Edmund White

February 3, 1995

Six leading writers will speak on the subject of the Dissident Word in the fourth series of Amnesty Lectures which starts next week at the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford. About ten years ago Harpers and Queen called Edmund White "the most maligned writer in the English-speaking world". But denigration was just one phase among many for 55-year-old White, whose 1982 autobiographical A Boy's Own Story set the standard for ensuing "coming out" novels.

The gay experience has been a succession of different phases for his generation. "To have been oppressed in the 1950s, liberated in the 1960s, adulated in the 1970s and wiped out in the 1980s is a very rapid trajectory," White noted.

For a survivor like White, HIV positive and one of only three remaining members of his original group of eight writers, that experience does pose a special responsibility.

Aids has made the traditional literary task of memorialising urgent, changing White's style as he minutely records details that in the past would have got only a passing mention.

White is now working on the final volume of his historical trilogy - "autofiction", as he calls it. After an account of the liberated 1960s in The Beautiful Room is Empty, the 1988 follow-up to A Boy's Own Story, White is rolling the 1970s and 1980s into a single volume, The Farewell Symphony.

But this task of recording the life of a decimated generation belongs to a wider set of concerns, which White intends to explore in his Amnesty lecture.

The formerly maligned novelist is battling against the current conditional acceptance of gay literature as a genre - conditional on the genre being reserved for minor works.

"What I am trying to claim is that actually one of the major traditions of the 20th century is gay literature, especially in France," he says, citing Gide, Proust, Genet and contemporary writers like Herve Guibert.

White spent several years working on his biography of Jean Genet, published in 1993 and Genet is a "prime object of discussion" in his lecture. Genet, he said, created a legend about himself through his autofiction. "The homosexual tradition in fiction is a blend of autobiography and imaginative writing - autofiction - and that blending sets up a conflict between two different levels of expectation on the part of the reader," he explains.

In reclaiming major writers as members of a gay literary tradition and rejecting the assumption that their homosexuality is only a minor, non-defining feature of their work, White is adamant that he is not defining a new canon.

"Canonism is inappropriate to today's multiculturalism," he says. "The idea of a bare minimal list of books essential to Western culture is absurd, especially in the US, which is no longer the preserve of Western culture."

Just as he refutes canonism, White refutes the notion of there being a shared experience common to the dissident writer. "Being a woman writer in Pakistan is not the same experience as being a gay writer in Paris."

White was once asked what the fall of the Berlin Wall meant. Chuckling, he remembers replying that it meant that "their writers will now be as unimportant as ours".

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