Over the last year, my former literary agent sent me outlandish descriptions of the various reasons publishers gave for rejecting my book. Frankly, I always had it in the back of my mind that he was making them up. When publishers told him that in “this political climate” a book about a queer topic was inadvisable, or when an editor claimed that there was no reason to ever mention James Dean’s sexuality again because it had been discussed in 1975, I wondered if this could possibly be serious. Then this week I received the most dispiriting of rejections, one that left me flabbergasted.
Keep in mind, I have published many books and received countless rejections. This was something completely different.
The executive editor of a very large press was impressed with my book proposal, thought a book looking at the history of 1950s crackdowns on homosexuality through the lens of James Dean’s experience was a worthy topic, and was ready to make an offer pending approval from the editorial board. They sent the proposal to an “outside expert on gay history,” and, after overruling the executive editor, sent me a three-page critique of a book that they did not read. I know they didn’t read it because I hadn’t sent the manuscript to anyone at the press. They saw a one-page summary, a chapter outline, and a sample chapter that did not cover the material they criticized.
The editorial board informed me that they felt I had insufficiently considered evidence that James Dean was straight and that—in a book that they had not read—“you are treating every clue suggesting Dean’s gayness as reliable and every piece of counterevidence as not.” The book proposal specifically laid out the many reasons that I feel it is impossible to assign definitive labels to dead people, but what rankled me more than anything is the implication that I am a poor researcher and lacking in critical judgment, all without considering anything I actually wrote, or any of the evidence supporting it.
The critique went on to assert that my description of Rebel without a Cause as purposely including homosexual themes is obviously incorrect because—and this made me laugh bitterly—Vito Russo, writing in 1981, did not discover explicit homosexual themes in the movie in his book The Celluloid Closet. Russo, however, actually did find that (“Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause contained broad hints of alternative sexual behavior…”), but anyone who can read also knows that Russo wrote that he conducted no research into the production of the films he surveyed and commented only on his reading of the surface text. Rebel screenwriter Steward Stern stated with remarkable bluntness in a 1959 interview that he intended the movie to have “homosexual overtones” and had modeled it on homosexual relationships he had learned about among young WWII soldiers. He was, of course, revising Irving Shulman’s draft script, which was even more gay, with a predatory homosexual Plato instigating a murder plot to seduce the sexually confused Jim. But of course no one trusts me enough to accurately quote what the people involved said, not when someone offered a secondhand opinion four decades ago that can be misquoted.
They even criticized a passing reference to another celebrity in a chapter summary, writing that there was no conceivable reason to bring in that person and that it was inappropriate to do so. Had they trusted me enough to actually read the book, they might have learned that he and Dean lived a couple of blocks from one another for half a year, walked the same streets on the same nights to the same gay cruising ground where witnesses saw them (separately) watching the young men on beach, and that one of them was arrested there. This is documented in contemporary records from the 1950s.
But everyone knows better than me.
I won’t bore you with the rest. I don’t consider literary criticisms made without reading the book to be legitimate. Suffice it to say that I have a good idea who the “outside expert” is and why he disapproves.
Nevertheless, I can’t fathom why after all these decades we are somehow more censorious about James Dean than in the 1990s, the 1970s, the 1960s, or even the 1950s. I have copies of contemporary notes from the 1950s and 1960s in which famous folks discussed Dean’s sexuality (which, I remind you, does not fall neatly into modern categories); it was no secret, even if the media conspired to cover up what everyone in Hollywood already knew.
I am sorry I stumbled onto this topic. It would never have occurred to me that so many people are so heavily invested in preventing me from writing about it. It’s dispiriting, and it makes me not want to write anything for a good long while.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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