E. Lynn Harris: Life Visible
Author: Donald Weise
August 5, 2013
When he died of heart disease in 2009, at age fifty-four, E. Lynn Harris was the most commercially successful black gay author since James Baldwin and one of the most beloved writers of his time. The author of ten consecutive New York Times bestselling novels, E. Lynn for fifteen years enjoyed a following like few writers I can think of. But then his work was so unlike anyone else’s that this only made sense. His moving and often humorous novels about closeted black and bisexual men (and the men and women who love and sometimes hate them) earned E. Lynn a devoted readership, especially among African American women. And for good reason, too: E. Lynn was a first-rate storyteller who wrote about the “DL” world he knew firsthand—often with a sympathy that confused and angered some gay people—and his readers couldn’t get enough. I know I couldn’t.
I first heard about E. Lynn Harris in 1994, when Doubleday published his first book, the previously self-published beauty salon sensation Invisible Life. The book tells the story of a bisexual African American lawyer who must choose between his male and female lovers. Like so many publishing phenomena, the book came to me by word of mouth; my partner at the time said that a novel had come out by a black gay writer, and that it had opened the eyes of his best friend’s black, homophobic, Seventh Day Adventist mother. After reading the book, however, she said she understood for the first time that there was more to being gay than what she believed. The novel broke down a big barrier with her gay son—and presumably other gay people too. I’d never before considered that commercial fiction could be so powerful or have such a dramatic impact, but this mother’s revelation sold me on the novel.
In a few years, E. Lynn was one of the top-selling novelists in the country, publishing a book almost annually, always a bestseller. There were sequels to Invisible Life (Just As I Am and Abide with Me), but he also introduced brand new storylines and characters that proved just as popular. I didn’t read them all—I couldn’t keep up with his output—but I was moved and always entertained by his writing. His characters misbehaved so much, were so conflicted, they lied and plotted against each other, had hot sex with handsome men, had meltdowns in public, and there always seemed to be a production of Dream Girls in the background about to open or close, I loved that. With each new novel, he went on to greater acclaim, and soon he was one of Doubleday’s biggest sellers.
His success was not without controversy, however. There weren’t a lot of representations of black gay and bisexual life in fiction during the 1990s—there still aren’t—and some black gay men understandably objected to E. Lynn’s popularity. Not only were his novels about black men living double lives, they were written for and read largely by women who may have had limited or no firsthand experience with black gay men and therefore could easily conclude that black gay and bisexual men are fundamentally promiscuous and dishonest. I didn’t necessarily relate to his lying, cheating closeted characters, either, but if nothing else, here was an African American gay man writing openly about black male sexuality as he saw it, and more importantly, lived it.
I can say from personal conversations with him that E. Lynn cared about his characters almost as if they were real people—and I imagine some of them were in fact derived from real men whom he knew and may have even been involved with. He spoke and wrote about the “DL” world with more familiarity, sensitivity, and understanding than anyone I know, and it’s no small reason why his novels feel authentic, rising above the shameless shock and exploitation that motivated a lot of the of so-called “Down Low” narratives/writings that came later.
I met E. Lynn at a book signing in 1997 at Marcus Books, the African American bookstore in Oakland, California, owned and operated by the literary powerhouse Blanche Richardson. She introduced me to him after the signing, and I took the opportunity to ask if he would blurb a reissue of Melvin Dixon’s novel Vanishing Rooms that I was publishing; I’d read that E. Lynn had been inspired by Melvin and this book in particular when he was coming up as a would-be novelist. In the first of many gracious gestures, he agreed to send a blurb, which went on the front cover and no doubt explained why a reissue of a black gay novel most people had never heard of was out on display in stores I visited.
When I said I met E. Lynn in 1997, that’s not exactly true. I first met him a couple of years earlier, at the gay clothing store International Male in West Hollywood. A young black gay writer-friend was with me, shifting through a rack of shorts while talking about the novel he was struggling to write. As he spoke, a man opposite us in a black baseball cap kept looking in our direction, clearly listening in. Gay men went to International Male for more than clothes, so I didn’t know who or what this stranger was interested in. Finally, the man came over to us, extended his hand to my friend, and said, “I’m E. Lynn Harris, and I’m here to tell you that if you work hard you can make it.” He nodded and was off, just like that. I told E. Lynn this story years later, about how much it meant to my friend and how it even influenced me as an editor—setting the example that a few encouraging words to a writer at the right moment can make all the difference. He asked, a smile in his voice, “Did I do that?” Yes, E. Lynn, you did that, and here I am still talking about it, still touched by your kindness after all this time.
As generous as he had been in contributing a blurb for Vanishing Rooms back in the late ‘90s, we didn’t actually work together until 2005, when I asked him to edit an anthology of black gay men’s writing, the Lambda Award-winning Freedom in This Village, the title taken from a line in one of Essex Hemphill’s poems. Our intention was to honor the many gifted writers who had died of AIDS and whose work risked being forgotten, such as that of Essex himself, but also to showcase the talents of writers still with us. I was relatively new to Manhattan and my job, and adding a writer of E. Lynn’s renown was important to me and my fledgling list of gay books. Besides, his participation would make this not merely another anthology but an event: a new book from E. Lynn Harris. I didn’t know him all that well, apart from sending him Christmas cards, but something told me he would say yes if I asked, and he did. I became better acquainted with him over this book, and that led to E. Lynn asking me to freelance edit his next novel.
I was out of work and needed the job badly. The publisher that had brought out Freedom in This Village had been bought and virtually everyone, including me, had lost his or her job in the consolidation process. I don’t know how much of this, if any, E. Lynn knew or whether the offer was inspired by my circumstances, but his timing couldn’t have been better. The novel was Basketball Jones, a love story about a closeted NBA star and his longtime boyfriend on the side, AJ. It’s a book about finding the strength to say good-bye in the name of self-love. There’s also a colorful and suspenseful subplot involving blackmail and betrayal, lest anyone mistake this for a straight up love story. I was thrilled to be chosen of all people to work with him when E. Lynn had his pick of editors.
Having read so many of his novels, I was well-versed with the world of the closet that he wrote about. But I soon discovered that being his reader and being his editor were two different experiences. As his reader, I enjoyed whatever came along, no matter how crazy some of the plots might turn. But as his editor, I was going a lot deeper with the story, asking fundamental questions that editors ask about plot and characters. I said, for example, that I didn’t see how AJ, an intelligent, college-educated, and all-around good guy, would put up with so much from his closeted basketball player boyfriend, Dray, who goes so far as to marry a woman as a cover. But E. Lynn patiently explained how that kind of relationship works—where one partner feels forced to hide who he really is in the name of his career, while the other feels forced to go along with the charade in the name of love—and listening to him I felt that he was speaking from more than a little experience. If all E. Lynn said about DL life didn’t make me feel complete sympathy for these guys and the men who love them, I at least saw them more compassionately.
Basketball Jones was a big hit. Like all the rest of E. Lynn’s books, it too landed on the Times bestseller list. It seemed to be everywhere books were sold, but I got a special kick out of seeing it in airports. I loved visiting somewhere as far from home as Atlanta, opening the novel in the airport shop, and reading familiar scenes I had worked on at the local café on 110th Street in Harlem. I enjoyed the time we spent on this novel as much as anything I’d ever published, and soon we were at work on his next novel, Mama Dearest, which also became a bestseller when it came out a year later.
I mention E. Lynn’s commercial success often in this piece. That’s important when discussing his work because, while sales are not always a reliable indicator of artistic merit, they are undeniable proof that what the author has written matters to people—in E. Lynn’s case tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of readers. His incredible commercial success is also noteworthy because it drew the ire of, frankly, envious people, many of them unknown writers. To these people, and to any number of gay men I’ve listened to, E. Lynn was just a wildly popular romance writer, a modern day Jacqueline Susann for black women. Even if that were true, who cares? To me important writing is one that connects the author to his reader, and no one was better at that than E. Lynn. Besides, I like Jacqueline Susann!
When E. Lynn died, Gay City News asked me to write an obituary. I was glad to have the opportunity to do this because E. Lynn had died so unexpectedly, leaving me feeling like there was much unfinished business and unresolved feelings due to the suddenness of his death. In the obituary I commented on the surprise I felt when reading obituaries for E. Lynn elsewhere, because so many of them said he’d led a very private life. Now, maybe he did, but he and I spoke about our personal lives openly whenever we talked, usually over the phone; about hitting middle age and what that portended for a dating life (when I told him about a famous older gay author-friend who paid for sex, E. Lynn laughed and asked, “Hustlers, Don? Is that our future?”), about the men who had screwed us around, the men we cared about, the students at the University of Arkansas where he taught that looked up to him, especially the football players he knew. I also wrote about the time I phoned one of those national florist companies to send him flowers, congratulating him or thanking him for something, and when I told the receptionist the recipient’s name, she asked, “This wouldn’t happen to be my favorite novelist, would it?” I told E. Lynn that story and he loved it, clearly touched and apparently thrilled by praise from his fans wherever that might come from.
Even though E. Lynn is no longer with us, I’m reminded of him whenever I see my copy of Basketball Jones on the shelf at home (with a Christmas card from him inside telling me 2009 is going to be a great year) or when some aspiring novelist writes and tells me he’s the successor to E. Lynn. Since his death, I’ve wanted to honor E. Lynn’s memory in some special way—what he meant to me and to countless writers and readers who miss him. I spoke to the writer Linda Villarosa, who also knew E. Lynn, and the idea for a story contest named in his honor was born. It only made sense that a contest founded with the intention of fostering new African American LGBT fiction would carry his name; the contest was formalized when E. Lynn’s mother and his estate generously gave us permission to do so.
In his autobiography, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted? E. Lynn writes about people in life who he calls “dream builders,” or something to that effect. These are individuals in positions of authority who use their influence to help open doors and make dreams come true for others, particularly others with less influence. Well, he was that for me and who knows how many more people. It’s in this spirit that we announce the E. Lynn Harris Award for Excellence in African American LGBT Short Fiction.