The story of Stephen Spear, a cunning Darlinghurst gay boy who’ll stop at nothing to land the object of his desire in author Graeme Aitken’s 1998 book Vanity Fierce won a loyal following, selling more than 12,000 copies within Australia and half that again in the UK.
Twelve years on, and the publishing industry has undergone innumerable changes. As a buyer for Sydney’s queer institution The Bookshop and the editor of The Penguin Book of Gay Australian Writing, Aitken has been privy to many of them.
Even so, when time came to publish his long-awaited follow-up to Vanity Fierce, The Indignities, he was surprised to find just how much the pool of resources for queer fiction had shrunk in the past decade.
“I thought I wouldn’t have a problem getting the book published, but it was a long process. These days, it’s just very difficult, particularly in Australia,” he told the Star Observer.
“Many publishers are turning to eBooks and online. Increasingly, when a book features a main gay character, it’s not even mentioned in the blurb because they want to get it into as many bookshops as possible.
“I don’t like it, I think it’s like putting gay books back in the closet, and it does a disservice to the readers.”
The Indignities opens in 2004 with Stephen ‘celebrating’ his 30th birthday: “The days of classifying yourself as a ‘boy’ are numbered,” he laments. “The harsh reality is you’re a ‘man’… How can you possibly be a man when you’ve had all your chest hair permanently removed by laser?”
For gay men, milestones like the big 3-0 can be the source of a particular kind of panic — not only are we a particularly youth-obsessed section of society, we also don’t subscribe to many of the same markers of success (marriage, children, a big house in the ‘burbs) as straight people.
Without giving too much away, Aitken said Stephen’s birthday throws him into a tailspin, setting of a dramatic turn of events.
“What I can say is Stephen and Ant, who he ended up with in the first book, are not together anymore, but they’re close friends,” he shared.
“In The Indignities, Stephen has a new relationship but gets dumped. It’s really the first time he gets dumped and he does not react well to it.”
Aitken describes his protagonist as “manipulative, vain, self-obsessed” — a flawed hero if ever there was one. Needless to say, he doesn’t see a whole lot of himself in his main character, but he does profess to “love writing him.”
Does this mean there might be more installments in the life of Stephen Spear on the horizon?
“Only if I have a good idea. With The Indignities, I didn’t originally intend to write a sequel to Vanity Fierce, I started with a strong idea and then realised that it would fit well with Stephen’s journey.”
info: The Indignities, published by Clouds of Magellan, available now from Sydney’s The Bookshop, Melbourne’s Hares and Hyenas and all good booksellers.