Feb 14, 2015

The Violet Quill: Sex, Drugs, and Elitism in 1980s New York

Did you ever wonder about the origin of the stereotype of gay men as wealthy, over-educated, over-sophisticated, and indolent, doing nothing all day but lounging on the beach, so they can spend their nights disco dancing, taking drugs, and having meaningless sex with strangers?

I blame the Violet Quill.

During the early 1980s, there was very little gay fiction available, even at gay themed bookstores like Wilde and Stein in Houston and A Different Light in West Hollywood.  You could get a few classics, like Remembrance of Things Past, The Immoralist, The City and the Pillar, and Berlin Stories, but contemporary gay literature was dominated by novels published by the Violet Quill.


They were a group of young, sophisticated, wealthy gay men who lived in the Village and wrote about young, sophisticated, wealthy gay men who lived in the Village.

The seven novels that constituted Gay Literature:

1. Dancer from the Dance (Andrew Holleran, 1978).  Sophisticated, indolent young hedonists divide their time between the Village and Fire Island, having lots of meaningless sex with strangers, and eventually die.

2. Nocturnes for the King of Naples (Edmund White, 1978): A stream-of-consciousness tale of lost love while having lots of meaningless sex with strangers. Don't be fooled: it's set in the Village, not Naples.

3. The Confessions of Danny Slocum (George Whitmore, 1980).  His confessions involve lots of meaningless sex with strangers while searching for love in the Village.

4. Late in the Season (Felice Picano, 1981). More sophisticated, indolent young hedonists divide their time between the Village and Fire Island, while having lots of meaningless sex with strangers and competing over lovers.  It's "late" because Fire Island empties out in September, not because of AIDS.

5. A Boy's Own Story (Edmund White, 1982): the boy lives in the Village, but goes back home to come out to his wealthy relatives, who are shocked.

6. Nights in Aruba (Andrew Holleran, 1983).  Don't be fooled: the boy lives in the Village, but goes back home to come out to his wealthy relatives, who are shocked.

7. The Family of Max Desir (Robert Ferro, 1983).  Max lives in the Village, but goes back home to try to reconcile with his wealthy relatives, who disowned him when he came out.



Noticing a pattern here?  Sex, alienation, and death.  Not a lot of Gay Pride here: it's a picture of gay life about as sordid and depressing as any of the homophobic novels of the 1930s.

And very, very insular.  No one working class or poor, few racial minorities, and no one who doesn't live in the Village or on Fire Island.

Gay people simply do not exist elsewhere.

Later in the 1980s, Gay Literature became dominated by novels about gay men dying of AIDS.  Strangely, they were no more depressing than the endless sex-drugs-and-alienation of the Violet Quill.

See also: Dancer from the Dance; Frank O'Hara