The question may sound strange, but not necessarily for good reasons. Despite the fact that LGBT people of all genders and races are poorer and earn less than their straight counterparts, the lasting association of homosexuality—especially male homosexuality—with sophistication, cultural capital, and general affluence has made this particular linkage seem unpromising. But even beyond the demographic facts, the literary question ought to resonate more than it does.
To a significant degree canonical gay literature is a literature of class. Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis is addressed to the consummate spoiled rich kid Lord Alfred Douglas, but its best-known line is about the rent boys Wilde and Douglas frequented together: it was “like feasting with panthers,” Wilde famously wrote. “The danger was half the excitement.” A page later erotic thrill becomes proud defiance: “I don’t feel at all ashamed at having known them; they were intensely interesting”—this despite the fact that in a letter written at about the same time, Wilde avowed a “poignant abasement of shame for my friendships.” And at his trial, he had defended those relationships as motivated by altruism and intellectual mentorship.
It’s not clear that any of these affects—shame, class contempt, desire, altruism, interest—trumps any of the others. One of the values of that gay canon is precisely the overtness with which those energies are mingled—and the persistence of certain recognizable features of gay male life justfies talking about something as fusty-sounding as “gay literature” even in our supposedly post-identitarian moment: recent novels about gay men’s relationships share a lot more of Wilde’s affective palate, and his class imagination, than you’d expect. That canon’s frankness is especially worth recalling in this long moment of gay normalization, in which queer sexualities of all stripes are being extended a nominal and often substantive tolerance on condition that their experiential features not be thought about too deeply.
One frame for thinking about that experience—and how it has been tidied up in recent years—is offered by Bruce Robbin’s Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State (2007). Robbins identifies a key player in upward mobility narratives—a donor figure whose potentially sexual attraction to the protagonist is barred for various reasons—sexuality, age, marital status—from taking the form of reproductive marriage, and so “romantic passion … [is channeled] into [a] cooler, more collective sort of feeling, feeling diluted by an uncontrollable democratic reference to other scenes and other people.” For Robbins this figure emblematizes a recognition of structural inequality and a will toward a downward redistribution of resources, and so is a kind of literary rehearsal for the welfare state.
The list of donors in Robbins’ book includes Dickens’s Miss Havisham and Demme’s Hannibal Lecter, along with all the duchesses and countesses who sponsor penniless young men in Balzac’s novels; perhaps the most representative member of the tribe is Balzac’s homosexual master criminal Vautrin. Robbins doesn’t put it this way, but his analysis suggests that there’s something queer about the welfare state. Balzac of course wasn’t writing in a moment that had a large and recognized gay culture, and certainly was not writing from such a culture. But since I read Robbins’s book I’ve been thinking about how his narrative schema might be inflected by the presence of literature that is written from such locations. For about two centuries gayness has been both a recognizable social identity and a disqualified one; the latter condition is by some metrics a fading one, at least in this time and place—so much so that some people are talking about the twilight of gay identity. Whether or not we’re quite there yet, this is clearly a moment in which gayness seems poised, as Gayle Rubin memorably put it, to cross the “erotic DMZ” that separates “good” from “scary” sexual subjectivities.
It seems a propitious moment to think about how that transition might change gayness’s relation to structural inequality. The cross-class encounters that form the backbone of Robbins’s book have, after all, been the narrative material for a major strand of gay male literary tradition, from E.M. Forster’s fantasy marriage between a game-keeper and a downwardly mobile stockbroker in Maurice to James Baldwin’s string of marginally employed Southern European and African American gay men loved by white American men (think, most iconically, of Giovanni in his squalid room) to Dennis Cooper’s aging hipsters obsessed with extravagantly vulnerable street kids. John Rechy, David Wojnarowicz, and many others take up the lives of such street kids as their primary narrative material. And if we include Burroughs and Gide and Genet and Bowles the vector of desire crosses the international division of labor, as Mexico and North Africa become sites of sexual permission premised on sex work. These are familiar stories, but the case they make for an understanding of gay literature as a literature of class is consistently underestimated.
This literary tradition, with all its baggage, haunts a current spate of fictional writing about and sometimes by gay men that tackles questions of structural inequality. I’ll speak briefly about two U.S. examples and one French one. Despite their divergent emphases, they share a tendency to cordon off sexuality as an analytical category from the poverty they are all centrally about. We might understand this as a refusal to allow gay sexuality to contaminate the topic of class, or as an attempt to protect gay sexuality from any imbrication in larger structures of inequality. Either way, the result is that gay desire is rendered at once more innocent and less interesting than it might be, while the issue of structural poverty remains on a remote and changeless horizon. Sex and poverty become two things the novels can’t narratively bridge.
The best known of these texts is Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, published in 2015 and shortlisted for the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize. It follows four male friends, recent graduates of an unnamed elite Eastern college, in a historically indeterminate New York City. One of the men, Jude St. Francis, emerges as the central character. Although we see him become a powerful attorney, the novel gradually reveals a lurid backstory of orphanhood, homelessness, forced sex work, and serial abuse at the hands of a diabolically sadistic doctor and several priests—a flyover state trail of tears from which Jude is rescued only by admission to his Harvardish undergraduate institution, which leads to fabulous wealth and a mostly sexless but loving relationship with his best friend.
In interviews Yanagihara has acknowledged the book’s unreality—she calls it “exaggerated” and “fairy-tale-like”—without going on to specify what logic governs the world she has created. But there does seem to be a logic, and it links sex and poverty. The twinned unrealities of the novel are its deletion of anything resembling a gay culture on the one hand and its geographically configured class racism on the other. Along with AIDS and homophobia, the novel quietly disappears gay friendship, bars, literature, politics or pleasurable sex—despite the fact that three of Yanagihara’s men end up living what in our world are recognizable as gay lives. This determined erasure of gayness as a felt social experience is nowhere more visible than in the matter of sex: Yanagihara’s formula for any physical intimacy between men is a series of variations on the phrase “they had sex”—an opaque signifier that here covers everything from pedophilic gang rape to high-thread-count marital coupling.
Meanwhile A Little Life imagines poverty as a geographically quarantined zone, a kind of District 12 comprising all of the U.S. outside of Manhattan, characterized by sheer exposure to the endless sadism inflicted by other poor people (when one of Jude’s priest-abusers begins pimping him out, the Texas backwoods afford a thriving market for sex with eleven-year-old boys: there is always a willing john, and sometimes a group of them, ready at whatever Motel 6 Brother Luke and Jude roll into). In its distorted fashion, the novel registers our national situation of obscene inequality. But it paints that inequality in such Gothicized terms that there’s no possibility of inquiring into its origins or any reparative strategy; and it meanwhile provides an image of a gay lifeworld so privatized as to have evaporated even from the consciousness of what appear to be gay men.
The novels I’m talking about today form a kind of blurb cartel: Yanagihara’s book was reviewed warmly by Garth Greenwell (he claimed improbably that A Little Life might be the “great gay novel”) and she in turn praised his first novel, 2016’s What Belongs to You, as a meditation on “the impossibility of salvation.” Greenwell’s nameless narrator is an American living and teaching in Sofia who becomes obsessed by a Bulgarian named Mitko whom he meets in a cruisy men’s room and subsequently pays for sex over several months. Their relationship devolves into mistrust, threats of blackmail and finally outright begging, and we last see Mitko hungry and homeless as he stumbles out of the narrator’s apartment clutching a carton of yogurt he has managed to cadge and onto the streets of what suddenly appears to the narrator as “a dying country.” The elegantly constructed novel ends with as the narrator “lower[s] my face into my hands”—presumably with shame at his inability to save Mitko from his geopolitically ordained fate.
Two cases of “impossible salvation,” then: the spiritual devastation of the first world traveler, and the material perdition of the second- or third-world hustler. The book’s plot reprises that of Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, which similarly narrates the encounter of an American traveler with an economically precarious European (in Baldwin’s novel it can be hard to tell whether David deserts his lover out of fear of being forced out of the closet or because Giovanni, in losing his bartending job, has become an unbearable financial burden). But where Baldwin’s narrator is left broken by his complicity in his lover’s death, Greenwell mitigates his narrator’s non-salvation in the form of a monogamous relationship with a Portuguese man referred to only as “R.” Beyond his nationality, we know little about R. beyond the fact that he met our narrator while visiting Sofia, and so apparently has the disposable income to allow for tourism—a fact that presumably makes him a more suitable mate.
In fact, all of the narrator’s family members and friends from home are represented with initials. This peculiar representational choice was singled out by the novelist Adam Mars-Jones in a review for the London Review of Books. Noting the novel’s autobiographical trappings—Greenwell taught in Bulgaria, and several other details match—Mars-Jones observes that “it begins to look as if Mitko is given a full first name … not because he’s the most important person in the book but because as a Bulgarian prostitute he doesn’t have enough status to earn anonymity.” In the novel’s mapping of the world, a geopolitically conditioned class difference trumps sexuality: the use of initials, in being reserved for Americans and their significant others, assimilates “R” not to the man who was his lovers’ previous lover, but to the first world community for whom that previous lover is at best an unfortunate anecdote. A shared sexuality conjures no sodality that might straddle the barrier between wealth and poverty.
What Belongs to You, despite its searching inhabitation of the narrator’s longing, thus manages to establish a certain cordon sanitaire around first world homosexuality that is also a real incuriosity about its workings: the details of sex with Mitko are hinted at (if tastefully), but we find out nothing about the narrator’s erotic life with R. Indeed, it almost seems impolite to wonder about it—the coupling seems protected by the barrier of silence that surrounds all marriages, presumed happy until proven otherwise. And this incuriosity appears to demand a parallel incuriosity about the life chances of the novel’s poor; for all we don’t learn about Mitko’s fate, we know he’s not going to be the narrator’s problem.
Baldwin’s novel, by contrast, made clear that part of what David desires in Giovanni is his poverty, and insisted that that desire involved David in a binding—if intolerable—relation of responsibility. Baldwin’s novel certainly traded in a pathologizing vision of homosexuality, but that vision also enabled a view of the pathology of structural poverty. “That sordid little gangster has wrecked your life,” David’s erstwhile fiancée Hella observes to him at the novel’s end. We can dissent from her class hauteur and still recognize that she has nailed the plot’s essence: this is a narrative world in which gay desire leads to an encounter with reality that really can wreck your life. You might say Baldwin’s novel had the courage of its class fetishism.
Shortly after the appearance of his novel, Greenwell wrote a thoughtful New Yorker review of the first novel by Édouard Louis, published this year in English translation as The End of Eddy. (In addition to an interest in class’s intersection with sexuality, Greenwell and Louis share an American publisher in Farrar, Straus and Giroux, at the tony end of the market in literary fiction.) The End of Eddy again stages an encounter between an impoverished gay outsider and an educated metropolitan, with the difference that in this case they are the same person. The narrator of this autobiographical novel recounts his childhood growing up gay and poor in the northern French provinces, where he is brutally bullied by a group of classmates and regarded with contempt or incomprehension by everyone else, including his embittered mother and his violent, alcoholic father. A kind of deliverance arrives in the form of admission to a competitive high school in far-enough-away Amiens.
The book, published in 2014 in France, has been a runaway success in part because of Louis’ precocity (he was 22 when the book appeared) and in part because of its topicality: in addition to Eddy’s story, the novel examines the class habitus that has led his parents and their acquaintances to move from the leftism traditional to their region and class to ardent support for Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Class habitus isn’t my importation: Louis is a graduate of the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences and editor of a collection on the work of Pierre Bourdieu; The End of Eddy is studded with citations of Bourdieu’s work and with the stylistic features of his writing—most overtly the setting off of socially marked utterance in italics.
In fact, there is almost no dialogue properly speaking in The End of Eddy: all utterance in the novel is italicized, and thus marked as typical and typifying. The story is almost devoid of discreet scenes, and the narrative temporality tends to the iterative. Everything that happens, we are assured, happens many times; everything that is said is said many times. In a more traditional novelistic universe, quoted language might have the singularity of declaration, argument, or conversation. Here, every speech act is an example of how people like this speak:
I came to understand that many different modes of discourse intersected in my mother and spoke through her, that she was constantly torn between her shame at not having finished school and her pride that even so, as she would say, she’d made it through and had a bunch of beautiful kids, and that these two modes of discourse existed only in relation to each other.
[My mother] spoke to me a lot, in long monologues … My father couldn’t stand it anymore Give it a rest you silly cow, don’t you ever shut up? She’d drone on, just like all the other women to be found in the village center, to the point that a person might have thought there was some kind of contagious disease they had all caught from each other.
Bourdieu traces this type of “ambiguous citation” to novelistic tradition, specifically Flaubert. In Madame Bovary, where the device is most insistently used, the effect is nearly paranoiac, as if Flaubert’s war on cliché need to insist on typographically quarantining the banality of bourgeois language. Louis’s version reads as equally phobic, with the difference that he is working to dissociate his language not from his class confrères but from the class from which he has ascended: he’s kicking down, not laterally. His family, naturally enough, have objected to this treatment (“He presents us like backwards hicks,” his mother told a French newspaper).
Greenwell notes that Louis’ relentless sociologizing tends to leach the story of “the human interest, which is to say the novelistic richness, of character.” He’s right; the novel is intensely dramatic without, somehow, being at all narratively interesting. It’s also true, though, that Eddy’s theoretically minded handling of his family’s poverty allows him to connect his homosexuality to his class trajectory. As he puts it, in the sociological idiom typical of the novel: “Being attracted to boys transformed my whole relationship to the world, encouraging me to identify with values that were different from my family’s.”
Here, Louis follows closely a point made by Didier Eribon, the sociologist best known in this country for his biography of Michel Foucault and for his writing on gay identity. Eribon shares with Louis—and with Bourdieu—a working class provincial background, and is the dedicatee of The End of Eddy; Eribon’s memoir Returning to Reims is a clear inspiration for Eddy’s book. In that book Eribon writes that while he once thought of his flight from his impoverished background as motivated by his need to freely live his gayness, he now sees these facts in almost inverse relationship: “My coming out of the sexual closet, my desire to assume and assert my homosexuality, coincided … with my shutting myself up inside what I might call a class closet.” Both writers insist that their seeking out the resources that make gay life possible was as much a matter of class rage as it was desire.
There are a few things one wants to say about this point, and about the connection between Eribon and Louis that underwrites it. For starters, this relationship exemplifies the kind of mentorship and solidarity rendered unthinkable or invisible in Greenwell and Yanagihara’s books, and to that extent it valuably extends the range of ways we see homosexuality take on social meaning in the world. But it does so at the cost of quarantining the sexual, in a way ultimately not so different from the American books. Neither Eribon or Louis quite says that his homosexuality is reducible to a desire for class ascension. But their shared hostility to anything remotely redolent of psychologizing language means that this is gayness’s primary function in their texts.
Louis and Eribon’s accounts of sex are certainly franker than A Little Life’s—and yet desire remains fundamentally uninteresting for these writers. Every reader of Foucault knows some of the good reasons to be suspicious of expending too much narrative energy on desire. But every reader of novels know that such expenditure can have considerable conceptual interest—and every queer knows that silence about sex isn’t always the product of some theoretically principled resistance to the dominion of pouvoir-savoir. For Louis, the only desire definitive of homosexuality is the desire for homosexuality, itself legible solely as a valuable asset in a social game: homosexuality as an orientation comes to fill the role of the donor in Robbins’ schema.
But this also notably delibidinizes the relational field of these texts, and comes close to suggesting once again that homosexuality is in its essence a tendency of the sophisticated. Louis and Eribon are at once laudably alert to certain features of the lifeworld of queerness and weirdly discreet about others. In this they approach a version of the sexual privatization, verging on prudishness, of the American texts I’ve discussed. The era of gay marriage has been compellingly critiqued for its desexualization of queer imagination. But that respectabilization has also narrowed queerness’s rich and strange relation to the economic forces that form and deform the world. The tradition to which these books belong has been valuable for refusing such quarantining, for establishing—or acknowledging, if we’re being honest—the traffic between the sexual and the social, between desire oriented to bodies and desire oriented to social chances. If that tradition really is nearing its twilight, that will be one of the things to most miss about it.
 See M.V. Lee Badgett, Laura E. Durso, & Alyssa Schneebaum, “New Patterns of Poverty in the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community,” The Williams Institute, 2013, https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/LGB-Poverty-Update-Jun-2013.pdf, accessed January 2018.
 Oscar Wilde, De Profundis (New York and London: Putnam, 1909), 106-7, 7.
 Bruce Robbins, Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007), 242.
 Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale and David M. Halperin, eds, The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (orig. pub. 1984; New York: Routledge, 1993), 14.
 M.J. Franklin, “Hanya Yanagihara’s ‘A Little Life’ is the dark fairytale you’ve been waiting for.” Mashable, June 19, 2015. http://mashable.com/2015/06/19/a-little-life-hanya-yanagihara-2/#mCDzpF9v0uq4. Accessed January 2018.
 Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (New York: Anchor, 2015), 476, 588, 607, 629, etc.
 Garth Greenwell, “A Little Life: The Great Gay Novel May Be Here,” The Atlantic, May 31, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/05/a-little-life-definitive-gay-novel/394436/. Accessed January 2018.
 Garth Greenwell, What Belongs to You (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 190-1.
 Adam Mars-Jones, “The Unpronounceable,” London Review of Books, 28.8 (21 April 2016).
 James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room (New York: Laurel, 1956), 218.
 Édouard Louis, The End of Eddy, trans. Michael Lucey (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2017), 59, 56-7.
 Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Trans. Susan Emanuel (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995), 31.
 Quoted in Garth Greenwell, “Get Out of Town,” The New Yorker, 8 May 2017, 65.
 Ibid., 64, 65.
 Ibid., 162.
 Didier Eribon, Returning to Reims, trans. Michael Lucey (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e]), 26.