebraska—Tennessee Jones's Delivery Me from Nowhere, which we published—and now gay cowboys."
Dale Cunningham, publisher of Alyson Books, says that the movie's success has reinforced her decision to have the gaycentric publishing house branch out. "We're going to be loyal to Alyson's core market, but include books that are rooted in the gay community but have crossover appeal," she says.
By crossover, Cunningham means gay-themed books that don't have exclusively gay subjects or have characters that will appeal to a wider audience. She says that she signed two gay cowboy romances even before Brokeback premiered—brace yourself for Sweet Lips (Aug.) and Hot on His Trail (Sept.). Alyson will also publish two novels this year whose characters stand firmly outside the house's target audience of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender readers. When Charlotte Comes Home, a first novel by Maureen Smith, features a gay central character amid others who are straight. Jay Quinn's The Good Neighbor explores the relationship between a man and wife living next door to two gay male partners.
Katie Dublinski, editorial manager at Graywolf, believes that Brokeback will drive readers to look for more gay-themed literature, a specialty of the house. Case in point: in September 2005, when Graywolf published Wounded, a novel by Percival Everett about the murder of a homosexual student in Laramie, Wyo., the town where Matthew Shepard was killed, there was an "amazing reception" for the book.
"I think it definitely helped that the Brokeback film released around the same time. It was a completely timely topic that the public and media are still interested in," says Graywolf publicist Mary Matze. She adds that Graywolf's nonprofit status gives it the latitude to take risks in publishing gay fiction that perhaps a mainstream publisher wouldn't consider.
"We're not driven by the bottom line, but the bottom line may be that the GLBT market has a lot of disposable income and buying power," Matze says. "Almost all of our GLBT fiction and nonfiction has been very successful for us." And perhaps that's the salient point: small publishers can publish on a scale that can succeed by reaching a small but prosperous market; large houses succeed by reaching a much larger mass market and worry about turning that market off.
"Publishers work very hard to avoid getting their more serious literary novels slapped with the 'gay fiction' label, and for very good reasons: it doesn't get reviewed by the mainstream media and it's difficult to get certain stores to stock it," says Kahla at St. Martin's.
Says Avalon senior editor Don Weise, "They don't want to alienate women readers. And they want to get reviewed in Time magazine."
Kahla admits that, in mainstream publishing, there remains a stigma attached to many gay-themed books, despite the long line of successful gay authors, from Andrew Holleran to Michael Cunningham. "There is still a wall that surrounds gay literature," Kahla says. "I don't understand why Toni Morrison can write about black characters and have it be regarded part of mainstream American literature as well as African-American literature. It seems as if a writer can't be both a writer of gay fiction and literary fiction, no matter how indivisible the topics and the characters are from the novels that they have written."
Edmund White, pioneering author of A Boy's Own Story and now out promoting his autobiography, My Lives (Ecco), sees a distinction between gay novelists and their cousins, the literary gay novelist. He describes today's most successful gay writers, such as Cunningham, Alan Hollinghurst and Armistead Maupin, as "post-gay." In his words, "They've sold very well indeed but usually by writing novels that include many straight characters." He believes that a renaissance in gay fiction is here—"but I don't know whether that will translate into sales."
Weise is happy with how Avalon's gay titles have sold—"My numbers are doing nicely without straight people," he says—and he's wary of "looking to Hollywood" for guidance. "I go out of my way to acquire books that challenge what's in fashion or considered acceptable or tasteful," he says. Maybe that's the way to the next Brokeback.