Report by Katie McGinnis:
When contrasted against the commanding power of his work, Edmund White is surprisingly genial in person. Students, faculty and community members were treated to his reading on February 1st in the LBC’s Kendall Cram Room. White read from his famous work City Boy, an autobiographical documentation of the New York gay scene in the 1960s and 70s, and then answered audience questions.
Edmund White has lived an extraordinary life, which needless to say has influenced his writings. Born in Cincinnati, he was raised in Dallas, Texas with virtually no connection to the art scene. He explained that the first published writer he met was in New York when he was thirty, and that before then he had fantastical expectations of writers. He thought them to be sacred, wealthy people who never left their limousines. However, what White proves is that writers are everyday people, with pasts of struggle, hardship, and self-discovery.
Penniless, White moved to Paris, and then to Rome. He returned to America after going broke again by “taking people out to dinner.” After this, he drove a fruit-juice delivery truck to support himself in New York until finding a job with Time Life Books. His first job as a paid writer, he said, was writing three one-thousand page textbooks on history and psychology.
The subject of City Boy is uniquely important to White. He described his first biography, My Lives, as difficult to construct because it required dividing his life into sections and drawing conclusions about choices in his life, which he often found himself unable to make. City Boy is not only an autobiography, but a sketch of a New York that has been forgotten to history. In terms of sexuality, White said, “the 80s were a total step backward.” The freedom allowed during the previous thirty years, when AIDS was nonexistent, religion lax, and society accepting, was gone in a moment.
In the years to come, many of the most outspoken members of the gay scene succumbed to AIDS, allowing a very different crowd—which demanded not just acceptance, but the rights to marriage and adoption—to take the stage. He suggested that the rally we see today for equality of marriage and family is “not always what it used to be like.” City Boy documents this, and also explores the literary fixations of New York in the 60s and 70s – when it was, White says, “a junkyard, with serious artistic aspirations.”
During the Q&A session, the author provided words of wisdom to the new generation of writers sitting before him. He expanded on a statement made during a dinner with students, when he asserted that being a writer means being a failure. White explained that “writing does not fit into normal life” and that one must “make time for it by taking away from other things.” He bravely claimed that when “a writer is born into a family, a family is destroyed.”
White also warned about the uniqueness of our literary generation: more is being produced than is being read. Aside from technological phenomena such as blogs, the tradition of the past—where friends would hurry out to read a book so they could discuss it—has degenerated into our present literary world of numerous genres produced in unreadable amounts. “The world is becoming more fragmented,” White contended, “not specialized.”