It's funny how novels that are both "gay" and "literary" have this secret handshake, hanky code, wink and nod subtext to their cover designs. Most mainstream GAY novels (as opposed to the more elegant (discreet?) "gay" novel) are easy to spot: just look for the shirtless hottie on the cover!
Well, first make sure you aren't in the paranormal romance section!
Actually, that isn't true either: now, the hottie is clothed (most often) and paired with another hottie with whom he may or may not be holding hands. When did we become so boringly mainstream?
(In the 90s, I was thrilled to see book covers such Michael Thomas Ford's That's Mr. Faggot to You. Okay so, yeah, MTF is kind of an average schlomo on said cover but it said Faggot and it was funny and in your face about it. His current book covers (when he still writes gay lit) have more in common with the lite FM stylings of Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult AND there's very little flesh.)
But I digress...(picture it Sicily...)
But the code is still pretty easy to parse. So I put before you all John Lanchester's Capital.
Clue One: Cover Image - Man alone on cover in urban setting. Also there is a transgressiveness in that said man appears to be somewhere where he should not be.
This typically leads to a search of the advance praise on the back looking for already well-known and well-known-to-be-gay authors.
Clue Two: Well-Known-To-Be-Gay Author's Advance Praise - In this case, we have Cólm Toibín, author of the Lambda Literary Award and Stonewall Book Award winning novel The Master.
Clue Three: The Author's Bio-blurb on the Back Inside Flap - In this case, nothing much is revealed. Yes, he looks gay, but he could also be literary and there's that whole European thing he's got going on too. But, pay closer attention: there's no mention of a wife and children. AND, he was awarded the 2008 E.M. Forster Award! After Oscar Wilde, E.M. Forster was the other big Mo of that era.
Clue Four: Now read the book blurb - Nope, sorry, nothing there.
Clue Five: Google Stalking Reveals that Author is Gay or Not, but Author Reviews Lots of Gay Lit and Likes to Talk About Sex and the Writing of Sex. Well, that's not really a clue but the point is it's time for Google Stalking.
And really the point of this post was that I found this really cool essay John Lanchester wrote for the London Review of Books in which he discusses the writing of sex, Alan Hollinghurst (another gay author whose books have become "literary" and way less interesting in the book cover department) and Edmund White (ditto).
Writing about sex tends to go wrong in one of two related ways. The first is through embarrassment or over-excitement on the part of the author: overly rhapsodic descriptions of sex, in particular, tend to cause feelings of unease (Lawrence, Mailer). The other, subtler way is through the failure to show sex as a function of character: to depict sex in fiction as a holiday from personality is to make sex, in fictional terms, merely digressive. One of the triumphs of The Swimming-Pool Library – a startlingly accomplished first novel – is the tonal control it achieves in writing graphically and explicitly about homosexual sex while never seeming flustered or prurient, and never wavering in the amused, ironic control of the narrating voice. ‘There were more reckless propositioners,’ the narrator says of the showers at his favourite swimming-pool, ‘like the laid-back Ecuadorian Carlos with his foot-long Negroni sausage of a dick; his (successful) opener to me had been: “Boy, you got the nicest dick I ever see” – a gambit only really useful to those who are pretty well set up themselves.’ The measured, formal movement of the prose, its hints of scholarly fastidiousness, give a flavour of comedy of manners to ‘acts in which’, the architecture-loving narrator remarks, ‘the influence of the orders, the dome, the portico, could scarcely be discerned’. However Dionysian the events depicted – fellatio, sodomy, an erection passing along a line of men in the shower ‘with the domino effect of a Busby Berkeley routine’ – the narrator’s tone remains, in keeping with his personality, resolutely Apollonian.