What Fiction Means

I have something to confess right here up front. Tonight I feel utterly at home. You might think we’re in a magnificent wedding cake ballroom full of chandeliers and debutante pretensions. But I spring from a long line of Baptist tent preachers, brothers and sisters. This might look like a Formica podium, but it can become a pulpit so quickly—especially on a Sunday like this; there’s just something about Sundays. I feel overwhelmed with my ancestors’ spirits. I know I’m supposed to be polite and witty and not offend anybody. But what I really want to do, ladies and gentlemen, moved by the spirit and talent and all the grace and bravery I feel in this room, is “testify,” brothers and sisters!

We have so much to say to each other and the world. And as Melvin Dixon just eloquently suggested, we have too little time to say it. Sentimentality should be put aside. It’s time to talk about real feelings. It’s time to overcome shame, time to tell the truth about our riding out the current plague by writing our way through it.

We are subject to an epidemic still unmentioned by our president. We are governed by politicians proudly unwilling to spend money on researching its cause and cure. Since it first infected Haitians and urban gay men, right-wing legislators are glad to let the virus freely prune those populations.

But let’s not get stuck in plain old anger. Anger, brothers and sisters, is a kind of B minus emotion. Anger just bumps you along the sidewalk. You keep hitting your head and belly while blaming the world. Anger is self-destructive and an amateur’s emotion. What we need—and what we all have in our every true sentence—is not mere anger, fellow sexual outlaws, but rage.

Mere anger lets us blame ourselves for our trouble, our history. Rage remains as clear as gin. Rage lifts us up out of the petty woes, including our own mortality. It can make us each a weather satellite. Rage lets us understand that—in the noun homosexual—what scares America most is not even the homo part. No, it’s those closeted three letters: sex. From the Salem witch trials forward, America has been terrified of its unadmitted muscular sexuality. And America is terrified of us because we have the muscle and the nerve to see sex as a bonus, not a curse. And we’ve had the nerve to fight for our right to it, my brave brothers and sisters and my sisters who are brothers and my brothers who are sisters.

As witnesses and poets, as novelists and journalists, we’ve been battling this disease and that bigotry for more than a decade. As a result, each of us is stronger than most people in the world. We have already survived the fire. We have already survived tribulations that would stop most of our straight brothers and sisters in their tracks. We have seen beautiful kids age a lifetime in two months. We have stood by bedsides. We have changed the sheets. In terms of experience, we are in the stratosphere already. Fellow writers and supplicants and survivors, we are in the stratosphere with our immortal early brothers and sisters: Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes, Tennessee Williams, Oscar Wilde, Michelangelo, Willa Cather, and Caravaggio. The list goes on and on and on: Marcel Proust. Yes. James Baldwin. Absolutely. Zora Neale Hurston. Noel Coward. E. M. Forster.

When I was in the fifth grade, I discovered a novel called Robinson Crusoe, and it remains one of the greatest novels ever written. Of course, it’s about a man who washes up on an island alone, a man who is cut off from the civilization that made him, a man—like every man and woman in this room—who, instead of despairing, recreated civilization on an island alone and independent.

And after you’d made your island secure, after resigning yourself to an invert’s sovereign isolation, do you remember the night you stepped into your first gay bar and saw women dancing with women and men dancing with men? It was as if we had walked through the looking glass and had discovered—each on our separate islands—how many hundreds of thousands and millions of islands combined to form a continent. That joined land mass is here in this room tonight, these hundreds of souls who have given so much to a culture that still grossly undervalues our kind. Well, let me tell you, brothers and sisters, this culture needs us more than we need it.

Yes. Let’s tell the truth here. Let’s not hold back. There is so much to say. And so little time to say it.

We are each on our separate quest. And when you get home and sit down at your desk come Monday—and I hope it will be on Monday, not next Thursday—I want you to do what I intend to do come Monday morning, which is to unpack not only your energy, not just your intelligence, not only your imagination, but the imagination of that person sitting on your right and on your left now. And I beg you to know that you are not just telling your own story. You are telling our story, and you’re telling it, not simply for us and you, but for them. If not for them now, then for later.

There is a kind of beauty and truth in a story that is so much larger than any single intelligence. If you trust your own beginning and middle and end, it will lead you to a kind of wisdom beyond wisdom. The Sphinx’s riddle, the central question, the key to all wisdom is simply that people are born, they mature, they age and die. And no sector of American society knows that better than we do now. We, each of us, have a winter black outfit and a summer black suit, stylish and slenderizing but funeral suitable. We, each of us, have become amateur nurses and professional mourners before our time. I, for one, am sick of bad news. I am sick of baring my soul and having my straight friends pat me on the back while seeing this as somehow my responsibility, as somehow our fault. I want to tell stories, not just about us, but about everybody, but I can only do that by starting with the “me” in “us” and ending as the “us” in “me.”

In time, the others will understand that what has happened in this country in the last twelve years is the greatest civilian groundswell since abolition helped end slavery. What the current American administration has not done, American citizens have managed. History will remember this and us and our advance-guard angels. We will be named in literature because we refused to stay quiet and passive and polite. We have conquered self-blame, my fellow satellites of angel rage. I know you; you know me; my work is your work. We must read each other, support each other. We must nurse each other. We must bury each other—remember each other and praise each other, in ways bitchy and not. My beloved fellow queers, my sister-brothers and brother-sisters, world without end, our job is turning trouble into meaning, making even a disease yield light and beauty.

There’s been something about this weekend that has retired all my usual white-boy, academic jargon. I can’t tell you how liberated I feel. Do you know what I mean? There’s a sense that we are not simply putting together careers, brothers and sisters. I don’t want a career. I want a mission.

I don’t want to write mere entertainments. I want to write out of my own experience and out of my own life, a new Bible, a Bible that is useful and, as Melvin Dixon says, useful long after I am so much fog on a coffin lid. I am putting my note in my bottle, on my Robinson Crusoe island, and sending it out into the salty world. And I am goddamned if I am going to pretend to be something I am not. My power, my voice, and the power in your voices come precisely from what society sees as our flaws. Maybe the AIDS crisis will finally prove to straight people that gay people don’t spend all their days in gyms and all their nights in bars.

There’s a wonderful moment in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde, that great genius of the late nineteenth century, wrote plays so fresh that a hundred and some years along, they’re not merely contemporary—they’re futuristic. Let me give you a little sample. Miss Prism, the aged tutor of young Cecily, says, “You must not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily, for I wrote one myself in earlier days.” Cecily replies, “Did you really, Miss Prism? How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily? I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.” And Miss Prism responds, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”

There are people who will tell you that everybody in this room is bad, but I feel such goodness. And there are people who will tell you everybody out of this room is good, but I feel such careless badness there. What are we to make of this inversion?

What are we to make of a society that calls us perverted while offering as exemplars Mr. Kennedy Smith and Clarence Thomas, who will be ruling on our sexual behavior decades from now? These are straight guys who just happened to get caught. And they both then got off scot-free. Unlike Mr. Wilde’s fatal years in jail.

The good end happily; the bad unhappily. A complicated notion.

I’m proposing that we invert inversion, brothers and sisters. I’m proposing that we recognize how divinely equipped we are to be writers and artists and moral guides. I am proposing that if you understand what masks are, you understand what identity is (and nobody understands masks better than we who’ve had to hide all our lives). This is the first day of gay liberation, ladies and gentlemen, and we owe it to all the heroes who’ve led us till now—many of whom are here today and some of whom will not be here next year. We want to say to them, you will be remembered. We want to say to them, we will build on your example. We want to say to them, your book is a new Bible to us. And your example is pure and hallowed. And you exist in religious relation to our continuing lives.

As artists, we are divinely equipped with sensitivity to style and humor, but we mustn’t be mere minstrel entertainers. We mustn’t specialize in tuxedoed soft-shoe routines. We mustn’t settle. We must go for the complicated truth of being alive in the age of AIDS.

I would like to end by quoting from my own work. And if that seems immodest, it’s because I’m trying in my own way to write the same Holy Bible you are. The Bible has many chapters, but it’s all Bible, brothers and sisters.

In this particular story, “It Had Wings,” a retired lady in her eighties who sold formal clothes to ten mayors’ wives is home on Elm Street on a given Sunday.1 Her sons are grown and scattered, and she’s doing dishes looking out at her own backyard when a naked angel, male, falls near her picnic table.

Interested, she wanders outside wearing her terry cloth robe and slippers, carrying her breakfast mug. She does what anybody would do for an angel, especially a beautiful, pale, uncircumcised angel. She pours warm milk into his angel mouth. And by helping him stand on her barbecue pit, she allows him to ascend once more renewed to heaven. I’m choosing this tale for obvious reasons. There are angels sitting on your left and right who are about to ascend, brothers and sisters. And we have to help them on their way. Angels are among us. You know who you are, and you will know them when you see them. I see them everywhere. We have so much to teach. We have so much to tell. We have so much to celebrate in the community gathered in this room. In a few minutes, you’ll take your suitcases and backpacks and laptops elsewhere. And it will never be the same. And it will always be the same. And when you’re alone again on your desert island, remember all the rest of us on ours, making it up as we go.

God knows we have subject matter. We have so much to tell the others, if only they could hear us—if only they might understand some of what we’ve already experienced. In my little story, the aided angel has just ascended into heaven, and the widow wanders back into her cottage, back where she first saw him from her kitchen sink: 

She finishes the breakfast dishes just in time for lunch. This old lady should be famous for all she has been through: today’s angel, her scattered sons, her years in sales, she should be famous for her life. She knows things. She has seen so much. She’s not famous. Still, she keeps gazing past her kitchen’s café curtains, keeps studying her own small tidy yard, the anchor fence, a picnic table, new Bermuda grass, the barbecue pit. Hands pressed to her sink’s cool ledge, she leans nearer a bright window. She seems to be expecting something, expecting something decent. The kitchen clock is ticking, a nearby dog barks to calm itself. And she whispers, mostly to herself, “I’m right here, ready. Ready for more.”

Can you guess why this old woman’s chin is lifted? Why does she breathe as if to show exactly how it’s done? Why should both her shoulders, usually quite bent, brace so square just now? She is guarding the world. Only nobody knows.2


1. “It Had Wings” was first published in the Paris Review, no. 98 (Winter 1985): 12–16. It is collected in Gurganus’s collection of short stories White People (New York: Vintage, 2000).

2. This is adapted from Gurganus’s “It Had Wings.”





Allan Gurganus’s fiction includes Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1989) and Local Souls (Liveright, 2013). He is a Guggenheim Fellow and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.