James Jenkins: Publishing Lost Gay Classics
Author: Tom Cardamone
August 21, 2014
As a young reader, several of my favorite science fiction authors were lamentably out of print, so a trip to a used bookstore was a treasure hunt. There was always the possibility that I would find a rarity, or even a book previously unknown to me.
As an adult reader, I’m continually surprised at the breadth and depth of gay fiction. The Stonewall riot may have been the start of a civil rights movement, but it was not the beginning of our history. Intuition, coded cover art and friendly guidance has led me to many a title, and I’m glad that there are still surprises on this journey, chief among them Valancourt Books. My friend Trebor Healey interviewed them recently at the Huffington Post, where I learned that they’ve been reprinting gay classics and Gothic and horror books since 2005. I immediately went to their website and was startled at the number of books that they’ve resurrected, and the obvious care and diligence that went into those books’ recovery. I’ve since chatted up one of the publishers, James Jenkins (his partner in books and marriage, Ryan Cagle, handles the horror side of the business), to learn more about some of the gay titles they’ve brought out.
In reading one of the gay Victorian novels Valancourt has brought back into print, The Sins of the Cities of the Plain, I was first of all surprised that I’d never heard of this book, but I was also surprised by the fluidity of the sexuality therein. Kinsey must have creamed his jeans over this one. So I’m curious about what’s surprised you as you’ve unearthed some of these texts.
Well, The Sins of the Cities of the Plain is definitely a surprising book in a lot of ways! I’d never heard of it either, until Wolfram Setz, a German historian who introduced the book for us, suggested it. I think he saw that we had published the more famous Teleny, which has been attributed to Oscar Wilde, and thought Sins would go well with that one. I’m not a big reader of porn—Victorian or otherwise—but one thing that strikes me about Sins is that, aside from the occasional old-fashioned Briticism, a lot of the porn passages seem astonishingly modern for a book from 1881. And, as you mentioned, the fluidity of the sexuality is really interesting. The narrator, Jack, will pretty much sleep with anyone who comes along—male, female, younger, older. What’s really funny, too, is to look at the bogus version of the text that was published by a company called Badboy twenty or twenty-five years ago. They rewrote all the sex scenes so that instead of showing Jack’s experiences as a teen, or his later experiences with both women and men, all the sexual episodes are with older, burly, hairy men. Wolfram has a really good discussion of this in his introduction to the book, and as intriguing as the book is, it’s even more amusing when you compare it to the “spiced up” version churned out by the anonymous American rewriter a century later. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that we’ve also published the sequel (how many Victorian gay porn novels were good enough to merit sequels?!) to Sins, which is called Letters from Laura and Eveline (1883), and which is also bizarrely fascinating.
I really enjoyed The Leather Boys—the working-class angle wasn’t something I was expecting from 1961—and then I discovered that it was also made into a movie.
I really enjoyed The Leather Boys,too, as well as the other two books we’ve published by the author, Gillian Freeman (b. 1929). In fact, I think I read each of them pretty much in one sitting because they were such page-turners. I came across The Leather Boys (1961) because it had been reprinted around 1985 or so as part of the (now defunct) Gay Men’s Press’ Gay Modern Classics series, along with a lot of other great authors and books. Its inclusion on that list made me assume it was probably worth checking out. There are so many interesting things about it. Of course, there’s the fact that it’s probably the first book ever to portray an authentic same-sex relationship between two working-class youths. Of course, there had been plenty of other gay-themed books before it, but their characters were usually wealthy and well-educated and had the learning and culture to be able to look back to Ancient Greece and Rome or to more modern instances of homosexuality in literature, etc., to help them to understand the nature of their identities, attractions and desires. But here, you have two Cockney lads in a motorcycle gang; they have no concept of same-sex love, nor do they even have words in their vocabulary like gay or homosexual. They just instinctively fall into this loving relationship with each other. I think it’s really moving. It’s not the only great thing about the book, though. The scenes where the mother and father of one of the boys are trying to put the grandmother into a nursing home are really well done, for example. Also, maybe the biggest and most overarching thing about the book that makes it interesting is that it was written by a woman. Here’s a middle-class, heterosexual woman writing in such an authentic way about a gay relationship at a time when homosexuality was illegal. It’s really extraordinary. Gay characters actually show up pretty often in Gillian Freeman’s books. In her first novel, The Liberty Man (1955), which is about a passionate affair between a middle-class (female) schoolteacher and a rough sailor, there’s a great scene where she happens to see him coming out of a gay pub and getting into a car to go home with an older man. For him, it’s just a bit of fun, or a way to earn some extra cash, but she becomes madly jealous over it. And yes, you’re right, The Leather Boys was made into a pretty well-known British film by Sidney J. Furie. I watched it recently on Netflix streaming, but I’m not sure if it’s still there.
It’s interesting to compare it with The Heart In Exile, which portrays the queer culture absent in The Leather Boys, but hints at acceptance in the future—at least self-acceptance. There’s just something pivotal about the psychology of this book.
The Heart in Exile (1953) by Rodney Garland (a pseudonym for Adam de Hegedus) is a fascinating book—probably the first gay detective story, but even more important is its wonderfully sympathetic portrayal of gay men at a time when it was still illegal in England to publish books about homosexuality, and when most gay-themed novels ended in the hero committing suicide or murder. (Minor spoiler alert: this one does actually end with the hint of future happiness for the hero and his boyfriend!) Also interesting is the tone of the book as it tries to make the case that gay people are the same as everyone else and deserving of equal treatment; at times, the author is weirdly clinical and objective in a way that led many critics to assume it had been written by a psychiatrist. And you’re right: the portrayal of queer culture in 1950s London is just incredible, as the main character tours the “underground” gay clubs, gay parties, etc., and, as Neil Bartlett points out in the introduction, the way Garland tries to explain in all seriousness to his straight readers the meaning of gay terms like butch, camp and drag party is really funny, but also kind of endearing.
I absolutely love Neil Bartlett’s work. How’d you know he’d be right for the introduction?
Actually, we were trying to track down the author’s estate, and I knew Neil had been involved with a reissue of the novel twenty or so years ago by the Gay Men’s Press, so I wrote to him to see if he had any information on the author, and he was kind enough to offer to write the introduction. I thought Neil did a great job with it, and in general, we’ve been really fortunate to get some great people to contribute introductions to these gay-interest books. Gregory Woods, a poet and professor in the UK who wrote a really important volume on the history of gay literature, has introduced several of them, and we’ve also had introductions from award-winning authors and critics like Michael Arditti and Dennis Drabelle, among others.
Gregory Woods’ A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition, was such a helpful text for me that I invited him to write an essay for The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered and was delighted to see he introduced Look Down In Mercy, one of the first UK novels about World War II, and a book that has a different ending in its US publication.
I think it’s because the US publisher, Putnam, didn’t like the ending of the UK version. (Spoiler alert!) In the UK version, things proceed for 260 pages or so, with the main character, an officer serving during the British campaign in Burma during WWII, having an apparently mutually satisfying gay relationship with an enlisted man—and then, fairly abruptly, the officer has a fit of self-loathing, drinks himself silly and throws himself out of a window. It’s all very harrowing, but not a lot of fun and not really very satisfying. The US version actually ends, like The Heart in Exile, on a somewhat happy and optimistic note. I personally found this a little surprising; for some reason, I would’ve assumed that early 1950s America would have had harsher attitudes toward gay men than early 1950s England, but maybe that wasn’t the case.
Anytime I come across a copy of The Quest for Corvo, I buy it to give as a gift (or a warning, depending on the recipient). When did you first come across the good Baron?
The Quest for Corvo is such an incredible book. I think it’s one of the best things ever written. I must have first come across Baron Corvo (an alter ego of A.J.A. Symons) when we were publishing his Stories Toto Told Me (1895), which on the surface is a really quaint little collection of tales told by a naïve Italian boy to his wealthy English employer, but which takes on a little more sinister, predatory side if you read some of Corvo’s Venice Letters. Anyway, I was intrigued enough by the Toto stories and what I’d read about Corvo to buy a copy of the NYRB Classics reissue of Quest for Corvo, and I devoured it. We’ve also reprinted his Hubert’s Arthur, a posthumous 1935 novel featuring an alternate version of British history, where Arthur, Duke of Brittany, is not murdered in the Tower of London by his uncle but instead becomes king of England. Like all of Corvo’s stuff, it’s wonderfully bizarre and eccentric, chockfull of words that no one has used since the fifteenth or sixteenth century. We’d love to do more of his books. The Weird of the Wanderer and The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole in particular seem to be in need of new editions.
The majority of the gay titles Valancourt has put out have been British. Was this intended?
I don’t know if I’d say “intended,” but it sort of was. We actually started out way back in 2005 publishing old Gothic novels from the 1790s and early 1800s. These were a craze in England at the time, and many of them have more or less obvious gay subtexts, which is one thing that drew me to them. From there, we expanded into later nineteenth-century British stuff, some of which, like Richard Marsh’s Victorian thrillers, also had gay subtexts, as well as some of the Victorian gay texts like Teleny and Sins of the Cities of the Plain. Thus, the decision to move into more modern gay-interest fiction was really just sort of the next step in the development of what we had already been doing, which was pretty much exclusively British. That said, I’m sure we’ll have some non-British stuff in the future.
Have you had any difficulties in obtaining the rights of some of the titles you’ve pursued?
Yes—sometimes, it’s a real challenge! Many of these authors, being gay, died unmarried and with no children, so to try to track down who owns the copyright is not always an easy task. Even with living authors, it’s not always easy. Typically, the original publisher of a book retains the rights to the book, even after it’s long out of print, unless the author demands a reversion of the rights. So, for some of these books from the 1950s and ‘60s, if the rights were never reverted, it can be really difficult and time-consuming, since most of those publishers no longer exist and have long since been bought out or merged with other companies, and trying to trace contracts and records from that long ago is often really challenging. Sometimes, it takes a lot of perseverance on our part to get the rights to these titles.
Are there any dream titles you can’t get your hands on?
There are a few really great ones that we’d love to have on our list, but which are already with other publishers, so we can’t get at them. Mary Renault’s The Charioteer comes to mind. There’s also Simon Raven’s Doctors Wear Scarlet, which is one of my favorite books ever. In general, though, we’ve had pretty good luck at getting the books we’ve set out to get.
I bet some of the living authors were surprised and delighted to hear from you!
That’s an understatement! I stumbled on Kenneth Martin’s Waiting for the Sky to Fall (1959) and was really struck by it and wanted to republish it. His first novel, Aubade (1957), was another of those Gay Modern Classics volumes, and on the cover, it said he was only sixteen when he wrote it. The mathematical albeit slow wheels in my head started churning, and it seemed not altogether impossible that someone who was sixteen in the mid-‘50s could still be alive today. He was born in Northern Ireland and moved to London as a teen, but I finally traced him to San Francisco, where he’s now in his late seventies and working as a therapist. I think he was really shocked when I called him and asked about reprinting his books. He’s written about it on a blog he set up, which is worth checking out—along with his novels, which are really wonderful, especially Aubade, which is probably one of the most authentic books ever written about a young gay teen’s first love—authentic since it was written by a gay teen!
Can you give us a description of some of your upcoming titles?
Looking over our list of forthcoming titles, most of them are from the horror/science fiction/thriller side of our catalogue, but we do have a few gay-interest titles coming soon. Two more titles will be available shortly from Francis King (1923-2011), who gets my vote as the most underrated twentieth-century British novelist: To the Dark Tower (1946) and The Man on the Rock (1957). We’ve already reissued four of his novels, but even though he published fifty books between 1946 and 2010 and was nominated several times for the Man Booker Prize and other awards, he’s still very little-known and little-read, which is a real shame because his books are consistently excellent. Also, though not gay in its content, we have our third reissue from the gay author and Southern Gothic horror master Michael McDowell, Cold Moon over Babylon (1980), coming soon. Lastly, new editions of the three volumes of the great Belfast author Forrest Reid’s Tom Barber trilogy will be out later this year in paperback and e-book with new introductions by Andrew Doyle. We had previously offered the trilogy as an omnibus hardcover, but this will give readers a more accessible and less expensive way to read some of Reid’s best books. Anyone interested in early gay authors really needs to check out Reid’s stuff, especially Brian Westby (1934) and Denis Bracknell (1947). He’s another criminally underrated author, and he really is a literary genius.
Exciting stuff, James. Thanks for the chat, and for bringing so much of our literary history back into the light.
Thanks, Tom. I appreciate your taking the time to talk with me! If any of Lambda Literary’s readers are interested in knowing more about what we do, there’s a ton more information on our website, or they can follow us on Facebook or Goodreads.