How Alan Hollinghurst Helped Make ‘Gay Literature’ Mainstream

The unquestioned greatest bard of gay life has for decades been writing some of the finest fiction of our time, good enough in fact to make us forget labels.

Ulf Andersen/Getty

Novelist Alan Hollinghurst is the literary bard of modern British gay life. His 1987 debut, The Swimming Pool Library, tells the story of a young gay aristocrat tasked with writing the biography of an elderly gay peer. Set immediately before the onset of the AIDS crisis— during “the last summer of its kind there was ever to be”—it reaches back in time to the years before World War I, when homosexuality was criminalized and necessarily secretive. The Folding Star, Hollinghurst’s next effort about a young Englishman teaching in Flanders who falls in love with his 17-year-old student, was described by the New York Review of Books as a “homosexual Lolita.” The Line of Beauty, which earned Hollinghurst the Booker Prize in 2004 and was faithfully adapted into a BBC miniseries, takes off at the point where the Swimming Pool Library ends, following a young Henry James scholar from the provinces lodging with the posh, London family of a Conservative MP elected in Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 landslide. Beautifully written and beguilingly told, its stand-out scene culminates at a party with our coked-up protagonist asking the Iron Lady for a spin on the dance floor.

In keeping with his gay perspective and intergenerational interest, Hollinghurst’s latest novel, The Sparsholt Affair, tracks the lives of a (mostly gay and male) set of characters across seven decades. The story begins at Oxford (a reference point in most of Hollinghurst’s fictions, and from which the author himself graduated) in 1940. The shadow of war hangs over the school, with blackouts and air raid duty and requisitioned buildings. Through a window across the quad, a group of students spot an engineering student on his way to joining the RAF, a young Adonis lifting weights named David Sparsholt. Though his surname adorns the book’s title, he is a character we never really get to know, almost as inscrutable as the chalk portrait one of the captivated fellows draws of him showcasing his perfectly defined torso yet with a neck “open[ing] up to nothing, like the calyx of a flower.”

From Oxford, the novel jumps to 1966, where we see things from the vantage point of David’s 13-year-old son, Johnny. The Sparsholt clan is on a beach vacation in Cornwall with another family, and it is here that the book’s nominal “affair” occurs. We never find out quite what exactly the scandal entails, although it involves David, a Tory MP, a rent boy, and is definitely gay. The only other detail Hollinghurst provides is mention of a blurry, tabloid newspaper photograph taken through a window, a tragic resonance of the means by which the book first introduced us to David 26 years prior at school. Hollinghurst then skips to 1974, 1982, 1995, and 2012, revealing how l’affair Sparsholt reverberates through the generations. The narrative mainly following the travails of Johnny, by now an openly gay and highly in-demand portrait painter whose life intertwines with that of David’s chief Oxford-era admirer.

Sex scandals make excellent fodder for any writer, whether a journalist or novelist, and no one does sex scandals quite like the Brits. There’s just something inherently silly about the stiff upper lip and sense of reserve juxtaposed with the act of being caught in flagrante delicto. Or—in the notorious case of a Tory MP who died of autoerotic asphyxiation in 1994—found by the police wearing nothing but a pair of stockings and suspenders, an electrical wire tied around his neck and an orange peel stuck in his mouth. “One of the things I thought I wanted to do was tell not just the details of a scandal, and particularly a scandal with a gay element, but about its effects on people including the kind of star of the scandal but particularly his family,” Hollinghurst recently told me by phone from his hotel in Toronto, where he was visiting on book tour. “When gay things entered public consciousness in that period”—the book’s titular “affair” occurring just a year before homosexuality was decriminalized—“it was in the form of a scandal.”

For research, Hollinghurst studied two of Britain’s most famous sex scandals. The first, the so-called Profumo Affair of 1961, involved an eponymous secretary of war who shared a lover, a beautiful young model named Christine Keeler, with the Soviet naval attaché in London. Inaugurating the start of the era of swinging ’60s London, it eventually led to the downfall of Conservative Prime Minister Harold MacMillan. David Profumo, a novelist and the only child of ex-cabinet Minister John Profumo, wrote what Hollinghurst describes as a “very good memoir… where he does this very clever, subtle thing of painting a portrait of his parents and their marriage before the affair and trying to describe its effect on him as a schoolboy and having no idea what’s going on, of being taken out of school.”

The other episode of political humiliation to inspire Hollinghurst was that of Jeremy Thorpe, the eloquent and dashing former leader of the Liberal Party. In 1975, Thorpe allegedly conspired for an airline pilot to assassinate his male ex-lover who was threatening to go public with their past relationship. But in a scene out of Monty Python, the would-be assassin’s gun jammed and he bungled the job, shooting and killing the former paramour’s Great Dane. Today, if the Thorpe saga is remembered at all, it’s as a strange chapter in the annals of British eccentricity. Later this year, the BBC will release a three-part dramatization of the imbroglio, A Very English Scandal, starring Hugh Grant as Thorpe and Ben Whishaw as his spurned lover.

But Thorpe’s downfall —equal parts tawdry and tragic—had a profound effect on gay men at the time. His abounding hubris aside, Thorpe would probably not have felt the need to silence a former lover if he were straight and had homosexuality not been illegal at the time of his affair. Hollinghurst, born in 1954, was studying literature at Oxford while one of the country’s most promising politicians imploded. Thorpe’s career never recovered; he developed Parkinson’s disease in the ’80s and lived mostly in seclusion until his death in 2014. “I knew him slightly in his sort of terribly incapacitated later life,” Hollinghurst says.  

To grasp the atmospherics of an actual gay political sex scandal that occurred around the time as his own invented one, Hollinghurst consulted a recently published biography of Thorpe. But he tries not to tax himself with historical research in the writing of his novels.

“I generally shy away from research,” he says. “You have to get the detail of your period right but then almost sort of forget the stuff you’ve researched. You want the past to seem as natural as the present and not burden it with historic detail.”

As he has in all of his books, Hollinghurst ransacked his own experiences for material. “Dipping into these various eras,” he recalls of his writing process, “I was enjoying kind of looking back to my own early twenties and first forays to London and first rather petrified explorations of the gay scene and the sense of something new happening openly in London in the ’70s that had never been before.”

Writing The Line of Beauty, Hollinghurst had no personal knowledge of gay Thatcherite debauchery to draw upon, so he read the memoirs of a cabinet minister and other contemporaneous first-person accounts of political life in that era. For the wartime Oxford portion of The Sparsholt Affair, Hollinghurst relied upon “a very old friend who suddenly died last year and who’d been a student there” who “gave me reminiscences of what it’d been like.” The friend had “done military training by Edmund Blunden,” one of the most prominent English interwar poets, which was “too nice a detail to pass up.” (Blunden makes an off-stage appearance in The Sparsholt Affair, mentioned as drilling students on the Oxford campus). “I was very fascinated by the whole wartime at Oxford, a not-very-much-known-about and oddly little written-about strange time when so many things were evacuated from London to Oxford, and the normal, three-year idle stage of undergraduate life was contracted into a year before military service,” Hollinghurst says. Name-checking the Evelyn Waugh novel to which his work is often compared, he tried to offer readers a “subverted Brideshead idea of what Oxford might have been like” at a time when the Luftwaffe was bombing the country.

While Hollinghurst obviously welcomes the increasing cultural acceptance of homosexuality, he says that our liberalizing sexual mores make the contemporary era less exciting fodder for a novelist, at least one so fascinated by the interplay of sex and secretiveness like himself. “I’m always drawn back to those earlier periods when it was more complex, has more grist to it for the novelist,” he says. Today, “we don’t quite have scandals as we used to. The threshold now for shockability” has precipitously declined as “we’re almost sort of desensitized to the vulgarity of public life.” The name of the American president never comes up in our conversation, but it doesn’t need to.

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Raised in societies wherein their very nature is taboo, most gay people necessarily develop a heightened sense of perception and talent for disguise for which their straight peers have no need. The ability to recognize another gay person, playfully termed “gaydar,” is a real thing, and has uses beyond spotting a fellow “friend of Dorothy.” Hollinghurst’s own skills as a writer owe at least something to the talent for recognition that gay men are forced to acquire, and it’s a skill that many of his characters share.

When The Sparsholt Affair was released last year in the U.K., it had been exactly 30 years since publication of The Swimming Pool Library. “There really wasn’t any serious fiction in Britain that was explicitly and unapologetically about gay life and that was a fantastic position to find myself in as a novelist,” Hollinghurst recalls about his literary debut. “I had this amazing area of human interest to explore.” The sheer originality of Hollinghurst’s work immediately attracted much attention, most but not all of it positive. “It did obviously please a lot of people and upset a lot of people and there were people who thought it was gratuitous and disgusting and others who took an almost anthropological interest in it.”

Whereas once Hollinghurst was considered a “gay novelist” producing “gay literature,” his winning the Booker Prize forever put an end to such ghettoizing designations. His work speaks to, and is loved by, readers gay and straight. “I’ve always thought the gay thing was the basis and gay people weren’t just investing their time into being madly gay,” he says of his characters. Literary critics and fellow novelists widely agree that Hollinghurst is one of the greatest living stylists of English prose fiction. “I think gay literature itself has sort of, as a genre, dissolved back into the whole flow of things,” he says, too humble to note his own role in this salutary development. “It rose in response to new opportunities and new challenges and it was urgent and necessary in the ’80s and ’90s and now it doesn’t have that sort of necessity about it any longer.”

The Sparsholt Affair has the distinctive mark of a writer who has aged, who sees the humor in growing older and can offer the sort of elegiac observations that only come with advancing years. Writing of a character’s particularly queeny inflection, Hollinghurst notes “the gay voice that survived through generations.” The book’s funniest scene comes near the end, when a recently widowed, sexagenarian Johnny finally succumbs to the lure of dating apps and winds up in the bed of a gerontophiliac twentysomething. As the millennial taps away distractedly on his smartphone, seemingly more interested in photographs of headless torsos (an allusion to the decades-old chalk drawing of David Sparsholt) than the real, live, breathing body lying next to him, Johnny reflects upon how far things have come for gay men, who once, like his father, had to risk breaking the law for sex and can now luxuriate in an existence where “the shimmer of potential sex was more alluring than the fact of it.”

As The Sparsholt Affair and the rest of Hollinghurst’s oeuvre amply demonstrate, gay life presents a rich canvas for the novelist as it is “something which is constantly changing and taking on new forms.” When I ask him what he thinks about the impact dating apps on gay culture, Hollinghurst laments how “a lot of gay spaces and places have disappeared,” with many gay people opting for the anonymized convenience of smartphone technology. This atomization has had the effect of weakening the sense of community fostered by the gay bar and club scene. Yet he hesitates to romanticize the past too much. “It was also utterly miserable standing around in a bar all night nursing your pint when you could be sitting home doing something useful.”