Establishing the Gay Canon

Impact case study
  • Unit(s) of assessment: English Language and Literature
  • School: School of Arts and Humanities

Impact

As the first Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies ever appointed in the UK, Gregory Woods has located gay literature throughout the mainstream canon, broadened the canon of gay literature, and demonstrated in creative practice the potential depth and complexity of gay literature. His work has exerted a significant impact on gay creative/critical practitioners, on teachers, arts administrators and booksellers, as well as on the general reader, gay or not.

Evidence shows that he has both interpreted and created cultural capital that enriches and expands the lives, imaginations and sensibilities of individuals and groups, particularly those disadvantaged or marginalised because of their sexuality. He has also significantly informed and influenced the content of education beyond his host university.

Woods is an exceptional example of writer, academic and community activist who has brought his work directly to community groups and public services to address and challenge homophobia, promote mental health and aspiration among marginalized young people and promote HIV/AIDS awareness and HIV prevention (e.g. his famous safer-sex poem 'My Lover Loves' in May I Say Nothing).

His readings and talks at health service and community group events emphasize key messages about the desirability of challenging prejudice and directly address the health and social needs of his target audience. He has concentrated on regional events for library services, the NHS, local authorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender groups. He participated in discussions on gay literature at Leicester’s States of Independence independent presses day and at Nottingham / shire libraries readers' day and spoke on gay erotic literature at Parlare, Royal Festival Hall, London. He gave art gallery talks at Nottingham Contemporary, Djanogly Gallery and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London. He gave networking addresses at Ashfield District Council and the Nottingham/shire Healthcare Trust Employee Partnership Conference, and was guest of honour and keynote speaker at the annual Rainbow Heritage Awards evening (February 2013), Nottingham Council House.

Woods has further developed his public engagement through online social media: his website has had 32,000 visits; his new blog 1,600+ visits; and he has 1,400+ followers on Twitter.

Woods' critical work is foundational in gay studies, and is taught in universities worldwide. It was used as an organisational model for The Gay Mormon Literature Project (2009-) by Gerald Argetsinger, Rochester Institute of Technology. Woods’ poetry was used on courses at (e.g.) Durham, Istanbul, and the University of the Arts London. More broadly, in mainstream literary studies, A History of Gay Literature is the standard text, referenced in such textbooks as Pope, The English Studies Book (Routledge 2002), Bertens, Literary Theory: The Basics (Routledge 2008), Barry, Beginning Theory (MUP 2009).

Woods has facilitated gay academic research in many further ways. A major example is his chairing (2004-13) of the Gender Studies expert panel for the European Reference Index for the Humanities. The European Reference Index for the Humanities lists have been widely used by research agencies at national and university levels for evaluating research proposals and outputs.

Research background

Woods was at NTU from 1990 to 2013, Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies from 1998. The first such appointment in the UK, this is listed in Stonewall's timeline of significant events in gay history. Woods' chairing (2004-2013) of the Gender Studies expert panel for the European Science Foundation's European Reference Index for the Humanities extended his work on the enabling and broadening of gay literary studies.

The standard late 20th-century critical response to gay literature was that: no good author's homosexuality had significant bearing on his work; to read it as having such a bearing was to limit the work's claim on universality; great writers could therefore not be included in a gay canon with their greatness intact; a canon of unambiguously gay writing was, by definition, narrow in scope and low in quality.

In the 1990s, Section 28 of the Local Government Act had inhibited public discussion of homosexuality since 1988 and the World Health Organization had only just declassified it as a mental illness (1992); but combination therapies had begun to temper the ravages of AIDS, the cause of consistent levels of homophobia in the media. Working to validate gay culture at a time of extreme social pressure, Woods wrote the first History of Gay Literature to a commission from Yale University Press. Widely regarded as having defined the parameters of the field, it contained the first serious gay-studies examination of black African literature, and the first, outside Germany, of gay Holocaust literature; its final chapter, on poetry and paradox, served as a manifesto for Woods' own verse.

The book's main findings were that

  • existing commentaries were deficient in their lack of attention to gay themes, tending to seek them only on the margins, narrow in their mapping of the field, and shallow in the capabilities attributed to gay literature.
  • gay criticism could identify a much broader range and deeper reach of texts at the centre of the mainstream, of potential significance to all readers.

Woods' poetry (five Carcanet collections since 1992) belongs to the same project, researching alternative modes of desire, using varied poetic forms, a key aim being the use of virtuosic technique and thematic nuance to refute the received idea that gay literature consists of narrow special pleading and raw autobiography. The key research method involves mixing classical and modernist forms, invoking in the former a long tradition and developing with the latter fresh expressions of developing sexual identities. This exploration of forms has reinforced the sense of a received gay tradition to which he is contributing. Working towards social inclusion, his creative project brings the homoerotic and homosocial into the centre of social and cultural life, just as his critical writing reads gay literature as being central — and essential — to the canon.

Evidence

The Ergo survey on Woods' work

The Ergo survey gathered evidence of the impact of Greg Woods' critical research and poetry from a wide range of audiences.

Respondents attested to a profound and lasting impact that extends across educational, creative, social, and cultural contexts: "I've come back to the [History of Gay Literature] again and again over the years, and it continues to offer insight and guidance". His work "opened paths for critical thinking" and had "a liberating intellectual effect". "He broke down doors so that a new generation ... could walk through those doors easily". "He has made me realise the huge complexity and richness of gay literature and its centrality within Western culture".

His critical and creative work has had a profound effect on writers: "He helps me feel less alone in my work"; "His early studies ... more or less gave me the theme of my first collection". He "influenced my thinking and my practice as a writer". He "inspired my own work".

Broader impact was felt by readers in general, empowering their sense of gay identity: he "helped me in forming my own identity as a gay man". "As a gay man, I have found my own life and experience elucidated". His poetry "changed my life". "His work has been, for me, a way of life and a mode of being". "He is the most important poet writing on gay themes outside the USA. He ... corrected many of the stereotypes of gay men in popular culture". The poetry was said to be "exemplary … putting queer theory into practice," "an eye-opener … as to what poetry can be used for politically," and "a revelation, giving voice to things so often still not voiced".

Impact on writers and musicians

Woods' critical / creative research has had impact across genres and art forms.

Colm Tóibín said reading Woods' History crucially influenced the genesis of his Booker-shortlisted 2004 novel about Henry James, The Master (San Francisco Chronicle 19 June 2004). Tóibín used his London Review of Books review of it as the opening chapter of Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almódovar (2002). See also Tóibín, All a Novelist Needs (2010), p.25.

Michael Finnissy included a musical portrait of Woods in "Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets”, the core section of his epic piano work The History of Photography in Sound, premiered at the Royal Academy of Music (January 2001) and published by OUP; released on 5 CDs, performed by Ian Pace (October 2013).

Publications

Major critical work

Early responses to A History of Gay Literature attest to the work's immediate impact. In addition to those detailed below, reviews were published in the UK in Choice, Dark Horse, The Independent, and The Sunday Times; overseas, reviews appeared in Pissaro, Odisea, Lambda Book Report, La Repubblica, and the Washington Post.

  • It was regarded as an essential point of reference: "A monument to the progress of gay literary criticism. No one to date has attempted such a grand world-wide history ... It cannot be recommended highly enough" — David Azzolina, Library Journal special recommendation (1 April 1998). "A landmark work" —Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer (1 February 1998). "[It] will swiftly come to be regarded in the academic world as an exemplary piece of work" —Jonathan Bate, Sunday Telegraph (22 February 1998).
  • From the start, it was predicted to be of profound influence: "he has traced almost all the manifestations of homosexual desire ... Woods has created an alternative tradition” —Peter Ackroyd, The Times (12 February 1998). "Dense but rewarding ... Throughout, his point that homoerotic traditions are a literary constant is well-taken and persuasively argued" — Publishers Weekly (9 February 1998).
  • It achieved a major expansion of its field: "Woods has attempted nothing less than an overview of the literature of the entire world as it relates to male homosexuality. The range of his erudition is daunting" — Graeme Woolaston, Glasgow Herald (26 February 1998). "Hugely ambitious, scrupulously documented"—Neil Powell, Gay Times. "Attempts an unprecedented scope and is full of shrewd appreciations" —Alan Sinfield, Gay Times books of the year 1998. "He has performed a superhuman task" —Thom Gunn.

Poetry

Woods' poetry has been praised, especially for its technical flair:

"The poet with the sharpest technique for social verse in Britain today. He lets off fireworks through the official groves of English literature" — Peter Porter.

"There are few poets around who can rival him technically" — Matt Simpson, Stride (2/08).

"A quite astonishingly gifted formalist. You feel that there's no kind of verse he couldn't use, adapt, subvert, play games with" — John Lucas, Staple (Summer/Autumn 08).

"I'm not sure I had ever written a fan letter before to a poet I had not met, but that's what I did when I read two poems by Gregory Woods ... I admired them especially for their technical virtuosity, in that it was technique completely used, never for the sake of cleverness but as a component of feeling ... What an enviable talent Gregory Woods has" —Thom Gunn.

"I have read Gregory Woods' poems with real excitement" —Sir Stephen Spender.

"The foremost gay poet working in Britain today" —Alan Sinfield, Gay Times (12/95) "Probably, the finest gay poet in the United Kingdom ... a poet of considerable technical ability and intellectual depth" —Sinéad Morrissey.

Contribution as chair during development of major reference source: Gender Studies, European Reference Index for the Humanities (European Science Foundation, 2007, 2011).

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