Truth is beauty, beauty truth. And what is truth in fiction if not the relentless performance of poetic sincerity? What is more beautiful than a flattened emotional landscape, in which humor has been extinguished, the cacophony of possible affective responses to duress and sadness silenced, and every sundry happening linked to some determinative, still-open wound suffered by the narrator, who is to a greater or lesser extent a stand-in for the author? What is more honest and earnest, more holy and lovely, than masturbating into your navel and crying at the poesy of cum on your tummy? Who is a better novelist, now, in 2021, than Garth Greenwell or Ocean Vuong?
These are the rhetorical questions we all ask ourselves, assuming we number among those who adore Gay Sincerity fiction and its most prominent practitioners, these poets who have come lately to prose. By way of continuing, I ought to define some terms and outline our main characters.
In the context of contemporary gay fiction, sincerity names a mode of address that privileges weepy disclosure and self-serious sentimentality; it portrays itself as emotionally straightforward and easy to comprehend aesthetically and "morally." (I do not want to wade into the “morality in fiction” wars, as I plan to do plenty of ungenerous interpretive work and willful misunderstanding as it is. Suffice to say that by “morally” I mean to indicate that sincerity and its concomitant illusion of perfect honesty predispose readers to trust and sympathize with a protagonist and so to have relatively uncomplicated feelings toward him.) For these reasons, sincerity has become a byword for truth, and therefore beauty, and therefore quality, especially when heightened or even effected by a work’s poeticism, and still more especially when paired with sex, that most sincere of all acts. Gay Sincerity, then, is the movement or subgenre of gay literary fiction that is a) gay, by which let us mean, “men who desire and typically have sexual interactions with men,” and b) predominately sincere in delivery. (One might write more broadly about “Queer Sincerity” or “the Nanette-ification of queer media,” but not I, for I am gay.)
Greenwell, an erstwhile poet whose prose has been praised for its proximity to poetry, is responsible for 2016’s What Belongs to You and 2019’s Cleanness, books in which “the whole bent of” the lead’s “nature is toward confession,” as the narrator of the former puts it. That unnamed man is white, gay, and solipsistic, a self-serious, affectively monotone, humor-averse, courageously horny writer-teacher living in Sofia, Bulgaria. Now and then in Cleanness, he listens to or recounts the story of an interlocutor — a student in the chapter “Mentor,” his then-boyfriend R. in the titular section — but whatever he hears he values only insofar as it refers back to him, to his trauma, heartbreak, fears, desires, shame, and pleasures, which he then sketches or details at length, as the case may be, so that his tête-à-têtes, presented without quotation marks, become less inter- than intra-personal, closed-loop conversations he is staging with himself for the reader’s amusement or annoyance. “It wasn’t solidarity I felt as I listened to him,” the narrator admits in “Mentor,” “it was more like the laying of a claim. The experience he had had was my own.”
Ocean Vuong wrote the beloved-by-tenderqueers 2019 novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and became a MacArthur Fellow later that year. Framed as a letter to the narrator’s illiterate mother, On Earth mixes poetic faux profundities with inevitably sad stories about the tolls the Vietnam War, colonialism, racism, homophobia, and the opioid crisis have taken on its characters, including the Vuong narrator. (A nonfiction piece published by the New Yorker in 2017 became, with some changes, the first chapter of this book.) Elsewhere, a hand is tenderly fucked, a dick pooped on, an ass graciously eaten. His book’s title is a threat the book itself makes good on: Vuong’s an artist of the memorably obtuse one-liner. They stand free or punctuate the ends of paragraphs and sections: “Some nothings change everything after them;” “I’m not with you because I’m at war with everything but you;” “I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck—the pieces floating, finally legible;” “It’s not fair that the word laughter is trapped inside slaughter;” “They say nothing lasts forever but they’re just scared it will last longer than they can love it.” (This is a randomly compiled sampling — there are probably hundreds such lines.) Though meant to lift the roof off the book and expose engulfing beams of ethereal light, they fall flat, exposing instead a mortifying vacancy. An ungenerous reader would be forgiven for calling them cringe.
A challenger approaches: Douglas Stuart, author of the 2020 Booker Prize-winning Shuggie Bain. The novel observes his eponymous child protagonist — a stand-in for Stuart himself — from the third person, and frequently pivots its spotlight to his deathly alcoholic mother, Agnes. Stuart, less a poet than his fellow sincere sacks, has written something closer to a social novel, in which he records the working-class Bain family’s endless suffering in 1980s Glasgow. In one scene, Agnes sets fire to her parents’ apartment, holding Shuggie close to prevent his fleeing, while he watches in awe as “the light cast dancing shadows on the walls and the paisley wallpaper came alive, like a thousand smoky fishes.” (When they’re not overcooked, similes are one of Stuart’s strengths.) Then there is the abjection, not only of poverty but of isolation and obsolescence, of Pithead, a “housing scheme” premised on the continued operation of a defunct coal mine, where Agnes sights “the plainest, unhappiest looking homes” she “had ever seen,” and where, tricked and trapped by her husband, she and Shuggie weather seven years of death, abandonment, violation, hunger, betrayal, and grating precociousness.
Miseries pile atop each other in all these novels. Occasionally, they tower high enough for someone to reach a state of grace, sometimes through sex, though just as often not. Sexual encounters are regularly abusive — pedophilic, or the result of an older child targeting a younger child, or of a consensual encounter turned sour — or simply humiliating. Regardless, the grace passes, like a cloud one’s briefly stuck one’s head into, and few other tonal diversions break up the bleak stacking — no humor (save the rare, usually vain attempt in Shuggie), or mania, or charm, or sudden dryness, or any of the other possibilities these texts obscure. No, the miseries mount anew, gray and grim, like the novels’ barely distinguishable covers. (When you see gray bodies on a gray background set against white type, you know you’re about to enter the motherfucking zone of total sincerity.)
“What has been kept out of sight turns out to be the lugubrious furniture of fraught gay identity, old-style.” This is how Adam Mars-Jones, the English novelist and critic, ends his critique of Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, one of the few (somewhat) negative reviews of that work in a prominent publication. Mars-Jones’s point is that the book squanders the potential of its first section by explicating its narrator via the too-familiar standards of gay suffering: “Primal scene succeeds primal scene.”
The critic James Wood has noted that Mars-Jones’s 2008 tome Pilcrow is “a long joke at the expense of a punitive tradition that has linked homosexuality with illness or deformity,” and his 2020 novella Box Hill can in turn be understood as a wry satire of the kinds of Gay Sincerity novels described above. Per the subtitle, it is “A Story of Low Self-Esteem” in which a shy, squat, self-effacing “blob” of a gay man named Collin fondly recalls his decades-past, years long submission to an older, “dead drop gorgeous” biker, Ray. Much of his recollection involves suffering, but Collin is always ready to dismiss his pain with a pat, matter-of-fact rationalization. One morning his father hits him; later, he meets Ray, who forces alcohol into his mouth and pins him down before “what had begun as a rough seduction ended, as, well, rape,” which by the next page Collin’s decided “hadn’t been too bad, all in all,” even if he did chip a tooth. Undeterred, he goes that same day to live with Ray, or under him — he doesn’t “sleep in the bed…unless Ray” needs him and is “perfectly comfortable in the sleeping bag on the floor.” A dark comedy is at work. All these abuses and humiliations transpire on Collin’s eighteenth birthday: He’s come of age, found and become a man, moved away from home. But no matter how high his woes stack, Collin continues his absurdly reserved narration apace, all instances of violence spoken into existence for a line and then allowed as quickly to diminish from mind and page. Mars-Jones’s tack here is to discomfit. What exactly should we think of our pathetic narrator, and of his coming-of-age, and of the man he loves more than any other? What does Collin really feel about Ray, underneath it all?? Where the fuck is my lugubrious furniture???
Gay men put on a catty act. They’re snide, rude, snobbish, cutting, cruel, withering, hot, sexy, 6’3”, twenty-eight, 170 pounds — they’re modestly toned bitches who turn heads, which also roll. But this act is an adaptive trait, a sharp-ridged shell gays erect around themselves to protect their warm, gooey core, not dissimilar in intent to the muscles some among us plump and polish to harden ourselves against a threatening world. At bottom, on a deeper level, at our core, deep down, on the inside, after all, etc., we are soft, sweet, painfully susceptible to catching feels, and too easily interpretable by the ever-perceptive Gay Sincerity psychologists. As they peel back our layers, moving from exterior to interior, eventually they arrive at the capital-T Truth, and therefore at what is most beautiful and valuable. No matter that this Truth is merely more onion, or that the discarded layers might have something to say. No matter that iced coffee is a whole ass mood.
I am neither a psychologist nor Michel Foucault, but I am the writer of this essay and therefore a local — some would say the local — authority on the schema we deploy to understand homo (i.e., human, gay) behavior. I wield my authority not to argue that callous wit has no relation to trauma avoidance. I rather brandish it to say: Do we not grow tired, after so many rounds of this sentimental journey to the weepy, fantastical core of human experience? Might we not celebrate instead a more horizontal outlay of sincerity, mania, irony, horror, meanness, humor, etc., one in which we do not take poetic earnestness to be primary to the other affective modes but allow them to sit beside and astride one another, equally true at different moments, now in conflict, now in commerce, now merely both present and represented and felt at the same time or in succession? In lieu of crying, a writer might try laughing, cackling, madly monologuing to the pool of cum on one’s tummy, coolly observing it, overanalyzing it for effect, playing in it, rejoicing in it, ascribing to it an explanation for society’s infinite ills, even the possibility of repair via socialist buy-in — not my cum, our cum on our collective tummy.
The mainstream critical success of books like Shuggie Bain, Cleanness, and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous bespeaks, I think, a discomfort on the part of certain readers with affective complexity. And complexity, or its artful representation, can be a joyful thing. By joyful I don’t mean happy, per se, which is the subject of Kevin Brazil’s long (fairly sincere) essay for Granta from last year, “Whatever Happened to Queer Happiness.” I mean energizing, refreshing, able to match the pulse of our thoughts to the rhythms and resonances of its lines. Some books that are joyful in this way are gay and old (Jean Genet’s oeuvre, e.g., Our Lady of the Flowers, and Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies, if we’re suddenly extending the category of gay to include lesbians because it is suddenly convenient to do so), some are gay and new (Adam Mars-Jones’s recent work, Brontez Purnell’s 100 Boyfriends) and some are, alas, mostly straight and merely semi-recent (Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In, Percival Everett’s Erasure). Like the Sincerity Gays, these writers often focus their gaze on the pain associated with marginalized identity. But rather than point at a gaping wound that filters all experience, they assemble disturbing and vivifying affective tableaus. They discomfit and enrapture and enrapture by discomfiting. If only more readers had my special gift for being enraptured by my own discomfort, my unique affinity for complexity, my height and age and general appeal.
Breathe a sigh of relief: I do not have a tidy political point to make about sincerity and infantilization and selfishly cultivated blindnesses. This is about so much more than “good” or “bad,” right or wrong or left — it’s about me, and my personal tastes, and the lengths to which I’ll go to see those validated by an internet publication and some portion of its readership. I really mean that, sincerely.
Paul McAdory is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.