Michael Denneny: On Working in Publishing During the 1970s, Starting ‘Christopher Street Magazine,’ and the Future of Gay Literature
Author: Donald Weise
October 20, 2014
“[…] 1978 was a banner year for gay writing; it really marked the dawn of the new gay literary movement that would swell into a torrent over the next fifteen or twenty years.”
When I started in publishing more than twenty years ago, answering phone calls at a customer service desk, the only gay man in the industry whose name I knew was the renowned editor Michael Denneny. This says as much about Michael as it does about me. I’d been hired for the position literally off the street when I walked in and asked if the company had any job openings for someone with no experience. Michael, on the other hand, had been operating his famed Stonewall Inn Editions imprint out of St. Martin’s for years and produced some of the best-known gay titles of the 1980s and the early ’90s, including books by Randy Shilts, Larry Kramer, Ethan Mordden, Larry Duplechan, Malcolm Boyd, Michael Nava, Paul Monette, and Quentin Crisp, among others. I can’t remember where I’d first heard about Michael or how I’d even come to know about an editor in New York when I was a publishing newcomer in California, but he was what you’d call today a brand: someone known almost more for who he was than the books he published. Put another way, he stood out. In case you’re wondering, this is not standard stuff in publishing circles. Most editors spend their career, however distinguished, unknown to the average person—sometimes even unknown to their fellow publishing colleagues. Michael was different and so were his books.
To be sure, there were other gay editors who published gay books, most notably Sasha Alyson, but I was unaware of him, or anyone else, when I started. (Once I became established, however, I learned Sasha’s name rather quickly, such was his notoriety and the novelty of Alyson Books.) As far as I could tell, only Michael and Sasha had done what I aspired to do back then: edit a line of quality gay titles. I don’t imagine there are many professions where you know of exactly two people who have walked your career path before you. Yes, I knew lesbian editors through the feminist presses, and I also learned there were heterosexuals who published gay books on an ongoing basis, notably Arnold Dolan at Plume, but I wasn’t aware of any other gay editor who’d devoted his career to gay literature. Which accounts for why, as an editor, I’ve had to make most of it up as I went along all these years, not always successfully, either.
The following conversation with Michael (conducted via e-mail) underscores that gay literature doesn’t just “happen.” There are individuals behind it, so to speak, and it’s about more than writers and readers. This conversation could have easily been with one of the many committed agents, booksellers, journalists, or librarians who’ve championed the cause of gay literature over the years. I chose Michael—now a busy freelance editor—because I wanted to know what preceded me on the editorial front. Also because he was the first of his kind, and how many people can you say that about?
Since book editors don’t typically grow up wanting to be editors and many have never taken an editing class, or in some cases even been formally trained (I’m speaking for myself here), what led you to become a book editor?
In 1971, as a result of Stonewall, I moved to New York City, mainly to be gay. I didn’t have a job or an apartment or even a concrete plan, so the first few months were difficult: sleeping on friends’ couches, walking to job interviews because I didn’t have subway fare, watching my few dollars shrink. Among other things, I tried for publishing jobs since I’d worked half-time for two years at the University of Chicago Press. When a friend told me he was leaving his editing job at the old Macmillan publishing company to go to Paris and be a poet, we arranged it so that I came in for an interview a couple of hours after he handed in his resignation. On paper we looked like the same person (except that I did have some experience in publishing), and they hired me. It was an accident really, I was just desperate for a job.
I thought it was a bit of a coup, since I skipped the usual step of first being an editorial assistant. But in retrospect that was a mistake. The wear and tear of the first few years, when I had to figure out what the job was while actually doing it, was enormous, and in retrospect I don’t think it was worth it. I think the only way you really learn this job is by watching someone else do it for some time, like an apprentice, since it actually is a craft skill.
I really identify with your comments because something similar happened to me. I’d moved to San Francisco from Los Angeles without a job, and I was desperate for work. One day when I was job hunting, I came to a stop sign and noticed the words “Publishers Group West” painted on the side of a warehouse. I had no background in books, but I was an English major so thought this might be a fit. I went in to ask about jobs, they had one, and I was then interviewed for a customer service position. I was hired a couple days later. It was five years before I edited my first book. Which was helpful in a way because I learned sales, marketing, and publicity in the interim. But as an editor, I felt like a fraud at first because I never had instruction. I simply came up with an idea for an essay collection, put it together with the author’s permission, and just like that I was an editor.
I certainly knew that feeling my first few years. So in the beginning it was just a job, so I could live here. I never thought it would last. In the early ’70s at Macmillan everyone wore suits, white shirts and ties and had two martinis at lunch. That wasn’t me. I had spent the ’60s at the University of Chicago being a hippy intellectual and a political activist. I thought the job would only last a few months, until they discovered who I really was. It amazes me in retrospect that I lasted thirty years. What happened was I got involved with a couple of books that really intrigued me and gradually realized that one might be able to do something interesting in publishing.
I’m curious about those suit and tie/two-martini days of publishing: What was it like being an openly gay man in that old school world?
It wasn’t exactly the case of “being an openly gay man.” In the early ’70s, in spite of the fact that there were quite a few gay men and lesbians working as editors, it was something never spoken about. I swore to myself I wouldn’t lie about it or try to hide it, but on the other hand I didn’t go out of my way to broadcast it, either.
I remember the first time I had to confront that decision. It was at the Christmas party my first year working there. In the ’70s, publishing companies had these really terrible Christmas parties where everyone got drunk out of their minds and all sorts of indiscreet things got said (and done). At one of these parties the head of Macmillan’s warehouse and inventory control, a short, really feisty Puerto Rican lesbian whom I liked a lot, came up to me, clearly very drunk, and asked if I was bisexual. When I said, “No,” her face really fell and she realized she’d gone a step too far, but then I added, “I’m gay” and she broke into this terrific smile. And she was one of my best allies in the company from then on.
I suppose I really came out to the whole company because of a book by Alan Ebert, the first gay book I ever published, called The Homosexuals: Who and What We Are. Great title, right? (Laughter.) I’d actually been fired over it when the CEO of the company, a twisted little man called Raymond C. Hagel, found out about the book as we were preparing for an upcoming sales conference in Phoenix. But after I was fired every other editor, right up to the editor in chief, refused to present the book at sales conference, and since legal told the company they were obliged to publish it, they ended up hiring me back—really, just to present one book! (Laughter.)
One of our New York sales reps who was a friend of mine had been reading the manuscript, I think in order to support me from the floor. And he had come to an interview in the book with a gay rabbi who, among other things, described fist fucking. And my friend didn’t believe there could be such a thing as a gay rabbi, or that fist fucking was physically possible. This was said at sales conference in front of everyone, and I’m standing on stage at the microphone in front of 250 people. It was one of those moments when you just wish the earth would open up and swallow you. I had a split second to make a decision and I realized that the whole credibility of the book—as well as my own—depended on the answer.
I took a deep breath and said, “Chuck, you know that bar at the very western end of 14th Street (his territory was lower Manhattan), on the south side of the street in the triangular building? It’s a gay bar (it was the old Anvil) that, among other things, has sex acts performed on the bar. It’s a place I’ve been to a few times and I can assure you that it’s physically possible,” and I held up my right hand and with my left measured off about halfway up my forearm and said, “You can get it in about this far.” The silence in that room was palpable; as they say, you could have heard a pin drop. (Laughter.) “And as for the rabbi, I happen to know him socially and I guarantee you he’s a real person.” So the cat was definitely out of the bag.
As a follow up question, in reference to the books interesting you, what else did you acquire and edit initially, and how long was it before you decided there was a market for LGBT lit?
That took a while—I was a bit dense, I guess. The first books that really hooked me on publishing were political. I might not have known much about editing or publishing, but politics was what I knew from the ’60s and the earliest books I really got involved in were political.
I soon came to see that this could be an interesting job, and I started feeling my way into it. The most notable book I edited in the beginning was probably for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf. It was actually Ntozake Shange who raised the issue of gay books with me, saying, “You’re publishing all these women’s books and black books, how come you aren’t publishing more gay books?”
Which was a good question.
In New York City at the time, in the years following Stonewall, there were intense discussions going on among gay people as to whether or not there was such a thing as gay literature, or gay culture in general. I’d gotten involved with the Gay Activists Alliance, and in time we’d started our first gay magazine, OUT, in 1973, but it only lasted two issues before folding. During that period I’d gotten close to a young guy just out of grad school named Chuck Ortleb, and we continued that discussion—intensively!—for the next couple of years. These discussions with Chuck ended up convincing me there was such a thing as gay literature and, more importantly, that a change of consciousness, a change in our imaginations, had to be the first step in fighting for gay rights. The best way to do that was through a literary magazine. Electoral politics was not at all a promising avenue at the time. So we ended up founding Christopher Street Magazine in 1976, one of the first gay literary magazines—and that got me fired for good from Macmillan.
So I needed a job. By then I was a hot young editor, my books were getting a lot of attention, and, more importantly, making good money. I had, if memory is correct, forty-seven job interviews. (It’s hard to remember but in the mid-seventies there were something like 280 publishing houses in Manhattan. Today there are five, and a handful of small presses.) At each one I’d put a copy of Christopher Street on the table and say, “Look, I’m gay and publicly involved with this gay literary magazine, so if that gives you a problem, we should just forget about the job and enjoy lunch, since this is a very good restaurant and you’re paying for it.” (In those days they always took you to these incredibly fancy restaurants for the interview.) And they would say, “Oh no, no,” picking up the magazine and leafing through it, “how interesting…interesting.”
And of the forty-seven interviews, I got exactly one call back, from a guy named Tom McCormack who was running a small place called St. Martin’s Press in the Flatiron Building. Most of my publishing friends had never heard of St. Martin’s. I only knew it because they had published a couple of the earliest gay books (Weinberg’s Society and the Healthy Homosexual along with Roommates Can’t Always Be Lovers and Fire Island by Liege Clark and Jack Nichols). I ended up having five interviews with Tom, telling him that I was convinced there was a new market for gay fiction, and I wanted to try to publish to it—without a huge hullabaloo every time I tried to sign up a gay book. He agreed, and so I moved to St. Martin’s in 1977.
If I hadn’t run into Tom, I don’t think I ever would have had a career in publishing; it would have just been a five-year adventure in the business world.
Who besides you was openly gay and publishing gay titles in a mainstream house back then? I’m talking about gay men who’ve made a career publishing gay literature.
In corporate publishing? Nobody. We’re talking mainstream New York publishing here. I don’t know about the rest of the country, but in New York publishing there was no one who was out. Which is why it was such a big deal when I came out publicly. And there were no small gay presses at the time with the exception of Gay Sunshine magazine, which put out a couple of gay books. Interestingly enough there were already several lesbian/feminist presses; Daughters in Vermont and a couple of others. One of the things that motivated me was that I had several very close lesbian friends, and I saw that they had several presses, and a number of magazines, but by 1976 gay men had virtually nothing comparable, except The Advocate.
Of course, lesbians had the advantage of the Women’s Movement. The women’s presses were basically lesbian (in most of their personnel and an awful lot of what they published) but were presented to the world as feminist presses. That’s why at the time lesbian literature was way ahead of gay literature; they had an allied audience of straight women interested in the work of lesbians, which made publication of such books and magazines financially viable, if limited. But gay men had no such allies who could augment the audience for gay books, so there were no small gay presses. Sasha Alyson started Alyson Books some years later, and when he did, he came to me for advice.
What were the challenges for you as a gay book editor beyond the expected homophobia? Were there gay writers with books lined up to be published now that there was a prominent outlet for their writing?
I think I made the same mistake at St. Martin’s that we initially made at Christopher Street. Knowing there was some samizdat gay literature going around (W.H. Auden’s “Ode to a Blow Job,” for instance, and other stuff), we assumed that gay writers had all this material in their bottom drawers because there was no outlet for publishing it, and it would come gushing in. But gay writers are no dummies; since there hadn’t been any outlets, most didn’t waste their time writing work that could never be published. This we discovered to our chagrin at Christopher Street, where we were always scrambling to fill up the new issue. Once Edmund White wrote, I think, four different articles under four different names to fill the issue at the last moment, although I think the title goes to Andrew Holleran, who once did five articles under five aliases. (Laughter.) If we’d known anything about magazine publishing, we would never have tried to start Christopher Street, which, mind you, lasted for over twenty years.
When I went looking for gay books, the pickings were slim. There was Wallace Hamilton who had published a novel called Coming Out. He wrote a Biblical, historical novel for me about King David and Jonathan (David at Olivet), and Pete Fisher and Marc Rubin (old friends from the Gay Activist Alliance who had worked on OUT magazine) wrote Special Teachers, Special Boys about a gay high school teacher. Now you could say that this was ideological fiction, akin to the old socialist realism school of fiction. But you had to start somewhere. You had to show that gay books could be published if you wanted to encourage gay books to be written.
Then there came along Ed White’s Nocturnes for the King of Naples. Ed’s first novel, Forgetting Elena, had been published by Random House and then in paperback by Penguin and had gotten rave reviews—and, in a comment endlessly repeated in publishing circles, Nabokov had declared Ed the best young American novelist (or something like that). So it was a scandal that he couldn’t find a single publisher willing to take on his second novel because it dealt with homoerotic love (although the beloved was safely dead and gone, which should have made it easier for straight people to deal with). So I published the novel in 1978, to rave reviews I might add. And quite decent sales for a literary book.
In fact, 1978 was a banner year for gay writing; it really marked the dawn of the new gay literary movement that would swell into a torrent over the next fifteen or twenty years. Among the books published that year were Ed’s Nocturnes, Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, Paul Monette’s Taking Care of Mrs. Carroll, Larry Kramer’s Faggots, and Felice Picano’s The Lure. After that we were off and running, and ten years later enough gay books were being published that I could start a new paperback line, Stonewall Inn Editions, totally devoted to gay writing, both fiction and nonfiction.
And what was the impact of all this on gay writing, gay literature? What changes were seen as a result of the culture opening up more?
By the early ’80s there was this remarkable flowering of a new literary culture. And everybody everywhere was busy building the necessary infrastructure. When I started there were something like eight or nine gay bookstores; within a few years there were forty-five of them, and my sales people loved those stores; they were among their best customers. People were creating new magazines, new local gay newspapers, which were a fabulous review outlet for these gay books. I could get twenty or thirty reviews for a first gay novel and a bunch of author interviews, whereas publishing a first novel by a straight person you might gather four or five reviews—if you were lucky. National gay literary conferences, like Outwrite, were started, and all sorts of new organizations. David Groff and me along with others founded the Publishing Triangle, a professional networking organization for gays and lesbians working in book publishing.
Before the threat of AIDS started darkening our horizon, there really was a halcyon moment that people today forget. It was morning in gay America, for sure.
You can get some sense of that time if you look at the fiction Christopher Street published during those years. The magazine introduced writers like Robert Ferro, John Fox, Brad Gooch, Andrew Holleran, David Leavitt, Ethan Mordden, David Plante, Felice Picano, Christopher Bram, and, of course, Edmund White.
The point is, there was this huge social movement going on; gay people were emerging everywhere and organizing into coherent communities, into neighborhoods, into professional associations, religious associations, athletic associations. There was a cultural revolution going on, and the emergence of the new gay writing was an exuberant manifestation of that.
But I think this historical moment, say 1977 to ’83, has been so overshadowed by the catastrophe of AIDS as to be nearly forgotten. It needs a name, a label, something better than borrowing “morning in gay America” from President Reagan. But this is why I think if you were considering the history of gay writing, you’d have to break it into two periods here: the dawn, the new beginning, post-Stonewall/pre-AIDS, and then the writing that arose as a response to the great disaster of AIDS.
So what did the landscape look like, then, in the first years of the epidemic? And how did AIDS transform the new writing you mention earlier, the gay writing of the late ’70s and early ’80s?
The first public notice of this new disease appeared in Christopher Street’s sister publication, The New York Native, two or three weeks before the first report by the CDC, which was then picked up by the New York Times, in a little article on page eighteen, I think. And the Native continued to have the best medical as well as political coverage of the new disease for the first five or so years of the epidemic. Chuck Ortleb should be proud of that, I am for him.
By 1983 it had become utterly clear: AIDS was a catastrophe, an epidemic, an event unleashed like a hurricane, and this event threatened our very existence. AIDS seemed so unbelievable at first; it looked like a metaphor for the homophobia of the whole society—but reality isn’t supposed to come prepackaged in metaphors, I kept muttering. Larry Kramer’s great 1983 essay, “1,112 and Counting,” ended all that for me and I think for an awful lot of gay men across the country. (After being published in the Native, that essay was reprinted in virtually every gay newspaper and magazine in America, one of the most successful pieces of political rhetoric ever seen.) After two years of confusion, denial, evasions, fear and growing panic, we realized that AIDS was going to be the major event of our time; that it threatened our continued existence, not only as individual gay men but as a community, as a culture, and that we had to mobilize every resource within our power against it,”
And in that moment of crisis it was the gay writers who, disproportionately, led the way—who sounded the alarm, who told the stories of what was happening, who tried to repeat in the imagination the desperate lives we found ourselves living. And I think this is a very unusual event in the history of writing. Writers have a spotty history in terms of political involvement, if they get seriously involved at all. But, for once, a community’s writers turned all their energies, their resources, their talents, their work, toward a political end, mobilizing the community against an ultimate threat. We can’t go into it in detail here, of course, but I think the gay writers of the ’80s rose magnificently to the challenge history had presented us with. To my mind, it made a whole generation of writers heroic and raised some of the most elemental questions about the nature and value of writing that I’ve ever encountered in my career.
And again, to my astonishment, I think this whole remarkable episode has been forgotten, has slipped under the waters in our historical wake. I mean, a few academic books have been published about this AIDS literature, but mostly it seems to be forgotten, as we’ve waded further into the “post-AIDS” moment, which you can probably date from 1996, the year they discovered combination therapies, the year it went from being an epidemic to being a so-called manageable condition.
So maybe both these episodes of gay history, of gay writing, will be forgotten. Or maybe it will be like the Harlem Renaissance, whose writers seemed to disappear in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, only to be unearthed again. We’ll see.
So where do you think gay writing is going now?
Lord only knows! Let me tell you about the last two gay books I published, just before losing my perch in corporate publishing for good. This was 2002 and I thought they reflected where we were at the time as a community. There was An American Family by Michael and Jon Galluccio (with David Groff); two gay men in New Jersey who became foster parents and fought, successfully, for the legal right to adopt their child, and later for marriage equality. And there was David Nimmons’ The Soul beneath the Skin: The Unseen Hearts and Habits of Gay Men, which brilliantly marshals evidence of the social sciences to argue that gay men have since Stonewall created new and valuable forms of community, relationships, and masculinity. One book asks us to assimilate into the dominant culture; the other wants to change it radically (the liberationists).
As anyone can plainly see, the assimilationist wave has been dominant for the last decade, balancing the first decade (the ’70s) dominated by the liberationists–the middle two decades essentially devoted to the fight against AIDS. I suspect these two poles of the culture will always be with us. Which is the right strategy depends on the historical moment. We’ll see what emerges.
And for you personally, what came after corporate publishing?
A surprisingly soft landing. Besides giving me a plethora of business and literary adventures, which I really enjoyed, thirty years of this work had given me the opportunity to thoroughly develop and hone a craft skill.
And that is what manuscript editing is, what the academics call a praxis, an art. And craft skills can only be developed by actual practice, preferably a couple of decades’ worth. Malcolm Gladwell has calculated in one of his essays that mastering a skill—violin playing, tennis—takes approximately 10,000 hours of actual hard practice. Which seemed about right to me—that would be, say, twenty years as a working editor.
And, given how corporate publishing has evolved, there is a great need for freelance manuscript editing today, as so much more of it is being done outside of publishing houses. So I get to keep doing what I always loved best, working with writers and their manuscripts. And get paid for it. What’s not to like?