Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 33 / 17 August 2017
 

Felice Picano, pioneering gay author

Books


Gay author Felice Picano: "Writers today don't read, so they don't know what has already been written." Photo: Courtesy the subject
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It's probably a fair statement that if you love gay literature, you owe Felice Picano a huge debt of gratitude. Yes, LGBT people were producing novels and plays prior to the early 1970s, but they weren't specifically written for gay and lesbian people or their concerns. As one of the founding members of the Violet Quill, Picano, 73, was instrumental in promoting gay fiction by gay men, which is how he defines gay literature. An American writer, publisher, playwright, poet, and critic, he is one of the elders of the gay writing community, best known for his novels "Eyes," "The Lure," "Late in the Season" and "Like People in History," as well as his memoirs "Ambidextrous," "Men Who Loved Me," and his latest, "Nights at Rizzoli," about being a clerk and manager at the famed NYC bookstore in the early 70s, meeting famous clients such as Jackie Onassis, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dali. In town last month for a reading of "Nights," a born raconteur, Picano met with the B.A.R. to discuss his fabled career.

How did the Violet Quill, which also included Edmund White and Andrew Holleran, start? "In the 1960s, two writers I admire wrote books in the same year about gay life, Christopher Isherwood's 'A Single Man' and John Rechy's 'City of Night,' yet they seemed like completely different universes. So the group felt we had to produce a literature to reflect the kind of lives we were living and the people around us. My book 'The Lure' in 1979 was the first gay-themed novel to be picked up by the Book of the Month club. We were all breaking barriers, but another reason the group formed was that we all came to New York from all over the country thinking there was this literary movement going on here, but there was nothing. People like [poet] James Merrill said gay literature was pornography. When we found each other, the first task was read our work to each other and discuss it as well as issues such as gender, asking, What pronouns do you use when describing transgender people?"

Picano doesn't see that much difference in gay writers today. "But in the 1970s we expressed many of the major themes still being written about today, such as coming out, how to be gay, dealing with your birth family and your family of choice, fidelity in gay life: did it count? Also, being gay as a young boy, which was Edmund's theme and mine in some books. We pointed out you could be a sissy but also a butch boy like my characters and still be gay. We discussed building a gay society and all that meant. Oddly, it was easier back then to get published by major publishers, not true today.

"What I have noticed is that writers today don't read, so they don't know what has already been written. They are writing about the same things we did decades ago, almost reinventing the wheel. I'm also a little annoyed about the suffering gay novel like Garth Greenwell's 'A Little Life,' which has been embraced by the heterosexual community because they want to see our lives as terrible and that we are so unhappy not to be heterosexual. In the 1970s if gay men suffered, they did so beautifully and charmingly. Also, in our time we were concerned with sexual liberation, and I don't see that now in writers. People want to get married, settle down, and have babies, which is certainly different."

 

Books without dicks

Picano is also well-known for his phrase "gay books without dicks." I asked how he invented this expression. "I was being interviewed, and I was discussing how difficult it is to get published in the mid-1980s. The interviewer said, well, David Leavitt has no problem getting published. I said, there are no dicks in his books, meaning no sex. Meanwhile I would run into him in East Hampton at what we called Dick Dock and see him on his knees, so it wasn't like he wasn't sexually active. I thought there was some hypocrisy there."

Picano was one of the writers of "The Joy of Gay Sex." How did he get involved with that? "I got a call from the main author, psychologist Charles Silverstein. He said he wanted to revise 'Joy of Gay Sex,' which he had done with Edmund, but Edmund didn't want to work on the new one. Charles wanted me to do it. He felt shaky about his own writing, and wanted an accomplished pair of eyes to edit it. I reread the book, deciding it was very 60s, with rubbing oils and lighting candles. I didn't know anybody that did that, even in the 60s. We added history to the psychology, so that 92% of the book was rewritten. Edmund's sections had all been written in the passive voice, but since I'm a top, it was redone in active prose. It's published in 17 languages, and we revised it for the internet age in 2002. When I was in Europe and would pick up a guy, he would pull out every sex toy he owned, thinking I was the expert."

Because Picano was one of the very few openly gay people in Hollywood in 1979, people who had lived in Hollywood during the 30s and 40s told him stories about gay life then. Years later, Picano traveled with a presentation called "Gay Hollywood in the Golden Age," based on the gossip. He remembers meeting Marlene Dietrich, who he claimed was mostly lesbian. "I said to her, I know you slept with one man who was your husband since you had a daughter together, but were there any others? She replied that she did love the French actor Jean Gabin. 'He was in the French Resistance, and I was very patriotic.'"

Picano has just finished a novel based on a famous ancestor, an old master sculptor, Giuseppe Picano (1717-1801). "Pieces of his work are all over Europe, as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Kimball Art Museum. He and his studio are considered founders of the Italian Rococo style. I decided to write a novel as if I were he."

What does Picano see as his legacy? "Well, I'm in the history books now, as I helped create a genre. Several of my books have never gone out of print, and I think they will last."

Picano's advice to young gay writers starting out is to get a rich husband. "It's really hard to make it today, not that it was ever easy. I'm fortunate that I was able to have a career, but it's really sad that 50 people have to go under the bus for one to make it. Survival of the fittest in this business has to do with being creatively flexible, writing in all different genres. It seems to be the only way to get out on the other side."

 






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