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February 15, 2005

Guest Author: Tom Dolby

by Ron Hogan

Tompic2.jpgTom Dolby (no relation to the singer) passes through Beatrice today on his "Virtual Book Tour," a coordinated blogblitz that will bring him to ten blogs in a single day to promote the paperback release of his debut novel, The Trouble Boy. I asked if he'd be willing to talk a little bit about the thematic connections between his story of a young gay man coming of age in a glitzy celebrity subculture and chick-lit novels which put female protagonists through similar personal and ethical dilemmas. (And it's a fortuitous coincidence that his thoughts appear here so soon after I found Mary Bly's eloquent defense of romance!)

Bright Lives in the Big City
by Tom Dolby

While I donít like to pigeonhole my work any more than the average chick lit author does, I recognize that The Trouble Boy, while having its share of straight fans, falls into the category of gay literature. (By the way, if you're offended by the term "chick-lit," I sympathize, but there doesn't seem to be any alternative.) I don't plan on staying in the gay lit ghetto forever, but I believe that if the category helps readers find my novel, then that's terrific. The gay press has been incredibly supportive of my work, and I've received far more reviews than most first novels ever do.
While my next book, tentatively titled The Sixth Form, is a more meditative exploration of the relationships between two teenagers and two adults at a New England boarding school, I've always believed that The Trouble Boy rode the line between literary and commercial fiction. My intention was to write a coming of age story about a young gay man, set against the background of post-millennial Manhattan, including such life-changing events as his traumatic coming out experience, his struggle with clinical depression, and his eventual transition into adulthood. I also wanted to write a novel that moved quickly in its narrative, balancing the light with the dark, the comic with the cerebral.

It's the commercial side of my work that has a relationship to chick lit. While I wouldnít say Iím a dedicated follower of the genre, I have often found myself in airports with otherwise abysmal fiction selections, at the tail end of whatever Iím currently reading (for example, working my way through those Booker Prize nominees), and have been entertained by many a chick lit author. I've enjoyed the work of Melissa Bank, Wendy Holden, Jennifer Weiner, and yes, even Helen Fielding. I picked up Candace Bushnellís Sex and the City the first week it came out, back when I was a spry twenty-one year old; I fell in love with it, though it all seemed very dark and mysterious. When I started writing The Trouble Boy, I was reading a lot of confessional fiction, books like Portnoy's Complaint, The Bell Jar, and Fear of Flying, the latter two of which could be considered precursors to the chick-lit movement; though darker and more serious (and, ironically, with characters who are more independent), Plath and Jong are, in an evolutionary sense, godmothers to many of the heroines we have in popular fiction today.

So whatís the connection between chick lit and gay lit? On one level, it's the old "Sex and the City is really about four gay men" theory. The characters in both genres often obsess about sex, work, and finding the perfect pair of Prada shoes. But the similarities go deeper. Both chick lit and gay lit have capital-R Romantic elements to them. Their characters believe in the notion of living a life in the city in which they can have love, career success, and a comfortable lifestyle all at once. Mona's Law in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City (a classic example of gay lit) was: "You can have a hot lover, a hot job, and a hot apartment, but you can't have all three at the same time." Contemporary chick lit and gay lit both say: "Watch me." The confessional premise in these novels is that they depict for the reader a struggle on the part of their protagonists to be heard and appreciated despite a social structure that marginalizes them. They are, at their very best, stories that the author needs to tell, no matter what the consequences.

The downside to much of chick lit and gay lit? Real life is about more than boyfriends and work and shopping. I don't believe that books should encourage women (or gay men) that all they need is a man in their lives to be happy. The Trouble Boy ends--much to some of my readers' chagrin--on a melancholy note, with my main character still unsteady in his relationship and career, but at least with a greater sense of hope and self-actualization. To me, a conclusion like that feels closer to reality.

I know there are literary snobs out there, naysayers who dismiss gay lit and chick lit as so much cultural detritus. Believe me: I abhor bad chick lit and bad gay lit as much as the next critic. But if it's done well, chick lit and gay lit can take its readers to a transcendent level, a place where we can believe, just for a moment, that our bright lives in the big city are going to work out for the best.

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