- Unlimited Embrace: A Canon of Gay Fiction, 1945–1995
It is unlikely that the explicitly canonical aims of Unlimited Embrace will earn it a place in the canon of gay male criticism. Woodhouse makes it clear from the start that his intention is to craft “an argument about how to be gay—how to lead a good life as a gay man” (13). Making such an argument requires, as Woodhouse himself puts it, a certain “hubristic confidence,” an ethical and moral certainty about what the gay “good life” means. Woodhouse’s ethics allow him to “read” a range of gay male authors whose work has appeared in the past half century. Among the works he wishes to “canonize” as “both substantial and artistically successful” are novels and stories by Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, Gore Vidal, James Purdy, Andrew Holleran, Ethan Mordden, and Neil Bartlett.
Faring worse in Woodhouse’s survey are writers such as James Baldwin, Larry Kramer, David Leavitt, Michael Cunningham, and Edmund White, who find themselves and their work more or less the victims of slash and burn critical assessment. What results from the mobilization of Woodhouse’s gay ethics is far too often an inventory of failings. He’s particularly hard on Leavitt, whom he accuses of enacting an “adolescent deflection of sex” and whose fiction [End Page 816] he describes as full of “lost opportunities.” Woodhouse attacks what he sees as the “physical squeamishness” of The Lost Language of Cranes by describing its central character, Philip Benjamin, as a “cute prig,” and he insists that like “his main character, Leavitt is a nice narcissist who thinks anything he does must be interesting by virtue of the fact that he does it” (151). In a related instance of psycho-biographical literary criticism, Woodhouse raises the idea that Cunningham “is a traitor, a quisling, one who has deserted the flag of gay liberation” for writing a novel (A Home at the End of the World) that makes gay characters “peripheral” and “unheroic” (183).
There are a few instances in which Woodhouse’s method opens up, rather than closes down, the fiction he is reading. His second chapter, “Sexual Dandyism and the Legacy of Oscar Wilde,” uses memoir and historical anecdote to lay a foundation for reading the work of Boyd McDonald, whom Woodhouse describes as an “obscure” sex-addict who chronicled the lives of modern gay men. In a reading of McDonald’s Straight to Hell, a nonfiction periodical published in the late seventies and early eighties, Woodhouse lovingly evokes and contextualizes McDonald’s interest and enthusiasm for sex. He recalls that “Boyd McDonald was for me one of the keys to a grown-up, unashamed gay life, one who not only disentangled me from my own hypocritical knots, but showed me the hypocrisies in the world’s mendacity about sex” (53).
This last example suggests that Woodhouse’s ethical-critical approach works best when it is autobiographical, yet these engaging moments of memoir and self-reflection are few and far between and too often overpowered by his self-centered readings of others. Perhaps the most pressing questions that emerge from reading Unlimited Embrace and experiencing fifty years of fiction through the lens of its author’s gay ethics are themselves ethical: What constitutes good literary criticism? and How should we read others who are different, and differently gay, from ourselves?