- Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative
Considered the first full-length study of its kind, Norman W. Jones's Gay and Lesbian Historical Fiction: Sexual Mystery and Post-Secular Narrative defends its subject matter from criticisms of anachronisms, like including gay characters before such terms existed. Defining gay and lesbian historical fiction as fiction with a salient homoerotic theme that takes place prior to the author's own time, Jones posits that rather than anachronism, these texts actually bring out both the similarities and contrasts of lesbian and gay life (as much as we can discuss such life prior to such identification) across historical periods. More specifically, the genre does so through appeals to mystery, especially epistemologies of the sacred, in a way that undermines the seeming dichotomy between the secular and the sacred. Jones names this reconstitution of the boundary between the secular and the sacred "post-secular" (ix). In chapters on William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Mary Renault's and Sarah Waters's historical fiction, Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982), Mark Merlis's An Arrow's Flight (1998), Tom Spanbauer's The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon (1991), and Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman (1996), Jones argues that gay and lesbian historical fiction employs three primary topoi that blur the boundary between the sacred and the secular: identification involving a sense of mystery that both links and recognizes difference across time, personal transformation, and familial relationships based on nonbiological affinities.
What is at stake in Jones's argument is perhaps most clearly articulated in the book's introductory chapter titled "Spot the Homo: Definitions." Whereas media representations of current debates on LGBT issues like gay marriage tend to polarize Christianity and a secular gay politics, Jones asserts that lesbian and gay discourse and Christian discourse, (as Michel Foucault uses the term), are deeply enmeshed. And this connection may be the very thing that, for Jones, might allow a moving away from the impasse between the secular and the sacred toward a connection between the two. Jones touches on this intriguing concept in both the introductory chapter and in his concluding remarks, but I would have liked this idea to be further developed. How exactly does recognizing the mysterious within the sexual and the spiritual allow for a stronger case for gay adoption or gay marriage or protection for transgender-identified people? Even with this question left unanswered, Jones's findings that gay and lesbian historical fiction remains interconnected to spiritual and especially Christian ways of knowing do point to an often unrecognized connection between Christian and gay and lesbian ways of knowing. [End Page 191]
Even more than recognizing the link between Christian and gay and lesbian epistemologies, Jones hopes that his book will inspire scholars to embrace the unknowable or mysterious, for mystery is actually a part of reason. Here, Jones discusses the works of Phillip Stambovsky, Stanley Rosen, and Charles Taylor. While Jones does name Sandra Harding and later Eve Sedgwick and M. Jacqui Alexander, his discussion does not fully acknowledge the primacy of feminist criticism in calling for scholars to embrace mythos alongside logos. Works by Gloria Anzaldúa and AnaLouise Keatings, for example, call for the very connection Jones is advocating. Such work could help delineate how myth or spirituality function differently across differences of race and class, something that Jones's volume does not thoroughly theorize. In Jones's defense, he does not mean for his book to be a theoretical treatise.
One of the book's strengths is its convincing discussion of the history and usefulness to historians of terms like "lesbian," "queer," and "same-sex desiring." As the book's title indicates, Jones prefers "lesbian" and "gay," using the most "minimal," more common definition of them as a person whose sexual desire is largely if not completely for those of the same sex. (Curiously, "transsexuality" and "transgender" are left out of this discussion even though one of the characters Jones analyzes thinks...