On Tuesday 19 October the judges of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction announced Alan Hollinghurst had won for The Line Of Beauty -“ and this much at least was true.
Every other detail about the book and its author, however, revealed as much about the journalist in question as it did about the English novelist and his award-winning tome.
Why? Because Alan Hollinghurst is homosexual and The Line Of Beauty contains passages of explicit gay sex: muddying the water of what is traditionally at Booker time an argument based solely on literary quality.
What’s required is a stripping off of the issues: not a deconstruction, which is too clinical; nor an unpacking, which is too cute. Let’s strip it bare, like a bit of classic Hollinghurst rough trade.
1. The Line Of Beauty is a gay novel. Curiously, two apposite groups called the book gay: gay journalists and editors of London tabloids. The Sun headlined: Gay Book Wins. The Daily Express wrote: Booker Won By Gay Sex. Conversely, The Advocate said it was a gay novel without qualification.
Most notably, the Booker prize judges themselves refused to classify the work as gay fiction. Official arbiter Chris Smith said the fact that it was a gay novel did not feature at all in the discussions. (Adding to the titters is that Smith is also the first openly gay man elected to the House of Commons).
Some journalists eschewed labels altogether. Sarah Lyall of The New York Times described it as a lavish novel about a young gay man negotiating the confusions, delights and horrors of life in Thatcherite Britain in the mid-1980s.
Hollinghurst’s novel was about gay life and about Thatcher’s England, but the order in which these two facts were placed in reviews proved very telling. A third plot point about the book -“ AIDS -“ sometimes eluded mention altogether.
2. This is the first time in the 36-year history of the Booker that it has been awarded to a gay novel. This is probably true, as no other Booker winner was quite as homo. But this wasn’t the first time an overtly gay novel made the shortlist. Hollinghurst himself was nominated 10 years ago for The Folding Star, and co-nominee Colm T?n was also in the race in 1999 for The Blackwater Lightship.
T?n’s book this year The Master had gay subject matter (novelist Henry James) and the favourite for 2004, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, had queer content (see column below).
3. Alan Hollinghurst is a gay novelist. Hollinghurst told Stephen Moss in The Guardian: I only chafe at the -˜gay writer’ tag if it’s thought to be what is most or only interesting about what I’m actually writing -¦ From the start I’ve tried to write books which began from a presumption of the gayness of the narrative position. To write about gay life from a gay perspective unapologetically and as naturally as most novels are written from a heterosexual position.
Colin Richardson, a former editor of Gay Times, was thrilled with this response. Praise the Lord and pass the biscuits, he wrote in The Guardian. For all his caveats and qualifications, Hollinghurst is happy to be described as a gay writer.
Richardson cited Gore Vidal, whose third novel The City And The Pillar (1948) was described as the first serious American homosexual novel despite Vidal’s utter rejection of gayness as a concept. Richardson concluded that in the end, it is utterly futile trying to resist being tagged a gay writer or gay artist -“ or gay dustman for that matter. We have to accept that that’s how the world sees us, and get over it and move on.
4. Hollinghurst won because times have changed. Very possibly. Moss gently pointed out a number of great homosexual authors with links to Hollinghurst, who did not publish openly about same-sex love because society would not have permitted it. For example, Henry James was being researched by a character in The Line Of Beauty, and Hollinghurst studied E. M. Forster at Magdalene College -“ the same institution attended by Oscar Wilde.
Bedell wrote in The Observer that when Hollinghurst was last nominated for The Folding Star, it was rumoured the graphic sex scenes might have put off one of the judges.
5. The Line Of Beauty won the Booker Prize for 2004 because it’s a very well written novel. An outrageous final suggestion. And yet, Tim Adams in The Observer called it a masterpiece, the work of a great English stylist in full maturity. Geraldine Bedell, also in The Observer, wrote that part of the pleasure of Hollinghurst’s writing lies in the tension between the impeccably modulated prose and the pleasurably filthy things people get up to.
Impeccable, yet filthy. Perhaps we’ve arrived after all.