Gay and Lesbian Novels and Novelists

Homosexuality, traditionally regarded as a disease or perversion by church, state, and society, was rigorously denounced and condemned by those same institutions. In the case of the arts and literature, works featuring homoeroticism or gays and lesbians as characters were often censored, if they were recognized at all. English language writers, for example, wrote “gay novels” under pseudonyms and published them either privately or in foreign countries.

Gay characters and sensibilities were introduced into literature only by arch subterfuge, with writers following society’s unwritten decree that homoerotic fiction must end with the death, destruction, or extraordinary “conversion” of the questionable characters. In Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and His Friend (1870), a disastrous marriage causes Joseph to drift toward Philip, a young, goldenhaired man; the novel ends, however, with Joseph’s sudden, almost inexplicable interest in Philip’s look-alike sister. This plot shift presumably was made to “save” Joseph from a fate worse than death. Henry James’s Roderick Hudson (1876) sketches wealthy Rowland Mallet’s infatuation with a young sculptor, but after a rift between them, the eponymous character sinks into a decadent languor from which he is rescued only by Christina Light, a beautiful, bored girl. Like other novels of the time, homoerotic love is forced to yield to the heterosexual imperative.

Europe saw many clandestine homoerotic novels— such as the lurid Gamiani (1833; Gamiani: Or, Two Nights of Excess, 1923), attributed to Alfred de Musset and featuring lesbian sexuality—but none of these was a major work. Honoré de Balzac masked homosexuality by artifice. In his vast sequence of interrelated novels about French society, La Comédie humaine (1829-1848 The Comedy of Human Life), the exuberantly masculine Vautrin is imprisoned after taking the blame for a crime committed by Lucien, the gentle, handsome young man he loves. Vautrin dreams of owning a plantation in the American South, where he can have absolute power over his slaves, especially their bodies. Only by living outside hypocritical French society can Vautrin have insight into its excesses and his own nature.

Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde defied Victorian hypocrisy, but he paid a mortal price. The Picture of Dorian Gray (serial 1890; expanded 1891) represents a Faustian pact between young Dorian and the forces of evil. Wilde defiantly embraces and gilds what his society deems evil. Society enjoyed the ultimate revenge by destroying Wilde’s reputation and life: He was jailed for homosexual “offences” and went bankrupt while in prison.

If gay fiction wished to vividly portray homosexuality, it had to balance sensuality with social determinism—as in the case of Adolpho Caminha’s Brazilian novel Bom crioulo (1895; Bom-Crioula: The Black Man and the Cabin Boy, 1982), the first explicitly gay work in Latin American fiction. The violent Amaro, often described with animal imagery, escapes from slavery and sexual strictures, but his “animal” nature drives him to kill his male lover in a jealous fit. Caminha uses laws of heredity to justify slavery and exploitation, and his novel is flawed by contradictions: Homosexuality is unnatural, yet heroic; it is against nature, yet it is natural for Bom Crioulu. Nevertheless, his novel is an example of the manner in which homosexuality haunts the “normal” world.

Early Twentieth Century Obliqueness

Lesbian sexuality was a major theme in Colette’s novels about teenagers who were infatuated with older women. Male love figured in Robert Musil’s Young Törless (1955), set in a military school, and Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig Death in Venice (1925), the story of Gustav von Aschenbach’s fatal infatuation with Tadzio, a fourteen-year-old Polish boy of Apollonian beauty and stillness.

Gay novelists in England and the United States resorted to setting love stories in faraway lands or using other techniques of evasion. Charles Warren Stoddard’s For the Pleasure of His Company: An Affair of the Misty City, Thrice Told (1903), the story of Paul Clitheroe’s love affair with two darkly handsome men, runs sour until Paul ends up in the company of three South Sea islanders. Edward Prime-Stevenson’s Imre: A Memorandum (1906), privately published abroad in a small run of 125 copies, ends with a young Englishman, Oswald, in the arms of Imre, a twenty-five-year-old Hungarian army officer; but this “openness” is undercut by the novelist’s pretense to be no more than the editor of a manuscript sent to him by a British friend. The guardedness of gay novelists continued for decades, even when the theme was a “coming out” of sorts. Henry Blake Fuller’s Bertram Cope’s Year (1919), set near Chicago, is about the ruined love affair between Randolph and Bertram Cope, but Fuller pretends that the rupture is based on age rather than on rival love.

The 1920’s, an age of reckless, fast living, did not end gay fiction’s camouflage. Sophisticates knew of Sigmund Freud’s radical sex theories and D. H. Lawrence’s carnal characters, but there was no progress in attitudes about homosexuality. Camouflage through euphuism became the mode, as in Ronald Firbank’s high-camp affectation in his novellas or Carl Van Vechten’s frothy tone in The Blind Bow-Boy (1923), where the notorious Duke of Middlebottom dresses as a sailor and has stationery printed with the motto “A thing of beauty is a boy forever.” The spirit of the times did not welcome serious novels of social protest or self-disclosure, as Radclyffe Hall discovered when she published her semi-autobiographical lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness (1928). Virginia Woolf masked her love affair with Vita Sackville-West with the fantastical, androgynous world of Orlando: A Biography (1928).

Through the 1930’s and 1940’s, the “tough guy” novels of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Chandler, as well as the war novels of Norman Mailer and James Jones, depicted gay characters with contempt, as if they were weak “pansies” and the antitheses of masculine heroes. In contrast, novels featuring African Americans and Jews, for example, often were proletarian novels of social protest. Consequently, gay fiction was left to hacks, with a few outstanding exceptions, including Parker Tyler and Frederick Rolfe. Tyler’s The Young and Evil (1933; with Charles Henri Ford) is a slice-of-life story about life in Greenwich Village, New York, and Rolfe’s The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (1934) features a male protagonist who can entertain desire only when his beloved adopts male attire and behavior.

Other novelists, such as Frederic Prokosch, used numerous filters to conceal gayness in his works. His novels, including The Asiatics (1935) and The Seven Who Fled (1937), were lyrical tales of handsome bachelors in extreme circumstances and exotic places (such as Aden, Turkey, Iraq, or Tibet). Prokosch allowed his heroes, ostensibly heterosexual males, to be placed in sexually charged situations, but his filtrations and dilutions of homosexuality were concessionary. Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936) expressed the intensity of lesbian love, but its Parisian world was broodingly gothic. Researcher Alfred Kinsey’s studies Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) rebuked assumptions about sexuality, including homosexuality, while the horrors of World War II prompted Americans to question traditionally accepted morals and values. Nevertheless, although the “open” homosexual in long fiction became increasingly frequent, literary camouflage and subterfuge remained necessary.


Carson McCullers

Novelist Carson McCullers, who was lesbian, did not concern herself principally with the subject of sexuality. Although each of her novels includes a man with a crush on another man, these works actually concern abnormality and yearning. In her The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), homosexuality is one of the few things not attributed to protagonist Singer by other characters, despite the fact that Singer’s homoerotic love is his only joy and his only reason for living. Truman Capote writes of a young man’s love for a handsome prizefighter in Other Voices, Other Rooms(1948), but Capote, too, skirted the issue of homosexuality by simply affirming that any love could be beautiful as long as it belonged to a person’s intrinsic nature.

William Maxwell Jr.’s The Folded Leaf (1945) camouflages Lymie Peters’s homosexual interest as an aesthetic one; worse, the athletic Spud Latham is never allowed to realize his friend’s sexual desire for him. Novelist John Horne Burns, who thought it necessary to be gay to be a good writer, created a gay bar and a vivid set of rapacious, spontaneous, erotic characters in The Gallery (1947). However, his story is not about sex or love per se, but rather human nature. In Lucifer with a Book (1949), Burns acts almost apologetic about his erotic male characters by designing for them last-minute conversions to heterosexuality. Breaking the pattern

The protagonist in Fritz Peters’s The World Next Door (1949) admits that he loves a man while denying that he is gay. Helped by new trends in Europe, Patricia Highsmith and Gore Vidal dared to break the pattern of gay and lesbian invisibility and shame. Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (1952, as Claire Morgan; also published as Carol) has a clear lesbian theme, while Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948; revised 1965) depicts men undressing and kissing. Vidal’s Jim Willard is presented as a reproach to society’s censors: After Willard is vilely denounced by the man with whom he tries to rekindle their boyhood homoeroticism, he strangles the object of his affection.

Vidal’s all-male Eden was shocking to American literary critics. Vidal, however, was not in the league of Jean Genet, whose dark, decadent fiction—(Our Lady of the Flowers, 1949), (Miracle of the Rose 1966), (Querelle of Brest, 1966), and the semi-autobiographical (The Thief’s Journal, 1954)—never flinches from portraying the emotional and psychological depths of gay relations. Sex and violence are mixed with lurid and salacious density, and Genet often creates an extremely perverse but original perspective on theft, rape, and even murder.

Genet’s deliberate idealization of outlawed desire is reflected in Yukio Mishima’s Japanese fiction. Amartial artist and sexual outlaw, Mishima resorts to metaphor for deception. The narrator of Confessions of a Mask (1958), enters into anonymous relationships with women, for whom he harbors secret distaste, simply to “fit” into conventional society.

The 1950’s and Early 1960’s

The 1950’s was a time of anticommunist—and antigay—hysteria in the United States. Fearing the critics, gay male writers often became grotesque, parasitic, clownish, or campy characters in their own lives. Capote embraced Manhattan whimsy and capriciousness; Burns wrote a weak, straight novel shortly before he died; and Vidal put his energy into nonfiction and politics. Many versions of the “apprenticeship” gay novel appeared as well, with themes of a problematic childhood.

Gay fiction divided itself into two main categories: traditional realism (James Baldwin and J. R. Ackerley) and counterculture writing (William S. Burroughs), though there were fascinating exceptions to the rule—as in James Purdy’s Malcolm (1959), an allegorical story about a teenager befriended by a possible pedophile; Peters’s Finistère (1951) is set in a France more apt to accept the adolescent protagonist’s burgeoning gayness than are his parents; James Barr’s Quatrefoil (1950), a male love story told in a lofty, intellectual manner; and William Talsman’s playfully witty and stylish The Gaudy Image (1958). Most of these novels, however, ended in wistfulness or death for the protagonist. Young Matt in Finistère drowns himself; Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) ends on a bridge, where David tries to discard his lover’s letter, only to have the wind blow the fragments back to him; and in Quatrefoil, Phillip, after his lover is killed in an aircrash, contemplates suicide, only to decide that love has made him strong.

Lesbian pulp novels, intended for a heterosexual readership, were sold at places such as drugstores and newsstands in the 1950’s and most often featured a malefantasy version of lesbian sex. The novels also cast women who have sex with women as shamed and isolated. Many of the later pulps, however, began to depict these young women as fully embracing their sexuality. The novels of Ann Bannon, for example, sent a crucial message to readers: that a condemning society, and not homosexuality, is morally wrong. For lesbians growing up around this time, the new pulp novels were, in many ways, lifesavers. Bannon’s novels include her first, Odd Girl Out (1957), featuring college students Beth and Laura, and Beebo Brinker (1962), which introduces Bannon’s favorite protagonist, the soft butch Beebo Brinker, to the lesbian world of Greenwich Village.

Gay writers in the early 1960’s became increasingly open about homosexuality, having been inspired by the creative courage of the Belgian-born Marguerite Yourcenar, whose books defy classification because they mix modes as they tackle different kinds of love. She wrote of homosexuality, however, through her gay characters, and avoided, for the most part, the topic of lesbian sexuality. Her novels include the early work Alexis (1984) and the influential Memoirs of Hadrian (1954).

The newly open writers include Baldwin, who, in Another Country (1962), depicts a sleazy New York hell where individuals are caught up in the general malaise of American society. However, Baldwin’s gay characters have a greater awareness of their misery than does society at large, which remains ignorant. Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (1964) affirms the value of an aging gay man who, in a departure from custom, is not a doomed homosexual with neurotic self-loathing or sexual guilt but a bachelor who entertains a fantasy of killing or torturing bigots unless they agree to end homophobic practices.

Isherwood’s quiet prose contrasts with the louder brutality of Charles Wright’s The Messenger (1963), where New York is a hell filled with junkies (and gays), or Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), replete with pimps, whores, and thugs (and queers). The most controversial novels were John Rechy’s City of Night (1963) and Numbers (1967). In City of Night, Rechy takes a hard look at the joyless and dangerous side of male prostitution, based on his own experiences, but his writing is not primarily confessional. It has a gritty realism that exposes its central character’s refusal to express emotion for fear of revealing his sexual identity. Numbers is also a horror story with dark imagery, as its protagonist sets off on a journey of self-discovery, literally counting sexual experiences as if numbers could themselves ward off age and death. New taxonomy

Homoeroticism became iconic after the Stonewall Inn bar uprising in New York City in 1969, a small revolt of bar patrons and others that ultimately strengthened an emerging modern gay and lesbian rights movement in the United States. Gay and lesbian writers began to produce works of full self-disclosure. By the end of the 1960’s, gay and lesbian fiction expanded to include various subgenres: In other words, gay and lesbian literature was no longer simply about homosexuality as a “problem.” In Europe, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Genet reveled in picaresque novels. Marie-Claire Blais brought stories of French Canadian lesbians to readers outside Canada, and Ursula K. Le Guin wrote science fiction in which fantasy worlds included gender equality.

The 1970’s was rich in gay inventiveness. Anne Rice and Marion Zimmer Bradley also wrote in the science fantasy genre, with Bradley becoming one of the first science-fiction writers to use independent female characters to explore gender roles. Guy Hocquenghem explored the connections between the body and technology. Mary Renault used classical history to show how bisexuality was once a cultural norm.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, the new taxonomy of gay and lesbian writing was consolidated. The rise of small presses specializing in gay and lesbian (and lesbian feminist) writing ensured the publication of diverse writers and genres. The “coming-out” and semi-autobiographical novels of Andrew Holleran, David Leavitt, Rita Mae Brown, and Jeanette Winterson explore a wide range of experiences, including parental disgust and rejection, dispossession of home, the death of innocence, and various discourses on love. Also remaining popular was the “colonialist” tradition of upper-class men seeking erotic adventure with foreigners or working-class people—already encountered in nineteenth century and early twentieth century novels. Alan Hollinghurst is most notable in this tradition.

The 1970’s also included Ann Allen Shockley’s Loving Her (1974), the first black lesbian novel published in the United States. In 1977, Barbara Smith, in “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” decried the overt dismissal of literature by black women and black lesbians. Her essay led to a radical rethinking of the place of African American literature in the literary canon. Novels such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), which feature lesbian sexuality as central themes, soon followed. Also in the 1970’s, black gay men, working to promote literature by men of color, especially through small presses, were influenced by black lesbians and feminists of all races and ethnicities.

The confluence of the gay and lesbian rights movement and the rise of third-wave feminism ensured that lesbian writers could tell their stories from a lesbian-feminist perspective. June Arnold envisions women taking control of their own destinies and Dutch writer Anna Blaman uses language to upend social stereotypes. Feminist literary theorists helped to shape lesbian writing as well, even outside the academy. Canadian theorist and novelist Nicole Brossard associates the lesbian body with an “intelligent body,” thereby envisioning utopia. In France, theorist and writer Monique Wittig suggests that women can liberate themselves only by using language in radical ways. Novelist-critic Hélène Cixous developed a theory and style called “writing from the body.” Her bold celebration of lesbian sexuality as a lever to dismantle oppressive social structures helped clear a path for writers such as Dorothy Allison and Blanche McCrary Boyd.

While Allison won acclaim with Bastard Out of Carolina (1992) and Cavedweller (1998), which explores domestic, personal, and psychic violence from the perspective of a working-class lesbian, Boyd has ensured that each of her own novels is female centered. Each features a young woman who comes out as lesbian and learns to overcome obstacles to existential and sexual autonomy, as in the case of Ellen Larraine Burns, the protagonist of The Revolution of Little Girls (1991) and Terminal Velocity (1997).

The new consciousness enhanced gay and lesbian writers’ gambits into social and political themes, even to the point of criticizing their own subculture—as with Larry Kramer’s Faggots (1978), whose antipromiscuity theme aroused a backlash. Lisa Alther incorporates cultural satire into such works as Kinflicks (1975), Original Sins (1981), and Five Minutes in Heaven (1995). The preeminent writer of the era, however, is Sarah Schulman, who examines inherent tensions between the nature of art and the reality of politics in her novels, plays, and journalistic essays. Beginning with The Sophie Horowitz Story (1984), which reads like a detective story but is really a meditation on lesbian politics and sexuality, and continuing with Girls, Visions and Everything (1986), People in Trouble (1990), Empathy (1992), Rat Bohemia (1995), Shimmer (1998) and The Child (2007), Schulman examines, among other topics, individual responsibility and with the horrors of the AIDS crisis. Rat Bohemia is a favorite and ranks as one of the best novels of lesbian and gay fiction. Schulman’s involvement with various gay activist groups deeply influences her writing. She was a cofounder of the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival and of the direct-action activist group Lesbian Avengers. ‘

Gay and lesbian literature, however, does not limit itself to political themes. British novelist Sarah Waters’s first novel, Tipping the Velvet (1998), is a lighthearted picaresque story of lesbian love featuring protagonist Kitty Butler, a stage performer and male impersonator in Victorian England. The novel was an immediate success, and it has been translated into more than twenty languages. Waters also set her next two novels, Affinity (1999) and Fingersmith (2002), in the Victorian period, but moved to the 1940’s for The Night Watch (2006) and The Little Stranger (2009). Her first three novels were adapted for film and television. Katherine V. Forrest, a Canadian-born American writer, established the American lesbian detective novel with the first book in her Kate Delafield series, Amateur City (1984). Three of the eight novels in the series won the Lambda Literary Award, including Hancock Park (2004). Mark Richard Zubro is the author of two best-selling detective series, the Tom and Scott mysteries and the Paul Turner mysteries. A Simple Suburban Murder (1990), the first in the series about Chicago high school teacher Tom Mason and his pro-baseball-player husband Scott Carpenter, won a Lambda Literary Award as well. In the twelfth book in the series, Schooled in Murder (2008), a meeting at Tom’s high school ends with a murder.

Schulman’s playful experimentation with the detective genre, especially in After Delores (1988), a hardboiled detective story in the style of James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett, displays the modern gay and lesbian writer’s literary freedom. English-language writers are no longer forced to envy foreign-language gay writers— such as Manuel Puig  (Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1979), Mutsuo Takahashi (Zen’s pilgrimage of virtue), or Michel Tournier (Gilles and Jeanne, 1987)—for their ability to take risks. Notable, too, are the achievements of Paul Monette, Armistead Maupin, and Kitty Tsui, as are the more experimental and ambitious works of Dale Peck, Edmund White, and Samuel M. Steward.

Reacting to the subtle and pervasive censorship inherent even in political correctness, Peck, White, and Steward began experimenting with mixed styles and modes. Steward’s detective and modernist parodies examine the position of the artist in modern society, while promoting erotica as pure entertainment. Peck’s Martin and John (1993) is an absorbing patchwork of conflicting stories, all with characters named Martin and John, but death is its driving force. His Body Surfing (2009) is a wild and funny story about the Mogran, a race of demons known primarily for their sexual appetites. However, neither writer matches White’s mainstream success, especially with the semiautobiographical trilogy A Boy’s Own Story (1982), The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988), and The Farewell Symphony (1997), a mature example of the elegant sensitivity of modern gay fiction.

Source: Rollyson, Carl. Critical Survey Of Long Fiction. 4th ed. New Jersey: Salem Press, 2010.
Austen, Roger. Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1977.
Cart, Michael, and Christine Jenkins. The Heart Has Its Reasons: Young Adult Literature with Gay/Lesbian/ Queer Content, 1969-2004. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2006.
Castle, Terry, ed. The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
Lilly, Mark. Gay Men’s Literature in the Twentieth Century. New York: New York University Press, 1993. Malinowski, Sharon, ed. Gay and Lesbian Literature. 2 vols. Detroit, Mich.: St. James Press, 1994, 1998.
Markowitz, Judith A. The Gay Detective Novel: Lesbian and Gay Main Characters and Themes in Mystery Fiction.Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004.
Pollack, Sandra, and Denise D. Knight, eds. Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States: A Biobibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Schwarz, A. B. Christa. Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.
lide, Anthony. Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2003.
Summers, Claude J., ed. The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage: A Reader’s Companion to the Writers and Their Works, from Antiquity to the Present. Rev. ed. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Categories: Gay and Lesbian Novels, Gender Studies, Girlhood Studies, Literature, Novel Analysis, Queer Theory, Transgender Studies

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  1. Picaresque Novels and Novelists | Literary Theory and Criticism
  2. Gay Male Fiction Web Links and Other LGBT Book Lists, Literary Awards, Reviews, Interviews, Criticism, Blogs and Library Resources – c. e. hammock

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