Stephen Bottum is the creator of the popular Band of Thebes literary blog. Band of Thebes features some of the most interesting and important voices in the GLBT literature. Stephen graciously took the time to answer questions about the blog, the books he's most looking forward to in the new year and narratives being discussed in literature right now.
What propelled you to create the Band of Thebes blog?
Like mold or syphilis, there’s a chronic, recurring scourge in the world of mainstream books / movies that goes something like this: A finely crafted novel about a Bengali family assimilating in New Jersey is a universal story proving our shared humanity, while a beautifully wrought tale about a man’s attempts to be accepted by his boyfriend’s family is seen as some unbreachable chasm of otherness. Queer books / movies never get enough attention, from the publisher / studio, media, or critics. So my partner Charles relentlessly encouraged me to blog and eventually I agreed that the web was probably just big enough to squeeze in one more site, this one promoting gay talent, past and present.
How would you describe the LGBT narratives being discussed in literature right now?
Make of this what you will, but many of this year’s LGBT books that received the most attention were written by straight authors: Linda Hirshman’s Victory, John Irving’s In One Person, Madeline Miller’s Orange Prize winner Song of Achilles, Carol Rivka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home, and a slew of memoirs by straight family members writing about their lesbian or gay parents or children: John Schwartz’s excellent Oddly Normal, Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction, Marco Roth’s The Scientists, and Zach Wahls’ My Two Moms. Queer authors also examined the dynamics of interacting with straight family in memoirs like Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?, Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, and Carol Anshaw’s bestselling family novel Carry the One. This complex relationship is the heart of Sarah Schulman’s nonfiction Ties that Bind: Familial Homophobia and its Consequences.
What has the Band of Thebes blog taught you about the LGBT community?
Daily, I’m staggered by the breadth of queer lives, individually and collectively. Possibly I already knew that before. One surprise I never could have guessed – and naively would have refused to believe – is the number of queer authors who decline my invitation to participate in Band of Thebes’ annual queer lit poll because they haven’t read any LGBT books that year. Many writers have told me this two or three years running. I don’t see how a fledgling category thrives without the support of its own creators.
What are you reading at the moment?
Preparing for a trip to the Channel Islands, I sped through T.C. Boyle’s so-so When the Killing’s Done and San Miguel. For Christmas, my partner imported from the UK Artemis Cooper’s rousing biography of adventurer Patrick Leigh Fermor, a great hero of mine who at nineteen walked from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in 1933-34.
Has the blog changed the way you read?
My habits were already entrenched, but one unexpected boon is that the site’s diverse readership has the effect of salvaging books I find disappointing. Though I might be let down by flat writing or tedious plotting, it’s helpful to remember that the novel may nonetheless bring joy to readers who just can’t get enough books about British spinsters planning the parish jumble sale, or super friendly ultra endowed firemen, or what have you.
What books are you most looking forward to in 2013?
As far as I know, the best book title of 2013 is Tom Gauld’s You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack. Two badly titled gems are the late David Rakoff’s forthcoming first novel Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish and the second novel, Ten White Geese, from Gerbrand Bakker, whom your readers may know for his IMPAC winner The Twin. I can’t wait for Jonathan Strong’s Hawkweed and Indian Paintbrush, Steven Amsterdam’s What the Family Needed, or Philip Hensher’s Scenes from Early Life based on his husband's childhood. The straight books I’m most anticipating are Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys, Kent Haruf’s Benediction, and Jane Gardam's Last Friends.
How has the blog evolved from when you first started it?
This probably happens to everyone in New York, but people are always coming up to me and saying, “You should be more mean.” It’s true that the blog is guilty of rank boosterism: Yay gay! My hope is that careful readers notice when I merely describe a book rather than praise it, but I admit Band of Thebes would be more helpful if I were blunt. Too often I read books wanting to throttle an author, “You murdered trees to print THIS?” yet somehow in print I merely murmur that the novel is well-intended.
Band of Thebes recently hosted The Best LGBT Books of 2012 where 87 writers chose their favorite books from 2012, were there any books on the list that surprised you?
I was very surprised to see Fifty Shades of Grey chosen as a best queer book, because I’ve understood the romance to the hetero and the writing to be horrible. It was gratifying to see such strong support for Peter Cameron’s splendid novel Coral Glynn and for Lisa Cohen’s awesome triple bio All We Know. Although it got only one mention, Ivan Coyote’s praise for Lidia Yuknovitch’s The Chronology of Water has made it one of the most popular books on the list.
What are three things you cannot live without?
Books, movies, and travel seem to me three sides of the same coin, each showing how other people live. As for specific items, I could not exist as me without my camera, my kayak, and peanut butter cookies.
Why do you think an individual’s sexuality is still such a huge issue in our society?
The generous view would be to credit humans’ insatiable curiosity, ranging from amateur anthropological interest to the idle what-ifs of the road not taken to voyeuristic thrills. More realistically, I think religious intolerance continues to stoke hostility against virtually any sexual variation. One result is that it invites – or insists – straight people sit in judgment of other sexualities.
What is inspiring you most about the LGBT community right now?
These days I find emerging queer communities more inspiring than established LGBT enclaves, be it Frank Mugisha and SMUG in Uganda, or the small band of activists dealt a heartbreaking defeat in Anchorage where voters wouldn’t even pass a simple nondiscrimination ordinance, or students who are coming out at younger and younger ages and demanding their schools keep them safe.
What does being brave mean to you?
I think real bravery always includes an element of facing an unknown undaunted. It’s an essential, impressive trait in those emerging LGBT communities. I wonder if perhaps establishment LGBT people have arranged their lives so they face unknowns less often.
Where can my readers find you online?
BandofThebes.com and Facebook.com/stephen.bottum.