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Palahniuk’s Secret: Does Being Gay Matter?

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The buzz among writers in the Pacific Northwest is Chuck Palahniuk‘s awkward admission to having carried on a long affair with another man.

The best-kept open secret of Portland’s literary scene is history. Last week, Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk made public his 11-year relationship with another man.

The revelation, in a now-deleted “audio blog” on www.chuckpalahniuk.net (a.k.a. “The Cult”) ends a long-running media cat-and-mouse game. Since his electrifying debut novel, Fight Club, became a publishing sensation and celebrated movie in the late ’90s, Palahniuk has maintained a shroud of privacy over his personal life, even while amassing a rabid fan base.

The juggling act survived dozens of stories written about the 41-year-old author. (Over the years, at least two publications have mistakenly reported that he is married to a woman.) Ironically, Palahniuk’s unveiling of his romantic life seems the result of fears that a reporter was about to kick him out of the closet–worries ultimately proved groundless.

Early last week, the author, touring Europe to promote his new novel, Diary, phoned in one of his frequent MP3 reports to The Cult. The post, which was soon deleted, was in response to an upcoming article in Entertainment Weekly. According to subsequent online chatter, Palahniuk believed EW staff writer Karen Valby intended to out him — so he tried beating the magazine to the punch. He also seems to have talked a little trash about Valby, stirring fans’ ire.

In fact, the five-page feature story in the Sept. 26 issue of EW story makes no mention of Palahniuk’s relationship. Valby does describe the author’s amusement at erroneous reports regarding his spouse. “Palahniuk has no wife,” Valby writes, “and declines to discuss his personal life on the record….”

I don’t think anyone would argue that his apparent homosexuality will impact his ability to write or reception of his books. Either one is a fan of his work, including the highly successful novel Fight Club, or one isn’t. But, it seems to me the revelation could cause readers and critics to look at Palahniuk’s writing in a new way. His career-making book was the impetus for a cult of masculinity. Throughout the country men have founded clubs where they engage in unregulated fisticuffs, in imitation of the plot of Fight Club. Some fans scar themselves before attending Palahniuk readings. Part of his appeal to women admirers may be a belief he epitomizes a kind of cool machismo. Will the heterosexual men who have admired Palahniuk, or at least his protagonist in Fight Club, feel differently knowing the book is the work of a gay novelist? Will women doubt his ability to relate to male-female relationships? Will devotees consider his willingness to let readers think he was married deceptive? Time will tell.

However, I am sure Palahniuk’s late admission will cast him into subgroup status to critics. That happens to just about all identifiably minority writers and to gay writers who are out. (In bookstores, I sometimes shift books that are ghettoized into black, Native American, Asian or Hispanic literature sections to their actual genres for that reason.) The judgments made about him in regard to his new status as a minority writer may not be at all comfortable to Palahniuk, who has attempted to mold his public identity as a quirky individualist.

The last time a significant writer was ‘outed,’ he was already dead. I am not sure whether the posthumous revelation that John Cheever was bisexual harmed his reputation as a writer. However, it did change the way people looked at his work. For a while, critics were more interested in probing Cheever’s controversial life, in which he pursued all kinds of sexual liasons with abandon, than they were in critiquing his novels and short story collections. If Palahniuk is considered important enough, the reaction to his self-outing may be similar.

Note: Read more about issues impacting minorities at Silver Rights.

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About The Diva

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Actually, I think it was Cheever’s children, rather than his critics, who seemed bent on getting as much mileage as possible over the fact that Dad was gay.

  • Eric Olsen

    MD, I think you’re right to look at the content of his writing, and the way people have responded to it as the source of potential controversy. I don’t anyone much cares whether a writer is gay or not unless the content of his/her writing seems in conflict with that, as would appear to be the case here. When ex-punk Bob Mould came out it made a lot of people uncomfortable because of assumptions about punk music, assumptions about his lyrics, etc. The problem in such cases isn’t the gayness per se, it’s the dissonance.

  • http://fando.blogs.com Natalie Davis

    Then, good for Palahniuk. The world needs more stereotype smashers to slap some sense into the narrowminded.

    Gay does not equal “effeminate.” Gay does not mean non-“masculine.” (The redundancy used for a reason.) Some gay men do fight. Some gay men are hyper-macho. And writers who happen to be gay do write about heterosexuals. Hell, we write what we see, and the goddess knows we are surrounded by heterosexism practically everywhere we look.

    If the heterosexist world of literary criticism decides to treat him differently and ghettoize his present and future works, that would tell something about those who would do such a vile thing. And it would be a sad thing for readers.

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    It also further smashes the stereotype that not all gay writers write as beautifully as Oscar Wilde or Marcel Proust. Some of them, like Paluhniak, crank out nothing but shit.

  • Tim

    I think the only person that will be hurt by this is Chuck himself, IF he continues to be schizo about his sexuality. He’s an author, not a movie star, so apart from appearances and his book jacket photo, it’s all meaningless. But he is supposed to be evolved, more thoughtful, and more courageous — he’s an artist, so I hope he just comes out totally and moves on. And I wish him the best.

  • http://fando.blogs.com Natalie Davis

    #4: lol…

    I haven’t read Fight Club because the subject matter is of no interest to me; therefore, I am not qualified to offer my opinion on it or on the writer’s skills or lack thereof. But I’ve heard a number of people opine that the book is pure garbage and that Paluhniak is no literary light.

    #5: Schizo? Lots of people are closeted or semi-closeted, and most are not in the public eye — they’re concerned about being fired from their jobs, disowned by relatives, ostracized by neighbors, condemned by churches, etc. Add the notion of being famous and that increases the danger. Granted, I believe everyone should be out anyway (which is not easy by any means, though, in my experience, far preferable to the hell of the closet), but the world is a tough place.

  • http://www.well.com/~srhodes Steve Rhodes

    A few years ago when I got Choke signed, a woman in front of me said he would be her ideal husband (or something like that). He kind of smiled and said, “I’m taken.”

    He is an author who is treated like a movie or rock star. His fans have an intense bond with him, and a couple of fans created a site he allowed to become his official website.

    The first reading I went to just before Fight Club had maybe 30 people. Since then, they’ve kept growing and growing. At the last one, there were over 200 people. He gave out presents to everyone who asked a question. And the Cacophony Society crashed the reading dressed as Santas (Project Mahem in FC was inspired by the group).

    Fight Club is worth reading.

  • http://fando.blogs.com Natalie Davis

    Why? Because he is a nice guy? Danielle Steel sells a lot of books and enjoys much adulation from fans too.

  • http://grapestain.org Amber Gertzbein

    I’m actually wondering why “Fight Club” is the only book listed on shop Amazon section of this post. Wouldn’t it be more likely that people will be interested in his new books “Diary” and “Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon (Crown Journeys)”?

  • http://macaronies.blogspot.com Mac Diva

    Welcome Amber and Tim. Newbies, I think.

    In regard to Amber’s question, I wrote about a particular angle of Chuck’s life, so I thought Fight Club and Cheever the best citations. I’m not trying to discourage people from reading his other books, just focusing.

    Chuck’s someone I know, so writing about this is touchy. In regard to Natalie’s interest, I will add that Chuck has sought out the limelight very aggressively. Then, when the worm turned, from his perspective, he became angry about not being able to control the image he had created. That happens to a lot of public figures. He seems to be accepting the dichotomy, now.

    The ghettoization thing is the flip side of the multicultural approach to marketing, unfortunately. My gripe is not that someone might put Sandra Cisneros’ books in Hispanic literature, but that some bookstores will put ALL her books there, as if she is not a novelist and short story writer anyone might want to read.

  • http://fando.blogs.com Natalie Davis

    That is exactly my concern too, MD.

  • Eric Olsen

    Ultimately, ghettoization is a function of marketing – everything needs to be compartmentalized in order to be sold. The problem occurs when there is dissonance between marketing and reality, or when the public, conditioned to marketing, makes decisions for itself.

  • http://fando.blogs.com Natalie Davis

    And unfortunately, that is indeed what we have: dissonance with reality; marketers deciding how things are categorized for the sheeplike masses. How I hate marketing and demographics.

  • chris gullo

    The comparison to make is not Cheever, but Bret Easton Ellis, who was inadvertantly outed during a documentary about him. (While being filmed, Candace Bushnell asks Ellis if he’s ever had sex with a woman at all. We can safely assume she isn’t under the impression that he might be a straight virgin.) It wasn’t commented upon that much in the press, and I don’t think he made any official statement about it. But since Ellis is not only still alive but is an American male author in his thirties who deals with postmodern alienation in a gothic, edgy sort of style, I’d have thought the parallel would have been obvious. The sad truth, I think, is that at this particular point in their successful careers, neither Palahniuk’s nor Ellis’ homosexuality matters much, BUT they would not have the sort of success they currently have if they’d been out from the get-go. “Less Than Zero” and “Fight Club” could not have had the cultural impact that they did if they’d been novels by “gay writers.” The closet doesn’t seem like the answer though…

  • http://macaronies.blogspot.com Mac Diva

    Wow! Bushnell does not take prisoners. Bret is someone I know tried to create the impression of urbane man of the world who definitely does women. This definitely will have people reinterpreting American Psycho.

  • Ed

    I think it’s ridiculous to blame Valby for this. The article that she wrote about Palahniuk mentioned nothing about being gay. It said he was private, and that he wanted to keep people guessing. The only person who outed himself was Chuck Palahniuk. His comments about Valby’s personal life were not only mean-spirited but completely inappropriate. Nice to know that we mature in our 40s.

    The thing that makes me the angriest are the immature, and frankly disgusting death threats that were hurled in Valby’s direction. Grow the heck up people. He’s a writer, not a god.

  • SFC SKI

    It is always a shame if a writer’s talent is somehow diminished by anything other than the works as written.

    I am no fan of Plahniuk, I think Fight Club was his best work but he has gotten steadily less readable, but personal life shoould never be the issue of when considering a piece’s merit.

  • http://none.com Bob A. Booey

    I never saw this one until now, but this was a good discussion. Nice work, MacDiva and everyone who commented.

    I think the “schizoid” resolution of Fight Club, with the two selves that can’t be integrated — the one who engages the world at night in a way the “normal” self can’t imagine — and the unusual relationship with the woman in the movie might be interpreted in interesting ways now. But then I’ve never read the book, only seen the movie. I’ve always thought that one of the interesting insights in the movie was the eroticization of male violence (very evident on many levels to any viewer) and the frustration of masculine identity in an emasculating culture. I’m sure some critic’s already written a piece re-interpreting Fight Club through a queer studies angle — if anyone finds something like that, post a link or a citation.

    I didn’t know Bob Mould was gay.

    That is all.

  • http://www.ehrensteinland.com David Ehrenstein

    You’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to recognize the intense homoeroticism of Palahniuk’s writings and relaize that 1 + 1 = 2. But that’s the way straights are. They love to play at being “shocked” by the “sudden revelation” of a “closely guarded secret” and claim that 1 + 1 = “guards his privacy.”

    In the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, “Oh Prunella!”

    The same goes for Bob Mould and the punk scene. In fact the closet is precisely what killed Darby Crash.

  • Jake

    I found out Chucky P. was gay after i read two of his novels, and to tell you the truth i still look at him the same way, he is a great novelist. why does it matter. gay or straight he still is one heck of a writer.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Good lord, who cares if he’s gay. Fight Club would still be one of the most homoerotic novels ever written if the author was a woman. Truman Capote was gay. Has that hurt his reputation as a writer in any way? Gore Vidal still is gay (my Mom used to date him – she says he was a fabulous dancer). Has that hurt sales of his books even one tiny bit? While some people may become uncomfortable with huge amounts of gay sex in a novel, no one at all cares about the novelist’s own sexual preferences.

    Dave

  • Katelyn

    I honestly don’t care whether or not he is gay-he’s a tremendous writer!!! Just as David Sedaris is one of my favorite authors, an author’s sexual preferance does NOT interfer with the creativ process.

  • Jack’s rage

    This is to whoever said Fight Club was “shit”
    If you didn’t like Fight Club, the book or the movie, or any other Chuck palahnuik novels than you are probably over the age of thirty or thirty-five. There is a generation gap. If you were raised in the past thirty years than you will usually connect to the social overtones of his books.
    He also has a style all his own that can be compared, but nobody writes in his style and structure, which can make somebody that reads John Grisham and Ann Rice novels uncomfortable due to his style and structure that they are not accustomed to.

  • Jack’s rage

    I almost forgot.
    I’ve read almost all his books, including non-fiction.
    He gives personal accounts of relationships he’s had with women.
    I know that doesn’t make him straight, but he might be bi sexual.
    That’s not really the point any way. The point is that I agree that being gay doesnt really matter especially in fiction in which he goes deep into the minds of his characters.
    each one is different. Every book an author prints has a part of them in it somewhere, but it’s not as if every character in Chuck’s books are walking round talking about how gay they are. Therefore, I don’t believe this changes anything for his fans like myself.

  • http://www.cerulean.blog.com/ Cerulean

    This development makes a lot of sense to me. I found Chuck P.’s books to be unnecessarily brutal and not really all that great. If all that was a coverup (and I believe it was) for denied homosexuality, then it makes sense. Ernest Hemingway was probably the same.

    Beyond the issue of homosexuality, I think that a lot of things male writers do, either in life or in their work, are to compensate for having such an “effete” profession. I don’t think writing is “effete” if done properly I think that they do. When you see a lot of unnecessary brutality or swaggering or holding forth, there is a lack of confidence beneath it. And yes, I haven’t often seen a lot of geniune talent coexisting with this behavior. The hype that surrounds hypermasculine bullshit usually comes from other insecure male writers and reviewers all creating a buzz.

    Now, does anyone want to start on Norman Mailer?

  • Jack’s rage

    a

  • Jack’s rage

    Sorry about typing the letter a one time, but I just write a response (the same one I’m about to write again.) and the figgin page wouldn’t open.
    Anyway, The idea that Chuck Palahniuk wrote Fight Club as a way of compensating is a load of shit.
    Chuck went on a camping trip with his buddies, and the people next to their camp site were really drunk and playing loud music. Chuck went over there to ask them to quiet down and one of the drunk college kids punched him in the face. Chuck’s friends saw what was happening and started fighting when the other drunk kids got involved. When Chuck went back to work with a few cuts and bruises people treated him differently. They eiter looked at him judgementally or tried there hardest not to look directly at him. This inspired him to write what is now chapter six of his novel Fight Club.
    If all you do is pay atention to the violence, then you are missing the story. You miss all the comments made about our society today and, ironically, the way males deal with insecurities and feelings of worthlessness.
    Also, Chuck has written many books besides Fight Club that deal with other issues, so may be you should read those before you go psycho-analyzing him.
    Try to remember that it is FICTION! He writes in characters and shows things from their perspective.
    Just because an actor is gay doesn’t mean he plays every character gay.

  • Travis

    A man can be a man, even if he loves another man…and YES, people will view him differently than before, because that’s just the way the world is. I know many an American man that will step away from the Fight Club book in as manly a manner as possible, shrilly screaming, “EW! WRITTEN BE A GAY MAN!” just to preserve his masculinity and pride.

    Anyway, I would really like Chuck Palahniuk to write fiction through the eyes of a homosexual man (or woman, for that matter) – he doesn’t have to be flamboyant, and she doesn’t have to be butch, in that stereotypical way, just -gay-. It would be interesting to compare it to his other works, considering that Chuck’s already written through the eyes of a straight man and a straight woman.

  • http://crazyjaneski.typepad.com Jaime Nichols

    I’m 35, and I think Chuck Palahniuk’s novels are about as good as having an anvil dropped on your head every couple of pages, whether he’s gay or not.

    I agree with Eric, though – the rub here lies in the dissonance, and actually, I think this little bit of dissonance does make his novels marginally more interesting… but only marginally.

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    i’m late to this, but i must say Chuck Palhuniuk is one of very, very VERY few novelists whose work i will buy the second it becomes availabile, regardless of the topic.

    Same goes for his non-fiction essay collection and the portland book, too. i can lose myself in that fella’s style, is the truth of it all, although it did get a bit repetitive after a while. pretty soon a fella realises all his books tell the same damn story. diary seemed to rectify that somewhat, and his latest, the one about the actors, appears to be a step further.

    but i haven’t found it yet, unfortunately. i dunno if its out yet, even.

    ha. a pun, is what.

  • Lost in Space

    I don’t believe in “outing” people, as I firmly believe that being gay is something that an individual needs to accept and deal with in his own time. However (and I am a gay man), last night I watched CP’s documentary (“Postcards from the Future”), and was a little disturbed by what I saw. This is obviously a man who enjoys being in the limelight and encourages it… he frequently told budding writers in the doc to “write what they know.” He also spoke about the media teaching people how to think (e.g., “Britney Spears is beautiful”). There’s also an account by him about discovering masturbation as a kid and deciding “he’d be able to make some money out of it.” I’m beginning to see that this is a guy who is packaging himself to be a star, rather than writing about what he knows, who he is or what he’s experienced in his life. I can certainly understand his concerns about being “ghetto-ized,” but how much of that is in order to continue to collect money and fans than being true to himself in his writing or in the public eye? Come on… how could someone have an affair with another man for 11 years, keep it a secret, and then tell others to “write what they know” or feel? The fact that he became so angry (and then actually DELETED IT later) at being outed by EW’s interviewer shows how much the gay side of his life is an issue to him.

    Is CP a good writer? Yes! Is he “compensating?” YES… if you can’t see the obvious in “Fight Club,” read “Guts…” if this isn’t an account of Catholic guilt re: anal sex, I don’t know what would be.

    I’m beginning to feel that the cult of C.P. and J.P. Leroy have a lot in common… they’re both a nicely packaged hoax to make as much money off the public as they can.

  • Juboq Hang

    It matters. It does define who you are, and what you keep hidden from everyone else if you choose to hide it. Obviously CP thinks that he’s being outed is reason enough to be a dick, but Fight Club shows what his mind is capable of, and that ain’t pretty.

  • Richard Turner

    Dude, Chuck Palahniuk is a gifted novelist no matter what his sexual preference is. I’m a 40 year old hard core tough straight man. Fight Club is a great story and is more than just fighting. Being a disabled military veteran I understand mental illness. You Rock Chuck!

  • narodnikkki

    knowing of his being gay only made me admire and respect him more. i am a straight guy btw.

  • quinny1983

    Knew this guy was gay when I read the book review for Pygmy. Not surprising.

  • Sam

    Everyone seems to be commenting on his more popular books like Fight Club and Choke. Invisible Monsters is my favorite book by him, and it is populated by gay and trans characters- I won’t give anything else away, but it is a very queer book.

    Natalie Davis is competely right. Gay does in no way mean “effeminate.” Check out the video for the Village People’s “Macho Man” if you don’t believe me.

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