It's one thing for a fiction writer to take on large and knotty subjects like pedophilia, surrogacy, and the intersection of Judaism and sexual identity. It is quite another to tell these stories with the sort of nuanced and fully fleshed-out characters that make Michael Lowenthal and his work both important and eminently readable. During a recent phone call, I asked him about The Paternity Test, his new novel from the University of Wisconsin Press, about a gay couple who attempt to save their marriage by engaging a surrogate to have their baby.
Lowenthal will read from the novel Saturday, Nov. 10 at Overture Center's Wisconsin Studio, as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival's 'Transitions and Transformations" session.
The Daily Page: At the festival you're reading and talking about the novel under the rubric of "Transitions and Transformations." Were you thinking about those ideas as you wrote?
I was thinking about the transformation of culture, particularly gay culture. The gay liberation culture I grew up in was about proud renegade status, a sort of self-conscious rewriting of rule-breaking norms. Now the main thrust of gay culture is about quite conservative things like making the choice to get married, settle down and raise children.
And then your characters go through their own personal transformations.
Yes, what really generates the plot of the novel is the way the characters work their way through the notion that sex is separate somehow from consequences and intimacy, which has been a prevailing concept in gay culture. Stu, for example, is committed to his life with Pat, though it is understood that he has sexual affairs when he travels. I was fascinated, too, by the way that surrogacy can on the surface appear to be no more than a transaction, and yet there is an inescapable intimacy in the realities of procreation.
Michael Cunningham has talked about his sense of the designation "gay writer" as no longer particularly interesting or useful. As someone who has written so extensively -- though not exclusively -- about gay characters and topics, I wonder where you fall on this issue.
I'm gay, and I often write about gay characters, but I certainly don't intend to write only, or even primarily, for an audience that shares my sexual orientation. If labeling my work as "gay fiction" helps it to find a certain audience, great. But to the extent that the label keeps another audience away, that seems unfortunate.
Categorizing literature according to the identity of its authors or characters has never made much sense to me. How does the label "gay fiction" affect a potential reader's experience of a book? If the reader is not himself gay, then does he approach the book with an immediate preconception that "this story is not about people like me"? From a writer's point of view, that's the opposite of what you hope will be a reader's attitude. On the other hand, if a reader does identify as gay, does the "gay fiction" label perhaps let him falsely off the hook, so that he thinks he won't have to exert effort (as any reader should) on empathizing with the story's specific characters?
But I also know we live in a real world, where "gay literature" is a commonly used category. And the strong trend among big publishers in the last 10 to 15 years has been treat most stories with LGBT characters or themes as though they couldn't possibly be of interest to a wide audience -- which, since they control what gets published and how it gets marketed, of course becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is why the University of Wisconsin Press and the work of [Senior Acquisitions Editor] Raphael Kadushin there is so essential. They have proudly embraced the label of "LGBT literature" and have turned the conventional wisdom on its head, showing that quality books in this category, published well, can find their audience.
This review is one in a series of author interviews, book reviews, and other curiosities leading up to the Wisconsin Book Festival, which takes place Nov. 7-11.