Making "Gay" and "Lesbian" into Household Words: How Serial Form Works in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City.
Beginning as a regular daily column in the "Style" section (at the time, just recently converted from "Women's Section") of the San Francisco Chronicle in May 1976, Tales of the City employs the characteristic conventions of Victorian serialized domestic novels--wild coincidences, melodramatic events, open-ended plots, recurring characters, and cliff-hanger action--in its satirically pointed representation of upper- and middle-class social life in San Francisco through the late 1980s. Focusing on family, relationships, and the workplace and designed to be read or viewed in the home, serialized domestic fiction has, for almost two centuries, often worked to blur the lines between public and private discourse, social and familial concerns. Tales of the City is an especially interesting case in point, as it is the first serialized domestic novel addressed to a mainstream audience that explicitly attempts to reconfigure public and private assumptions about one of those topics that most insistently strains the boundaries between the public and the private at century's end: gay sexuality. In this respect it serves as an example of what Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner call, in "Sex in Public," "the queer project" whose goal is "not just to give access to the sentimentality of the couple for persons of the same sex, and definitely not to certify as properly private the personal lives of gays and lesbians. Rather, it is to support forms of affective, erotic, and personal living that are public in the sense of accessible, available to memory, and sustained through collective activity" (562).(3) Though Berlant and Warner are talking about public policy and zoning laws, not literary genres, their project imagines the possibility of changing received definitions of what is sexually and socially "normal." The genre of the serialized domestic novel--so deeply implicated in the history of establishing and reinforcing heterocentric norms for "intimacy," "family," "privacy," and "sex"--becomes in Tales of the City a vehicle for performing that "queer project," for contradicting and complicating the genre's own role in dominant culture.
Maupin's newspaper series survives as six novels that fit the genre of serialized domestic fiction, five of them lightly revised reprints of the original serial, the sixth a continuation, published in 1989, that never appeared in the newspaper. Because it appeared periodically over a dozen years, Tales of the City is the contemporary serial that most closely resembles the Victorian serials of an author like Anthony Trollope, whose Palliser series and Barsetshire series, for instance, each unfolded in multivolume form over twelve-year periods. Some of the novels in Trollope's series appeared originally in part-issue form, appearing monthly or bimonthly as separately published paperback pamphlets, including Can You Forgive Her? (1864-65), the first novel in the Palliser series, and The Prime Minister (1875-76), the penultimate volume in that series. Other volumes in the same series ran as serials in such periodicals as St. Paul's Magazine (Phineas Finn [1867-69], the second volume in the Palliser series), the Fortnightly Review (The Eustace Diamonds [1871-73], the third volume), the Graphic (Phineas Redux [1873-74], the fourth volume), and All the Year Round (The Duke's Children [1879-80], the final volume). In Trollope's case, each novel appeared in volume form after its serial run had ended; sometimes the last installment of the serial would coincide with the publication of the entire novel.
Victorian readers of Trollopian serials, therefore, had to look to various sources for the next installments of the narratives they chose to follow: they did not have the luxury of tuning in to the same network at the same hour every weekday that soap-opera audiences enjoy, but they did have the advantage of being able to fill in episodes they had missed, as the volumes continued to be available through booksellers and circulating libraries. As with those Victorian novels that came out in periodicals, new installments of Tales of the City came out with predictable regularity in eight-hundred-word segments appearing daily in the Chronicle. Every two years between 1976 and 1982 another volume of Tales collected from the newspaper columns would appear, giving Maupin's audience the same opportunities to enter into the diegetic world that were enjoyed by the original readers of Trollope. Fans of Maupin, like fans of Trollope, could fill in the "backstory" by reading the published volumes if they joined the audience late; they could bridge any gaps in their idiosyncratic reading habits; and they could make the story even more vividly their own by rereading favorite episodes.
Though it moved from the Chronicle to the San Francisco Examiner during its decade-long Bay Area newspaper run, the serial's longevity testifies to its continuing popularity; in volume form, Tales of the City had sold over two million copies by 1996 (aided, in part, by a televised adaptation of its first volume, broadcast on PBS in the early 1990s). While I think that its innovative resuscitation of the print genre of serial domestic fiction can partly account for the popularity of Tales of the City, I will argue that serial formal conventions also enable the series to accomplish significant antihomophobic cultural work. In an ironic twist worthy of one of his own outrageous plots, Maupin appropriates serial form--arguably the most Victorian of narrative conventions--to propagate a profoundly anti-"Victorian," anticonventional vision of sexual life.
In accomplishing this, Tales of the City makes use of many formal features common to Victorian serial fiction and to the most popular twentieth-century version of serialized domestic fiction, the con temporary daytime soap opera. Maupin's series fits Jennifer Hayward's description of the conventions that have typified serial form from the 1830s to the present: "refusal of closure; intertwined subplots; large casts of characters (incorporating a diverse range of age, gender, class, and, increasingly, race representation to attract a similarly diverse audience); interaction with current political, social, or cultural issues; dependence on profit; and acknowledgment of audience response (this has become increasingly explicit, even institutionalized within the form, over time)" (3).(4) Hayward offers a detailed analysis of the features in common among the production and reception of serial narrative forms, surveying the genre from Dickens's part-issue novels, through newspaper comic strips, to soap operas on radio, daytime television, and the Web. Linda K. Hughes and Michael Lund have theorized that historical and philosophical circumstances peculiar to the British Victorian reading audience (ranging from dominant notions of personal development, to "uniformitarianism," to evolutionary theory [5-8]) made Victorians especially prone to enjoy serial fiction, but the persistent popularity of serial forms throughout the twentieth century in British and American culture suggests that the appeal of serials is less specifically Victorian than Hughes and Lund argue. Tales of the City is a powerful case in point, as it reproduces so many of the narrative gestures that make Trollopian or Dickensian serials "serial."
Because of its subject matter and its particular historical and geographical placement, however, Tales of the City brings into view three additional features of seriality that can serve to complicate and enrich our understanding of how serial form works: (1) Serial form defies the dominant "marriage plot" governing so much of popular fiction. Due to its structurally mandated impulse to defer ending indefinitely, serialized domestic fiction has always tended to undermine the heterocentric marriage plot by unraveling instances of closure that turn out to be only provisional and temporary. (2) Serial form infiltrates domestic space, blurring the boundaries between "public" and "private" discourse. By its structuring of readers' time and its daily, habitual nature, serialized domestic fiction renders its fictional materials ordinary, quotidian--boring, even. The stuff of serial fiction becomes, to borrow the title of Dickens's periodical in which so many Victorian novels made their first appearance, "household words"--famous but also familiar. (3) Serial form interacts with events in "real time." Serialized domestic fiction bears the marks of historical changes that happen during the period of composition; hence, narrative teleologies shift as the material circumstances of the producers and consumers of texts change over time. More strikingly, perhaps, than such other examples of contemporary serialized domestic fiction as daytime soap opera, Tales of the City capitalizes on all three of these conventions of serial form not only to enlist its audience's readerly devotion (that is, to sell newspapers, ads, and books), but also to restructure readers' attitudes toward sexuality, and particularly toward what might be called "sexual diversity." In what follows, I will more fully define these three conventions and sketch out a few details of how they work in this particular serialized domestic fiction, with an eye to showing how the genre's form (in concert with its overt content) has the potential to subvert dominant ideologies of sexuality.
"It is impossible to think about narrative," Judith Roof contends, "without engaging ideologies of sexuality" (24). In the excellent and provocative Come As You Are (1996), Roof has argued that there is something intrinsically straight, something essentially heteronormative about narrative---all narrative, any narrative that comes (as most narratives usually do) to closure. For Roof, narrative "as an organizing structure ... plays a large part in the stubborn return of a particularly heterosexual normativity" (xxix), because "something in the way we understand what a story is in the first place or something in the way narrative itself operates produces narrative's `heterosexually friendly' shape" (xxxii). This "something" turns out to be the way narratives governed by the marriage-plot convention always "come" to an "end" (with Roof, all puns are intended). In Roof's model, the same closure that directs conventional narratives' teleologies also lends them the orgasmic climax of their endings. Questioning "how [it is] that orgasm and the end are taken for one another, conflated in our narrative expectations" (6), Roof looks for alternatives to the hegemony of heteronormative closure.
Roof quite rightly emphasizes that the only way narratives could reflect and reinforce the pleasures of alternative sexualities would be for them to employ radical innovations in their discursive forms, not just to offer new or different subject matter for stories that follow the same old established patterns of closure. Although Roof's study surveys numerous unconventional examples of literary and popular texts, her search does not take her to that narrative form which most consistently, most doggedly, most addictively resists ending: serial fiction. While I agree with Roof's basic point about the heteronormative nature of stories that "come to an end," I would suggest that serialized domestic fictions--whether in the genre of Victorian novels, of daytime soap operas, or of long-running prime-time television series--are continually undermining the ideological imperative for a man to couple up with a woman and for the two of them to stay that way forever after in the unrepresented future toward which diegetic closure inevitably gestures. To be sure, in soaps, in Victorian serial fiction, and even, nowadays, on prime-time TV, story lines are still constantly being driven by the heterosexually defined desire for couples to get together, to make commitments to stay together, and so on, but in these serial genres the stories that are so powerfully propelled forward by the marriage plot are as readily unraveled as they are resolved. Sandy Flitterman-Lewis describes how this works through wedding scenarios in soap operas:
Rather than resolving weeks of conflict which it has been the serial's function elaborately to spin out, the wedding provides a complex and fertile textual "knot," a matrix of disruption which instigates further narrative problems. In the wedding, new configurations of characters temporarily align as each "knot" reveals new obstacles, new reasons for the deferral of completion. Underlying each wedding is thus a substratum of impermanence, a foundation of uncertainty reflecting the perpetually shifting complexities of soap opera relationships. (120)
These complexities may occur on- or offscreen; they may be consequences of diegetic or extradiegetic factors. For example, the daytime soap-opera "supercouple" can finally be getting married after years of obstacles and tribulations, but the audience can be sure that the secret affair the bride's half sister just had with the groom will become common knowledge soon enough to begin pulling the happy pair apart. Or, for a prime-time example, after multiple seasons of highly touted "sexual tension" in the long-running comedy series Cheers, Sam Malone and Diane Chambers could finally get engaged, but Shelley Long's career aspirations could take her character out of the marriage plot (and right out of the diegesis) without bringing the series to an end. And if, at the end of one of Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels, Phineas Finn finally settles on a bride from among the four women he has considered marrying over the course of that novel's story, that bride can die and his marriage plot can start all over again when his story line resumes, two volumes later in the series. In serials, the story never really comes to an end; the closure is always momentary; the climax--even if it is orgasmic--never has to mean the pleasure is over.(5)
For the past 150 years, then, serialized domestic fiction has played an important role in "queering" the closure of marriage plots, making it a significant exception to Roof's rule. Like Roof, I am more interested in examining the sexual and ideological implications of a narrative's form--the relation between its narrative discourse, in Gerard Genette's sense of the term, and its teleology--than in interpreting the details of its story.(6) Much of what I will say about the potentially transformative functions of the way serials resist closure would be equally true for heterocentric serials as it is for Maupin's assertively queer novels. I think, however, that the ways serial form can work to change culture can be brought most clearly into view through studying a serial like Tales of the City which is as overtly queer in its content as I would argue it is implicitly queer in its deployment of serial form.
Tales of the City takes the antiheterocentric impulse of serial fiction to its most extreme manifestation: the queer plot that reconfigures families, couples, and coupling in antitraditional and unpredictable patterns. Soap opera fans are familiar with a heterocentric version of this same pattern, as there is always something rather queer about soap opera families.(7) The received notion of soaps is that, as one scholar has recently asserted, "the nuclear family is alive and well" in their story lines; allegedly soaps uphold the structure of the bourgeois family with their almost obsessive reliance on individual lineage as the story line's deep background and on engagements and weddings as motors for the plot.(8) The truth is, though, that a close look at the family structure on a soap opera that has been running for three or four decades will reveal a highly idiosyncratic notion of "appropriate" families presented as the diegetic community's norm. For example, a man might recently have married a woman who is the niece of his former wife, and who was once sexually involved with another man who is now married to the bridegroom's daughter; his bride herself might have been previously married to a third man who (out of wedlock) fathered one of the sons of that same daughter of the bridegroom. In this particular case (I am thinking of John and Barbara on As the World Turns), the peculiarity of these combinations sometimes rises to the surface of the plot, as when the story line focused for six months or so on the need to keep that out-of-wedlock child ignorant of the fact that his ostensible father is not his birth father. After weeks of angst over whether the boy could handle the news, the story line ended with his matter-of-fact and cheerful acceptance of the advantages of having "two dads." Of course the boy's response invokes connotations of Leslea Newman's lesbian-positive children's story Heather Has Two Mommies, but for the sake of argument I'll put this aside. That both those dads (Tom and Hal) had sex with the boy's mom (Margo) within the confines of her marriage to Tom, that both men had also in the past had sex with Barbara (John's bride in the anecdote I began with) exemplifies the way daytime soaps' serial plots subvert the structure of the nuclear family by doubling and trebling people's relationships to one another (now Barbara is Margo's stepmother as well as her sexual rival for both Tom's and Hal's attention, not to mention being also the niece of Margo's husband's stepmother). Within the diegetic frame of the soap, all these quasi-incestuous family groupings are naturalized, presented as (almost) perfectly normal--or, at least, only unusual enough to make the situations narratable. If you look closely enough at the relationships, though, and particularly at the way they kaleidoscope over time, they look like anything but nuclear families.
Tales of the City does the same kind of work, not for the incestuously multiplied family relations of daytime soaps but for family configurations that are in other respects "queer." To be sure, its multiple story lines begin with the predictably heterosexual search for partners that Mary Ann Singleton, the twenty-something protagonist; her stewardess friend from her high school in Cleveland, Connie; and Mary Ann's future husband, Brian Hawkins, undertake in late 1970s San Francisco. But the drive toward coupling up is already undermined by the social mores of the setting Maupin is satirizing, the "singles scene." The apartment building that centers the serial, 28 Barbary Lane, belongs to Anna Madrigal, a middle-aged woman who sees her four unmarried tenants as her "ersatz children" (Further Tales 2). She (and they) always refer to the house's inhabitants as "a family," while the narrator continually asserts that "They weren't really her children, of course, but she treated them as such" (Further Tales 2)--which means, in Anna Madrigal's case, that she listens to their troubles and often makes them presents of the especially nice marijuana she grows in the garden at 28 Barbary Lane. As it happens, one of the tenants--Mona--really is a daughter of Anna Madrigal's, but this is a secret, unknown to the narrative audience or to any of the characters other than Anna; this is a typical motif in daytime soap opera, and here, as there, although numerous hints and clues are offered, many extradiegetic weeks go by before the secret surfaces and the family structure adjusts to fit the revelation. Here, though, the revelation has a twist that "queers" the trope: when the secret comes out (in More Tales of the City; the second volume), we learn that though Mona is Anna Madrigal's child, Anna is not Mona's mother; she is her father, having undergone a transsexual operation after Mona's birth. This hilarious disruption of readerly expectations sets a pattern for queering the idea of what a "real" family might be, or how family members might "really" be related.(9)
Heterosexually based "nuclear families" don't exist in the universe of Tales of the City, at least not among the younger generation that centers the story lines. The twenty-something socialites DeDe and Beauchamp Day present the possibility of a "normal" heterosexual couple upon their first appearance, but that possibility quickly unravels, as DeDe becomes pregnant by the Chinese teenager who delivers her groceries, Beauchamp (after proving himself to be a faithless cad by seducing and dumping everyone from his secretary, Mary Ann, to his wife's gay gynecologist, Jon) dies horribly in a violent and well-deserved car crash, and DeDe proceeds to raise her twin babies with the help of her lesbian partner, D'Orothea. If the configuration of two lesbian parents raising twins looks too much like merely replacing heterosexual partners with a homosexual couple in the same old structure of a "nuclear family," consider the case of D'Orothea's former lover, Mona. After her breakup with D'Oro, Mona never places herself in another dyadic relationship with a lover, but in Babycakes, the fourth volume, she does get married to a gay British nobleman (giving him a visa to San Francisco and providing her with an English country house and an income) and creates her own distinctly nonnuclear family by legally adopting a black British gay teenage boy.
Even those characters who seem headed along the trajectory of traditional marriage plots end up taking detours. Until well into Further Tales of the City, the third volume (when Mary Ann and Brian get together), neither Connie nor Brian nor their many sexual partners are interested in anything more than a one-night stand, and Mary Ann's innocent assumption that a "commitment" is the desirable outcome of a date is consistently spoofed through the first two volumes, as her objects of desire turn out to be such inappropriate choices as a private investigator who trades in child pornography (whom Mary Ann inadvertently kills by pushing him over a cliff near the Palace of the Legion of Honor) and an amnesiac who is hopelessly embroiled in the notorious Episcopalian Cannibalistic cult. The predictably "normal" heterosexual marriage of Mary Ann and Brian eventually goes predictably sour, as Mary Ann's broadcasting career and her distaste for their adopted daughter Shawna (whom Brian, as "househusband," has been raising since her birth mother, Connie, died) take Mary Ann (in Sure of You, the sixth volume) out of the family and away from San Francisco to the larger television market of New York. Significantly, what could have been figured as a Kramer vs. Kramer melodrama of maternal negligence works out to be good news for Brian and even for Shawna: the very last scene of the series shows him starting on another one of the just-for-fun sexual conquests he had specialized in for the first two volumes and looking forward with genuine paternal devotion to raising Shawna alone.(10)
The only character whose romantic ideas about committed coupling persist is the gay hero, Michael Tolliver, or "Mouse," whose entrance into the story line is precipitated by his breakup with one lover and whose pursuit of the ideal longtime companion propels his story through countless sexual liaisons over six volumes' worth of story lines. Michael declares throughout the series that he "believes in marriage"; early in their friendship, he tells Mary Ann, "I think about it every time I see a new face. I got married four times today on the 41 Union bus" (Tales 236). When she laughs with "embarrassment," Michael explains that he's not thinking of weddings so much as marriage: "I know ... a bunch of fairies in caftans, tripping through Golden Gate Park with drag bridesmaids and quotations from `Song of the Loon.' ... That's not what I mean.... It would be like ... friends. Somebody to buy a Christmas tree with." Michael continues throughout the series to refine his ideal model of marriage, building in a distinctly anti-mainstream penchant for nonmonogamous coupling. In Further Tales of the City, Michael tells a friend he believes "some anonymous sex is so wonderful that it almost seems to prove the existence of God" (241), but he admits that for him, "that's just part of the time. As soon as the moon changes or something, I want to be married again. I want to sit in a bathrobe and watch Masterpiece Theatre with my boyfriend.... I want order and dependability and somebody to bring me NyQuil when I feel like shit" (242). In the end, Michael's relationship with his live-in lover, Thack ("the man who had made him happy" [Sure of You 254]), is the only coupling that looks anything like a "marriage," by Michael's definition or, for that matter, according to mainstream culture's model of what conjugal, domestic intimacy is supposed to be. That a gay couple would represent the closest thing the novels present to a "normal" family is one of the effects of Tales of the City's reliance on serial structure to render the idea of lesbian and gay sex "ordinary" for a mainstream reading audience.
And yet there is nothing "ordinary" about Tales of the City's insistence on diverging from heterosexual norms of intimate relationship in the development of its plotlines. The contradictions implicit in Michael's simultaneous celebration of anonymous sex and his embrace of something that looks an awful lot like normal marriage combine with the structural imperatives of this serialized domestic fiction to point to the ways "heterosexual culture achieves much of its metacultural intelligibility through the ideologies and institutions of intimacy," as Berlant and Warner put it (553). As they explain, "intimacy is itself publicly mediated":
First, its conventional spaces presuppose a structural differentiation of "personal life" from work, politics, and the public sphere. Second, the normativity of heterosexual culture links intimacy only to the institutions of personal life, making them the privileged institutions of social reproduction, the accumulation and transfer of capital, and self-development. Third, by making sex seem irrelevant or merely personal, heteronormative conventions of intimacy block the building of nonnormative or explicit public sexual cultures. Finally, those conventions conjure a mirage: a home base of prepolitical humanity from which citizens are thought to come into political discourse and to which they are expected to return in the (always imaginary) future after political conflict. Intimate life is the endlessly cited elsewhere of political public discourse.
Using the newspaper or the mainstream Harper-Perennial publishing house both to "publicize" queer models of intimate relationship and to bring them into the "private" spaces of heterocentric homes is one way to make that intimate "elsewhere" into the political here and now.
Michael's fantasy of watching Masterpiece Theatre in a regular, comfortable, and conjugal way is not just an example of the kind of bourgeois respectability his model of marriage is meant to appeal to; it is also an allusion to the role that serialized domestic fiction plays in structuring the emotional life that goes on in middle-class domestic spaces. Masterpiece Theatre is orderly and dependable; within a certain social and educational echelon, it is also intensely familiar. People who want to watch it know when and where to find it on the air; they can follow its continuing stories with predictable regularity; and they can count on having new episodes to talk about with one another. Like the eventual PBS dramatizations of Maupin's tales that Michael's remark presciently calls back from the future, Tales of the City uses the conventions of serial form to render gay and lesbian life familiar not just to those whose world is being represented in the series, but also to the homophobic mainstream audiences of the San Francisco Chronicle and of the nationally distributed reprinted novels.
This structuring of domestic spaces and familiar relationships is what makes the periodical nature of serialized domestic fiction so important. As Maupin remarked in a 1987 interview, "The daily form lets air in.... People have 24 hours to speculate on what's going to happen, so they remember it in a different way. It becomes part of their own experience" ("Talk" 54). What does it mean for a daily newspaper like the Chronicle or the Examiner to be a "periodical," after all? The period marked by the newspaper is twenty-four hours; the paper is literally quotidian, which means it's ordinary by definition: it's always there, every day, to be perused and discarded. If its headlines are always insisting on the special uniqueness of the events it reports, their very insistence only emphasizes how repetitious, how ordinary that uniqueness is. There are headlines every day, there is a newspaper every day. So what? So--here in the San Francisco Chronicle, the most ordinary of all ordinary daily papers, was this addictive, scandalous, hypersexual, hilarious serialized story. Having lived in the Bay Area during the early years of the serial's newspaper run, I can remember the shock and delight of finding in that notoriously superficial and bourgeois rag this continuing story full of "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" allusions to sex of so many kinds: not just straight but gay, bi-, and trans-; not just committed but promiscuous; not just vanilla but kinky.
For Richard Canning, Tales does not go far enough along this road, as "the radicalism of Maupin's liberal theft of family rhetoric in describing his performative family involves, simultaneously, a descriptive conservatism in relation to sex and the body" (165). Canning attributes Maupin's narrator's reticence about the bodily details of gay sex to the author's desire not to alienate the mainstream audience of the serial; as Canning sees it, Maupin's reluctance to represent gay sex acts means that "gay desire is suspended" in the text, and that homosexuality becomes a matter of essence (or even of mere "taste") rather than of (sexual) performance in Judith Butler's sense of the word. Canning's observation seems to me to be profoundly true of the representation of gayness in current mainstream popular culture, for instance in the spate of Hollywood movies featuring gay male characters in the late 1990s, from My Best Friend's Wedding to The Object of My Affection. In and Out, the most overt example of this phenomenon, begins with the premise that the Kevin Kline character has no idea that he is gay, but that everyone else in his hometown except his fiancee knows he is, because of the way he walks, dresses, speaks, and rides his bicycle. The Kline character "finds out" he is gay when the openly gay Tom Selleck character (brilliantly and wittily cast, I must admit, given the persistent gossip around Los Angeles about Selleck's own sexuality) gives him one big kiss, never to be repeated for the duration of the film. The implication is that Kline's being gay in the first place has nothing to do with homosexual desire and, in the long run, as the plot develops, very little indeed to do with acts of sex among men. Such a film exemplifies beautifully the current mainstream representation of gayness as an essence, a taste, a lifestyle--but not a matter of sexual practice.
Compared to what such films do to avert the gaze from gay sexuality, Tales of the City is remarkably frank. If Canning is fight to point out the rhetorical limitations implicit in what Maupin's novels do not or cannot say about the specifics of gay sex, I think the formal structure of serialized domestic fiction has a performative force of its own, as it opens up an imaginative world of gay sex and desire that had not made its way into mainstream discourse before and would therefore have been literally unimaginable to many of the series' original readers--and indeed would still remain obscure, two decades later, to mainstream audiences whose understanding of gay experience is circumscribed by films like In and Out. Tales of the City represents a world where sexual performance is central to identity. In this sense, Tales of the City can be understood as participating in what Berlant and Warner call queer culture's "world-making project" (558).
For subscribers to the San Francisco newspaper, following Mouse's sexual adventures meant entering diegetic realms that mainstream audiences rarely if ever encounter.(11) Readers regularly took in not just allusions to Michael's serially monogamous intercourse with Thack and, before him, Jon, but also to the string of sexual experiences in between these two relationships. These range from an S & M liaison with a gay cop to a fantasy of tasting "diesel fuel on a [truck driver's] sunburned neck and commit[ting] himself totally to the appetites of a stranger" while actually having sex with an aging matinee idol (identified as "-- --," to be read as "Rock Hudson") and wondering Whether some man, somewhere, was having sex with a truck driver while fantasizing about this movie star (Further Tales 118). (A former lover of Mouse's, taunting him about the cop and the movie star as well as a construction worker he's recently slept with, exclaims, "You're not having a life, Michael. You're fucking the Village People, one at a time? [Further Tales 328].) From the streets and bars of the Castro District, to the Reno Gay Rodeo, to all-male private Hollywood parties, to a womenonly music festival and camp-out, Tales of the City brought countless diegetic spaces explicitly marked as exclusively gay or lesbian into the domestic spaces of all those Chronicle-reading households. As Maupin remarked in 1987, a decade after Tales got started, "The degree to which the subject of homosexuality has been opened for discussion is enormous. It has been demystified--it's less scary now. My goal is the day it becomes boring--the day it's just people and relationships, and we just leave it at that. That's what it comes down to, anyway" ("Talk" 54).
Of course, this strategy doesn't work for every reader, as a grouchy and cursory treatment of Tales of the City in the Hudson Review all too pointedly demonstrates. Dismissing Tales (along with Cyra McFadden's The Serial, set in Marin County) as an extended dirty joke that confirms every northeasterner's worst prejudices about California lifestyles, James P. Degnan offers his own list of what the characters in Tales are "into," including "SM bars, whips and chains, gold brocade cords and rubber batons, black leather sequined jock straps, cockrings, sex in men's rooms, sex orgies in steam rooms," and so on (147). He claims to find the series "tiresome," because he feels it "elects to deliver a message a message that has become monumentally tiresome: that `alienation'--e.g., homosexuality, hedonism, promiscuity--somehow is always preferable to `conformity'--heterosexuality, marriage, fidelity, self-sacrifice because the former is `authentic,' the latter, hypocritical. In short, it is the same message we've been getting from books, movies, TV and stage plays for decades" (147). Degnan's stubbornly conservative misreading of Maupin's text comes through in his mysterious application of quotation marks (never do Maupin or any of his characters use the terms "alienation," "conformity," or "authentic" in the connections Degnan cites here), as well as in his false categorization of the plot's events ("marriage, fidelity, and self-sacrifice" are never dismissed from the values of Maupin's fictional world, just redefined). Degnan may claim to be bored, but his boredom is a response to something that is not actually present in Maupin's text; this boredom resembles the unconscious strategy for dealing with hysterical anxiety that D. A. Miller has so beautifully analyzed in his treatment of the tedium inspired by the Victorian serial form of Trollope's Barchester Towers.(12) The ideological deployment of boredom, tedium, repetition, and ordinariness is perhaps the most significant of the technical links between Maupin's project and those of the Victorian serialists.
When Charles Dickens gave the title Household Words to his Victorian periodical--the first place of publication for Hard Times, one of Dickens's most explicitly political interventions into prevailing social and economic attitudes--he was both establishing and pointing to the power of serial publications to make ideas and experiences familiar. Making "household words" out of phrases and concepts means more than just bringing them into the home through the vehicle of periodical publication. Through the domestic conversations serial fiction would presumably stimulate, the process of serial publication makes those ideas and experiences, phrases and concepts part of the discourse inside the household itself. Every week, from April to August of 1854, middle-class readers of Household Words took in another installment of events describing life among workers whose elbows they might brush in the street but whose private experience was made visible to them only through its rendition in social-problem novels like Hard Times.(13) Every day between 1976 and 1987, whenever they brought in the newspaper containing Maupin's column, every heterocentric middle-class household in the greater Bay Area was taking in words that might not have been spoken or heard in those households before, words that the story, over its remarkable decade-long newspaper run, made absolutely unremarkable: fag hags (Tales 101); the Sutro Bath House (Tales 127); the men's strip contest at the Endup (Tales 221; More Tales 250); the "A-Gays" (gay men of the highest San Francisco social class [Further Tales 8]); the Gay Freedom Day Parade; the Sisters of Perpetual In dulgence (transvestite "nuns" on roller skates who show up from time to time in San Francisco, especially on Halloween); and--most significantly for the time and place of publication of Tales of the City, most dramatically in its impact on the characters in the series and on its initial audience--AIDS (Significant Others 78 ff).
Throughout its long run, Tales of the City's plotlines reflect Bay Area preoccupations with current events, such as Queen Elizabeth II's highly publicized visit to San Francisco and the Peninsula (the background setting for Babycakes) and the Jonestown disaster that killed so many former Oakland residents in Guiana (a back-from-the-dead and surgically altered Jim Jones is the villain of Further Tales of the City). Most markedly in its last volumes, though, Tales of the City reflects the major shifts in gay culture and in individual relationships that accompanied growing public awareness of the AIDS epidemic in the Bay Area in the mid to late eighties. In the world of the text, AIDS becomes both another soap-opera-scale personal crisis (like the amnesia and the paralysis suffered temporarily by characters in the first volumes) and a community-wide disaster. At the same time, the text's serial form made AIDS into an ordinary, everyday event that happened to people who had become intimately familiar to the audience over the course of the series. "The result," as Tom Spain observes in the introduction to his interview with Maupin, "is a portrait of the devastating effects of the AIDS epidemic that achieves an intimacy that could scarcely be duplicated in any other format. Whether they read the newspaper series or the books, readers are faced with the prospect that someone they've `known' for 10 years may be dying before their eyes" (Maupin, "Talk" 53).
In its deployment of serial conventions, Tales of the City works to make AIDS real for an audience comfortable with the genre of realist, sentimental fiction; if its ultimate aim is to make that audience more comfortable with homosexuality, it is also to make the reality of AIDS excruciatingly uncomfortable for a readership that might not be equally touched by the factual accounts running side-by-side in the newspaper with the series' installments. By becoming "household words" themselves, the familiar characters of a serial take on quasi-familial status: they enter the families of their readers as the newspaper enters their homes. This effect can also work, of course, for the audience who consumes the series in volume form. As one reader living in the Midwest put it in the context of a scholarly article on Tales:
Upon the publication of each subsequent novel I hurried to my local bookstore. I would devour each installment from cover to cover in one evening. During the intervening years, I would reread the novels, sometimes singly and sometimes the entire series in sequence. Maupin's characters were as real to me as my own closest friends; their travails and triumphs were mine, too. (Browning 86)(14)
In this way, Maupin's serial fiction has worked toward making AIDS a family matter, even in heterocentrically configured and otherwise emotionally (and--one presumed--medically) well-defended homes.
Reading Tales of the City retrospectively from the perspective of the nineties superimposes a teleology of doom on the mid-seventies stories of freewheeling sex that could not have been present in the minds of the original audience. When in the first volume (appearing in the newspaper in 1976) Mona says to Michael, on his way out for an evening of "trashing," "Be careful, will you? ... Don't do anything risky," and Michael replies, "You read the papers too much" (Tales 110), the allusion might originally have invoked leather-bar machismo or gay bashing but would not have connoted AIDS. According to Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On, press coverage of the so-called gay plague began in the Chronicle (the only mainstream paper to treat the rising incidence of Kaposi's sarcoma among gay men as reportable news) in 1980, before the name acquired immunodeficiency syndrome was coined.(15) AIDS enters the story line of Tales of the City shortly thereafter, in the columns that comprise Babycakes, published in volume form in 1984. As that fourth volume in the series opens, Michael is grieving for his on-again, off-again lover Jon, with whom he had very romantically reconciled at the end of Further Tales of the City, the third volume, but who has been diagnosed with AIDS, sickened, and died--much like Phineas Finn's first bride, Mary--during the diegetic time elapsing between volumes. At the beginning of Babycakes, Jon has been dead for "over three months" (24), but it all has happened offstage: readers following the series were presented with the grief resulting from an AIDS death, but not with a representation of the anxiety and suffering of the disease itself.
The first central character in the series to be represented as experiencing an AIDS scare is not a gay man but rather the aggressively heterosexual Brian, who learns in Significant Others, the fifth volume, that one of his mistresses has contracted AIDS from a lover who uses intravenous drugs. Maupin capitalizes on the opportunity this plot situation offers to do some antihomophobic AIDS education. When Brian confesses his fear of being HIV-positive to Michael, he reveals his adherence to the heterocentric double standard controlling dominant discourse about AIDS, brushing off Michael's reminder that "I've been through this, remember?" with "Yeah, but ... this is different .... Michael, there are innocents involved here," meaning Brian's wife, Mary Ann, and their daughter, Shawna. Michael bristles--"Innocents, huh? Not like me. Not like Jon. Not like the fags"--and when Brian backs off, Michael insists, "Lay off that innocent shit. It's a virus. Everybody is innocent" (79). By this time (around 1985-86), the serial had moved out of the Chronicle into its sister paper, the Examiner, but it was still a regular feature as the AIDS story moved into mainstream news, forcing devotees of the serial to come to terms with heterocentric prejudices about AIDS through their readerly attachments to Brian and Michael, protagonists since the beginning of the first volume. The next year, 1987, when this story line appeared in volume form, was also the publication date of Shilts's book; by 1987, ACT-UP had launched its "SILENCE=DEATH" campaign to make AIDS a household word in those vast American spaces inside and beyond the Bay Area where "AIDS" was still seldom if ever spoken.(16)
The impact of AIDS affects the action and settings of the story lines (for instance, all-out orgies give way to dreary safe-sex "jack-off" parties, and gay cruising among the central characters virtually disappears from the plot), but it also drastically alters the generic mode of the serial. What began in 1976 as a series of satirical novels of manners evolves into the more sentimental novels Maupin is writing in the late eighties, where the audience must ultimately come to terms with the gay hero's own HIV-positive status. Typically, novels of manners adhere to the marriage plot, and one of the definitions of the marriage plot is that the heroine's story can be resolved only by marriage or by death; there are no other options for ending the traditional feminocentric novel.(17) Significantly, if Michael Tolliver--the protagonist of this antimarriage plot--does not end up by following the comic heroine's narrative trajectory and literally getting married (no caftans in the park, no drag bridesmaids, no gay wedding), he does not die, either, as the protagonist of a dysphoric sentimental novel ought properly to do. Even though Maupin stopped writing it after publishing the last volume in 1989, the series does not end; just as it defies the heteronormative closure of the marriage plot, serial form resists both the settled, cathartic closure of tragedy and the redemptive telos of sentimentalism. This relieves the audience of the excruciating burden of watching a well-loved hero die a painful death, which could be understood as letting the mainstream readership off the hook of facing the reality of AIDS. At the same time, though, it leaves the story open-ended, unfinished, unsettled and unsettling, refusing to let death-by-AIDS determine the meaning of each of the details of Michael's life story up to "now," the point at which that story breaks off without reaching resolution.
Although I have been arguing for the transformative potential of the genre of serialized domestic fiction, I do not want to overstate the case, either for the radical effects of this particular serial or for the intrinsic subversiveness of the serial form in general. I realize the trajectory of my argument is heading for an assertion that the serial form of Tales of the City has somehow expedited a resolution to homophobia and to AIDS. Whatever the serial may have achieved in its newspaper run and its subsequently successful publication in volumes, it certainly wasn't adequate to the problems it addresses: as the year 2000 approaches, AIDS still persists, underresearched, underfunded; homophobia prevails. To be sure, there is nothing necessarily radical about the manifest content of best-selling serial fiction in the late twentieth century, either: a comparison of the nostalgic, paternalist, racialist, and elitist politics of Bonfire of the Vanities with the "world-making" project of Tales of the City can show how the cliffhanger endings, the wild but somehow predictable coincidences, and the interlocking subplots of serial narrative may serve conservative agendas, as well. As Armistead Maupin is to Charles Dickens, one might say, Tom Wolfe is to William Makepeace Thackeray: Tales of the City and Hard Times or Bleak House use audiences' emotional affinities for the characters of serialized domestic fiction as a tool for liberal social reform, while Bonfire of the Vanities and Vanity Fair eschew sentimentalism, inserting ironic distance between readers and characters to inspire a readerly aversion to "the way we live now." Still, if there is something indelibly bourgeois about the product of the sentimental social reformer, if there is something exploitative, even, in his uses of serial form and its emotional impact upon its audiences, at least--as with Dickens and Maupin--the project serves a vision of forward movement, a vision that resists either the backward glance of nostalgia or the final, slammed door of closure. As Maupin's novels continue to be adapted for television, and as the series is still circulating in volume form, the cultural work of Tales of the City--as well as work like this on how serial form works--remains "to be continued..."
University of Vermont
I want to thank Mary Lou. Kete, Irene Kacandes, and the participants in the conference on genre co-sponsored in fall 1998 by Colgate University and Hamilton College for their helpful reactions to this essay.
(1.) To place it in the context of other best-sellers of those decades, Tales of the City predates Cyra McFadden's 1987 novel The Serial (which, like Tales, ran first in a San Francisco Bay Area newspaper), Tom Wolfe's 1987 blockbuster The Bonfire of the Vanities (first serialized in Rolling Stone), Stephen King's The Green Mile (which appeared in six monthly part-issues in 1995), and Pat Dillon's The Last Best Thing (serialized in the San Jose Mercury News and on the Worldwide Web before its publication in volume form in 1996).
(2.) Over a long term, such news stories unfold serially as the events of a celebrity's life occur. The mass dissemination of individual episodes in news stories, however, is structured very differently from serial narrative. Rather than stringing out a developing plot in parts, news coverage tends to give a brief, broad overview of a whole plot first, then to fill in details over time, in the initial article as well as in subsequent coverage and in sidebars. In the case of President Clinton's affair with an intern, for example, the bare outlines of a story were released first, then the details of the story got conveyed through various parallel but competing narratives (the Starr report, the president's videotaped testimony, Lewinsky's interview with Barbara Walters, and so on). Though the details of such narratives are transmitted over time, they do not engage their audiences in the same imaginative activity as serial narrative. The question for receivers of these news stories is not the serial-addict's insistent "What happens next?" It more closely resembles the theme of Rashomon: depending upon the perspective from which a story is told and retold, audiences' understanding of what happened and of what it means will vary. Serially published journalistic pieces, by contrast, share many of the formal features of composition and reception that I am attributing to serialized domestic novels.
(3.) I am grateful to the anonymous reader for Contemporary Literature who provided this citation and to both readers who gave me many insightful suggestions.
(4.) According to Tom Spain (Maupin, "Talk" 53) and to Barbara Kaplan Bass (255), Maupin kept ahead of the newspaper serial by only a few installments, taking readers' reactions and suggestions into account as he developed the details of the story line. Bass reports that Maupin "wrote none of his daily 800-word installments very far in advance because he liked responding to his readers' feedback about the characters and plot" (255).
(5.) This observation should serve as a reminder that, although Roof does not cite her, Susan Winnett has laid a foundation for Roof's argument in her important article analyzing the phallocentric bias of prevailing theories of readerly desire.
(6.) Genette distinguishes among story, "the signified or narrative content," narrative, "the signifier, statement, discourse, or narrative text itself," and narrating, "the producing narrative action and, by extension, the whole of the real or fictional situation in which that action takes place" (27). I try to maintain these distinctions, though I share Genette's awareness that the oppositions ultimately break down in analysis of texts.
(7.) One of many insights into soap opera that I owe to conversations with Joseph Litvak.
(8.) For example, Gilah Rittenhouse asserts that "the expanding legion of soap opera fans can find in As the World Turns a view of the family unit that is stable and reassuring"; somewhat inexplicably, Rittenhouse describes the structure of the core families on that soap as "nuclear," although among the dozens of characters there are no examples of families fitting that description. Rittenhouse's argument imposes a false closure on the serial narrative plot by freezing family situations at the narrative moment of the essay's composition; since her essay was published (in 1992), many of the family configurations the essay describes have dissolved in the soap's continually evolving diegesis.
(9.) With reference to Tales of the City, folklorist Jimmy D. Browning comments: "Gay families can consist of as few as two persons, such as lovers or good friends, and, many times, former lovers. Not all members of the gay family are gay men, and sex and age are usually irrelevant factors in family membership. The structure of the gay family is based on levels of intimacy--more distant relationships are often the more short lived." Browning remarks that the gay hero of Tales of the City, Michael Tolliver, "estranged from the family into which he was born ... creates his own family by adapting the traditional family structure" (83).
(10.) I do not share Werner J. Einstadter's and Karen P. Sinclair's objection that "The transformation of Mary Ann is one of the nastiest and arguably the most misogynistic character portrayals of the series. Michael's defense of her, which in time even he cannot maintain, results from his fidelity to friendship rather than from Mary Ann's worthiness. It is Michael who sustains Brian during this difficult time. Brian in fact emerges as a hero in spite of himself; his nobility shines in the face of heterosexual treachery" (688). I note, however, how much of what they are saying in the second and third sentences of this quotation resembles comments one might make about "real people."
(11.) Maupin self-consciously specialized in representing uncharted territory. In a 1992 interview, he remarked, for instance, that "Babycakes, as far as I know, was the first fiction anywhere to deal with the AIDS epidemic" ("Interview" 8).
(12.) See "The Novel as Usual," The Novel and the Police 107-45.
(13.) Maupin was fully aware of the parallels between his own project and Dickens's. He told Tom Spain: "The bottom line--the message--is acceptance, love and understanding. I try to celebrate difference through the books, the way 19th-century writers did, to show all the classes, the richness of humankind.... The reader is besieged by so many combinations that you just see them as relationships" (54).
(14.) The quotation comes from Jimmy D. Browning, who identifies himself as a gay reader (73), but speaking as a straight woman, I would describe my own feelings about Tales as very similar to his. In describing the breadth of the serial's appeal, Browning mentions several straight friends who have shared his enthusiasm for Tales.
(15.) Shilts's book borrows shamelessly, by the way, from Maupin's narrative method in its episodic accounts of individuals' experience with gay culture and with AIDS; it was itself originally serialized in The New Yorker. Unaccountably, given that Shilts was the AIDS reporter for the Chronicle during the same decade that Maupin's serial was appearing in that paper, it never mentions Tales of the City. Writing about the period when Shilts was composing his book, Frances FitzGerald says Shilts and Maupin were friends (55).
(16.) See Crimp and Rolston 15. What Douglas Crimp and Adam Rolston say about anti-AIDS activists' rhetorical strategies applies also to Maupin: "ACT UP's humor is no joke. It has given us the courage to maintain our exuberant sense of life while every day coping with disease and death, and it has defended us against the pessimism endemic to other Left movements, from which we have otherwise taken so much" (20).
(17.) I borrow the force of this statement from Nancy K. Miller's The Heroine's Text, which charts the euphoric and dysphoric trajectories of plotlines in traditional French and British novels of the eighteenth century.
Bass, Barbara Kaplan. "Armistead Maupin." Contemporary Gay American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1993. 254-59.
Berlant, Lauren, and Michael Warner. "Sex in Public." Critical Inquiry 24 (1998): 547-66.
Browning, Jimmy D. "Something to Remember Me By: Maupin's Tales of the City Novels as Artifacts in Contemporary Gay Folk Culture." New York Folklore 19 (1993): 71-87.
Canning, Richard. "Tales of the Body? Problems in Maupin's Performative Utopia." American Bodies: Cultural Histories of the Physique. Ed. Tim Armstrong. New York: New York UP, 1996. 152-68.
Crimp, Douglas, with Adam Rolston. AIDS DemoGraphics. Seattle: Bay, 1990.
Degnan, James P. "Cowboys and Crazies: The American West, Then and Now." Rev. of The Serial, by Cyra McFadden, and Tales of the City, by Armistead Maupin. Hudson Review 33 (1980): 146-50.
Einstadter, Werner J., and Karen P. Sinclair. "Lives on the Boundary: Armistead Maupin's Complete Tales of the City." Journal of the History of Sexuality 1 (1991): 682-89.
FitzGerald, Frances. Cities on a Hill: A Journey through Contemporary American Cultures. New York: Simon, 1986.
Flitterman-Lewis, Sandy. "All's Well That Doesn't End--Soap Operas and the Marriage Motif." Camera Obscura 16 (Jan. 1988): 119-27.
Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1979.
Hayward, Jennifer. Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1997.
Hughes, Linda K., and Michael Lund. The Victorian Serial. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1991.
Maupin, Armistead. Babycakes. 1984. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.
--. Further Tales of the City. 1982. New York: Harper Perennial, 1982.
--. "An Interview with Armistead Maupin." With Scott A. Hunt. Christopher Street 23 Nov. 1992: 8-12.
--. More Tales of the City. 1980. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.
--. Significant Others. 1987. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.
--. Sure of You. 1989. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.
--. Tales of the City. 1978. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.
--. "A Talk with Armistead Maupin." With Tom Spain. Publishers Weekly 20 Mar. 1987: 53-54.
Miller, D. A. The Novel and the Police. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.
Miller, Nancy K. The Heroine's Text: Readings in the French and English Novel. New York: Columbia UP, 1980.
Newman, Leslea, and Diana Souza (Illustrator). Heather Has Two Mommies. Boston: Alyson Wonderland, 1989.
Rittenhouse, Gilah. "The Nuclear Family Is Alive and Well: As the World Turns." Staying Tuned: Contemporary Soap Opera Criticism. Ed. Suzanne Frentz. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State U Popular P, 1992.48-53.
Roof, Judith. Come As You Are: Sexuality and Narrative. New York: Columbia UP, 1996.
Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.
Winnett, Susan. "Coming Unstrung: Women, Men, Narrative, and Principles of Pleasure." PMLA 105 (1990): 505-18.
ROBYN R. WARHOL, professor of English and director of women's studies at the University of Vermont, is the author of Gendered Interventions (Rutgers, 1989) and co-editor, with Diane Price Herndl, of Feminisms (Rutgers, 1991 and 1997). Her book Having a Good Cry: Feelings and Pop-Culture Forms is forthcoming in 2000 from Ohio State University Press.3
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|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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