Creative Writing at The New School

Last night at The New School, Sarah Schulman accepted the 2018 Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Publishing Triangle. We are honored to publish the text of her speech, as delivered at the award ceremony.

Thank you, friends. Trent asked me to speak briefly (well, forget about that) on the state of LGBT literature: where we are and where we are going. So, I am going to share some thoughts.

My focus tonight is to investigate what it means to be a successful writer while Donald Trump is president. 

Now, I grew up in a family where being a smart female was an insurmountable problem and being gay was the ultimate disaster. And like many of you I have long lived in a dual reality, where I can walk into one room and find support, appreciation and intensely productive engagement, and walk into another room and be made to understand right away that I have absolutely no value. I have been praised and rewarded, and I have been discarded and overlooked. It depends on the room. Sexism, of course, is everywhere but even more importantly, point of view is the most strictly enforced element of any work of art accepted for public display by private entities. Within a few minutes of entering a room I can tell who allows themselves to notice lesbian work and who does not because one person says “Sarah you are doing so much” and the next one says “so Sarah, what do you do?” It is this disappearance in plain sight that speaks, in some ways, to the state of our literature.

I started publishing as a grassroots journalist and writing plays in 1979. I wrote for queer underground and subcultural newspapers: WomanNews, Gay Community News, The New York Native. My first novel was published in 1984 by a lesbian press out of Tallahassee Florida. My first play was self-produced in a jazz loft on East 7th called University of The Streets. I would have loved to have started at the NY Times, or had my first novel at Grove or Algonquin, or my first play at MCC or The Vineyard, but the hard reality of the time was that if a person had primary lesbian content and made art in which a queer person could recognize themselves authentically, then you were excluded from everything connected to a corporation and the legitimacy of reward that corporate culture grants to itself. The advantage was that I started out writing for the people I was writing about, and they turned out to be very demanding and responsive, and through all the ups and downs it is still that way.

People who are ignored care very deeply when they are represented. Since then I have bounced and bounced from the mainstream to the margins to oblivion and back. Ten years and four books at Dutton, 1 at Avon, ten years where I wrote four books that no one would publish, then they all came out at once, and everyone thought I had a manic episode. For the last few years I have been in academic presses like Duke and University of California from both corporate and public universities, most recently at the scrappy, hardscrabble Feminist Press, that is publishing my next book, Maggie Terry: a novel of murder and intrigue, in the fall and a few years from now a new nonfiction book will come from Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. So in and out, high and low, grassroots and corporate, visible and hidden. While there already was a community of queer writers for me to come out into, that included such luminaries as Jaime Manrique and Jennifer Levin, Bob Gluck and Eileen Myles, many of my queer female peers who were also born in the 1950’s with talent and drive, made the decision to repress or marginalize the lesbian content of their work and point of view so that they could have viable careers. But I couldn’t do that because it was boring. People in struggle are the most fascinating people on earth. They produce new ideas and new formal strategies and transformative visions of social and artistic possibility that are the soul of new ideas in art and culture.

We are living right now in a very sick society, currently in the throes of a national cataclysm, and so, among the other twisted logics of white supremacy, male power, and violent nationalism, we also have this constant false messaging that repetition of what is already known is good writing, and familiarity equals quality, when in fact it is the other way around: the most culturally valuable work is the invitation to question ourselves, how we think, and to vigorously question how we live. Someone once told me that Picasso said “The innovator makes it ugly and the derivator makes it beautiful” – meaning that the struggle to break through to a new place that has never been seen before is classified as “wrong” while watering down those discoveries and innovations until they are entirely palatable is what we are told to strive for. And this applies to LGBT work as well.  

Unfortunately there is absolutely no relationship between quality and reward. I say this as a person who has been rewarded and at other times eliminated. Most art that is rewarded in an unjust society is work that re-enforces that society’s operative values. And when you look at the LGBT work that has been canonized, much of it makes the dominant culture very self-satisfied. Occasionally something or someone that is actually of great value does get rewarded, but usually not because of their real accomplishment, it’s usually because the person or the work also fits the agenda of the gatekeepers’ need to see themselves as liberal or inclusive. It is important that we not be fooled by the allure of acceptance, as much as we all want it and should have it. For, too often the introduction of some queer person of great gifts into the reward system produces tokenism instead of cultural expansion, because that person’s individual success does not represent a paradigm shift, but actually enhances the gatekeepers’ power.

The worst thing we can do to ourselves is to like something because it has official approval. We should always be asking each other what a work that is approved of is actually saying, what it actually means and stands for, and what it actually represents. Beware of LGBT work that is Too Big To Be Questioned. So, even though I sincerely hope that all of us who are creating art in the world that actually matters can become the kind of person who can get heard and seen, if success happens let us not confuse that integration with any illusion of actual superiority, because corporate praise itself is often just a kind of entertainment. The difference between Entertainment and Art is that entertainment tells us what we already know in the ways that we have been taught to think, and art expands how we think and feel and what we come to understand. The Chinese-American novelist Gish Jen once said to me about the straight, white domination of American letters, “We are the center of the culture, but they have the apparatus.”

So how do these parameters express themselves today in the context of a completely corrupt America that is in a putrid state of  long-term and on-going decline, fueled by racism? Obviously we see gay things everywhere in corporate culture. We see trans people on corporate television, we see mini-series about AIDS on corporate television, we see Ellen on corporate television, we see Pulitzer Prizes and MacArthurs and Tony Awards and Oscars going to gay things, some of those things that we actually love. And so it is confusing but necessary to parse how and why some of these gay things re-enforce the power of the already dominant, some are oppositional but still enhance the self-concept of the gatekeepers, and some are relegated to the margins because they would upend or destabilize the self-concept of those with the power of selection. There is a logic to inclusion and exclusion, but it takes some original thought to be able to understand it.

Remember that when the NY Times looks at the brutal murder of unarmed Palestinians in Gaza and calls it a “conflict” or “clash” instead of “a war crime”, that is the same machine that is telling us which are the year’s most notable books. The government that told us that Sadaam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, is the same machine that gives out NEA grants. From the perspective of people struggling for existence, mass murder is not a “conflict” just as corporate rehash of dominant cultural values is not the year’s most notable. But it thinks it is. Our challenge is to resist these false categorizations, which is emotionally very difficult because even if we have given up crass patriotism, we all still cling to the myth of the American dream of meritocracy, of being discovered, and making it – of breaking out, and being the next big thing, these wishes are branding and marketing techniques to keep us from fully refusing the falsity of the American façade.

One of my heroes, Wilhelm Reich, said that while he could easily understand why a starving man steals a loaf of bread, he could never understand why a starving man did NOT steal a loaf of bread. And in America today the reason that writers whose basic rights – both civil and representational – don’t steal that loaf of bread is because they think that doing so might keep them from being Discovered, Breaking Out and Making It. So, the fantasy that we could be one of the tiny, tiny handful who end up well paid becomes justification for our intellectual and artistic servitude to the aesthetics of corporate power. But what made you become a writer in the first place? And we will get back to that.

So here are some structures that I have noticed in the past few years that help me to understand what obstacles LGBT literature is facing in Trump’s Americas. Let's start with the ever important question: Who has the power?  

1. I recently noticed that young white straight women are the current occupants of entry-level power. They are usually not the big bosses, but they are at the front desk of every institution of cultural production. They don’t have enough power to let you in, that belongs to their bosses, but they do have the power to keep you out.

2. A second trend I observed recently is that young editors and critics are more respectful to queer literature if they read an author’s books in college. The legitimizing practice of having a professor assign and enlighten the value of a book stays with the cooperative student and influences their taste and standards for life.  

3. I recently had the opportunity to meet a man who has long been a power player of American publishing. I was delighted with myself getting into his presence, but all that self-congratulatory glee disappeared when he asked me, in all sincerity “Have you ever been published?” Later I had to process this. For thirty of my forty years in publishing, and my 19 books, I have been in places, consistently, where this man looks. I have been in the New York Times Book Review and on the Op-Ed page, I have been in The New Yorker and Harpers, and Publishers Weekly year after year. What I realized is that even when we appear in the places that these people with real power value, when a quick glance reveals that the article or book review is about something lesbian or AIDS, the fact is, they turn the page. They just turn the page. This is an obstacle to LGBT literature. But it is also a lesson. Being among them is not enough.

4. Some of you are aware, and Alissa Solomon wrote a piece about this in American Theater, that there has been a trend of three white gay male classic plays revived on Broadway this season. Why? This is the year that fascists took over the White House, the year that people from seven Muslim countries were denied visas, that immigrants are being rounded up and deported, that white vigilante violence is on the rise, that police violence is a daily reality, abortion is barely available this year. So when we are told by the media that these plays are important right now, when they are not, I think we need to understand this as an obstacle to LGBT literature.  

Now, this year we saw one of the most significant pieces of American journalism come from our own community. Linda Villarosa wrote two cover stories for the NY Times Magazine: one on the impact of racism on Black motherhood, and one startling work of reporting showing that Black gay men in the US south have higher rates of HIV infection than any country in the world. But while the coverage of Angels In America told us over and over again that this revival is “relevant” and “necessary” without ever telling us exactly why, they never mention that Black gay men in the US south have higher HIV rates than any country in the world. This is an obstacle to LGBT literature. How could they not  reference the reporting of Black gay journalist Steven Thrasher for the Guardian of London on the case of Michael Johnson, the black gay athlete who just served 3 years in prison because of HIV criminalization, one of the scariest trends in global AIDS?  How could the people promoting these works being touted as the representative voices of our communities have not integrated Linda’s articles right on the cover of the Times Magazine into their public discourse? I guess those guys just...turned the page. This is an obstacle to LGBT literature.

So, what’s the good news? The good news is you. That there remains another room to walk into, a parallel yet fragile world of people held together by fragile institutions, who welcome oppositional and visionary voices, like The Publishing Triangle, or the MIX Festival, or Queer Art Mentorship, or Le Petit Versailles, or the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Emerging Writers Retreat, or the Bronx Academy of Art and Dance, or Saints and Sinners in New Orleans, or Cave Canem, or Dixon Place, Snister Wisdom, or The Bureau, or Queer Memoir, or the queer people of color underground of the annual AWP conference, and small presses like Arsenal Pulp and Nightboat and the crucial work of Topside Press in creating audiences for trans writers – these sidebar necessary cultural constructions are where our real literature is born.   

The good news is that the mantle of lesbian and bi-sexual queer women’s literature is being carried on by out young women of color writers, with overtly queer content in their work like Melissa Febos, Myriam Gurba, Reina Gosset and Catherine Hernandez and many others. The good news is that the grassroots, community-based structures, all of which rely on models of mentorship and mutual aid, are still providing new and old artists from the margins with places and spaces in which to develop their voices without being molded into one dimensional parodies of queer lives, easy to contain, consume and dismiss. And even as more and more of us are finding places inside the apparatus, and I hope we all get the rewards and opportunities that we each want to have, yet simultaneously it should be clear to everyone here, that the corruption of our government, the domination of our thinking and our taste and desires by branding and marketing, the endless greed and dehumanization of American media, is not fixed by some queer and/or brown and/or female/nonbinary people getting a slice of the pie. It’s great for them, and they can do some good for others, but it does not signal actual change, the kind created by coalitions and movements and counter cultures, the kind of change created by diverse communities working in tandem. Not by individuals – deserving and otherwise – with special access.

As we make our work, we also have to model behaviors and ways of having personal and social relationships that can facilitate a whole new and completely different way of living, a kind of – to be old-fashioned – liberation way of living.  And you know that for me, as I expressed in my most recent book, Conflict Is Not Abuse, part of liberation means a community ethic to stop shunning, pick up the phone and talk about your differences, get together in person with the people you’re in conflict with instead of enlisting your clique or community or religion or corporate shield or race or nation to obliterate them. Stop being mean to a person or a group because someone you identity with told you to hurt them. Instead, ask the contested person what they think it going on. Why do they think this is happening? And whether that is your friend’s ex-friend, or people excluded by the Muslim ban, hear what the excluded person is experiencing. And we have to stop calling the police as a way to cover up our own unjust anxieties. Because what we have got in America right now is a system that is just cruel, in which the people in power are criminals, and people’s basic needs are ignored, and lives are ruined at whims of political game playing. So, any queer individual making it in that system is not a signifier of actual change. It’s great for that person, which has its own value, but it’s not enough.

And just to close, I want us all to remember that, in the end – what a writer wants more than anything, more than fame, more than money, even more than approval, is to feel deep in their hearts, that they are a good writer. And that someone cares about what they are writing, that it means something to the people at the heart of their work. And you have made me feel that way today. And I am so grateful to you for that feeling. Thank you.


Sarah Schulman is the 2018 recipient of the Publishing Triangle’s Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement, named in honor of the legendary editor of the 1970s and 1980s. She was presented with this prize, which carries an honorarium of $3,000, at the 30th annual Triangle Awards, a ceremony at the New School in New York City on April 26, 2018. Linda Villarosa, the director of the journalism program at the City College of New York and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, presented the award to Schulman.

Schulman is a novelist, nonfiction writer, playwright, screenwriter, and AIDS historian. Among her novels are The Cosmopolitans, The Child, and Rat Bohemia (winner of the 1996 Ferro-Grumley Award for Lesbian Fiction). Her works of nonfiction include Conflict Is Not Abuse (winner of last year’s Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction), The Gentrification of the Mind, and Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences. Schulman’s nineteenth book, the novel Maggie Terry, will be published in September 2018 by the Feminist Press. 

She is on the advisory boards of Jewish Voice for Peace, Research on the Israeli/American Alliance, and Claudia Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute, and she is faculty advisor for Students for Justice in Palestine. Besides her two earlier Publishing Triangle Awards and many other prizes, Schulman has also won a Guggenheim in playwriting, a Fulbright in Judaic studies, and two American Library Association Stonewall Awards. A fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University, she is distinguished professor of the humanities at CUNY/College of Staten Island. She also teaches in such non-degree community-based programs as Queer Art Mentorship and Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices.

About The Author

Founded in Greenwich Village in 1931, Creative Writing at The New School continues to promote, engender, and shape innovative literature.