Edmund White makes an astonishing confession as we sit down to discuss his forthcoming appearances at Montreal's Blue Metropolis Literary Festival.
"I hate writing," says the award-winning, prolific author, playwright and journalist. "I almost never write. I write against deadlines. And when I'm teaching, I'm focused on that."
It's a surprising thing to hear, given that White has been turning out elegant, cerebral writing since the 1970s, celebrated works of both fiction and non-fiction. He first gained wide recognition for his sexual-liberation tome The Joy of Gay Sex in 1977, co-written with psychologist Charles Silverstein. His semi-autobiographical 1982 novel A Boy's Own Story is considered a landmark of gay lit, as he explored growing up in America during the conservative Fifties.
Widely regarded as one of the fathers of contemporary gay lit, White says he can't help but marvel at how radically things have shifted. "The seventies was the golden age of promiscuity, which became the name of a novel by Brad Gooch. The other day I spoke to a student of mine who's gay and he was breaking up with his lover, and he said, 'It's very sad to break up with him, because I thought he'd be a good father to our children.' And that's not a concern that ever would have occurred to people of my generation. Now it's built into the whole thing of being gay that you're going to get married and have children some day."
As for his own thoughts on same-sex marriage, White concedes that his opinions are, like Barack Obama's, evolving. "Originally I was against gay marriage because I was opposed to all marriage, being an old-fashioned gay bohemian. The straight people I knew in the sixties were very much opposed to it. I was too, and it was never a possibility for gays. but when I saw how opposed the religious right was to it, I thought it a fight worth fighting. I felt like we'll never have full acceptance until we have marriage equality."
White now finds himself in a strange situation. "I teach at Princeton, and they say if you live in a state where you can get married, and you can in New York now, you have to do it. … in order to get health coverage. … But it's sort of a Pandora's box that's been opened, because my partner, who is 25 years younger than I am, has another boyfriend, who's 10 years younger than he is. You know how complicated gay life is."
Now 73 and having lived with HIV for more than 20 years, White says he's slowed down somewhat. "Last year I had a stroke and couldn't walk or talk for about a month. He's heartened, however, by the progress in fighting HIV, believing the epidemic could be "greatly reduced" if not eradicated.
But it's the uphill battle that authors face that really concerns him. "All authors, their revenue streams are being reduced. Young writers' chances of starting out in journalism are also slimmer. The Internet's impact is immense. My students can't imagine ever paying for a book. I always say to writers who complain about the publishing industry, 'Just shut up! Say everything's hunky dory!' There is a whole industry in America of people who want to write, and those who teach it. Even if the students don't end up writing, what's good about them taking the courses is, they become great readers, learning to appreciate the writing. Everyone's writing, it seems, but no one's reading," he says, pointing to the huge number of submissions to literary magazines, versus their minuscule subscriber base.
He adds: "For 50 years, people have been talking about the end of fiction. But I think it really is happening now."
For info, visit Bluemetropolis.org.