This summer's breakout paperback tells a vital (and educational) queer story
Andrew Sean Greer’s new novel Less has had a surprisingly long tail. Since debuting in July 2017 to critical acclaim but little word-of-mouth, the droll queer character study has won a Pulitzer Prize, found thousands of new readers through its re-release in paperback, and hit the New York Times best-seller list for the first time. It may have been released a year ago, but Less is this summer’s literary breakout.
Like beloved novels Call Me By Your Name and Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (the basis for the movie Love, Simon), Less revels in the experience of a white, cisgender gay man. Middle-aged writer Arthur Less haphazardly embarks on a spur-of-the-moment, all-expenses-paid trip around the world — Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, India, and Japan — to flee his ex’s impending wedding and finish a stalled manuscript about a melancholy writer living in San Francisco. Less — the man, not the novel — is self-conscious and just a bit self-important.
The novel continues to surge; it’s currently a No. 1 best-seller on regional measures around the country and seems to be only getting stronger on the big New York Times list. “It’s been nonstop,” Craig Young, Deputy Publisher of Little, Brown, and Co., tells EW. “The book has found a really wide audience really quickly. We’re reprinting constantly. It’s going to be one of the biggest books of the year.”
Less is, of course, yet another portrait of a melancholy, well-off white gay man — a focus which, when handled simplistically, can feel a little reductive and narrow in the broader mission to improve LGBTQ representation in fiction. But fortunately, Greer isn’t defending his protagonist. Less — the novel, not the man — is a Trojan horse, exposing the blind spots of the white gay experience through an exploration of the “plights” of a blond-haired, blue-eyed, past-his-prime twink.
Less, who’s reluctantly still coasting on the success of his years-old novel Kalipso, is fragile and aware of his insignificance, yet unsure of how to obtain notoriety. A poet calls him “a person without skin” at one point, to which he defensively questions why a poet (of all people) would drag him for what he perceives as vulnerability, but his peers clearly detect as a deep denial of privilege.
He’s reached middle age as an out and proud gay man with financial security and professional success. But he dares to wallow in dissatisfaction even as he’s aware that his predecessors — the AIDS generation — lived in constant fear of death at his age. His exasperation is comical: When an Indian retreat woodshop worker removes his desk chair, preventing him from writing while it’s re-customized for his pleasure, he’s profoundly irked. Less is easily bothered and painfully helpless — a person without skin.
Less is also alone, a sudden return to his “ostensibly gay” teenage years. He’s plateaued after decades of euphoric gay joy. Moving to the mecca of San Francisco after college, Less was taken under the wing of genius poet Robert Brownburn, an older, wiser gay man who pampered him, showed him the queer ropes, and understood when he inevitably left for someone younger. Think of Arthur Less as Queer as Folk’s Justin Taylor — now balding and jaded.
I read Less for the first time as a wake-up call: The queer writer and his dread of turning 50 alone sharply contrasts with my millennial and Gen-Z contemporaries proudly posting Pride photos on Instagram and stanning RuPaul’s Drag Race at viewing parties in flyover cities.
My cohort of “It Gets Better” gays is sold the same narrative Less bought a non-digital version of decades ago. Less’ faltering love life counters the Love, Simon-esque coming-out narrative, where the challenge to publicly proclaim your sexuality is the greatest struggle of all — the moment you finally make the grand statement, in all its FaceTuned and rainbow-filtered Instagram glory, leads to your friends’ support and family’s acceptance, with doors propping open. Life begins while adversity dies.
There’s some truth to this façade in the white gay male experience, where identifying as LGBT — but rarely queer — is an opportunity to check off the minority box and evade criticism against the white patriarchy. As Less treks through Europe, his self-pitying slowly gives way to a familiar fear of queer rejection. While in Paris, he attends an aristocratic dinner party at the invitation of one of Brownburn’s old pals where he reunites with a rival writer named Finley Dwyer. He gratuitously informs a downtrodden Less that his lack of lasting literary success isn’t because he’s a bad writer; it’s that his work doesn’t meet the gay canon’s duty to provide inspiring narratives. Arthur Less is “a bad gay.”
It speaks to a perpetual fear for queer people: that your community will reject you. Turning 50, Less finds himself contending with a fatal flaw: old age. A bad writer, sure — Less could handle that. But a bad gay? It goes against his core identity.
There’s something refreshing about seeing Less’ world screech to a halt after taking for granted the decades of unapologetic, unending gay pride. De-gayed and finally at the big 5-0, he’s stuck on a hot camelback caravan in Morocco. There, he uncharacteristically discusses his troublesome manuscript with a fellow birthday companion, a worldly woman named Zhora, who bluntly informs him it’s hard to muster sympathy for “a white middle-aged American man walking around with his white middle-aged American sorrows.” Yes, even if he’s gay. For the first time, Less realizes he’s remained soaked in privilege even after checking off the minority box.
Less’ continued success proves that its story is resonating on a wide level — in its humor, it offers a certain level of escapism perfect for summer. But the novel and its bumbling leading man also serve as a potent reminder to me and other young white gay men that our journeys, while valid, are plagued with self-importance. Arthur Less is our Brownburn — an older gay man from whose story we think, learn, and grow.
—Additional reporting by David Canfield