3 min

‘You gotta read this’

How books find readers

When they’re in the urinal together, John notices his friend has lesions on his dick. Meanwhile, a bar brawl results in a man being murdered. Could the two be related?

Lord Grey and the Private Matter is a gay detective paperback set in the 18th century. It’s written by American romance author Diana Gabaldon, and it’s got hookers, crossdressers and a private club for gay and bi gentlemen.

Lord Grey was pressed into my hands several years ago, and I have to admit, I immediately thought ‘This is a little fluffier than my usual fare.’ But there’s something to be said for the series, with its campy plotlines and cultish following.

Nonetheless, if this book can make the rounds and develop such a loyal fanbase, then queers must be really thirsty for literature with gay themes — and, judging from my experience so far, it seems that word-of-mouth book recommendations are how we quench it.

These things have a way of branching out. It starts with someone saying, “You gotta read this.” Take Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim Two Boys, recommended to me by a friend when we were browsing together at After Stonewall bookstore a few years back.

O’Neill’s Irish drama tells the story of two adolescents from different classes who become fast friends at a beach. They’re driven apart by the politics of a failed socialist coup, but not before their brotherly affections turn physical.

I read it, ravenously, over a long weekend holed up in my apartment.

I began passing At Swim Two Boys around to my lit-loving friends. I made my boyfriend read it. I bought it for people — it’s now pretty much my default housewarming or birthday present.

Curious, I sought out more book recommendations from the friend who suggested the book to me, setting the stage for a stroll through Jane Rule’s gorgeous, sensible novel The Young in One Another’s Arms. I also looked up O’Neill’s influences and recommendations, which was one of the reasons I read Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

And so, for me, the web grows ever more dense, with overlapping book picks coming from trusted friends while doling out suggestions in return. For some, it’s a familiar story. For others who don’t have a network of gay friends (or friends who read), it might sound like an appealing alternate universe.

So, I thought, why not make this a little more formal, visible, public? Queers — from authors to publishers to readers — would most definitely benefit from these recommendations being spread around.

When I began asking writers to send me a short piece on a book that was important to them, I wasn’t sure what kind of a reaction I would get. Within a couple days, more than 50 emails poured into my inbox, including many authors expressing interest but often agonizing over which book to pick. Suffice it to say, I’ve got enough book picks to get us through a full year of this new column, Suggestive Reading.

While the fun of sharing queer lit picks is enough of a reason to get this column up and going, there’s another, more political reason for it. International blockbusters, whether serious (like At Swim) or light (like Lord Grey), are in no danger of falling out of print. But many writers who plan to contribute to this column express frustration that well-loved gay books by Canadians are increasingly hard to find.

I hope that ongoing efforts to shore up our network of queer readers in Canada, fuelled in some small part by Suggestive Reading, can help make the case for a vibrant and accessible queer literature.

The rules are that books can be on any subject, but they have to be written by a gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans Canadian. Each piece can only be about one book and there is a tight restriction on word count.

Leading off the series is poet Billeh Nickerson, making the case for Buddy’s, a book about a Vancouver gay bar from the ’80s that was written by one of Canada’s most articulate authors — the inimitable Stan Persky.

After Nickerson, we’ll hear from novelist and University of British Columbia professor Brett Josef Grubisic and Governor General’s award nominated author Mariko Tamaki. Expect more delights and surprises throughout the fall and winter.

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