Larry Mitchell, novelist of the dispossessed.
Mitchell's radical East Village aesthetic captures the experiences of people forging an anti-establishment politics informed by living in the gay community before and during the AIDS epidemic. His characters live in cars or freezing apartments; work part-time or short-term minimum-wage jobs rather than pursue careers; respond to a culture of greed by buying little and sharing everything, from clothes to drugs to sex; and elaborate remarkably diverse gender identities and erotic lives. Dating from 1972 to 1993, Mitchell's work coincides with and implicitly critiques the shift from radical queer liberation movements to the new gay politics of tolerance, assimilation, and consumerism. Perhaps not surprisingly, given that cultural trajectory and the conservatism of literary criticism, Mitchell's staunchly nonconformist books are out of print.
Matt Brim: Your gay culture, your strand of gay literary history, is rooted in the East Village and on the Lower East Side in the 1970's, 80's, and 90's. How would you characterize that aesthetic?
Larry Mitchell: Well, I don't know if it's really up to me to do that. I can tell you the great influence on me was Christopher Isherwood, and the idea--it's a total misnomer--of "I am a camera," where you want to make it seem to the reader as if you're reporting.This is the great skill of Isherwood. I wanted my books to be seen as dispatches from the front, or a letter that someone is sending: "Here we are on the cutting edge of culture, and this is what it's like out here creating this new thing." Because that's very much how it felt at the time, like this hadn't really existed before. And we were the ones making it up
MB: You wrote about AIDS from the beginning, but never in a sentimental mode. Was that an artistic choice or was that decision over-determined by the experience of living with so many people dying around you?
LM: I'm a great foe of sentimentality, so it was certainly an artistic choice. I always considered sentimentality as the major emotion of fascism. Fascists are very sentimental, about the family and the mother and the children and all that crap. The right wing gets very sentimental about that stuff, about the fetus or whatever, and I find it a very offensive emotion. So, looking back, I'm sure it was very conscious. I hated sentimentality. And that attitude was very strong in that gay culture that I was a part of. There was this thing about being very clear about what the hell was going on so as not to be taken in. I mean, the people had a very radical politics, but it was more a sensibility. Our response was not, "Oh the poor fags are dying, and we love them, and they are all so sweet." The response was, "Do something about it! What the hell are you doing?" More anger than sentimentality. And I'm glad that comes through in the work, because I think that was very central to that Lower East Side culture.
MB: Sex is important to your books, but it doesn't seem to hold some sacred place in the lives of your characters. It seems to be woven, potentially, throughout any moment. In Heat features sex at an art show--
LM: Oh, my God, I know. That was a very exciting book to write! Someone once said they liked sex in my books because it was usually comical. There's a lot of comedy about sex, because it never quite goes right, or one wants it and one doesn't, or you're trapped in some tiny space and you don't know where to put your arms and your legs. It's not the soft-core porn trip. There's no bed of roses. Everyone doesn't smell fabulous. People are just kind of running around in the comer trying to get off. It was like that in New York. We had back rooms in those days. Or you'd be standing at the bar and somebody would be on their knees. And you say, "Wait, no, I'm not ... well, who are you? ... well, okay ... ." And you'd be here talking and the person you were talking to would see what was happening and they would continue to chat. And God knows what would go on. It was very free and easy. You weren't saving it for the honeymoon, if you know what I mean. It was considered impolite to reject someone. I mean, you didn't have to go home with him; nobody ever went home with anybody. But in public, if someone made a little move on you, you were gracious. People had very good manners around sex, I always felt. That was a very important part of that culture.
MB: Your books reflect a deep understanding of the cycles of history and how power works. Did you think of yourself as a radical or revolutionary artist?
LM: I did. I got my PhD in sociology, so I spent a lot of that time studying things like how power works. One thing I wanted to do was to write books in which there were no straight people. I didn't want to have any straight characters. When I started, I was in a bit of a separatist mood, because I'd had this experience right after Stonewall in the fall of 1969. There was a group formed called the Gay Liberation Front. Two of my friends and I went off to the meeting, and there we were, the gay revolutionaries. This was the second meeting of the group, and they had invited the Black Panthers to come. And there they were, two representatives of the Black Panthers. And they said, "This is great, you're meeting. But what have you got for us? Do you have a voter list? Do you have a voter registration drive? You don't have anything. What are we supposed to have a coalition with? There's nothing here!" And everyone was like, "Oh, we just want to be a part of it! Blah blah blah!" Well, I realized that first gay people needed to get something that was ours, and then you can go out and make a coalition with other people. So I became very focused on that, and I started the publishing company [Calamus Books], and we got gay bookstores, then the gay center. And so the books sort of came out of that. I wanted to present this world that was completely gay and that didn't really deal with straight people that much. That was the feeling I had, that we had to get our shit together and get some strength ourselves before we could go out and ask them to help us with our issues, and before we could help them with their issues.
MB: You were writing along with a great many gay male authors who died, and you lived. And you stopped writing.
LM: I stopped writing. I went blind, so it was difficult. I could see when I was younger, and I went blind slowly, but I never saw that well. But I felt also that I lost my audience. So many of my contemporaries were gone. I think you always write for an audience, and all those people were gone. This was during the years when people were dying in great numbers. I have that experience of people getting very enthused and then six months later they'd be dead. If you notice in Acid Snow there's a very long list of people 1 dedicate the book to, and that was hardly the beginning of that list. You know, I published all of my own books, and I still have copies. But my publishing company, Calamus Press, went out of business. The distributor went bankrupt.
MB: Do you think you could have a new audience now?
LM: The thing that makes my work different, I think, is that it's about a part of the gay world which most people did not write about. They either wrote about Fire Island, the Saint, the clone part of the gay world, or they wrote about the more literary parts of it, like Edmund White. Most people were not writing about the gay world I was writing about. So in that sense it has a certain historic value, I think.
MB: Why do you think that your contemporaries who wrote the Fire Island stories and the Saint stories--the so-called Violet Quill writers--have been credited with the making of gay culture?
LM: I don't quite know how to put this. The Violet Quill did not exist. It is a complete figment of Felice Picano's imagination, an undertaking by Felice to create his version of gay literary history. To say they created gay culture is so wildly off the mark that I always would laugh when Felice would get into this. But he ran with it and he did very well with it. He got a book out of it, and he even managed to convince the Beinecke at Yale that there was such a thing and to offer him money for his archive about this little society. But I think you look elsewhere for the making of gay culture. Those writers were a strand of it, but they were just one small strand. It was always what I thought of as the bourgeois gay culture, and it sort of marginalized other parts of gay culture.
MB: In The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions, you show admiration for queens who "elaborate their forms of outrage." Does outrage still have a place in effecting social change?
LM: I think it probably does, but it's not easy to do, you know. It's a very difficult thing to pull off because you can alienate yourself so far from (he other side that there can never be any reconciliation. But I think outrage is a good way to get attention, to draw attention to the thing, but then you have to do something else. You can't just do outrageousness. After a while you become an entertainer. On the other hand, gay organizations today have very little sense of productive outrage or the need for anger. They're very accommodating. They don't want to get anyone ruffled. And I mink that's the wrong way to go. It leads to Proposition 8 passing. I think the level of activism, anger, and outrage is way too low in the gay community.
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|Title Annotation:||ARTIST'S PROFILE|
|Publication:||The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2009|
|Previous Article:||Lives of the Saints.|
|Next Article:||Fashioning Men.|