Review of So Famous and so Gay: The Fabulous Potency of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of So Famous and so Gay: The Fabulous Potency of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein

So Famous and So Gay: The Fabulous Potency of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein
by Jeff Solomon

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2017
296 pp., illus. 26 b/w. Trade, $108.00; paper, $27.00
ISBN: 9780816696796; ISBN: 9780816696826

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
December 2017

This is a very ambitious and innovative work in the field of queer studies, whose methodology and theoretical insights make room for new research in a domain that for many may look definitely overcrowded. The book starts from a deceivingly question: How is it possible that Gertrude Stein and Truman Capote, who did not lived as closeted homosexuals, became mass-market celebrities in a period that censored other public gay figures (historically speaking, Solomon focuses on the period after the 1895 Oscar Wilde trial and the 1969 Stonewall riots, although a very interesting afterward expands his reflection on the current cultural production)? The fundamental answer to this question has to do with the distinction Solomon establishes between “broadly queer” and “specifically gay”, more precisely between the dissymmetrical relationships between both concepts, for not all those who are “broadly queer” are “specifically gay” and vice versa. For Solomon, it is the public reception of Capote and Stein as “broadly queer” rather than “specifically gay”, that is the possibility to use the former category as a reading frame that enabled the dissimulation of the latter while at the same time allowing a more or less sophisticated play with the forbidden, if not the unspeakable, which helps understand why the general audience could accept both authors as celebrities.

The term “celebrity” highlights a second aspect of the strange phenomenon that pushed Capote and Stein toward the center of mass culture. To be famous for a writer does not mean that he or she is also widely read. One can be a celebrity–and hence a kind of role model–without being read, and in certain cases the very possibility of becoming a celebrity depends even as much on the fact that one is not being read than on the fact that one has many and dedicated readers. To be unreadable can be part of one’s image, and such an image can play a key role in the public production of a literary and cultural celebrity. It suffices to represent a certain idea of (in this case) modernity and queerness to function as a celebrity–an effect that the very reading of one’s “unreadable” books would never be capable of achieving for the simple reason that the number of actual readers is always ridiculously low in comparison with that of those who are informed of the celebrity status of queer and unreadable modernists. Unreadability (in the case of Stein) as well as the fact of being a celebrity more than a writer (in the case of Capote) are moreover important clues in the global shift from “specifically gay” to “broadly queer”. Indeed, the very reading of Stein’s and Capote’s books explicitly invite to make a gay reading of it, whereas their construction as celebrities makes it easy to remain silent on their gayness.

A third layer of Solomon’s reflection is the in-depth analysis of the complex relationship between the authors’ self-representation and the way in which their image is negotiated, transformed and in many cases censored by the mass media that promote it. It would however be naïve to approach this difference in terms of opposition alone. Capote and Stein–and not only Capote, as is generally assumed–did make big efforts to get known, and they were extremely aware of the importance that “broad queerness” could have in the success of the work that they also–and courageously–produced as explicitly gay. Both authors did use the mass media in a very clever way, less by dissimulating gayness with the help of queerness than by exploring the frontiers of queerness in order to express gayness. The historical and archival research by Solomon make these points very clear and the comparison of Capote and Stein–the first one being already a celebrity before having published his first book and becoming a successful author; the second having a more difficult trajectory–helps him study the whole gamut of possible relationships between the status of celebrity and the fact of being read, but also between different types of homosexuality.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Solomon’s book is the close-reading of the willful or unconscious misreadings of Capote and Stein, that is of the countless readings that acknowledge their work and their figures as key to a good understanding of both modernity and queerness, yet without giving any credit to their homosexuality and to the (positive) value these authors give it throughout their work. However, this misreading is not only that of their books–which are not always read, certainly in the case of Stein–but also that of their public image, both as an idea (Stein and Capote as representative of queer modernity) and very literally as an image (and we know how important these images, often channeled via the major magazines of their times such as LIFE and TIME, were for both authors). Time and again Solomon discloses the way in which readers, critics, cultural gatekeepers have managed to either ignore or to minimize, if not to criticize, the “specific gayness” of Capote and Stein. Solomon’s reconstruction of the reception of these authors by those who made an important contribution to their status as celebrities clearly demonstrates the lasting impact and power of homophobic stances even in the commentaries and analyses of those who helped the success (in the case of Capote, who never managed to become a canonical writer despite his success as a celebrity author) and the institutionalization (in the case of Stein). This homophobia can be explicit or implicit, but the archival evidence discussed by Solomon, who brings together well-known and less known testimonies of what cultural gatekeepers (ranging from journalists to academics working for Norton) have actually written on Capote and Stein.

The last chapter of the book offers a close reading of Stein’s Three Lives. Solomon’s ambition is here twofold. First he wants to demonstrate how the implicit or explicit gayness of this book has been systematically overlooked or minimized by all existing scholarship. Second, he also makes a case for the very possibility of making an explicitly gay reading of a text that others approach as no more than (timidly) implicitly gay. An important example of this rereading of Solomon’s reframing of race issues in terms of sexual issues, the former representing form him a “displacement” of the latter. More generally, this book can be read as an invitation to break away from the lasting mainstream tendency–which Solomon labels as homophobic–to read explicit gayness in terms of broad queerness. Many recent examples, such as Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, are therefore criticized as cultural representations that incorporate reactions to gayness that may have been progressive in explicitly homophobic periods but that nevertheless fail to bridge the gap between queerness and gayness.