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.
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