Bona Drag: Paul Burston and His Naff Polari Prize
This week has been a HUGE DRAG for me. But I have learned a lot. The main thing I have learned is just how PROUD I am of this blog Graunwatch, and just how vital it is, as a platform for alternative voices to the mediocre moaning mainstream media.
Earlier in the week, in that very same mediocre moaning mainstream media, I read an article by Julie Bindel. It was a promo for the Polari First Book Prize founded by her gay pal Paul Burston. The article described the history of the Prize for ‘gay and lesbian’ writers, and its emergence out of the Polari literary club nights that Paul runs.
‘Polari … began in November 2007 as a response to the distinct lack of celebration of gay novelists. Burston had published three novels and a number of non-fiction books but had not once received an invitation to read at a literary event.
“I was not the only gay writer in that position,” says Burston. “Then one day a fellow author and myself were discussing the lack of opportunities for us to promote our work, talking about how bookshops generally aren’t keen to stock books by gay authors, let alone invite them along to a book signing,” says Burston. “The idea of Polari was born, and we have never looked back.” ‘
The article went on to explain:
‘Burston is excited about the addition of the Polari Prize for a first novel* that is now in its second year as well as the possibility of adding other prizes, such as those celebrating particular genres.
“Square Peg Media is our new sponsor and provides really important support. We have the long list in July for the second Polari prize and are looking out for a corporate sponsor, so things are busy,” says Burston, clearly excited about what the future holds for the gay literary community.’
Well I am not ‘gay’ but my first book, a novella called Scribbling On Foucault’s Walls, describes the ‘queer experience’ . Polari is for any first book that does just that. So I entered Foucault’s Daughter into Polari, a few weeks ago now.
Burston is the only contact given for potential entrants of the Polari Prize. Unlike the Orange Prize For Fiction for women writers, Polari has no website, no blog, no clear statement of how to enter or what the rules are. And when I emailed Paul to ask about entering he never replied. He still hasn’t to this day.
Weeks later, after one of his fellow judges had contacted me, and asked me lots of questions, including for my full name and contact details which I provided, I have withdrawn my book from the prize. This is because, despite the judges promising not to publish personal details unless entrants were longlisted (in July), Burston wrote a nasty blogpost about me, which included the personal information I’d given his colleague, as well as lies about me and my work. Julie Bindel, his partner in crime, also published my personal details on her facebook page, and sat back while her FB ‘friends’ became a braying mob deriding and insulting me. Not satisfied with the humiliation I didn’t seem to feel on my ‘outing’, Mr Burston carried on telling lies about me on the social media site twitter**.
I can’t help wondering what Michel Foucault, the subject of my novella, who famously once said ‘I write in order to have no face ‘ would have made of this ‘naming and shaming’ of me. Or indeed what any writer who uses a pen name to publish their work and/or who values their privacy would make of it.
Of course, everything has a context. Part of the context of Burston’s actions go back a long way, long before I even knew who he was or he I. There is a hint of this context in a quote by Burston in Bindel’s article:
“Not all of us on the gay scene want a constant diet of loud Eurotrash blasting in our ears, or hanging around under a railway arch off your face on drugs. There are other ways to celebrate being gay.”
Taken on its own (without the snobby anti drugs moralising) this statement falls roughly in line with the messages of Anti Gay (1996) edited by Mark Simpson. It is a rejection of cliches being used to signify gayness and gay culture such as Eurotrash***. Paul Burston wrote ( a very good) chapter in Anti Gay, about gay cinema, arguing how the idea that ‘films made by gay people for gay people are somehow above criticism – is, thankfully, going out of fashion’.
Well that was back in 1996. But I think with Polari, and his whole genre of being these days, Burston is trying to bring back into fashion, the idea that cultural products made by gay people for gay people are somehow above criticism.
I think Burston did not reply to my enquiries about entering Polari because I am not ‘Gay’ with a capital ‘G’ and, as Simpson so clearly expressed in his chapter Gaydream Believer in Anti Gay, I do not value the insularity of the ‘gay community’.
Suzi Feay, literary critic, friend of Burston and fellow judge of Polari, also wrote an article about the prize in The Guardian last year. She too emphasised the Gay aspect of Polari. In my comment below the line I said:
‘I am excited to see James Maker’s memoir, Autofellatio, included in the Polari Prize list [Maker went on to win in 2011]. Not just because it is brilliant but also as it is self-published on Kindle.
But I am a bit wary of the reference to ‘gay writing’. I am glad Suzi said you don’t have to be ‘gay’ to enter (or win!) the prize. But using the term ‘gay writing’ may put some people off entering, when their work could be eligible. And their experience.
As Christopher Isherwood wrote, ‘we are all queer in the end’…’
My differences with Burston, Bindel and some of their ‘friends’ in high places in the media such as Suzanne Moore and others have been made crystal clear, both here at Graunwatch and on my QRG blog. I do not think that is in itself a valid reason to refuse to process my entry to the Polari Prize. And I do not think that, in 2012, a special prize for special ‘Gay’ literature that does not include other queer voices, including trans voices is fair. Or interesting.
In his acknowledgements section to Anti Gay in 1996 Mark Simpson wrote:
‘Special thanks to _________, fellow miserablist, whose denial of his essential gayness and clearly pathological interest in seriousness and ideas has provided much inspiration, and without whom this celebratory project would not be possible. And to Paul Burston, for being a friend, a competitor and someone who manages to be both anti-gay and too gay even for the gayest gays to stomach all at the same time, damn him’.
One of the things Burston is seemingly upset about, is that I have pointed out just how ‘gay’ meaning ‘naff’ and cliched he is. But his old friend Mark Simpson said that about him years ago, so maybe we have a point!
I do not need the validation of Polari or any literary prize. I entered as I am proud of my writing and I do think it is very queer indeed. I am also proud of how I helped Simpson publish Metrosexy, and VERY proud of all the brilliant authors I showcase in my Games Perverts Play anthology.
Maybe the tagline for the Polari First Book Prize should be: ‘You don’t have to be Gay to enter, but it helps’.
*This is inaccurate on Bindel’s part. Polari is not just for novels but also for short stories and memoirs. Autofellatio which won in 2011 is a memoir.
** I have a collection of screengrabs and other evidence of lies told by Burston and Bindel which I am able to produce on request
*** Simpson’s chapter in Sex Terror (2002) ‘The New Naff’ further develops his ideas about gay culture being…naff. Simpson has written a lot about how we are all pretty gay now, for example in his essay Straights Go Gay and his piece on 1980s advertising, which has contributed to making us all well ‘gay’.
Post Script: One ‘anonymous blogger’ who IS in favour with Burston and Polari is London Preppy. He has now published a book in his own name (North Morgan). He read at Polari in Autumn 2011 and if he wins Polari 2012 I think it will have been one big stitch up!