Interview with Mark Thwaite of www.ReadySteadyBook.com
Neil McKenna is an award-winning journalist and writer who has written for the Independent, the Independent on Sunday, the Observer, the Guardian, the New Statesman and Channel 4 television. He has also worked extensively in the gay press in Britain and the United States. He is the author of two ground-breaking books about men who have sex with men and Aids in the developing world. Neil trained as an art historian and has been interested in Oscar Wilde since he was 15. The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde is his first biography. Neil kindly answers some of my questions …
Mark Thwaite: Why did you think Richard Ellmans’s standard biography wasn’t enough?
Neil McKenna: There have been about a dozen major biographies of Oscar Wilde and let me say straightaway that Richard Ellmann’s is one of the best. It’s also beautifully written. But Ellmann’s book sees the great struggle of Oscar’s life as the conflict between agnosticism and faith, between paganism and Catholicism. Wilde’s sexuality is marginalised and diminished. Ellmann treats it quite sympathetically, but fundamentally views it as a deviation, a lapse, a fall from heterosexual grace. His argument is predicated on the myth that Oscar was somehow ‘seduced’ into homosexuality by Robbie Ross, and then further dragged down into the mire of male prostitution by Bosie.
Ellmann conceptualises Oscar’s homosexuality as a disease, a contagion which, (rather like the syphilis which Ellmann – wrongly, I think – believes Oscar to have been infected with) , once caught, inexorably leads to dishonour and death. My own view is radically different. I think the great struggle of Oscar Wilde’s life was the conflict between heterosexuality and homosexuality. The great story and the epic struggle of his life is his journey from reluctant heterosexuality to a joyous embracing of gay sex. It was a long and painful journey, but I think that Wilde himself believed that it was the greatest and most important journey of his life. It shaped his life and his art and gave it meaning and purpose. I think Ellmann missed the sexual point of Oscar Wilde’s life, and his book is deeply flawed by this. But it’s a still a fine book and well worth reading.
I don’t think that any single biography can tell the whole truth about an individual. Each is nuanced. Many people have praised my biography because they feel it has hit upon the central truth about Oscar Wilde’s life. Equally, some has criticised it, saying that they would prefer not to know the details of Oscar Wilde’s sexual behaviour. Had Ellmann written his biography today, rather than twenty years ago, I think that perhaps he might have given much more weight to Wilde’s sexuality that he did. It’s worth pointing out that a book like mine could only have been published by a mainstream publisher in the last decade. It would have been simply unpublishable before then.
Mark Thwaite: Your biography re-gays Wilde. Did our most well-recognised gay icon need reclaiming?
Neil McKenna: Well, first of all I’m going to take issue with the idea that my biography has in some way ‘re-gayed’ Oscar Wilde. I’m not really comfortable with the concept of re-gaying, just as I’m not comfortable with the description of my book as a ‘gay biography’. It was Voltaire who said that the one duty we owe to history is to tell the truth. That’s pretty much my approach to all my work, either as a journalist or a biographer. I didn’t set out to re-gay Oscar Wilde, or to somehow write a gay biography. I think this is a ghettoising mindset. I wanted to tell the truth about Oscar Wilde’s life as I saw it. And I think I did. My book is an account of the sexual and emotional journey of a man from heterosexuality to homosexuality. It’s a warts and all biography, and it makes uncomfortable reading for those people who believe that Oscar could do no wrong.
In some ways, my book is the spectre at the feast of Wilde biography and Wilde scholarship because it tackles Oscar’s sexuality head-on, and not always in a pretty, gauzy way. So although I don’t agree with the premise that the book re-gays Oscar Wilde, I can see why it might look that way!
Mark Thwaite: Do you think we need a gay literature or gay readings of texts or do you think this just ghettoises gay writers and gay books? (and you can place scare quotes around the word gay whenever/if ever you choose there!)
Neil McKenna: There are three questions here, cleverly wrapped up as one. I’ll answer them one by one and then see if I can give a collective answer. Yes, I think we need a gay literature. We need a body of literary texts which record, reflect and mediate our experiences as gay men. And we have a very fine gay literature from Shakespeare onwards. It’s the one thing that gay men have managed to create over the centuries and by a miracle it has survived all the persecutions and the pogroms. It’s something that belongs to us all and that we can share. It’s a way of transmitting our sensibilities down through the ages.
As for ‘gay readings of texts’ – hmmm! I’m not exactly sure what you mean. Do you mean bringing out gay themes, subplots and homoerotic nuances in what at first might appear heterosexual texts? I have done exactly this in my biography of Oscar Wilde, revealing the half-hidden, teasing homoerotic subplots in plays like The Importance of Being Earnest. So, yes, I think we do. Sometimes writers had to conceal homoerotic truths in their writing – E. M. Forster and Oscar Wilde are two obvious examples. D.H. Lawrence is another – read The Prussian Officer and Women in Love and its hard not to swoon over the overwhelming homoerotic intensity of the writing.
And finally do I think either or both of the above in some way ‘ghettoise’ gay writers and gay books. Yes, I do. As a writer and a journalist who is gay and who has chosen to write about gay issues, I have certainly been ghettoised. It’s stopped me getting work and getting jobs. When I was flat broke after writing for the gay press, I applied for a job editing a magazine about Aids in the developing world. Despite having excellent qualifications, and a really good working knowledge of the issues, the biggest concern was that I was, to use their words, ‘too gay-focused’. Despite this caveat, I managed to convince them to give me the job. And as a freelance journalist, I have had more than a few run-ins. When I wrote an article for the Independent on Sunday about the media coverage of a gay serial killer in the early 1990s, I was summoned to meet Ian Jack, the then editor who was writing an editorial on Gay Pride Day. His first words were, ‘You people choose your sexuality, don’t you?’ His attitude seemed to me to be saying that somehow we deserved what we got; that by being open and fighting for our human rights, we somehow laid ourselves open to abuse, violence and worse. I’ve written for the New Statesman three or four times, every time on gay issues. Whenever I’ve suggested writing on a non-gay issue, there is a profound silence. And then, when the next gay political scandal breaks, Peter Wilby, the editor, is on the phone, asking me to write about it. It’s as if by being an out gay man I am somehow disqualified to write about anything else. Apparently, I can’t be objective about non-gay subjects, or indeed, about gay subjects I find it very frustrating, and it has certainly damaged my career, especially in financial terms. But what is the alternative? To studiously avoid writing about gay issues so that my career prospers? That is the path of the closet, and when push (or is it puff) comes to shove, I’d rather be in the ghetto than in the closet. Again, the whole thrust of this interview, with its focus on ‘gay’ is emblematic of a more benign, but nevertheless ultimately pernicious process of ghettoisation.
Mark Thwaite: Do you think that the struggle for gay liberation is over? Where do you see gay politics going next?
Neil McKenna: Again, two questions in one. I think the great struggle for gay liberation, the resistance that began in the second half of the nineteenth century and in which Oscar played a great and heroic part, is over. We have an equal age of consent, anti-discrimination laws and partnership rights are on the way. The picture, at least from a legislative point of view is rosy. But there remain serious areas of concern. There are still pockets of extreme homophobia, especially but by no means exclusively among some ethnic communities. And gay men are still getting beaten up and murdered for being gay men, gay teenagers are still getting bullied and sometimes committing suicide. I’m optimistic that within twenty years or so, much of this will have vanished like the morning mist. I think the biggest problem we have to face in the gay community is apathy, greed and complacency. Hardly anyone seems to give a shit for anyone else, and as long as they’ve got what they want, it doesn’t matter what other people are going through. To invoke a cliché, we’ve won the war, but I’m not so sure that we haven’t lost the peace.
All this is about Britain and it still leaves massive questions about gay liberation elsewhere in the world, particularly in the developing world where the human rights of lesbians and gay men are routinely trampled upon. Go to almost any country in Africa and you will find that gay men are victimised, beaten, sent to prison, or even executed. My previous book, On the Margins: Men who have sex with men and HIV in the developing World, which sold – at the last count – all of seven copies, was about HIV and men who have sex with men in the developing world. It was a catalogue of neglect and almost unutterable horrors. We need to start championing the rights of brothers and sisters in the developing world. But when I say this to lots of gay men, their response is blank either incomprehension or worse still, contempt for those suffering elsewhere.
Mark Thwaite: Peter Tatchell: good guy or bad guy!?
Neil McKenna: I’ve known Peter for the best part of twenty years. I’ve worked with him as a journalist and writer and I’ve stood by his side on demonstrations. I have enormous respect for him. He has the courage of his convictions, which is a rare quality, that said, we do sometimes disagree. I very much regretted Peter’s disruption of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter sermon a few years ago. And I’ve told him that I regretted it, and why. Equally, I was very proud of Peter’s decision to stage a mini-demonstration during a large pro-Palestinian demo a few months ago. And I rang him up and told him how proud I was of him. Peter was drawing attention to the Palestinian Authority’s shameful persecution of lesbian and gay Palestinians. It was a brave thing to do and he attracted a lot of flack from so-called progressives who accused him of creating a distraction from the real issue. But without lesbian and gay human rights, there can’t be any human rights.
Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now? What is coming next?
Neil McKenna: The short answer is, I don’t know. Researching and writing Oscar took me the best part of five years. I was and still am exhausted from the process. The project started out as a shortish book of around 90,000 words and grew and grew like Topsy until it hit the quarter of a million words mark. I’m really pleased with the way the book turned out and I was absolutely thrilled when my very very sweet publisher, (who is, interestingly enough, robustly heterosexual) told me that it had far exceeded his expectations. I reading a lot now, trying to catch up on all the books I wanted to read and couldn’t while I was marooned in Oscarland. There are several themes running through my head, none of them seem to have coalesced into a book idea as yet. I know I will have to be engaged by the subject. I can’t write about somebody I don’t feel engaged with, and engaged with passionately. I don’t think this means that I have to love them, but I have to feel passionately about the importance of their lives. There’s another, more practical side to all this: I’m a professional writer which means that I live – or attempt to live – off my earnings as a writer. This means that I have to write a book that a publisher is willing to pay for. There’s been a huge decline in the size of book advances for serious biographies. And I think publishers are much more cautious. These are tough times for publishers as well as writers. There are altogether too many books being written and published at the moment. They can’t all be successful, even modestly successful, and far to many are expensive flops. I’ve been fairly lucky with this book. I’ve had excellent reviews and sales have been phenomenal for a hardback literary biography, which isn’t saying much. Given that there was no spend to promote the book, its been wonderfully successful. A lot of it is down to my wonderful publicist, Rina Gill, who has worked tirelessly to promote the book. She believed in the book and her enthusiasm for it generated a lot of coverage. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that she’ll be around for the next book!
Mark Thwaite: How do you write? Longhand, straight onto the computer?
Neil McKenna: I write onto a battered old Mac laptop that really needs replacing. I held off because I couldn’t face the disruption while I was writing Oscar, but I must do it soon. I used to write longhand, but found it frustrating. My handwriting is truly terrible. Even I can’t always make it out. And word processing has given me a huge sense of freedom as a writer. Instead of writing linearly, sequentially and in a controlled order, I can write in three dimensions on the word processor. I can take my writing further than I could in longhand or on a conventional typewriter. One of the things I’m most pleased about, and most surprised about, is how good the writing is in The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde. When I started the book, I didn’t think I could write so well. I knew I was a competent journalist and that on a good day I could turn out some good stuff, but I was extremely surprised by the quality of writing that I achieved in this book. I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, it certainly wasn’t meant to. I think setting myself the challenge of writing a book on such a large canvas, about someone as brilliant, and complex and flawed and witty as Oscar Wilde, helped me break through some barriers.
Mark Thwaite: What is your favourite book/who is your favourite writer?
Neil McKenna: This is an almost impossible question to answer. If I had to choose one, I say Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. I’ve always read for style as much as for content, here the two are brilliantly integrated. But I also love Dickens, and Angus Wilson who is a much-neglected novelist. I would recommend his novel No laughing Matter. It’s an experimental novel, a family saga which starts in the secure roseate hue of an Edwardian childhood and carries right through to the 1960s. In its own way, its as revolutionary as Joyce’s Ulysses, though a little more accessible. I think Angus Wilson’s reputation has suffered because he was openly gay, but I think in a century’s time he will be recognised as one of the great twentieth century novelists.
Mark Thwaite: Which book do you wish you had written?
Neil McKenna: I’ll pass on this as I think it’s impossible to answer. I’m not an ambitious person, and I hope not an envious one. I’m trying to do what most people do, and learn to be content and fulfilled by my lot in life and by my achievements, such as they are. If I’m fortunate enough to have more books published, I hope I will carry on ploughing my own particular furrow without too many regrets, or any backwards or sideways glances.
Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
Neil McKenna: Yes. Try and hang on to your faith in yourself and remember that writing is one of the few things that get better with age and experience. I can look back at my first journalistic effort which I wrote as a volunteer for The Pink Paper. It was truly awful. But I’ve got a lot better as time has passed, and I hope to get better still. Becoming a writer is never instantaneous – it’s a long and difficult process. If you can hang onto this thought, you’ll find it sustains you during the (many) bleak periods.
Mark Thwaite: Anything else you’d like to say?
Neil McKenna: Yes, I hope people reading this interview will read my book.
Mark Thwaite: Thank you so much for your time Neil – all the very best!