Does Hanya Yanagihara write fanfics?

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Sort of, argues Sam Brooks. And he’s here for that.

I skimmed through the 720 pages of A Little Life before realizing that Hanya Yanagihara was not, in fact, a gay man. Maybe it was the cover image – a man’s face contorted in pain. Perhaps it’s the fact that the book depicts gay friendship in such fine detail and uncomfortable intimacy. Or, honestly, maybe it’s because I couldn’t imagine why someone who isn’t gay would want to write about gay people.

Yanagihara, as you probably know by now, is not a gay man and never has been. She is a 47-year-old heterosexual Hawaiian woman, who has worked as a writer for several New York media publications (at the moment she is at T, the New York Times style supplement.)

I’ve come to think of her as the epitome of a fruit fly, an affectionate but also quite sleazy name for a woman who finds companionship among queer men. In her three novels – The People in the Trees, the aforementioned A Little Life and the recently published To Paradise – she writes almost exclusively about the lives of gay (or coded queer) men, length. It is an aspect that has by turns disconcerted, repelled and fascinated readers.

She addressed it directly in a New York profile earlier this year: “I don’t think there’s anything inherent to gay-male identity that interests me.” I don’t know how compelling that is; writers generally don’t write novels about subjects that don’t interest them. More convincingly, in a meeting with Kirkus Reviews, she said men have such a small emotional palette to work with. “I think they still have a really hard time naming what it’s like to be scared or vulnerable or frightened, and it’s not just that they can’t talk about it – it’s that they sometimes can’t even identify what they’re feeling.”

His most fascinating answer to this question, and the one that veers ever closer to law, is in a meeting with the Guardian: “I have the right to write about anything I want. The only thing a reader can judge is whether I did so well.

See anything these covers have in common?

And judge they have: A Little Life, a phenom upon its release in 2015, has vocal fans and vocal detractors (and probably a larger contingent of people who think it’s fine). Nonetheless, it won Yanagihara a host of accolades and has since been adapted into an opera, a form deeply appropriate for the length, breadth and depth of the source material.

To Paradise, a collection of three slightly connected Washington Square riffs from Henry James (the first being the most explicit) seems to have had a cooler response, as you’d expect from a Henry James riff in 2022 The People in the Trees, the first and least of his works, is an aggressively harrowing novel told from the perspective of a pedophile scientist investigating a tribe in the South Pacific, and would likely be torn apart by the extremely online of 2022.

I’m not particularly interested in the ethics or morals of Yanagihara’s writings on homosexuals, to be honest. I firmly believe that any writer can write anything, but the writer must also understand that an audience can react as they wish. As a gay man, I find his work authentic. The next gay man you talk to might find this offensive. The next one probably hasn’t heard of her. There is no criterion of authenticity.

Anyway, writing fiction isn’t about taking a selfie, it’s about taking a photo. Yanagihara points this out in the same New Yorker interview: “If I put on my dime store psychologist hat, I’d say more that it’s easier, freer, and safer to write about your own feelings as a stranger when masked in identity. of another kind of stranger.

It’s first nature for a reader in 2022 to assume that a writer’s ability to write a character comes down to certain personal attributes rather than a level of craftsmanship, technique, and observation that allows them to capture the essence of someone else’s life. Yet the way you frame a subject says as much about you and how you live in the world as the subject of your choice. So it’s Yanagihara’s goal that interests me, and why she points to it the way she does.

A Yanagihara novel is like the person at the party who tells you everything when you first meet – either you are drawn to his charm, his ability to tell a story, his ability to see into you, or he fails all of those checks. and you leave. (If you watched A Little Life, that dumbbell with a crying man on the front, and were expecting a fun adventure, I’m worried about your observational skills.)

Yanagihara’s novels are dense, slow and heavy stuff. The worlds are intricately constructed, and the relationships within move not by chapters, but by complete acts. They are lush and overly detailed.

What strikes me most about Yanagihara’s work is that it doesn’t read like the kind of award-winning, award-winning literary fiction that is scrutinized by fanciful publications.

No, it reads like fanfiction.

Six writers arranged in front of Man Booker Prize posters.  Photo taken at a candid moment, the smaller woman in the middle (Hanya Yanagihara) takes a selfie.
Booker 2015 finalists photocall – Yanagihara was up for A Little Life (Photo: David Levenson via Getty Images)

Before we unpack this, it’s important to make one point: distinguishing fanfiction from literary fiction says nothing about fanfiction, and says it all about the prevailing perception of fanfiction as being less important or of lower quality than literary fiction. Terrible literary fiction exists, terrible fanfiction exists. Great fanfiction exists, great fiction exists.

It is generally understood that most fanfiction writers are women (up to 80% for popular fanfic site AO3). A significant proportion of fanfiction is slash fiction, a genre that focuses on romantic or sexual relationships between people of the same sex – and a significant proportion of this genre focuses on gay men.

(Also worth noting is Yanagihara’s gendered approach to the length and detail of her books. A Franzen novel could kill a man, and not just out of boredom.)

On slashfic, Katherine Dee of The New Spectator writes: “Surveys of slashfic also show that it is an inherently feminine expression of eroticism. Slash emphasizes themes such as nurturing, (often telepathic) bonding, and intense lifelong commitment. Sound familiar, Yanagihara readers?

A Little Life is essentially a gender-reversed version of Mary McCarthy’s 1963 novel The Group, reimagined as heartwarming fiction, a popular genre of fanfiction where one character cares for another suffering from trauma, as in the last section of To Paradise. . Hell, the first section of To Paradise is literally a version of James’ Washington Square set in an alternate version of New York City history where same-sex marriage is not just allowed, but common.

However, it’s not just his subject matter that aligns Yanagihara with the fanfiction genre.

His most fanfiction-like work, aside from the rather crude labels applied above, is his first work, The People in the Trees. The novel was inspired by the truly gruesome story of David Carleton Gajdusek, a revered scientist and scholar who was later charged and imprisoned for child molestation.

Stylistically, this is the boldest and most difficult of his novels – a high bar to break. The novel is largely made up of the fictional memoirs of Dr. Abraham Norton Perina, written while he is in prison, and the bulk of these memoirs involve an anthropological study in which he is involved, investigating the fictional U’ivu tribe. .

These memoirs are framed by notes and edits by Dr. Ronald Kubonera, a protege of Perina, and his unsolicited footnotes form the compelling tension of the novel. He doesn’t believe that Perina committed the crimes for which he was convicted and refuses to let the bad doctor include things in his memoirs that might incriminate him further.

Being in the mind of Perina, who is at bare minimum a sociopathic misanthrope, but more realistically a complete freak, is an unpleasant moment. It is only Yanagihara’s craftsmanship and quasi-fetishistic interest in the development of the fictional tribe and the island of U’ivu that keep us reading. I could read this sentence a thousand times:

“Beautiful people make even those of us who consider ourselves proudly insensitive to the appearance of others speechless with awe, fear, and joy, and struck by a deep, unnerving awareness of our inadequacy, of the fact that nothing , neither intelligence, nor education, nor money, can usurp or dominate or deny beauty.

Another aspect that this, and all of its work, shares with fanfiction is a contract of understanding: I give you this, but under no circumstances should you continue reading. You signed up for this, for those multi-page long descriptions, the phrase every 100 pages that hits you right in the gut, the languid walk to a conclusion. You can leave at any time. He’s the party-energy overtalker, coming out strong.

What distinguishes Yanagihara’s fetishistic lens is that each book is a world of its own creation, containing characters of its own design. This is because, with the possible exception of the two central characters in The People in the Trees, Yanagihara has a deep love for his characters – the kind of love that is more common in fanfics than in literary fiction. . You write about these characters because something made you love them, rather than creating characters and then making them miserable, like a sociopathic kid playing with toys.

Amid A Little Life’s parades of trauma, it’s easy to forget that they’re highly accomplished, deeply loved characters, constantly throwing fancy parties in opulent, high-walled apartments. She devotes nearly half of the second act of To Paradise to a lush, if sad, party. She creates these people, and she might make them sad, because that’s what the drama dictates, but at least they’re wearing designer clothes.

What makes this most interesting, and even daring, is that Yanagihara achieved real literary success and real success without deviating from the fanfic book. She writes about men who love other men. She puts these men in long, heavy stories about their feelings. She creates worlds that drip with intense and specific detail.

And she doesn’t apologize for anything.

To Paradise, by Hanya Yanagihara (Picador, $38) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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