NOTE: This piece was originally published in Vada Magazine.
What do Charles Dickens and Madonna have in common? Whoever said ‘date of birth,’ hang your head in shame. No, like Madge, Dickens was not averse to publicly siding with victims of social injustice. In 1838, he visited Newgate Prison and met the last two men in England to be hanged for what was legally called the ‘detestable and abominable vice of buggery’. Dickens put the blame for their fate squarely on society’s shoulders, writing that ‘for them there was no hope’. There’s a similar story about Arthur Conan Doyle.
Writers are rarely so conservative as the rest of their generation. For a writer to be successful, she or he needs to be clued-up. And, notably, a number of literary giants have not been straight (Oscar Wilde; Virginia Woolf; Shakespeare, if you believe the rumours…). Social issues and the parts of society that the mainstream media won’t let us see are often well-explored in novels.
In these enlightened times, we can eagerly turn to Vada and learn all about the shiny and not-so-shiny sides of Homoland. But a novel can shock, provoke, and really last. It can give us an emotional snapshot of history that endures. As people inevitably point out around Pride time, it’s important to know the history of gay desires, gay communities, and gay silences. More than any other document, books can be at once historical and transhistorical.
Here’s my list of eight books that, as a gay man, I think I needed to read.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891). Dorian is forever young and beautiful – everyone wants him – but up in his attic a portrait is getting older and uglier. Admitted as evidence of Wilde’s perversion at his trial for gross indecency, this novel is a cautionary tale about the beauty, desire, and vanity. We all know people who could do with that lesson.
Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet (1943). Sartre called this French novel ‘the epic of masturbation.’ Genet wrote it in prison, on brown paper bags. Explicitly erotic, sparodic, and poetic, Our Lady of the Flowers has a lyrical style that mirrors the offbeat trans/gay subculture Genet’s writing about. In this world, murder is sexy and betrayal is beautiful… because this is a world thrust outside convention by taboo. Genet’s first novel, it influenced existentialist philosophy and a gay generation.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956). I can’t sell this as a barrel of laughs. Giovanni’s Room is an important American novel because it forced people to talk about homosexuality. Love and loss in 1950s Paris are the backdrop for Baldwin’s intense, emotional narrative. Times change, prejudices adapt, but fear and isolation will always be the same.
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964). Isherwood wrote Goodbye to Berlin, which gave us Cabaret and an early definition of ‘camp’ (‘expressing what is basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance’). A Single Man is a witty and nostalgic novel about a middle-aged gay intellectual struggling with isolation after his lover dies. Youth is everywhere in the book, but really it’s about a side of gay life that still isn’t much reflected in the arts.
The Celluloid Closet by Vito Russo (1987). Actually, watch the 1995 docu-movie this book inspired, because it’s about this history of films. Censorship, innuendo, and stereotypes abound as Russo interviews actors, directors, and writers to uncover the open secret of homosexuality in Hollywood, from sissy banter in Behind the Screen (1916) to Hairspray, which requires no elaboration.
The Man With Night Sweats by Thom Gunn (1992). An Anglo-American poet, Gunn lost a lot of his friends during the 1980s AIDS crisis, and the final poems in this wide-ranging collection evoke the grief, confusion, and fear of the age (‘the dead outnumber us…’).
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2006). Yes, the same Alison Bechdel who does Dykes to Watch Out For. And yes, it’s a comic – I mean, a graphic novel. Using simple words and pictures to tell the complex story of coming to terms with her father’s homosexuality and coming out herself, Bechdel has written a masterpiece that is already being taught in universities.
Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal by J. Jack Halberstam (2012). You almost escaped queer theory. This is queer theory on a diet and, no, it’s not got much to do with Lady Gaga. Halberstam gets down with the kids, evoking Beyoncé and SpongeBob Square Pants to convey his manifesto. Basically: don’t be normal, resist marriage – get all subversive, like Gaga. While it’s cringey, Gaga Feminism lets us glimpse the future, beyond gay and straight; ‘the end of normal.’
Your thoughts? Are you squirming and retching at my failure to touch on The Naked Civil Servant or My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic? Are there titles that shouldn’t have made the list? Whatever you think, go and read something right now. So much knowledge and so much history lie behind each written word. And reading is sexy.