Gay Sex Makes for Great Literature

Garth Greenwell on balancing truth, beauty, sex, and philosophy in his new novel "Cleanness"—and how they're maybe all the same thing

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Garth Greenwell’s second novel Cleanness returns to some of the characters and places visited in his stunning debut novel What Belongs to You, not as a sequel or prequel, but as a revelatory variation on a theme. In Greenwell’s signature elegant, reflective prose, Cleanness is an ode to the erotic experience, both in and out of the novel’s central romantic relationship, between an American English teacher and a Portuguese student living in post-Communist Bulgaria. The book also examines the precarious state of queer Bulgarians and contemporary politics in a country still struggling to deal with the after-effects of decades under totalitarian rule. I’ve never read—and I doubt I ever will—a book quite like Cleanness, which feels both bracing for its clarity and frankness yet stunningly operatic in its lyrical poetic voice. 

Aaron Hamburger: Where exactly do you think are we in the LGBTQ writing world? And where do you think we’re headed? On one hand, two of the most recent successful novels from mainstream publishers about gay men, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, were written by cisgender heterosexual women. At the same time, two of the most recent successful novels from mainstream publishers about gay men, your What Belongs to You and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, were written by gay men. 


Garth Greenwell: I’ll start by saying that I admire both Rebecca Makkai and Hanya Yanagihara, and I think we can—I think we must—both insist on ever greater “own voices” representation in publishing and reject a defensive, territorial posture that would lock us all in the cages of an “identity” conceived along retrogressively essentialist lines. The continuing story of AIDS is too big for possessiveness, and the pain of the epidemic cuts across all demographics. Yanagihara’s book, in the profundity of its exploration of gay male interiority, is proof, for me, of literature’s ability to imagine across difference. 

I think it’s an incredibly exciting moment in queer literature, and I think sales figures and review attention are never reliable guides to what’s exciting in art. I refuse to accept them as measures of art’s vitality. I feel such luck to be a reader and a writer in a moment when Andrea Lawlor, Akwaeke Emezi, Danez Smith, TC Tolbert, T Fleischman, Jordy Rosenberg, Brandon Taylor, among many others, are making exhilarating art, with presses large and small. I hope we’ve put to rest the idea that queer books necessarily have limited audiences—an assertion that was always a lie. I’m grateful that Alexander Chee and Maggie Nelson are finding big audiences. I’m grateful that Hilton Als and Frank Bidart are winning Pulitzer Prizes. And I’m also grateful for writers who are experimenting with form or engaging with taboo or shocking subject matter in ways that make gaining a large audience unlikely and winning a big prize almost inconceivable. I hope we can work to create a sustainable literary ecosystem that can nurture all of these artists. 

AH: When I first read What Belongs to You, which I was fortunate to review for the New York Times Book Review, I felt both bowled over by its beauty and worried that it would be overlooked because of its frank approach to depicting a gay man’s life. This wasn’t a book about “teaching” straight people what it’s like to be gay, nor was it a “niche” book aimed at gay readers, who I believe are still hungry to see their lives reflected in stories. What surprised you about the book’s reception? Do you feel like its success has moved the needle in any way in terms of the general readers’ willingness to read queer stories?

GG: The biggest shock for everybody about What Belongs to You was that there was any reception at all. It wasn’t positioned as a big book, whatever that means. For my part, my whole orientation to art-making is inward-facing. One gift of having been a poet for twenty years before writing my first novel is that I never had any expectations of a large audience. That the book has reached as many people as it has is a strange, de-stabilizing surprise. 

As I’ve traveled to talk about the book and meet readers, I’ve been surprised by how often the book has been read in an overtly political context, and how frequently I’ve been asked to speak not so much as an artist but as an activist. Activism has been central to my life since I was a teenager—since I discovered art, more or less—and I don’t have any illusions about art existing in a depoliticized or ahistorical space. But art and activism do feel to me like very different pursuits; it feels important to me to insist on their difference. People have often asked me about whether I had various kinds of political intentions as I wrote. But I don’t write from that kind of intention. When I write, I want to make something beautiful, and I want to make something true. Those desires are not apolitical or ahistorical. But they are not the kind of intentions from which one acts as an activist or a citizen. 

Who is this ‘general reader’? Do we assume that the general reader is straight? White? Male? Midwestern?

Concepts like “general reader” make me uncomfortable. Who is this “general reader“? What is this “willingness” we’re supposed to care about? Do we assume that the general reader is straight? White? Male? Midwestern? I think it’s pretty impossible to make use of an idea like that without projecting onto it our hopes or our fears—I think it’s impossible to make any use of it that could do us any good. I don’t want any specter of the general reader, or the dominant culture, to shape what I write—whether I’m attempting to appease that specter or to spurn it. I don’t have any idea if What Belongs to You moved any needles—and I guess that doesn’t feel like a very meaningful metric to me. What does feel meaningful is hearing from queer artists that the book affirmed something for them, that it made it easier for them to do their work. (And also non-queer artists—one surprise for me has been the number of straight writers, men and especially women, who have said that something about the book helped them address desire in their own work.) 

The important thing is this: to imagine a “general reader” and their response, and to allow that response to have any claim at all on our work, whether we reject it or try to flatter it—that’s a trap. I think we have to make our art, the art we want to make, and we have to believe that if we make it ferocious enough and gorgeous enough and true enough it will be unignorable. I don’t think this is actually true; I think that all sorts of things—the brute fact of structural inequity, the random noise of chance—determine the reception of art. The idea that art can make itself unignorable through excellence is a fiction—but it’s a fiction that makes it possible for me to work. Fuck the “general reader“ and their “willingness” I’m supposed to court. 

AH: Yes, I agree on so many counts, especially your ringing call to both expand representation while reserving the right of artists to write what they need to write. I also agree that “fuck the general reader” must be the way to go when creating art. And yet in terms of public reception, something feels off. It seems like when our non-queer colleagues write queer stories, they’re congratulated for their courage and empathy. When queer writers tell the same stories, we’re perceived as parochial or lacking in imagination. Worse, many of us struggle even to get work out there. Somehow the success of a work like Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, for example, has not created space for a flood or even trickle of similar stories by gay writers. And I don’t know what else to do or say about this contradiction except to mark it—and to be grateful that we have your two beautiful novels in the world.

This brings me to one of the many things that impressed and astounded me about your new novel Cleanness, which is its precise, perceptive rendering of erotic experience, the way you capture the many fascinating places the body and mind travels during the sexual act, and how that so beautifully illuminates character. Can you talk a bit about how as a writer you navigate zigzagging between frank descriptions of the sexual act and diving into your main character’s self-reflections? What strategies did you use to accomplish this?

GG: I don’t think any element of my work was so criticized in workshop as this—my feeling that one of the things that’s most interesting about sex is the way it puts us so intensely in both our bodies and our minds. “Nobody thinks this much when they’re having sex,” someone said to me once. Or years ago—in a poetry workshop, actually, before I was writing fiction—someone said to me, “You can’t have a thinking S&M.” It seems truer to me to say that you can’t have any other kind! Sex makes us philosophical, I think—and not just philosophical, devotional. I suspect that all of our ideas of transcendence come from this experience of embodiedness. 

When I write, I want to make something beautiful, and I want to make something true.

I don’t know how much I can talk about strategy—writing so often feels to me like finding your way slowly through the dark. Strategy can’t be systematized; it’s whatever lets you stay upright. But I know that any representation of sexual experience that leaves out consciousness feels falsifying to me. And I know that any representation of consciousness that leaves out the body feels hollow. There’s a weird way in which the representation of inwardness on the page depends on attending to the exterior. Writing sex, I always want to be attentive to bodies in space, to how these physical beings are relating to each other in their bodies. But also I want to represent sex as communicative of affect, as productive of subjectivity, as a way of thinking about absolute questions. I think the strategy for finding the right counterpoint between those things is the strategy for all writing: to pay attention as carefully, as intensely, as finely as you can to the situation a character is in, to the various currents of communication occurring in any scene. 

AH: It’s striking to me that in literary fiction, writers often shy away from writing about eroticism, as if it’s not a worthy or appropriate subject. Or, worse, sometimes when writers do “go there,” the results, even from some of our most respected literary writers, can sound like a bad imitation of D. H. Lawrence at his worst—and that’s pretty bad. The critic Caleb Crain has said not too terribly long ago that he sees this as a unique problem for authors who write explicitly about male-on-male sex, arguing that if they do, it creates “an unspoken sense among the arbiters of taste that, no matter how talented, such a writer is necessarily minor.” Do you think we’re still in that same place? Why were we ever there? Are we just a bunch of Puritans or prudes?

GG: I wish I understood this bizarre resistance to addressing sex in English-language literature—especially given the extraordinary openness to sex in our earliest great writers, Chaucer and Shakespeare. It amazes me any time a writer says that sex can’t be written well. How bizarre to think that this huge territory of human feeling and experience should be walled off from literary art. It’s just an insane idea. And I think we should try to complicate literary histories that leave that idea untroubled. How is it that hardly anybody talks about Gordon Merrick anymore? (The great Alexander Chee is the great exception.) The Lord Won’t Mind trilogy, published in the 1970s, is extraordinarily explicit—and spent months on the bestseller lists. James Baldwin wrote explicit sex between men—not in Giovanni’s Room, but in later books. Do we consider him minor? What about European writers who found success in English, like Gide or Genet? And what about poetry? I don’t want to pretend that there weren’t impediments to exploring queer sexuality in literature, or that those impediments don’t persist—but nothing helpful can come from making the history seem less complicated than it is. 

It amazes me any time a writer says that sex can’t be written well.

The great statement of the argument you’re talking about is, of course, Updike’s dismissal of Hollinghurst in the 1999 New Yorker review of The Spell. That article makes clear how utterly vacuous the argument is. It’s nothing but bigotry, and we shouldn’t treat it seriously. I’m grateful that all my literary training was in poetry, and that my teachers included Frank Bidart and Carl Phillips, great writers of the queer sexual body. Anyone who has read Catullus, or Sandro Penna, or Cavafy or Whitman or Ginsberg, knows that gay sex is the stuff of great literature. I had the great luxury of simply never absorbing the lessons my friends received in fiction workshops—that writing about gay lives means your books won’t sell, that writing about gay sex means you’ll be considered minor. Though really the great luxury of spending decades as a poet was the conviction it gave me that that value of literature has nothing to do with the size of readership, or with any response at all. The kind of artistic ambition that interests me has different aims. 

AH: Here’s another literary taboo: writing in a non-ironic way about romantic love. The central section of the book describes the beautiful romantic relationship between the narrator and R. I’ve also rarely seen literary writers explore love in the way you do. How the hell did you pull that off? What are the challenges of writing in a serious and nuanced way about romantic love?

GG: The first chapter of Cleanness is called “Mentor,” and it largely consists of a monologue spoken by a high school senior who has just experienced a queer rite of passage: realizing that he’s fallen in love with his straight best friend, and having his heart broken by the rupture of friendship that results from his desire. It feels like the end of the world to him; he feels a kind of despair that makes it impossible for him to imagine a future. The narrator, his teacher, lived through a similar experience ( and part of him feels exasperated by the student’s lack of perspective, by the way he seems to have made a story for himself that makes suffering inevitable. 

More than once, in the seven years I spent teaching high school, I would hear a teacher dismiss students’ suffering, in a way that I think is pretty common: “Oh, they’ll get over it.” You hope that’s true, but I wanted to write something about the seriousness of those feelings as they’re experienced—I wanted to try to take seriously the gravity of first love. It is a character-setting event; the joys and griefs of our first intimacies shape the people we become. The narrator, in that first chapter, finds himself increasingly destabilized as his student’s story takes hold of him, as he feels himself drawn into the student’s experience. For a moment, he feels himself judged by that experience–instead of dismissing the student’s feelings as exorbitant, out-of-scale, he see himself by their measure: diminished, reduced in significance, compromised. 

The relationship between the narrator and R. forms the heart of Cleanness, and in that relationship, the narrator finds himself again feeling something out-of-scale. His experience of it isn’t the same as the student’s: he has been in love before; he knows it’s possible to fall out of love, and he’s cynical about the idea of lastingness; and for a variety of very mundane reasons he knows his relationship with R. is provisional, that it’s unlikely to survive very long. And yet he decides to make a commitment to it, to allow himself to feel as fully as he can. That was interesting to me-—setting aside one’s realism, making a space for a kind of feeling that can seem extravagant, out-size, beyond the proper scale.

I’m drawn to art that can accommodate feeling on a large scale. That kind of art can show us truths about ourselves that understated or ironic art–art that is always stepping to the side of its own feeling—can’t reach. (I don’t mean to set up a hierarchy here: any work of art reveals some aspects of ourselves and occludes others.) I wanted to take feeling seriously in this book, to write earnestly about love and desire—even when the experience of love and desire can come to seem foolish to us once we’re on the other side of it. Which perspective is the truer one: the perspective of the intoxicated lover, or that of disenchantment? How can we know? Is there a way to write experience that can lay claim to both, that doesn’t set up a hierarchy of values between them? 

AH: I love how Cleanness brings to light Bulgaria and the political and cultural context of the book’s characters. I’m thinking specifically of the jubilant political protest scenes, and the contrastingly haunting description of the local queer activists who get bashed. As we’re conversing, the U.S. and the globe feel incredibly fraught politically. Earlier you mentioned the idea of keeping art and activism separate. Yet with each new indignity in the news, I find the temptation to mix art and politics becomes greater, as it does for many of my friends who are creative people. I’ve seen writers offering manuscript consultations in exchange for donations to progressive candidates or political causes. An article in the New York Times featured a poet Camonghne Felix working on messaging for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign. What’s your opinion of the role of the artist during this extraordinary time? How should we as artists respond to current events both in our work and in our lives?

GG: The central belief of my life as an artist is that there is no “should,” and certainly that there is no “should” we can apply to others. Or there’s only one, which is that artists should make the art they feel compelled to make, always, in whatever political climate. I reject the idea that an artist has a responsibility to respond to a particular moment in any particular way; an assertion of that kind of responsibility is deadly, I think, to the possibility of transformative art, of art that helps us live our lives. I think we need a much more capacious, a much less coercive, notion of what constitutes “relevance” in art; we need to acknowledge that the usefulness of art is mysterious and can’t be engineered.

No poem can save the Republic; an army of poets knocking on doors for the Democratic nominee just might.

Art is made in response to inner compulsion and urge, which we often can’t articulate or understand, and therefore which can’t be governed by the usual canons of responsibility; activism is governed by conscious intention, and it needs to be responsible in various ways. Art is the realm in which we can fully indulge those humane virtues of uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt, and benefit from the kind of thinking that results. (The benefits of that thinking can often inform, often need to inform, our work as citizens.) As activists, I think we speak with a kind of certainty I’m not sure I ever really feel about anything. I say all of this to articulate what seems true to me, for my own practice; other artists feel differently, and I don’t think there’s any question of “right” or “wrong.” I don’t get to tell anyone what they should make, or how they should think about making; I claim the same sovereignty for myself. 

I should say that all my intuitions about intentionality and ideology and their essential foreignness to art-making are challenged when I stand in front of Picasso’s Guernica, with its undeniable greatness and indisputable ideology, or when I read Zola’s Germinal, a very great book that was intended as a kind of political intervention. But I worry about what seems like a blurring of art and activism—a sense that a poem has a responsibility to respond to a political situation in a way that’s immediately legible, that says the responsible thing. That’s deadly for art. And I also think there is sometimes a sense that in making art one is discharging one’s obligations as a citizen. That’s deadly for democracy. Writing a poem doesn’t exempt you from the work of citizenship. 

But all of that is about making. The other things you mention—using manuscript consultations to generate money for a political cause, or a poet having a day job (though I imagine it’s a day-and-night job at the moment, strength to her) as a political consultant: I don’t think those are problematic situations at all. They’re acts of citizenship, intentional acts we can direct toward surviving a moment of crisis. No poem can save the Republic; an army of poets knocking on doors for the Democratic nominee just might. 

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