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Jack Powell has published 5 articles

The power of fiction

Jack Powell discusses 'gay fiction' with author Paul Burston
Jack Powell on Sunday 19th February 2012
Photograph: stonewalluk@flickr.com

As a Stonewall award-winning journalist (an award for those who have made a positive impact on the LGBT community) and celebrated author of four novels centred on LGBTQ issues, Paul Burston is a major figure in Britain’s gay literary scene. He also has a long history of campaigning for LGBT rights: the above image is of Burston at a 1990 demonstration. Following his compilation of the all-time top ten gay novels for The Guardian and establishment of the Southbank’s famous ‘Polari salon’, a monthly literary event featuring entertainment and a panel of writers discussing gay fiction and LGBTQ issues, Burston has been featured in The Independent’s annual ‘pink list’ for five consecutive years and dubbed ‘gay London’s Jane Austen.’

In many bookshops, one can find shelves dedicated specifically to ‘LGBT fiction’ - do you think LGBT fiction can be or should be considered as an independent genre? 
'Gay fiction' tends to be treated rather like genre fiction, which is ridiculous really, as gay fiction can cross many different genres. There are gay thrillers, gay comedies, and so on. But if having a section marked 'LGBT' helps readers to discover new LGBT authors, then I'm all for it.
Do you think that gay liberation in fiction is dependent upon the creation of a ‘gay tradition’, where plot and theme are directly centred upon gay identity and occurrences that arise from this identity, or do you think it should rather permeate existent traditions? For example, should gay equality be constituted by a science fiction novel in which the protagonist is, incidentally, gay?
The ultimate aim of gay liberation is that there should be no need for such a thing as a gay identity. Obviously, we're not there yet! Until we are, gay people will want to read books about people they can identify with, and that will often mean books with gay characters and plots centred on questions of sexual identity. But then the same is true of most readers. People like to read books about people they can identify with, whether it's straight men reading Nick Hornby or women reading Marian Keyes. That said, I also enjoy books where a character's sexuality is incidental to the story. Someone like Clive Barker will drop a gay character into a horror novel or a  fantasy novel, and the fact that the character is gay isn't the most interesting thing about him. That, to me, is truly liberating.
You have a considerable background in gay activism - how much of your work as a writer is informed by this activism, and how much is simply inspired by your identity as a gay man? Can you discriminate between these two identities?
I still consider myself an activist, and I write a lot of what you might call political journalism, insofar as being gay and writing about LGBT lives and rights is still considered to be political. But I don't consciously set out to be political in my novels. 'The Gay Divorcee' wasn't intended to be a political book, but when it was first published, I did some radio interviews and the very first question I was asked was, ‘Is gay marriage an attack on the family?’ As for distinguishing between my life as a gay man and a gay activist, walking down the road with my partner and choosing to hold his hand is a political act, whether we like it or not.

As a Stonewall award-winning journalist (an award for those who have made a positive impact on the LGBT community) and celebrated author of four novels centred on LGBTQ issues, Paul Burston is a major figure in Britain’s gay literary scene, with a long history of campaigning for LGBT rights. Following his compilation of the all-time top ten gay novels for The Guardian and establishment of the Southbank’s famous ‘Polari salon’, a monthly literary event featuring entertainment and a panel of writers discussing gay fiction and LGBTQ issues, Burston has been featured in The Independent’s annual ‘pink list’ for five consecutive years and dubbed ‘gay London’s Jane Austen.’


In many bookshops, one can find shelves dedicated specifically to ‘LGBT fiction’ - do you think LGBT fiction can be or should be considered as an independent genre?

  'Gay fiction' tends to be treated rather like genre fiction, which is ridiculous really, as gay fiction can cross many different genres. There are gay thrillers, gay comedies, and so on. But if having a section marked 'LGBT' helps readers to discover new LGBT authors, then I'm all for it.


Do you think that gay liberation in fiction is dependent upon the creation of a ‘gay tradition’, where plot and theme are directly centred upon gay identity and occurrences that arise from this identity, or do you think it should rather permeate existent traditions? For example, should gay equality be constituted by a science fiction novel in which the protagonist is, incidentally, gay?

 The ultimate aim of gay liberation is that there should be no need for such a thing as a gay identity. Obviously, we're not there yet! Until we are, gay people will want to read books about people they can identify with, and that will often mean books with gay characters and plots centred on questions of sexual identity. But then the same is true of most readers. People like to read books about people they can identify with, whether it's straight men reading Nick Hornby or women reading Marian Keyes. That said, I also enjoy books where a character's sexuality is incidental to the story. Someone like Clive Barker will drop a gay character into a horror novel or a  fantasy novel, and the fact that the character is gay isn't the most interesting thing about him. That, to me, is truly liberating.


You have a considerable background in gay activism - how much of your work as a writer is informed by this activism, and how much is simply inspired by your identity as a gay man? Can you discriminate between these two identities?

 I still consider myself an activist, and I write a lot of what you might call political journalism, insofar as being gay and writing about LGBT lives and rights is still considered to be political. But I don't consciously set out to be political in my novels. 'The Gay Divorcee' wasn't intended to be a political book, but when it was first published, I did some radio interviews and the very first question I was asked was, ‘Is gay marriage an attack on the family?’ As for distinguishing between my life as a gay man and a gay activist, walking down the road with my partner and choosing to hold his hand is a political act, whether we like it or not.

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