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Victor J. Banis
Victor J. Banis is a writer.
Yes, I do see it is a bit terse, but it seems to me to cover the salient points well enough. And yes, I do realize I could add adjectives—say, Victor J. Banis is a wonderful writer.
I am an introvert, however. It is an ordeal, to say the least, to read my own material aloud to other people, as some writers enjoy doing, let alone toot my own horn. Anyway, I have long believed it is better to be more than you seem. It is so much nicer, as an example, to mention to others your "little shack in the woods," and let them discover for themselves that it is really a country estate, than to tell them about your "country estate" and have them discover that it is really a shack in the woods. So, no, I'd rather not tell you how wonderful I am as a writer, lest you decide afterward that I am only "a shack in the woods" and not the estate you envisioned.
I suppose I could let others tell you. I have certainly received plenty of praise over the years. Publisher's Weekly credited me with "the master's touch in storytelling," and the Nashville Banner echoed that with, "a master storyteller." Eminent scholar and critic D. Wayne Gunn called me "a national treasure." Thomas L. Long, editor-in-chief of the Harrington Gay Men's Literary Quarterly, said I was the "godfather of modern popular gay fiction," and William Hewitt, professor of gay studies at Westchester University, referred to me as "one of the Grand Old Men of Gay Fiction." Cultural historian Michael Bronski calls me "one of (his) heroes" and credits me as one of a quartet of writers "who pioneered what we now call gay and lesbian literature."
Hmm. Very nice, of course, and pleasant to bask in, but it seems to me a dreadful burden to bear, since I must measure every word I subsequently write against such fulsome praise. I am reminded of a friend who once looked at a particular photograph of me and said that I looked so good in it that I should never be seen in person again. I have an uneasy feeling when I read those reviews that perhaps I should quit where I am—if only I weren't having so much fun.
And, since those little blurbs mentioned above, some of them, at least, touch upon the subject, I suppose I ought to talk about my gay writing history.
I have no embarrassment in doing so, and my only reluctance is my reluctance to label myself a "gay writer," since in fact gay writing has been only a part of my literary output, and not the larger part. I think that I did sit down in the earliest days of my career to write gay novels (I think, because it was so very long ago), but I have long since ceased to think in terms of genre or subject matter or even style. I don't think today I can even correctly say I write "stories." I write people. They come to me and talk to me—often I literally hear them whispering in my ear—and they are who they are, and I don't get to dictate whether they are gay or straight or Martian, anymore than I would with the person next to me on an airplane. They tell me their stories, these visitors, and I think it would be presumptuous of me to try to tell them what their stories should be, or how they should be written, let alone that they must fit into some preconceived "genre." So, just a writer, then, and not a "this writer" or "that writer."
On the other hand, if I have had an appreciable impact upon the world of books and writing, it is certainly in the genre of gay publishing, where I have become something of a cult figure over the years and a hero to some writers and critics.
That was not something I planned. I'm afraid my writing career has been rather a haphazard thing, to tell the truth. I suppose as much as anything, I was the right person in the right place at the right time. To be honest, I suspect much of history happens that way.
In 1963, Fresno, California publishers Sanford Aday and Wallace de Ortega Maxey were sentenced to twenty-five years in federal prison for distributing obscene material, some of the material in question being gay-themed paperback novels.
In 1964, I was indicted on federal charges of conspiracy to distribute obscene material, this for my first novel, The Affairs of Gloria (Brandon House, 1964), which had no sexually explicit words or phrases, but did contain one "damn," and, more to the point, a couple of very tepid lesbian scenes.
Clearly, in the early sixties, the U. S. Government thought that writing about or publishing books depicting homosexual behavior, male or female, was in and of itself obscene, and they meant to stamp it out.
That is not to say that there had not been books before which addressed the subject of homosexuality. The publishing world of the time did not have a specific code, like the Hayes code in Hollywood, but there was a sort of tacit understanding that homosexual characters must be portrayed as naughty, naughty people, doing wicked, wicked things, for which they must be punished by the final chapter, either by death or by a miraculous conversion to heterosexuality. A publisher portrayed homosexuals in a positive light, or gave them happy endings, at his own peril, as Misters Aday and Maxey—and I—learned to our grief. I had ten years in federal prison hanging over my head; not the cheeriest of prospects for a young, pretty (if I do say so myself) and certainly effeminate gay man.
I was acquitted (on a technicality) of the charges brought against me, but I continued for several years to be the target of governmental harassment. My mail, e.g., was routinely opened and left at my doorstep atop the envelopes, so I would be sure to know that it had been read. Yes, Virginia, it was and is illegal.
Surely, in bringing charges against me for what they certainly knew was my first novel, the governmental censors must have intended in part to discourage me from writing any more.
The irony of all this is that Gloria had been written on a whim, as a lark, really—the old "Gosh, I could do this" business. Probably, I would never have gone on to write any more books in this vein. It was my ambition to be a "serious" writer (I don't think I know now what that is) when I grew up (I don't know now what that is, either.)
I was outraged, however, by what had been done and was still being done to me, and to the constitutional guarantee of free speech, and being bullheaded by nature, I thought—perhaps a bit foolishly, in retrospect—that I would "show them." Far from being dissuaded from writing more sexy paperbacks, I felt obligated to give it a few more whirls.
The problem was, I had many friends who were lesbians but I personally was not, so the books I could write in that vein were unhappily akin to the faux-lesbian books popular then and mostly written by heterosexual males for the pleasure of other heterosexual males.
What I wanted to write were gay novels; and after the Aday and Maxey convictions, there was little enthusiasm on the part of publishers for material of that sort; and the potential popular gay market had not yet been tapped. "Who would buy them?" publishers asked repeatedly.
Undeterred, I wrote my gay novel, The Why Not, and after a time it fortunately landed on the desk of Earl Kemp at Greenleaf Classics. Greenleaf had not done any gay material up till then, and Earl himself was resolutely heterosexual and, as he himself has admitted, really quite ignorant of the gay world and especially of gay fiction. He was, however, an iconoclast, and firmly committed to battering down the barriers to sexual expression in print, and he was happy to take on the anti-homosexual forces as well. Greenleaf published The Why Not, it sold well, and got good reviews, and Earl indicated that he was amenable to seeing something more.
By this time, however, I had become a gay activist, and I began to look askance at that "sad-young-men" school of gay writing, in which, I regretted to admit, I now included The Why Not. When I read it again, I was dismayed to realize that there was hardly a happy character or incident in the book. Mostly it was gloom and doom.
Now, it is true, gay life in those early years could be painful, burdensome, and dangerous; but in dwelling exclusively on those aspects of our society, I thought those books, mine included, were essentially dishonest. I decided that I wanted to write a book about a happy homosexual who remained happy, and alive, and gay, in the final chapter.
The result was The Man From C. A. M. P., a spy spoof featuring agent Jackie Holmes, who worked for a super secret organization, C. A. M. P., dedicated to the protection and advancement of homosexuals everywhere.
I think Earl Kemp must have blinked and gasped when I sent him the manuscript. I am convinced that there was not another editor in the U. S. of A. at that time who would even have considered publishing that novel; but gamely publish it Earl did, and the rest is truly a part of gay history.
Delighted gays took to this new kind of offering like ducks to the village pond. The book sold phenomenally well, so much so that an entire series of books followed, eight more Jackie Holmes adventures, and several spin offs.
More importantly, having seen that the market was far greater than anyone heretofore had imagined and that gays were enthusiastically receptive to books that portrayed them in a positive light, Earl and Greenleaf published over the next several years a variety of gay material in just about every genre imaginable: mysteries and histories and comedies and sci-fi and adventure and cowboys and sailors, the whole gamut of gay experience—no, make that human experience. Many of those books were written by me or by writers that I tutored, and for whom I became a de facto agent. It was joked in the industry that the gay publishing revolution had mostly happened around my kitchen table, and there was more than a little truth in the statement. At one time, some seventy five to eighty percent of the gay novels being published were written by me or by my protégés.
In short order, other publishers became aware that Greenleaf was making lots of money catering to this "new" market, and they soon enough jumped on the bandwagon, and a revolution in gay publishing was truly and irrevocably launched. In the ten years leading up to 1966, when The Why Not appeared, there were only a few dozen genuinely gay novels published. In the decade that followed, there were thousands, some say as many as ten thousand. A revolution indeed. And many historians believe that it was this explosion of gay publishing that first led to a sense of community among gays, and so was a major contribution to the larger social revolution that followed.
So, yes, I can look back with I think justifiable pride in having played a part, if a minor one, in opening doors to gay writers in particular and breaking down barriers in expression for writers in general. The freedom mainstream writers enjoy today springs directly from that publishing revolution of ours. It would be dishonest of me to pretend that I do not take some gratification from that fact.
On the other hand, the C.A.M.P. books and the scores of gay books that came after them were, on balance, only a small part of my total output. At the time I wrote them, I was just starting out on what has proven to be a far longer and more felicitous career than I would have imagined then.
I have written in all somewhere close to one hundred and fifty books (I stopped counting long ago), and many short pieces as well, under a variety of pen names. From 1970 until just the last couple of years, none of them were gay oriented, though I now find myself turning back to those roots and enjoying rediscovering them.
So, how does one neatly summarize that sort of checkered career? Really, I think I had it right to begin with, and I'm going to stick with that:
Victor J. Banis is a writer.
Check out Victor J. Banis titles on the GLBT Bookshelf! Click on the title to go to that page.
Discover more about this fascinating literary icon at his Web site: http://www.vjbanis.com
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