AIDS, Arts and Responsibilities: An Interview With Edmund White

For gay men of a certain age -- this reporter's age, for example -- you could not live in New York in the 1970s and consider yourself cool without reading Edmund White's two novels. Nabokov1 raved. Sontag2 cheered. But for us Forgetting Elena and Nocturnes for the King of Naples meant more than high art by a heretofore unknown. They meant smart, deep, probative prose by an avowed homosexual who had no time for guilt, remorse, or maudlin maunderings toward self-awareness.

White went on to map the ins and outs of gay sex (in The Joy of Gay Sex with Charles Silverstein3), to map the routes of gay travel (in States of Desire), and to snag a National Book Critics Circle Award for his landmark biography of gay lit's ur-rebel, Jean Genet.4 But White's four autobiographical novels -- starting with the breakthrough A Boy's Own Story -- define his legacy.

For many gay men White's nameless hero holds a flawless mirror to our lives, yet one that is sharper, subtler, droller than our own nonfictive bios. We follow that hero through the years of gay repression, gay rebellion, gay liberation, and inevitably AIDS. Like many gay men who thrived in the 70s, White picked up HIV himself and watched his friends die ugly deaths. Unlike most, he wrote about it beautifully from hard experience. He lost his best friend, a cherished editor, and his lover to AIDS.

Since White just finished his real autobiography, My Lives, it seemed a good time to ask him to reflect on AIDS, gays, prose, and prospects for gay culture in the age of HIV -- and even to ask for some clinical pointers. Not that he has retired to the armchair of graybeard reflection. After he launches My Lives, White will continue work on a novel about Stephen Crane5 and fine-tune his play Terre Haute at the Sundance Theater Workshop.

The third novel in his tetralogy, The Farewell Symphony, takes its name from the Haydn6 opus in which the entire orchestra vacates the stage one by one, leaving only a lonely violin to carry the tune. The novel tapped it as a rueful image of an AIDS survivor -- not unlike White. But one may also see Haydn's solitary concertmaster as the image of a dauntless artist, fiddling furiously.

IAPAC Monthly: You've written a great deal, and you don't seem to be slowing down. Would you have written with less urgency if you hadn't been infected by a deadly virus?

Edmund White in 1984 while visiting his friend, the critic David Kalstone, who died of AIDS shortly thereafter. (Photo © Robert Giard.)
Edmund White in 1984 while visiting his friend, the critic David Kalstone,8 who died of AIDS shortly thereafter. (Photo © Robert Giard.)

Edmund White: I found out I was positive in 1985, though I'm sure I was positive for five years at that point because most of my contemporaries were. My initial response was depression and not working. I just pulled the covers over my head for a year and didn't do anything.

I had a Swiss lover when I was living in Paris and we took the HIV test together. I said to him, "I'm a good enough novelist to know what's going to happen -- you're going to be negative, I'm going to be positive, and you're going to drop me." That's just what happened, although we're still good friends. But he was afraid of me.

So it was all very depressing and I didn't work well at all initially. Then I began to work on this mammoth project, the Genet biography,7 which took seven years. And I kept thinking, "this is the height of folly if I only have two years to live." But I didn't know then that I would be a slow progressor.

I'm not a nonprogressor. My T cells have drifted down over the last 20 years from 700 to 600 to 500 to 400. Pretty soon I guess I'll have to go on meds; my doctor wants me to go on now. But because some of the meds are hard on your heart and I have some heart problems, it's kind of a toss-up about what to do as long as I remain asymptomatic.

Only when I thought -- "Gee, I guess I'm not going to die right away" -- did I come out of my depression and begin to write at this feverish pitch. The first two novels I wrote after I learned I had HIV -- The Farewell Symphony9 and The Married Man10 -- and my book of short stories, Skinned Alive,11 all dealt with AIDS. And I did write them with some urgency, partly because I was living in France where, at that time, there wasn't much of an AIDS community.

I felt isolated there. In New York I'd been one of the founders of the Gay Men's Health Crisis [GMHC] and I'd known people involved in AIDS activism early on. But I left New York in 1983, so that was still early days. I was in on the early meetings of the French counterpart to Gay Men's Health Crisis, AIDES, because after Michel Foucault12 died in 1984 his lover Daniel Defert13 asked me to help him with the first meetings.

When I finally got around to writing those novels and the short stories I did feel an urgency -- but for my own sake, not for anybody else's -- to communicate with people about what it was like to be positive and what it was like to live this way.

IAPAC Monthly: You confront AIDS head-on in The Married Man, but AIDS is more a shadow hanging over The Farewell Symphony until that last sad chapter. How do you decide how tightly to focus on AIDS in your fiction?

Edmund White: It's like trying to get a child to swallow cod liver oil. Nobody wants to read about AIDS. People who have it don't want to read about it because it's depressing. People who don't have it but are susceptible to HIV don't want to read about it because it's bad news. The only thing people want to read about AIDS is the headline that says they've found a cure. You can walk into bookstores and see piles of AIDS book remainders: Nobody wants to read them.

So anyone writing about HIV faces a commercial and technical problem. The commercial problem is that we have to sell enough copies to stay in business and get another contract to write another book. The technical problem is how to lure people into a novel that seems innocent and then get them to think about AIDS. For instance, The Farewell Symphony certainly announces from the title on that it's going to be a downer, but the epidemic doesn't arrive until late in the book.

After I'd written A Boy's Own Story,14 my original plan was to write two more stories -- one about the sex-mad 70s, then one about AIDS. The trouble was I waited so long because of the Genet biography that when I finally got around to this I thought it would be intolerable to write a book about everyone having fun and fucking each other, then a few years later to publish another book in which everybody dies of AIDS.

People wouldn't want to read either book. They'd see the first one as totally irresponsible and cuckoo and the second one as a total downer. So I thought I'd fuse them and write a much longer single volume than I'd intended, and that became The Farewell Symphony. I thought foreshadowing AIDS and talking about the good old days at the same time was a strategy that would make people read on.

IAPAC Monthly: I'm surprised there's that much premeditation in planning a novel.

Edmund White: I'm very reader oriented. The only kind of criticism I like is reader-response theory, developed by Wolfgang Iser.15 To me it's as though the writer is playing the piano and the piano is the reader. You're trying to get sounds out of it; you're trying to get responsiveness -- to please and entertain him enough to keep him reading -- then also to force him a little to deal with hard issues.

IAPAC Monthly: What other works of fiction, drama, or poetry do you esteem for the way they address the epidemic?

Edmund White: I like quite a few French books. For example, I am a big admirer of Hervé Guibert,16 as I explained in my essay "Sade in Jeans."17 What I like about Guibert is that he was tough. It seems to me that in the English-speaking world the problem in AIDS writing has been sentimentality -- a tearful, victimized, medicalized approach to AIDS and not enough defiance, anger, gutsiness. I don't want to name names, but we've had everything from AIDS deathbed weddings to angels descending.

Of course this has been vastly admired by most people, and I feel like a cad not liking it. But I don't like its sentimentality. It's not that different from the death of Little Nell18 in Dickens. I think people living through AIDS probably get a lot of consolation from that kind of writing. But I think, as literature, it's dubious.

Among writers in English, I'm a big fan of Alan Hollinghurst.19 I feel he's dealt with AIDS extremely well. It's a real factor in his most recent book, The Line of Beauty, although it's not center stage. But again I think that's a good tactic for getting people to read. And I think that by taking that approach he was able to win the Man Booker Prize, which I don't think a straight AIDS novel could ever win.

In Hollinghurst's second book, The Folding Star, a character named Dawn is dying of AIDS. And it's all miraculously well written. I think he's one of the greatest writers alive.

IAPAC Monthly: Several years ago on my way to an HIV neurology meeting I picked up The Man With Night Sweats, a book of poems by Thom Gunn20 -- quite by chance because I'd never heard of him. When I wrote about the meeting I quoted from Gunn's poem "Lament," which has a few lines that I thought might strike a chord with neurologists:

You tried to stay the man that you had been, Treating each symptom as a mere mishap Without import. But then the spinal tap.21

And a few neurologists who went to that meeting and read the article wrote to me, asking about Gunn and asking for a copy of the whole poem. Experiences like that make me wonder whether HIV doctors can learn from the AIDS literature. And that makes me wonder whether people with AIDS learn from the AIDS literature.

Edmund White: I think people do -- but not in great numbers. The first thing I ever wrote about AIDS was The Darker Proof22 with Adam Mars-Jones,23 an English writer who's been a friend of mine forever. We decided we'd do a paperback original of stories about AIDS that would come out quickly. And it did come out fairly early, in 1987, which was early for AIDS literature.

AIDS, Arts, and Responsibilities: An Interview With Edmund White

Our idea was that because it was paperback we could get it in print right away, and it would be cheap to buy. We felt that the only people talking about AIDS in the 1980s were doctors and that problems gays had faced for a hundred years were that they were a subject of medical enquiry and they were considered a medical category. The whole discourse had been medicalized.

One of the many tasks of gay liberation, starting with Stonewall in 1969,24 was to reverse that way of thinking and declassify homosexuality as a medical condition by the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association. We succeeded in those battles. But AIDS seemed to push everything backwards to an age when the only ones who were talking about male homosexuals were doctors who weren't gay or didn't identify as gays. They were discussing us in a very clinical way as though we were guinea pigs -- "subjects."

Adam and I both felt it was important to show the inner life of people dealing with AIDS. Either they were caretakers or they had the disease themselves or were worrying about it. I don't think that book sold many copies but it caused quite a stir in England. I incorporated my stories into Skinned Alive.

But I don't think you have to write specifically about AIDS to foster deeper thinking about gay culture and our response to this disease. When Larry Kramer25 discovered I was writing the Genet biography in 1987, he flew into a rage in print, saying the only thing anyone who's gay should write about is AIDS -- and how dare Edmund White (who's supposed to be a good writer) take on this ridiculous historical subject that's totally irrelevant to our concerns?

My feeling was that if we're in danger of being reduced to a single issue, AIDS, and if we're in danger of being seen mainly as victims of a fatal medical condition, then it's part of my AIDS work to write about a great cultural figure who stood outside of the whole AIDS discourse. I thought it was important to write about this towering literary figure to remind people of all these great cultural accomplishments achieved by gays that had nothing to do with AIDS -- and to remind them that we'd get back to that.

IAPAC Monthly: Your essay on AIDS writing, "Journals of the Plague Years,"26 ends with a series of questions about where HIV literature is headed now that people of means can take effective regimens. So let me read those questions, which you posed in 1997, and ask if you think any of them has been answered:

  • Will all those people who died be forgotten?

  • Because lesbians and gays seldom hand their sexual identity down to their children, will what we are suffering be lost?

  • Will we continue our fight to help the poor suffering from AIDS here and abroad?

  • Or will we succumb to instant amnesia, pop an Ecstasy and return to the dance floor?

Edmund White: Pretty good questions, huh? Oh, God. What do you think?

IAPAC Monthly: You worked as a journalist -- you know the interviewer never answers questions.

Edmund White: Oh, right. I think the truth is that even for people who can afford the drugs, there are still a lot of inconveniences in taking them. Everybody knows someone who's just had some implant in his face because of wasting or the guy upstairs who's dealing with a hump on his back. For such a body-oriented culture, it's very dismaying.

I always felt that the next generation of ads warning people against unsafe sex should concentrate on those things. What people learned about the antismoking campaign is that if you mentioned death people didn't read on, because a little curtain comes down to protect them from the idea of death. You needed to mention things like smelly breath, hacking cough, burning holes in your clothes and sofa -- those were things people could register and react to. But death, no.

By the same token good anti-AIDS advertisements now should emphasize things like lipodystrophy -- not death.

IAPAC Monthly: The narrator of your autobiographical novels battles a dialectic familiar to many gay men -- hedonistic adventure versus "true love" -- meaning monogamous love. At least that was true of many gay men I knew when I was young, but I wonder if young gay men feel that way today.

Edmund White: I think they definitely do. At least the official rhetoric is that they should get a partner, and they oftentimes do, perhaps planning to be faithful as a way to avoid HIV. If they're both tested and both negative, they can have "unsafe sex" together. But that puts tremendous pressure on them to be honest, and they can't always live up to that. Then the consequences can be fatal.

My own feeling is that it's better to go into a back room and have safe sex with 20 unknown people than to have unsafe sex with your lover -- because you can't really believe what he says.

I know of one highly successful gay scholar who "married" his lover in a formal ceremony. Though they pledged eternal fidelity to each other, neither of them was faithful. But they could never bring themselves to admit they weren't faithful. So one of them picked up HIV and transmitted it to the other. They both died. But they never admitted they had AIDS because that would have blown their cover as this ideal faithful couple.

I think there are an awful lot of young people who have a lover but are also cruising on the Internet. I cruise on the Internet and it's just clogged with thousands and thousands of people. There's an extraordinary amount of activity of every variety.

IAPAC Monthly: Do young gays ask you questions about sexuality?

Edmund White: No, they don't. Most young people don't even know who I am because they don't read me. If you look in Gaydar or other places where people are asked to list their favorite author, it's never me. (It's always David Sedaris.27) Maybe my work is too sad, or too unpleasant, or too literate. But when I was young I didn't ask anyone questions about sex either.

IAPAC Monthly: In an essay on the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe,28 you wrote that "art and passion are the two supremely irresponsible modes of experience." Do you regard your autobiographical novels -- which span gay repression, liberation, and AIDS -- as either responsible or irresponsible?

Edmund White: I think they're more responsible than not. Even though I was criticized for "glamorizing" sexual promiscuity in The Farewell Symphony, my own feeling is -- wait a minute: everyone dies in the book. So it's not denying or ignoring the consequences of unsafe sex. But I also am a romantic, and people who think sex is worth dying for -- or that art is worth dying for -- have all my sympathy. I understand what they're talking about.

There's been a weird natural selection whereby the people with my beliefs tend to have died. And the people who are kind of cautious and prudish and pleasure-phobic are the ones who survived, so you hear a lot from them. They preach to everybody and give a lot of lessons.

I feel there's always been a strong moral strain in my writing. The single best essay about me appeared in the Times Literary Supplement and was written by a straight English critic who compared me to [Ralph Waldo] Emerson.29 I loved that because I feel, first of all, that I am a great American writer and, secondly, that I have that moral preoccupation that somebody like Emerson had.

Yes, I'm very pro-pleasure, but I don't think that makes me irresponsible.

IAPAC Monthly: Through The Joy of Gay Sex,30 States of Desire,31 your novels, your essays, you've defined gay culture and behavior for lots of gay men. You did for me. Do you see yourself as a definer -- or would you prefer some other word to describe your legacy?

Edmund White in 2000, the year he published the last of his four autobiographical novels, The Married Man, which unflinchingly examines how AIDS affects a gay couple. (Photo © Barbara Confino.)
Edmund White in 2000, the year he published the last of his four autobiographical novels, The Married Man, which unflinchingly examines how AIDS affects a gay couple. (Photo © Barbara Confino.)

Edmund White: "Definer" is fine. I hope it's true. I mean it's a very optimistic view of my work.

One thing that people forget when they frame categories like that is that the person himself probably wasn't aspiring toward any such thing. There may be a tendency to say, "White set himself up as an authority on gay culture, and look at all the mistakes he made -- A, B, and C." But the truth lies somewhere else. JD Salinger32 probably thinks he's a fairly minor writer, yet he was crowned then dethroned.

We do that a lot in this country. Even in a minor way with a writer like me there's a tendency to set someone up as an authority, which he himself never claimed to be. Or if he puts himself in the running, he's very happy if lots of other people have their own ideas and publish them.

I think at a certain moment I was sort of prominent, and some people tend to imagine that I set myself up as an authority. For instance, people blame me for encouraging gay people to have sex in The Joy of Gay Sex, but that was written in 1976. When AIDS struck, Charles Silverstein and I tried to withdraw the book instantly, but the publisher wouldn't listen to us. Finally we were able to publish a revised AIDS-conscious version. It took too long, but that wasn't our fault.

Anything that touches on gay sexuality is very fraught now because of AIDS. People tend to be ahistorical in thinking of past books as being somehow guilty of promoting something that happened five years later.

IAPAC Monthly: You turned up at some of the watershed events in recent gay history -- the Stonewall riot, the founding of the Violet Quill33 and GMHC -- and you wrote the archetypal coming-out novel. I won't ask about the worst memories these events left, but what was the best?

Edmund White: The odd thing is that I've never seen myself as a team member in gay life. I feel that I never repeated anything. I would go to Fire Island in the 60s and 70s, then I stopped going. I would go to back rooms and baths, but then I'd stop it. In other words I feel that I've never been one to acquire habits or persist in something very much. In my writing I feel that I've tried to avoid doing the same book over and over. My most recent book, Fanny,34 was a straight historical novel. So I don't want to present myself as someone who identified with the gay movement and was there to crow over its triumphs, because I don't think I did that much.

Stonewall I sort of stumbled into. I was walking with a friend past the Stonewall at the time it was raided. We got involved and very excited by the demonstration. But it wasn't as though we were in the bar when the police raided it.

I don't think any of us took Violet Quill very seriously. We met only eight times. It was mainly about who could prepare the best dessert. But it's remembered because people like movements and because historians like to write about movements more than they like to write about individuals -- and because it did actually coincide with a triumph of gay culture.

Somebody should write a book about the 70s in New York -- straight and gay -- but it would turn out to be mainly a gay story. I feel that was one of the high points in human culture. There were all these great people -- Jasper Johns35 in painting, John Ashbery36 in poetry, [George] Balanchine's37 last years in ballet, many great novelists -- there was a tremendous amount of activity and a New York aesthetic that was very powerful.

IAPAC Monthly: Lots of HIV clinicians read this journal. Do you have anything to say to them?

Edmund White: I would say don't have too rigid a notion of who the at-risk groups are. As I've gotten older and moved out of the prime gay category to resemble more the family dentist, I've found that I have sex with all kinds of people who wouldn't want to have sex with "a gay man." I have a tremendous repertoire of people in my address book who are married, bisexual, discreet, in their 50s, 60s, 20s, 30s, who have a dread of the gay culture.

I always practice safe sex, but what if I didn't? I could have infected a whole bunch of people by now. Because they don't think of me as being gay or likely to have HIV infection, they're comfortable having sex with me.

So on the basis of my own experience I believe there's a tremendous underground of people having gay sex -- often unprotected sex -- whom a clinician would never identify as being gay. Maybe it would be useful for more clinicians to be a little more alert to how fluid and open human sexuality is.

Mark Mascolini writes about HIV infection (


  1. Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977): Russian author.

  2. Susan Sontag (1933 - 2004): American author.

  3. Charles Silverstein (1947- ): American psychologist, author.

  4. Jean Genet (1910-1986): French novelist, playwright, poet.

  5. Stephen Crane (1871-1900): American novelist, poet.

  6. Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809): Austrian composer.

  7. White E. Genet: A Biography. New York: Knopf; 1993.

  8. David Kalstone (1932-1986): American writer, critic.

  9. White E. The Farewell Symphony. New York: Random House; 1999.

  10. White E. The Married Man. New York: Knopf; 2000.

  11. White E. Skinned Alive. New York: Knopf; 1995.

  12. Michel Foucault (1926-1984): French author, lecturer.

  13. Daniel Defert (1937-1991): French activist, sociologist.

  14. White E. A Boy's Own Story. New York: Dutton; 1982.

  15. Wolfgang Iser (1926 - ): German literary theorist.

  16. Herve Guibert (1955-1991): French author.

  17. White E. Sade in jeans. In: The Burning Library. New York: Knopf; 1994.

  18. Little Nell (aka adolescent orphan Nell Trent) was a character in Charles Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop.

  19. Alan Hollinghurst (1954- ): British novelist.

  20. Thom Gunn (1929-2004): British poet.

  21. Gunn T. Lament. In: The Man With Night Sweats. London: Faber and Faber; 1992.

  22. White E, Mars-Jones A. The Darker Proof: Stories From a Crisi. London: Faber and Faber; 1987.

  23. Adam Mars-Jones (1954- ): British critic, novelist.

  24. The Stonewall riot on June 28, 1969 -- the first time gay bar patrons resisted a police raid -- marks the beginning of gay liberation for many. This signal event closes the second installment in White's autobiographical tetralogy, The Beautiful Room Is Empty.

  25. Larry Kramer (1935- ): American activist, author, dramatist.

  26. White E. Journals of the plague years. The Nation. 1997;264:13-18.

  27. David Sedaris (1956- ): American author.

  28. White E. The irresponsible art of Robert Mapplethorpe. In: The Burning Library. New York: Knopf; 1994. The work of Robert Mapplethorpe, a gay photographer who died of AIDS, ranges from exquisitely objective shots of flowers, to steamy photos of men, to self-portraits chronicling his own illness.

  29. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882): American essayist.

  30. Silverstein C, White E. The Joy of Gay Sex. New York: Simon and Schuster; 1977.

  31. White E. States of Desire: Travels in Gay America. New York: Dutton; 1980.

  32. JD Salinger (1919 - ): American writer.

  33. The Violet Quill consisted of seven gay New York writers who met to discuss each others' work: White, Christopher Cox, Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano, and George Whitmore. When White returned from Paris to New York in 1990, Cox, Ferro, Grumley, and Whitmore had died of AIDS.

  34. White E. Fanny: A Fiction. New York: Ecco/HarperCollins; 2003.

  35. Jasper Johns Jr. (1930- ): American painter, sculptor.

  36. John Ashbery (1927- ): American poet.

  37. George Balanchine (1904-1983): Russian choreographer.