In 1998, the year of the publication of A History of Gay Literature - The Male Tradition, Gregory Woods was appointed Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University, the first such appointment in the UK. According to Woods' website
the then Conservative shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe used the pages of the Sunday Mirror to denounce his career as ‘a phenomenal waste of public money’, while the right-wing British National Party saw the appointment as yet another sign of national decline. Such appointments have become a bit more widespread in the USA and the UK in the meantime, and a cottage industry of Queer Studies(*) has developed. As in many newly minted academic fields, there is a certain tentativeness in the books I've read on the subject which is expressive of a continuing search for the intellectual core and methods of the field, and there is a certain defensive polemicism against the ignorant and hateful libels of various homophobic critics. All of this is quite understandable, but one should be aware of its existence when going into the academic literature. (This book, published by Yale University Press and supplied with over 50 pages of endnotes and bibliography, is definitely academic literature.)
Woods' book would be more accurately titled A Brief History of Gay Literature in the European Tradition, because the small gestures made towards literature in Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Chinese and Japanese are really unsatisfactory and there is no approximation to completeness even within the more narrowly defined confines I indicated. In fact, the bulk of the text and the author's personal interest when engaging with the material are essentially limited to literature in English and French, with brief excursions into ancient Greek and Roman literature where there are no surprises in the texts he chose to discuss.(**)
The first problem Woods had to address is the question 'What is gay literature?' For as Michel Foucault correctly pointed out already in 1976 in his Histoire de la Sexualité, the sexuality currently known as 'gay' did not really exist before modern times. In other cultures and times sexual relations between persons of the same gender had completely different meanings than they do here and now.(***) Though he waffles a bit, I think he finally settles upon literature is gay if it can be read as homoerotic by a gay person now. He mentions this position once among many others, but it seems this is how he makes his selection of texts.
With the exception of Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare and Marcel Proust, to whom Woods dedicates separate chapters, most authors treated in this book receive just a few paragraphs of discussion. In 400 pages he runs from Homer to current popular Gay genre authors such as Armistead Maupin, and all too often what is discussed is how gay is the author?
Besides additions to an already groaning TBR list, is there something new to me that I can take away from this book? Yes, a few things. For example, Woods supports the thesis that there is a kind of gay tradition in English language literature beginning in Elizabethan times, which is based on Plato and Greek and Roman pastoral verse and which is itself expressed primarily through pastoral poems or elegies until the 20th century when it became possible to be addressed more directly in prose.(4*) That intrigues me. When I recently re-read Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard I did not see it in such a tradition. And it is evident from Woods' discussion of Tennyson's In Memoriam that I was deeply unaware of the psychosexual and social tensions expressed in that poem. To mention two only. In the midst of all the names, polemics and gossip, Woods occasionally engaged sufficiently with a text that he helped me to become a better reader. And that means ultimately, as I am sure you fervent readers will agree, to become better able to understand this strange little world and our strange little lives.
Still, it looks like we shall need to wait a while before we can read a History of Gay Literature.
(*) Damn strange choice of adjective, it would seem to me...
(**) However, Woods did manage to convince me to overcome my personal prejudice against pastoral poetry and pick up Theocritus...
(***) And let's face it, even here and now they have multiple meanings - just contrast the gays for whom the gay relationship is identical in every respect - except one, of course - with that of the Christian ideal of marriage (even the procreation, through surrogates, is maintained) with those who want a completely "new" type of relationship involving multiple partners and a family of former and/or current lovers providing love and support around them. There is nothing simple about human sexuality.
(4*) There is another line of "gay" literature Woods discusses, namely the play upon homosexuality involved in characters disguising themselves in the garb of the other gender, and not because they are psychosexually transvestites but for some authorial purpose. The author then has the opportunity to excite the audience/reader in numerous ways with the omnipresent frisson of the forbidden or to engage in some rather crude humor. Some of these walking-on-the-edge-of-the-wild-side plays and novels take the opportunity to look at gender and sexuality rather seriously (like Théophile Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin), but in all of these texts it appears that, in the end, the heterosexual order has been carefully maintained. I'm not sure I would consider these to be exemplars of gay literature at all.