Technical Knockout: David Leavitt versus Dennis Cooper

Myles Weber

In the 1990s, the dissident feminist author Camille Paglia seemed determined to inject new life into a moribund genre—the “big literary feud,” as she called it. In interviews with journalists at the New York Post and the Boston Globe, the author of Sexual Personae gleefully eviscerated Susan Sontag, whom she hoped to replace as the most high-profile public intellectual in America, going so far as to label her rival “Miss Mandarin” and “Little Susie Sunshine.” Rather wisely if implausibly, Sontag, when asked about the attacks, claimed never to have heard of Camille Paglia.

By the time Paglia began hurling invective at Sontag (“She’s dull, she’s boring, she’s solipsistic”), an unrelated, more ill-tempered literary feud had been transpiring for several years. This other dispute was, I believe, the sort of intellectual catfight that would have delighted Paglia had her focus been on contemporary fiction featuring homosexual themes. The gay novelist Dennis Cooper launched a campaign of vilification against the young fiction writer David Leavitt soon after Leavitt commenced his publishing career with the short-story collection Family Dancing in 1984 and the novel The Lost Language of Cranes in 1986. “I hate his work. I reject it on every level,” Cooper announced. He later accused Leavitt of contaminating the literary world with “goody-goody, nicey-nice, feel-our-gayness fiction.”

Leavitt succeeded early as an author: Two stories from his first collection appeared in the New Yorker; the collection itself was a finalist for major writing prizes; and, perhaps most irksome of all to Cooper, Leavitt’s fiction sold well (my hardcover copy of Family Dancing is from a fourth printing—rare for a collection of stories). In short, Leavitt immediately assumed an elevated profile in the world of gay literature and even among mainstream readers.

But there’s the rub. Asked about the “surprisingly strong negative comments” competing authors were making about him, Leavitt, in reference to their vituperation, replied, “It has to do, I think, with a certain envy, based on the fact that I’ve had a degree of crossover success that’s somewhat rare.” Dennis Cooper’s most stinging comments at the time suggest a variation on this theme. The older author did not primarily envy his rival’s good fortune as much as he feared the rise of a wider movement in gay literature whose followers would mimic Leavitt’s writing style. (“His stories were quiet slices of day-to-day life,” Christopher Bram wrote of Leavitt’s earliest works, “the gay characters young and still in college, good sons who are just coming out and not promiscuous or wild.”) By 1997, Cooper’s fears seemed to have been realized. He complained that year that gay fiction—a “modest, inbred little genre” still using “the tired David Leavitt model”—had grown provincial, middlebrow, and “intellectually soft and barely artistic, except in the most bourgeois way.”

Cooper’s own work had always been the opposite of safe or conventional, unless you accept Tom Wolfe’s thesis that nothing is more bourgeois than militant anti-bourgeois posturing. Cooper remains notorious in gay circles for his dark subject matter, which, according to Philip Gambone, encompasses “scenes of depersonalized sex, torture, and murder.” The novelist Edmund White once contrasted authors like Cooper, who insist on a “gay singularity,” with more mainstream writers such as Leavitt, Michael Cunningham (a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Hours), and Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City). White deemed Cooper the strongest of the oppositional or transgressive figures in the gay literary world and, perhaps, “the most repellent”—an observation I believe he intended as a commendation—noting that “Cooper meditates ceaselessly on violence and perversion.”

While interviewing the horror writer Clive Barker in 2001, Cooper admitted he was interested in the British author’s work mainly because Barker’s novels have so much in common with his own “in terms of their horrificness and interest in psychosexual violence.” Barker concurred: “We both have the erotic and violent thing.” In 1989, the year he announced he despised David Leavitt’s writing, Cooper published Closer, the first in a cycle of five similarly themed novels. “John liked the way punk romanticized death,” Cooper writes about an alienated, fairly unsympathetic young artist and his attraction to the more unwholesome elements of the punk scene in the opening pages of the book. “Hurt me,” a punk John has picked up implores after stripping naked a few pages later. “I really love fucking violence,” he adds, a bit on the nose. From there things snowball. “Kill me,” the punk ultimately insists. “Do what you want to me. I don’t care. Really. When I’m dead you can fuck me as much as you want.”

George Miles, an endearing teenage character in Closer, is sexually tortured and nearly murdered by a man belonging to a clique of snuff-film connoisseurs—basically, a support group for people who wish to prey on teenage boys. “Each participant wanted to kill someone cute during sex,” Cooper’s third-person narrator explains. “None had summoned the strength, so they’d formed a committee to solve the problem of their weakness.” In later sections of the book, the committee members become first-person narrators. “My ideas about death are very beautiful,” one man reflects, “so I wanted to think about killing a beautiful person.” How exactly would he go about killing George Miles? “Very slowly, so I could see everything in him and know what he meant to me,” he says, presumably referencing the kid’s intestines and other internal organs.

Lest anyone misread these passages as scathing critiques of the exploitative tendencies within the gay community or assume the author is making a broad allegorical point about American consumer culture à la Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho, rest assured Cooper approaches his material with earnest objectivity. “I really hate moralisms. I think they’re a total obstruction toward trying to understand anything,” the novelist explained to Gambone. “Of course, people shouldn’t be cruel to each other,” he added incongruously. So when Cooper features in his work acts of violence by middle-aged men toward vulnerable teenagers, what then? “I suppose I’m condemning those,” he allowed. But then he went on to say, “I think you should look at them [acts of cruelty] clearly and fairly. For instance, I’m really interested in serial murderers. I think it’s interesting to study that rather than just condemn it.”

In his next novel, Frisk (1991), Cooper explored more thoroughly this interest in obscene cruelty, offering us a narrator named Dennis who assumes his murder victims in the Netherlands will share in the sexual thrill of their own gory deaths, details of which he relates in an implausibly long recruitment letter to a friend in France who is expected to join in the mayhem simply because he’s gay. “I just realized that if you’re still reading you must be the person I want you to be,” fictional Dennis tells both his potential accomplice, Julian, and, of course, any reader who hasn’t yet tossed the book aside. “God, I hope so,” he adds. But near the end of the novel—after Julian realizes he has been hoodwinked by Dennis, who has been merely fantasizing about but not actually acting on his murderous impulses—a relieved Julian boards the return train to Paris, and we see what world we are actually in. “Holland got black, blending into northern Belgium,” Dennis telepathically reports about Julian’s train ride home. “Julian walked the length of the train grading passengers. Ugly, cute, ugly, cute, cute, ugly, ugly, ugly, cute, ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly . . . .”

I can’t speak for the author, but I didn’t particularly enjoy junior high the first time. “I don’t relate to adulthood very much, or my idea of it,” admits Cooper. “It doesn’t interest me.”


It would seem Cooper’s beef with Leavitt derives less from their clashing aesthetic preferences than it does from incompatible notions of moral responsibility as well as disparate levels of maturity. Perhaps most dissimilar of all are the two authors’ intellectual foundations. In contrast to Leavitt, who accepts rational thought and logical reasoning at face value, Cooper seems to have been influenced by works of queer theory and other anti-Enlightenment movements that came to the fore in the 1980s. I don’t mean to imply Cooper disregards simple categories such as male and female or heterosexual and homosexual. Instead he applies the critical methodologies of post-structuralism to other, more crucial “false binaries”: truth and lies, good and evil, and—here Charles Darwin turns over in his grave—life and death. Whether a character emerges from a sexual encounter in one piece is an almost arbitrary consideration for Cooper. Claiming to value one outcome over the other, in Cooper’s world, can make you seem uncool, like a teacher’s pet.

Artists frequently tap their subconscious for material, regardless of how irrational the resulting work may be. But if you approach the topic of sex with contempt for natural selection, for survival, and the moral edifices cultures build in response to its rigorous demands, you risk condemning your objectionable ideas to irrelevance—unless you are gay. For Closer, Cooper received the inaugural Ferro-Grumley Award, which has become the most prestigious annual prize for gay fiction in America. When selecting authors for awards recognition, the gay literary world is apparently not disquieted by a writer’s disinterest in ethics. It follows that Cooper was by no means David Leavitt’s only detractor in the 1980s and ’90s and perhaps not even the nastiest of the bunch. Leavitt himself named Ethan Mordden, Felice Picano, John Weir, and the English author Adam Mars-Jones as the most disparaging figures he faced. “Adam’s attacks on me have amazed me, because I respect him so much, and have always been nice to him,” Leavitt reported. “I don’t understand why he’s taken every opportunity to attack me.” On at least one occasion, Leavitt was even subjected to vilification from the grave. In a testimonial to the deceased novelist Robert Ferro, Picano cited Leavitt as “an author whose work Robert wholeheartedly loathed.”

Throughout the early 1990s, gay critics continued to pile on, especially after Leavitt launched an attack of his own, in his case on literature of the homosexual ghetto. Specifically, he took the author Andrew Holleran to task for Dancer from the Dance, a novel from 1978 widely recognized as the urtext of post-Stonewall gay fiction. In his 1994 introduction to The Penguin Book of Gay Short StoriesLeavitt claimed that, when he first read Holleran’s book as an inexperienced teenager, the novel horrified him with its portrayal of sexual adventurers, all exceedingly beautiful, who make a hash of their lives through sexual incontinence. “I saw only, and with a kind of ashen horror, my future,” Leavitt recalled, by which he meant that he sensed his imminent relegation to the wings with the other lonely rejects cursed with normal looks and conventional aspirations for intimacy.

“Gay literature, it seems, must be suitable for David Leavitt’s inner child,” responded Michael Schwartz in the Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review. In a New York magazine article titled “Decline and Fall: How Gay Culture Lost Its Edge,” Daniel Mendelsohn similarly pilloried Leavitt for his fiction’s “blandly infantile characters forever fixated on children’s books” (a reference to a plot element in The Lost Language of Cranes). Richard Canning attacked the author in his foreword to Gay Fiction Speaks: Conversations with Gay Novelists, a collection from 2000 that includes a sympathetic interview with Leavitt. “He thinks gay writers must present good role models for young readers, as though they were writing textbooks for some high school health class of the future,” Canning griped about Leavitt’s critique of Dancer from the Dance. “It never occurs to Leavitt that Holleran is an adult who writes books for adults.” And in an essay titled “Five Houses of Gay Fiction,” Reed Woodhouse lumped the books of Leavitt and Stephen McCauley together in the derided category of the “assimilative novel,” which according to Woodhouse comprised works dedicated to proving that the lives of gay people were “just as dull” as those of straights.

“I just ignore this,” Leavitt claimed at the time about the deluge of scorn his fiction received. “It’s criticism that doesn’t derive from serious thought about a work. It’s derived from a political position.” The predictable squawking of his detractors, he maintained, was something every prominent writer had to deal with, “particularly in the cesspool of gay politics.” But much to the delight of readers who, like Camille Paglia, enjoy the back-and-forth of a literary feud, Leavitt did not ignore the attacks. Rather, he sharpened his claws and fought back through his fiction, most directly in the 2001 novella “The Infection Scene,” wherein the literary works of Dennis Cooper—“the dark lord of American gay literature”—are singled out and condemned for their destructive influence on gay men.


Curiously, “The Infection Scene” and similar examples of Leavitt’s mid-career fiction in which risky sexual behavior leads to injury or death were not subjected to the same level of criticism as Leavitt’s earlier writing, perhaps because gay literature had by that time waned as a marketing phenomenon capable of evoking insular scrutiny or because the full onslaught of the health crisis of the 1980s and early 1990s gave Leavitt’s subsequent works a Teflon coating of sorts. The Lost Language of Cranes was a lightning rod for criticism right out of the gate, but not because its author took direct aim at self-destructive tendencies among gay men (that would come later). The novel’s greatest sin was allowing its protagonist, Philip, and the person he is attached to by the end of the book, Brad, to develop a close friendship first. They have sleepovers (in bunk beds, no less), express chaste affection, and finally progress to romance, all at a time when gay literature was mostly focused on exuberant sexual encounters between strangers or passing acquaintances. The issue at hand wasn’t physical survival— not yet, though HIV was already spreading widely through the gay community by the mid-1980s, when Leavitt wrote the book. Instead, the primary issue was contentment, as evidenced by the following passage: “ ‘All I want,’ Brad said, as they leaned together against a wall of Boy Bar, ‘all I’ve ever wanted, is someone to settle down with,’ and Philip agreed.” Dialogue like this, according to Reed Woodhouse, made Leavitt’s characters seem “prematurely middle-aged” despite his novel’s repeated allusions to childhood. As a result, the lives of such characters, the scholar felt, were in no sense “thrilling.”

Leavitt’s New Yorker story “Territory,” a widely anthologized work from Family Dancing, features equally conventional characters by mainstream standards. The story’s protagonist, Neil, flies with his boyfriend to California to visit Neil’s mother, who years earlier reacted to the announcement of her son’s homosexuality in exemplary fashion.

The day after he told her, she located and got in touch with an organization called the Coalition of Parents of Lesbians and Gays. Within a year, she was president of it. On weekends, she and other mothers drove their station wagons to San Francisco, set up their card tables in front of the Bulldog Baths, the Liberty Baths, passed out literature to men in leather and denim who were loath to admit they even had mothers.

Out of simple kindness, Edmund White in an interview attempted to shield Leavitt from the vitriol issuing from authors who identified more closely with bathhouse patrons than with Neil’s mother, observing that “he found a kind of middle-class, Jewish suburban scene to write about that, actually, gay writers had ignored before.” This material, White said, gave Leavitt’s work the kind of “excitement” that derives from “writing about something new.” But any attempt to pass Leavitt off as a trailblazer was a lost cause. The consensus at the time was that Leavitt’s success had helped produce a movement of literature whose works were, as Woodhouse put it, “decent,” “politically and socially middle of the road,” and “interested in the ‘naturalization’ of homosexuality and the satisfaction of rational desires,” in contrast to CloserFrisk, and other works by Dennis Cooper, whom Woodhouse called the “queer writer par excellence.”

Yet, already in “Territory,” Leavitt revealed his mischievous streak by deriding gay foolishness. Neil’s mother, it turns out, has limits in the realm of liberal tolerance, and her son is determined to probe them, most egregiously by making love to his boyfriend in the backyard, attempting (successfully) to draw his mother’s attention. “I’m sorry, Neil,” the matriarch scolds her adult child after he indulges in additional passive-aggressive behavior. “I can only take so much.” And just that quickly, Neil has his proof: his politically progressive mother is a homophobe.

A fair number of works by Leavitt that critique gay irrationality and irresponsibility more blatantly than “Territory” appeared prior to “The Infection Scene.” In the short story “Ayor” (1990), the narrator lives vicariously through an imprudent friend who is guided on a life of sexual adventure by a travel book that uses the title acronym to designate a cruising spot you visit “At Your Own Risk.” “It was Craig who got crabs, amoebas, warts,” the protagonist explains about his friend, who is later raped while traveling through Spain. “I always ended up at home—alone, but unscathed. Safe.”

In Leavitt’s 2000 novel, Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing, the autobiographical narrator finds the idea of having sex based solely on physical attraction “incomprehensible” and envisions bathhouses and backrooms as “entryways to hell.” Yet against his better judgment, he follows a man home to a squatters’ building where the encounter ends disastrously (“Give me the fucking money!”). “Still, it could have been worse,” the narrator reflects afterward. “I could have been dead.”

Lifting AIDS from subtext to text, the novella “Saturn Street,” from the 1997 collection Arkansas, features Phil, a former gay porn star who calculates he must have had close to three thousand sexual partners prior to his diagnosis. An avid fan of the original Star Trek television series, he chose in happier times to lease an apartment whose street address was named after a planetary object because the moniker suggested to him a break from humanity’s premodern past, promising instead a future of space travel and other beneficial innovations such as sexual promiscuity. Not only did this image of utopia turn out to be in questionable taste with its inhuman Cold War architecture and hideous acrylic couture, but the faith Phil and others placed in antibiotics and other medicines, some hypothetical, proved their undoing. “Some dead generation’s idea of the future, getting yellow around the edges,” the dying character reports, “that’s me.”


Most pointedly, in the long title story in The Marble Quilt, Leavitt’s 2001 collection that contains “The Infection Scene,” Vincent, the narrator, details the death of his former lover Tom, who had been living in Rome at the time of his murder. “He was tied to the kitchen table. His skull had been smashed in. He had been rotting for seven days,” reports Vincent. Some of the victim’s Italian friends infer the obvious: Tom was done in by a hustler, “some Romanian or Albanian he’d picked up at the station and brought home.” The topic of AIDS doesn’t merely hover in the air as an allegorical facet to this story either: Tom lost a former boyfriend to the disease; while volunteering at an AIDS hospice years earlier, Tom had encountered a man he’d once had a fling with but who was now unrecognizable and near death; and Vincent recalls recently revisiting his and Tom’s old neighborhood in San Francisco, where he found no sign of their former neighbors. “Where was Dominic Cooper [NB], whom I barely knew, but who sometimes waved at me, walking past with his dog?” Vincent asks. “Dead, I supposed. Most of them were, our neighbors, either because, a dozen years ago, they were already old, or because they were faggots.” More precisely, the dog walker and at least one other Mr. Cooper we might mention were “bad faggots.”

“Tom and I were not bad faggots, so we remained alive. For the moment,” Vincent observes about their earlier life together, though the couple first met in a public toilet, where Tom initiated a sexual encounter. Throughout the story, the author’s conflation of behavior that could lead to a fatal beating with behavior that could lead to a life-threatening infection ends up governing the plot, especially when the narrator later alludes to an odd passage from the story’s opening pages where he had implied he may have murdered Tom himself. Though a resident of Germany, where he works as an interpreter, Vincent was on assignment in Rome the day his former lover died. “When Tom was murdered, I was nowhere near his apartment; I was with some American businessmen, giving them a tour of the Vatican museum,” claims Vincent. “Still, alibis can be fabricated. Friends will lie.” 

Huh? Later, recalling their time together as a couple, Vincent states, “I too found myself tempted, on more than one occasion, to pick up a blunt object, to smash in his skull, to break his nose.” And at the story’s conclusion, Vincent surveys various leads the Italian police have for solving the case. “Anything’s possible,” he muses, alluding to the likelihood of Tom’s having been murdered by a hustler, friend, teaching colleague, student, or random thief. “Or it could have been me. Really, there’s no reason at all why it couldn’t have been me,” he allows. “You’ll never know. The case will never be solved.”

Rather than read these passages as an embedded confession by Vincent, I am inclined to assume the author is returning to a coy technique he employed four years previously in the novella “The Term Paper Artist” from Arkansas. In that earlier work, the first-person narrator, in the tradition of Dennis in Dennis Cooper’s Frisk, is a man named Dave Leavitt who drafts an undergraduate term paper in response to a prompt instructing students to identify the murderer in the unsolved case of Jack the Ripper. After encountering a great many competing theories through his research and treading rhetorical ground numerous others have trod before him, the fictional Leavitt decides to be too clever. “The Ripper was the spirit of the twentieth century itself,” he asserts to the sound of crickets. Similarly, in “The Marble Thief” it would seem that the author, but to better effect than “Dave Leavitt,” offers a nonliteral solution to the murder case: Tom was killed by the post-Stonewall phenomenon of hyper-promiscuity, as were a great number of homosexuals one way or another.

My inclination to absolve Vincent of the crime rests most heavily on the fact that, despite his disingenuous speculation, the character never trips up, never inadvertently or ironically exposes himself in the manner of a flagrantly unreliable narrator. And there is no one thing—no convincing motive—that might have triggered a murderous rage. It would seem Leavitt is simply extending the inexact parallelism between a violent sex-related death and a death from HIV. Had Tom wasted away like several hundred thousand other gay men of his generation, Vincent, contemplating the source of his ex-boyfriend’s infection, might more reasonably have stated, “It could have been me. Really, there’s no reason at all why it couldn’t have been me” (as long as Vincent were HIV positive himself, that is), just as it could have been any of Tom’s other previous sexual partners. We’ll never know—the exact moment of infection is untraceable.

All of this is to say that, soon enough, Leavitt stopped writing fiction that critics could denigrate as traditionally bourgeois and chose instead to take lethal aim, in quite graphic detail, at the sort of rash sexual conduct he recognized as common among gay men. In these works, though, Leavitt is not a clueless scold—i.e., not just a different type of goody-goody or bourgeois author. Rather, he and his narrators are self-aware and even self-indicting. “Saturn Street” features an obnoxious radio personality named Dr. Delia—a satirical riff on the conservative talk-show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger—whose gleeful assault on listeners cannot be categorized as mere tough love. “Don’t you think that’s kind of stupid?” she asks a female caller chosen by the show’s producer no doubt precisely for her boneheaded decision making. The gap between censorious Dr. Delia and our judgmental author, in terms of personality type, is not that wide, or so Leavitt seems to be admitting.

Similarly, the narrator of “Ayor” is no common shrew. “Because I was a good boy, I avoided the places that were labeled AYOR,” he confesses with a modicum of shame. (Read scare quotes around “good boy.”) Regarding the news about his friend’s rape, the narrator reports: “I realized, that night, that on some level I had been encouraging him to live in the world’s danger zones, its ayor zones, for years now, to satisfy my own curiosity, my own lust. And I wondered: How much had I contributed to Craig’s apparent downfall?” The narrator of Martin Bauman takes this a step further: “The distaste I claimed to feel for the sort of quick encounters with which homosexuality has always been associated was really a cover for my deep attraction to those very leather bars and porn emporia of which in public I voiced such old-maidish disapproval,” he admits. “For the truth was, I worried that if I stepped even once down those corridors of pleasure, I might never again find my way out.”

But not finding your way out is precisely the point according to Leavitt’s literary nemesis—though Dennis Cooper is not himself a kamikaze gay. Cooper has confessed to taking “an enormous amount” of LSD in his youth and having had a “nasty” cocaine habit in the 1980s, but he has never seemed hell bent on self-destruction. He is at worst a drama queen by proxy: someone who selects acquaintances because they’re likely to make a mess of their lives and thereby serve as safe inspiration for the author’s fictional characters. God knows there have been plenty of novelists and poets who have drunk or drugged their way to fame, but the odds tend to favor a writer who acquires material for outré works secondhand rather than serving as a sacrificial lamb himself. Artistic expression can prove unmanageable once you’re dead.

Still, many writers have risked their own survival. Exhibit A: Kevin Bentley, the author of Wild Animals I Have Known, a published diary from 2002 recounting nearly twenty years of sexual experimentation in San Francisco. At the conclusion of his book, Bentley hikes through some California woods before having sex with a friend on the forest floor. Then, after trekking back to their car, the pair encounter several older, straight couples trying to decide whether to walk the same arduous path. One person from the group asks Bentley, “Is it worth it?” And in the book’s final line, the author, who over the past decade and a half has buried several romantic partners and lost innumerable friends in their prime, decides, “Yes.”

With selection bias eliminating a good number of respondents who would surely have answered no to a weighted question of this kind, heedlessness can give way to mendacity among the few survivors. (Who’s still around to keep them honest?) In Visions and Revisions, a 2015 memoir of the age of AIDS, the novelist Dale Peck writes glowingly of his friend Derek, whom he identifies as “one of the nine or ten most important AIDS activists in the United States,” and a young man whose tragic history of sexual abuse, destitution, mental instability, and physical assault would seem utterly implausible were it not actually true. Which it isn’t. “Everything I’ve just told you is a lie,” Peck admits about his friend’s yarns. Derek’s elaborate tales of woe—concerning, for example, his HIV status and his family’s history as refugees from Nazi Germany—were an elaborate ruse intended to underscore the urgency of the health crisis and elicit additional funding from government sources. Such acts of deception, Peck argues, should be lauded since Derek, he implies, was simply lying in service to a greater truth.

Clearly, truth is a slippery concept among acolytes of queer theory, whose seminal texts Dale Peck read with enthusiasm. “I continued to believe it,” Peck claims about Derek’s discredited narrative. Indeed, twenty year later, he reaffirms, “I believe it still.” Of course, physical reality has a habit of catching up with us regardless of whether we accept conventional notions of truth. In Smash Cut, a memoir published the same year as Peck’s, the novelist and biographer Brad Gooch endorses his own past promiscuity but acknowledges the inescapable dangers of acting on every impulse. “One night,” he writes, “I brought some guy home from an after-hours club who flashed a concealed knife at me as he left the next morning, explaining that I should be more careful in the future.” And in an interview, Gooch admitted more generally that, amid the sexual roundelay of gay Manhattan in the 1970s and ’80s, he sensed the entire edifice of gay life would soon come crashing down. “No one expected the emergence of a science fiction disease that killed you,” he noted. But neither were people clueless about the risks they were taking. “There were times I remember looking around thinking, ‘this can’t go on’—all of the not sleeping and taking drugs and heavy sexual activity,” the author recalled. “What came to be was completely unfair, no question. But it wasn’t completely counterintuitive.”


Andrew Holleran, the target of David Leavitt’s broadside against the literature of glamorous Manhattanites, seems to have adopted the same prudent approach to risk-taking as Leavitt. At the very least, both authors, much like Brad Gooch, accept the physical universe as a stubborn reality. One of the numerous essays Holleran published in the gay magazine Christopher Street during the AIDS crisis is titled, with no excess of subtlety, “Cleaning My Bedroom.” Citing the detritus that found its way next to his bed following the renovation of his apartment a few years previous (“two-by-fours, plaster, discarded molding”), the essayist comments, “It seemed, curiously, to represent my own collapsed life in New York at that time.” The gay fast lane—“a petri dish in which HIV flourished”—is a tangle of contradictions, explains Holleran, inhabited by men “who followed strict diets, exercised religiously, like dancers or athletes, and then on the weekends took enough drugs to kill a horse.” For him, AIDS never constituted a social construct existing only through its media representations as the Foucauldians would have it (to the point of extinction, should it come to that). Neither, by his estimation, did the discrete concepts of life and death form a false binary. “Guard your health,” Holleran implored gay men in the middle of the crisis. “It is all you have. It is the thin line that stands between you and hell. It is your miraculous possession. Do not throw it away for the momentous pleasures of lust, or even the obliteration of loneliness.”

I am tempted each time I teach my university course in gay literature to paste that passage into the syllabus, where my nineteen-year-old students might take notice. But I’m paddling against a strong current of malice in academe, where even the most fraudulent pronouncements in fields such as fat studies and queer studies are given respectful consideration. As a result, both obesity and unfettered sexual activity are proffered to students as healthy and intelligent life choices. (“Look at those stupid queens,” Holleran heard an ailing musician snarl while at a gay dance club in the 1980s. “Don’t they know?”) Unsurprisingly, Holleran has shown little patience toward academic foolishness. “I suppose all specialists have their jargon,” he wrote in a withering 1996 review of Saint Foucault, a scholarly monograph by David Halperin of MIT. Still, pondered Holleran, what justification can there be for Halperin’s decision to define political activism as “an experiment we perform on ourselves so as to discover our otherness to ourselves in the experience of our own futurity”? Halperin’s method of obfuscation, Holleran concluded, was “a verbal form of Attitude” and was therefore counterproductive if not unconscionable at a time when lives were at stake.

Quite predictably, Dennis Cooper has dismissed Andrew Holleran, a voice of sanity in the gay wilderness, as “a preener” and his writing as “prissy” and “self-absorbed.” I know of no instance in which Holleran followed David Leavitt’s lead by retaliating, but it is instructive to compare the sensible observations from Holleran’s essays, finally, to major plot points in “The Infection Scene.” “Two young men—their names are Christopher and Anthony; one is twenty-two, the other nineteen—move in together,” Leavitt writes in the novella. At such a young age, each character imagines the other is “the friend without whom his life can have no purpose.” That being so, there is a problem: the younger boy, Anthony, is HIV positive and at risk of an early death. Therefore, Christopher, in hopes of becoming infected himself, badgers his boyfriend into having unprotected sex with him. “He will not let his friend die alone,” the author explains.

So far, so bad. But then Leavitt places the story in even weirder, Cooperesque territory. Anthony, having come to his senses, breaks up with his bug-chasing friend. “You scare me, you know that?” he tells Christopher. “You’re dangerous.” So Christopher, the ersatz Christ figure, continues his campaign to seroconvert by having receptive anal sex with strangers sans condoms or, when forced to, secretly poking pin holes in the rubbers he provides his more conscientious partners.

Like Holleran in “Cleaning My Bedroom,” Leavitt isn’t subtle here. His allusions are perfectly overt. He has Christopher and Anthony first meet, not in a men’s room, but at a cultural event the author intends that we recognize as equally inauspicious in nature: a public reading by Dennis Cooper at a San Francisco bookstore. Christopher cherishes the memory of the evening that brought the two boys together; indeed, he worships “the author under whose dark influence their story began.” As one might expect, the anti-rational aspects of queer theory (as well as its dull verbiage) play a role. Early in the epidemic, the narrator informs us, Christopher strictly observed the rules of the condom code. “But now he suspects the rules to be a lie perpetrated by Dead White Males in order to suppress the freedom of gay people, who threaten patriarchy.”

So Christopher is not merely, as Anthony calls him, an “idiot.” He’s also a snooze. Like a garden-variety academic, he banishes the inexorable logic of evolutionary biology from every suitable conversation and in its place gives us paranoia and capricious, evidence-free speculation. Most egregious of all, this twenty-two-year-old—who “knows nothing of disease, much less death”— queers the very idea of safe sex. Concerned at first that he won’t become HIV positive from just one bout of barebacking with Anthony, Christopher suggests this become an ongoing thing:

“So just to play it safe, we’ll do it every night.” Silence.



“To play it safe.”

All for naught: Despite his machinations, Christopher never manages to seroconvert. He remains frustratingly healthy at the end of the novella.


In 1994, while dissing Susan Sontag, Camille Paglia spoke fondly of squabbles between authors from an earlier generation whose verbal fisticuffs had entertained her. “I loved watching Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal go at it,” she recounted. “And there was Mary McCarthy versus Lillian Hellman, and Truman Capote versus Jacqueline Susann.” If David Leavitt versus Dennis Cooper never reached the storied heights of those earlier battles, that is due in part to the more modest public profiles of these authors, but it is also probably owing to the fact that when Leavitt threw shade directly at Cooper, he did so in his fiction, not on television. Leavitt’s most ill-tempered attacks were therefore in service to a plot, which somewhat clouded the issue. Leavitt did complain to Richard Canning, “Almost all male writers I know are just such out-of-control whores—gay and straight!” He likewise lamented that, in contrast to more mainstream novelists, he was forced to give readings at gay bookstores in front of displays of porn. “The situations you find yourself in are so undignified,” he groused. But these are general observations about the gay literary world. Leavitt never specifically boasted of having rejected Dennis Cooper’s writing “on every level.” He never claimed to hate Cooper’s books. Instead, he sent his characters down a path of self-annihilation, directly inspired, in at least one case, by Cooper’s novels.

Perhaps Leavitt’s most amusing piece of politically charged fiction is the aforementioned novella “The Term Paper Artist.” I am not alluding merely to the work’s oddest passages, wherein the eponymous narrator (“Dave Leavitt”) writes research papers in exchange for sexual favors from straight male college undergraduates at an elite university. (The satire is strong in this one: these ambitious, unprincipled sons of the ruling classes, Leavitt makes clear, are perfectly suited to run our major corporations, for they have already discarded “all shop-worn, kindergarten notions of right and wrong.”) My keen interest in the novella arises mainly from the suggestion, buried deep within the narrative matrix of the story, that at least some gay men would be better off repressing their sexual nature, marrying a woman, and raising a family. In other words, Leavitt seems to be queering queer theory.

The last of the students the narrator services, a thoroughly decent Mormon named Ben, is unlike the others. His qualms about entering into a contractual arrangement of this kind have less to do with committing disagreeable acts of sexual impropriety than with the broader issue of dishonesty. (In fact, it soon becomes apparent that Ben is a closeted homosexual.) “I want you to know I’ve never cheated on anything in my life,” Ben assures the narrator. “Not a test, not a paper. And I’ve never stolen anything either. I don’t drink, I’ve never used drugs. I’m a clean liver, Mr. Leavitt. I’ve had the same girlfriend since I was fifteen.”

Alas, the narrator’s misfiring theory about Jack the Ripper tips off Ben’s professor, and the good Mormon boy confesses. One year after Ben departs his university in disgrace, the narrator runs into him while on vacation in Italy, where Ben is traveling with his boyfriend. There it becomes apparent gay life has coarsened Ben. “He likes to tell people we met at a party,” the former student explains about his partner, “but the truth is we met on the street. He cruised me, we went back to his apartment and fucked.” (Then he bludgeoned your skull?) “Oh, and also,” Ben adds by way of non sequitur, “I’ve been trying my hand at fiction writing.”

Readers may wonder why Leavitt assigned his name to a figure of such questionable character as the sexual predator narrator of this novella, but in a sense he didn’t; Ben did. “I was thinking our little adventure might make a terrific story,” Ben adds, and it clicks: this entire work of fiction is one writer’s revenge on the man who initiated him into gay sex. As an auto-homage of sorts to the real David Leavitt, who in 1993 lifted purportedly scandalous details from the life of the English poet Stephen Spender for inclusion in his novel When England Sleeps (and got into a good deal of hot water for doing so), the conscientious Mormon of the author’s imagination gives us a salacious version of Dave Leavitt, who narrates the tale of Ben’s downfall, which the fictional Leavitt facilitated. As convoluted as that sounds, this reading would explain a lot. The narrator has already informed us that Ben made him promise not to tell anyone about what happened between them—a promise he “naturally kept.” So just who is spilling the beans here? Also, upon first meeting the narrator, Ben admits to him, “I’m fully prepared to compromise my ethics,” and as he drives away, the narrator tells us, Ben “turned onto Saturn Street,” the symbolic route of tragic gay miscalculation borrowed from the companion novella of the same name in Arkansas. In other words our fiction writer, whoever he is, would seem not to be celebrating Ben’s imminent sexual awakening but lamenting it. And just as Ben is deciding to abandon a life of clean living, we get a graphic description of the corpse of Mary Kelly, the last victim of Jack the Ripper. “Her body had been found on the bed, quite literally split down the middle,” narrator-Leavitt tells us as he studies a police photograph of the crime scene. “The nose had been cut off, the liver sliced out and placed between the feet. The kidneys, breasts, and the flesh from the thighs had been dumped on the bedside table, and the hand inserted into the stomach.” This kind of revolting butchery, with its disembowelment and the tearing of the body in two, is reminiscent of imagery in Dennis Cooper’s fiction. What’s more significant is that it reads like a visualization of Ben’s own psyche as the reality of his homosexuality takes hold and his religious faith is about to be ripped out of him (by the spirit of the twentieth century itself?). The passage is a singularly gory eruption coinciding with Ben’s fall from grace.

After taking a study break to talk to Ben, who by now is resigned to going through with the fraudulent and indecent transaction, narrator-Leavitt returns to his library carrel and the Mary Kelly photograph. “And how curious!” he observes. “As I sat down, that ‘butcher’s shambles’ ”—i.e., the various organs on display—“no longer made me nauseated. Perhaps one really can get used to anything.”

Anything? Even the absence of a wife-cum-best friend, children, and grandchildren once the body sags in middle age and sexual adventurism slips a few notches down the list of priorities? Even an abrupt rescinding of the promise of eternal life that a religion offers its followers? “I always assumed that if I ever committed a really big sin, like we’re doing now,” Ben tells Dave in the university library, “that there’d be a clap of thunder and God would strike me dead or something.” The narrator responds by suggesting that perhaps handing in someone else’s work as one’s own and accepting oral sex from a man do not constitute sins grave enough for God to worry about. Or maybe there is no God, he adds. At this possibility, reports the narrator, “Ben’s face convulsed in horror.”

A year later, in Florence, Ben seems not to have completely overcome that initial bout of revulsion. “If you’d done the paper the way I asked you to, I’d be graduating from UCLA and on my way to law school and engaged to Jessica,” Ben tells the man he feels corrupted him, however willing he was to be corrupted. Or he might still have been heading to law school at this point but dating a man, Ben concedes. It’s hard to evaluate multiple hypotheticals and assign blame accordingly. “I’m not saying you didn’t screw things up for me,” he concludes. “I’m just saying the jury’s still out on whether it was all for the best or not.”

To make such a suggestion—to even hint that a young gay man might have been better off staying closeted and sexually inactive in any satisfying way—seems to me more transgressive than does promoting sexual expression at any cost, considering the animosity such a plot point would likely elicit from other gay authors and intellectuals. Fear of a backlash may in fact explain why this aspect of the novella had to stay buried under so many narrative layers.


The playwright David Mamet once wrote, “Success ratifies the iconoclast, and places him or her in the strange position of having been endorsed for being a detractor.” Dennis Cooper’s professional experiences fit that scenario perfectly. His ugly literary works and his takedowns of both tame fiction and moralistic behavior have won him accolades. David Leavitt’s career, in contrast, seems to turn Mamet’s maxim on its head in a manner reminiscent of Saffron Monsoon, the straight-laced teenage daughter from the television series Absolutely Fabulous, a BBC sitcom with a vast gay following. When Saffron’s vulgar, trend-chasing mother implores her heterosexual daughter to drop out of school, move to Europe, and become a lesbian artist, Saffron rebels by taking a keen interest in science. Leavitt similarly achieves something close to reverse iconoclastic status through his stories. He may have tucked his most risky ideas inside a metafictional conceit, but they seem undeniably present. And they are fascinating.

As Edmund White suggested, Leavitt, at least in his early fiction, tapped a vein of virgin material (quite literally, some would complain). More recently Leavitt has published historical novels—The Indian Clerk (2007) and The Two Hotel Francforts (2013)—plus a 2006 biography of the English mathematician Alan Turing. Each of these books is set in a period that predates both the gay liberation movement and the onslaught of AIDS. That’s something of a pity since, in the spirit of Camille Paglia, I would have liked to see the feud between Leavitt and Cooper continue, and at the same level of cattiness. Perhaps Leavitt considers his takedown of Cooper in “The Infection Scene” a technical knockout, eliminating the need for further works of its kind. Nevertheless, with prophylactic drugs promising to impede the spread of the most common strains of HIV (but not their inevitable mutations or other sexually transmitted pathogens), the condoms have come off. Literary works exposing self-destructive tendencies within the gay community may therefore be as pertinent now as they have ever been.


Myles Weber is the author of Middlebrow Annoyances: American Drama in the 21st Century (Gival Press) and Consuming Silences: How We Read Authors Who Don’t Publish (University of Georgia Press). He is currently completing a third book, a consideration of tragedy in an age of identity politics.

"Technical Knockout: David Leavitt versus Dennis Cooper" appears in our Summer 2019 issue.