If White were on social media, he wouldn’t have much to say about himself that he hasn’t already published — with candor and what Oates described as a “lack of protectiveness.” He rose to fame in 1982 with “A Boy’s Own Story,” the first installment in an autobiographical trilogy that traces his life from childhood to the Stonewall riots and the devastation of AIDS, a loss he likened to the one-by-one departure of players from the stage in Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony.
In the late 1970s he was part of the Violet Quill, an informal group of gay male authors. They casually staked claims on specific types of queer stories: White focused on his youth, while Robert Ferro wrote about the family, and Andrew Holleran, with “Dancer From the Dance,” became a chronicler of Fire Island culture.
“Gay fiction before that, Gore Vidal and Truman Capote, was written for straight readers,” White said. “We had a gay readership in mind, and that made all the difference. We didn’t have to spell out what Fire Island was.”
Writers from the Violet Quill were pioneers, but like many published novelists of the time, they still wrote from a narrow — which is to say, white, and often moneyed — perspective. Queer literature has since blossomed with other voices: Édouard Louis’s fiction is as much about class; Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” as much about immigration and drug abuse.
In that sense, “A Boy’s Own Story” has become more significant for its historical importance than its urgency. Brandon Taylor, the 31-year-old author of “Real Life,” remembered being a teenager searching for gay novels to read and repeatedly coming across it as an essential book.
Today, though, White “isn’t a touchstone for people I consider my peers,” Taylor said. That doesn’t mean he isn’t influential, though. “When you see a book about a queer Midwestern coming-of-age,” Taylor added, “it’s hard not to see his hands all over that.”
What Taylor and other young gay writers — even White himself — don’t take for granted is that queer fiction is nowhere near as marginalized as in the days when publishers saw novels like “A Boy’s Own Story” as too much of a risk.