The Best LGBT Books
A Book List of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer People.
Here’s the thing: “LGBT” is not really a genre, but if you head into any big string bookstore, you’ll likely to find a “Lgbt” shelf in the literature section. Works of fiction that seriously feature queer designs are often ghettoized, only placing an unlucky stigma on indelible pieces of writing that, while appealing to a small group of readers, only acts to alienate others. While we’re still looking forward to queer literature’s mainstream approval – THE FANTASTIC Gay Novel, if you will – there were numerous novels and plays released within the last century that have lighted the multifaceted queer experience among a diverse, wide-reaching community. While this list is no way a definitive canon of the best in queer literature, it can include some essential works that can offer entertainment, introspection, and comfort to those who identify as queer or right.
My favorite working description is that a gay text is one that is amenable to a homosexual reading. As easy as that. These categories exist not for their own sake, or for critics’, however in the service of the reader – the gay or lesbian audience to begin with, but others too.
In books like these, you hope not and then observe how people once lived away their same-sex desires and relationships, but to learn from them how we might live differently, today, to your own advantage. Such works open up our eyes to fresh opportunities. That’s why my new publication Homintern is subtitled How Gay Culture Liberated the Modern World.
The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal’s landmark novel is a must-read for every gay man. Seriously, if you haven’t read this book, do. The coming-of-age novel tells the story of Jim Willard, a young All-American tennis player, and his obsessive relationship with his best friend, Bob. The book was met with a storm of controversy when it was first published in 1948, but it has since gone on to be considered a time-honored classic in gay literature.
The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson
Yes, this is the book that inspired Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning 1945 film about writers’ block and alcoholism. But what do you suppose makes Jackson’s original novel’s lead character, a novelist named Don Birnham, a blocked alcoholic? He’s a closet case. Wilder and his co-screenwriter, Charles Brackett, eschewed that pesky little problem and left the root cause of Birnham’s dipsomania unstated. Why? They had no choice; it would have violated the Production Code, though they do include a hint in the form of a creepy Bellevue night nurse (Frank Faylen). But Jackson, who wrote the explicitly gay novel The Fall of Valor, includes a vital passage about Birnham’s attraction to another guy in college that leaves no doubt about his underlying psychology. It’s a great novel made even better by its unexpected gay subtext.
The diaries of Anne Lister
A great treasure of lesbian social history. Lister is a wonderful character, pleased to be thought “gentlemanly” but insulted when someone calls her a mere “fellow”. Her courtships of women are all the more fascinating when you reflect that they’re from Jane Austen’s time. But here people get stomach upsets and venereal diseases. Not to mention hot lesbian action: Lister uses “kiss” to mean a great deal more than kissing. I like to imagine Lister herself striding into one of Austen’s balls and distracting the heroine’s attention from all the complacent Darcys and Bingleys in the room.
Maurice by E.M. Forster
Written at the height of Forster’s powers as a novelist (he started it in 1913), Maurice wasn’t published until after Forster’s death in 1970. Forster was quite plainly afraid of what it would do to his reputation. He was correct to be concerned. The piggish Cynthia Ozick opined that she’d loved Forster’s novels until she learned he was gay, at which pointed she decided that she saw through them all. (Oh, Cindy! With a mug as butt-ugly as yours, you should know better than to make such inane and superficial judgments. I don’t read your books because you’re a meishkeit; I don’t read them because you’re a fucking self-righteous bigot.) In fact, Maurice is a great gay love story with a happy ending. That some still find it hard to believe – lasting love not only between two men but between men of different classes! how entirely un-British! – is testimony not to Forster’s failure as a novelist but to some dull-witted readers’ failures of imagination.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
This is the American epic poem its author wanted it to be, befitting the landmass and political system it celebrates. But it also delivers intensely personal lyric poetry about comradeship between men. Its poems about Whitman’s nursing of injured soldiers in the American civil war are tremulous with pity and warm affection. Yet even the focused intensity of a love poem like When I heard at the close of the day, clearly speaking of a particular individual, relates outwards to the grander theme of democratic comradeship. Each handclasp represents all handclasps. Eye contact with a stranger, accepted and maintained, represents the warmth of equality. The lanky, relaxed verse, with its long lines and self-perpetuating lists, creates the impression of a society of endless possibilities, where the pursuit of happiness is taken as seriously as life and liberty themselves.
American Studies and An Arrow’s Flight by Mark Merlis
Mark Merlis is the greatest unsung novelist in America. If he was straight he’d have book awards up the wazoo; because he writes about guys who take it up the wazoo, he can’t get a book deal. His novels are purely brilliant. American Studies is a riff on the story of F. O. Matthiessen, the Harvard scholar who essentially invented the discipline that serves as the novel’s title and was hounded to suicide by HUAC; An Arrow’s Flight is an unlikely but hilarious and yet enormously moving modern retelling of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, starring Pyrrhus as a red-headed gay stripper. f you don’t read them both you’re a fool.
Invisible Life by E. Lynn Harris
E. Lynn Harris initially self-published this debut novel in 1991. In 1994, it was re-issued by Doubleday, received critical acclaim and launched Harris’ prolific, albeit tragically short-lived, career. The story revolves around Raymond Winston Tyler Jr., a young bisexual black man, as he embarks on a journey of sexual discovery and quickly finds himself torn between a woman and a married male lover.
Gods and Monsters by Christopher Bram
Before the screenwriter-director Bill Condon turned Bram’s novel into an Oscar-winning film, it was called Father of Frankenstein; the publisher wisely retitled it to get a bigger readership. It’s worth a read even if you’ve seen the movie, for Bram’s psychological realism has never been sharper, despite the fact that this tale of the real Hollywood director James Whale (who made Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein and Show Boat, among other great movies) and his gardener is entirely fictional. It’s a knowing, sympathetic, and at times comical look inside a creative but increasingly frustrated gay man’s mind as his health declines in old age, though you’ll be hard pressed to imagine Whale as anyone other than the perfectly-cast Ian McKellen.
Poems by Constantine Cavafy
Cavafy’s poetry is about desire and loss. Everything is subject to time, but art can stave off oblivion for a while – for a few centuries, say – until the loving epitaph on a tombstone finally crumbles to dust. Time is not wasted, as long as it has its moments of beauty, moments to be recollected and experienced again through the medium of art. After a brief sexual encounter, lovers part. But later, even many years later, one of them writes a poem fixing their moment in amber. The body may perish but the sculpture remains. The love poem provides a future for the past.
A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White
Eric Garber leads the list of humorless gay writers, but Edmund White comes in as a close second. But one doesn’t read White for laughs. One reads him for the beauty of his sentences, their craft and their care. A Boy’s Own Story is White’s most accessible novel. (Steer clear of the oh-so-precious Caracole.) Loosely based on his own adolescence, it’s a common enough tale to resonate with many of us regardless of our sexual orientation and particular enough to be solely about the precocious, “cornholing” boy who would become the masterful author of 12 novels, 3 biographies, 3 memoirs, 1 play, and many assorted works of nonfiction, as well as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Tough to beat that.
Dancer From The Dance by Andrew Holleran
Andrew Holleran’s 1978 short debut novel depicts the misadventures of Malone, a young man looking for love in New York City’s thriving gay scene. Traveling from Manhattan’s Everard Baths and late-night discos to Fire Island’s vacant parks and lavish orgies, Malone looks high and low for some sort of meaningful companionship.
The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
One of the few gay novelists to have broken through the mirrored ceiling (it’s like the glass ceiling is for women, only gay men are so narcissistic, dontcha know, that all we see is ourselves), Alan Hollinghurst won the Man Booker prize for The Line of Beauty, just one of several Hollinghurst novels the straight world takes seriously as genuine literature. That’s not only because it is genuine literature; it’s because Hollinghurst is British (they write better than Americans), went to Oxford (unimpeachable pedigree), edited The Times Literary Supplement (no shabby little GLBT magazines on his resume), and has a most distinguished-looking goatee. All jokes aside, this is some serious lit. Read it, and if you have a problem with the fact that its protagonist sucks cock, get over yourself, Louise. Nobody’s forcing one down your throat. Then again, maybe someone should. You might not be so hung up.
Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann
Lehmann’s first novel was enthusiastically received for capturing the mood of the inter-war generation. Judith, its central character, gets involved with her neighbours, a group of young cousins of both sexes. While she is trying to decide which of the boys to fall in love with – without noticing that one of them is having an affair with a male fellow-student at Cambridge – she herself goes up to university, where she has an intense affair with Jennifer. When the dance of relationships eventually peters out, Judith ends up a little older and a lot wiser. She is stronger on her own. Published a year before The Well of Loneliness, this is a far more relaxed account of relationships among a group of privileged young people before and after the first world war. With no axe to grind, it barely distinguishes between hetero and homo.
Angels in America by Tony Kushner
This monumental work by playwright Tony Kushner — staged on Broadway in two three-hour parts, but collected here in a single volume — is one of the most important pieces of theatre in the last 50 years.
Before Night Falls: A Memoir by Reinaldo Arenas
Reinaldo Arenas’s riveting 1994 memoir recounts his journey from a poverty-stricken childhood in rural Cuba and his adolescence as a rebel fighting for Castro, through his supression as a writer, imprisonment as a homosexual, his flight from Cuba via the Mariel boat lift, and his subsequent life and the events leading to his death in New York. In 2000, the book was made into an equally-riveting film starring Javier Bardem.
At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill
Jamie O’Neill’s epic novel is a passionate love story that follows two teenage boys and their entanglement with an older man amid the Easter Rebellion in 1916 Dublin.
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
This was a daring experiment in stretching the remit of the realist novel to include the lives of “inverts”, female and male. Hall did not intend it to be dull, of course, but the sheer weight of detail does at times have that effect. This is all to the good: it roots lesbianism as solidly in English country life as a fox hunt or a mansion. But the central character must move abroad to Paris for any sense of a viable place for lesbians in society. What most outraged the readers who eventually managed to get the book banned was its portrayal of women ambulance drivers on the western front as lesbians. An anguished and depressive book, it is still held in high esteem and great warmth by many lesbian women. Justly so.
Dear Lupin: Letters to a Wayward Son by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer
This witty and heartwarming book tracks the correspondence between a father and his gay son. When the book begins, Charlie, the son, is studying at Eton, although the studying itself is not a priority, much to his father’s chagrin. After Charlie graduates and begins traveling the world, Roger continues to write regularly, offering advice as well as humorous updates from home. The correspondence is packed with warmth, humor and wisdom that offer a unique insight into the relationship between a father and son.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
One of the most beautiful love letters ever written. Addressed to Vita Sackville-West, it originally included photographs of her in both feminine and masculine clothes. Vita is Orlando, a dashing young man in Tudor times, who buckles a few swashes at home and abroad before changing sex and living on to the 1920s. As a man, Orlando courts women, as a woman men – so far so conventional – but as a wo/man, s/he is swaggeringly queer. The book is a jeu d’esprit that Woolf clearly wrote when intoxicated with love. While waiting for the trial of The Well of Loneliness, Una Troubridge helped her lover Radclyffe Hall endure the stress by reading Orlando to her.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
James Baldwin’s 1956 magnum opus follows David, an American living in Paris, as he navigates through his homosexual desires and the frustrations that come with them, particularly his feelings for an Italian bartender named Giovanni. Years after its publication, Baldwin revealed that when he first turned in the manuscript to his publisher, they told him to burn it, warning him that the themes of homosexuality would alienate readers. Baldwin chose to publish it anyway and the book went on to be considered one of the best LGBTQ novels ever written.
The Pure and the Impure by Colette
Colette thought that this would eventually be recognised as her best book. It is a subtle and amiable ramble through the varied ecologies of desire. After an opening scene in an opium parlour, apparently full of same-sex couples of both sexes, its successive topics include: a modern Don Juan, masculine women and their liking for horses, the lesbian poet Renée Vivien, the domestic happiness of the Ladies of Llangollen, Proust’s dubious portrayals of lesbians, the social habits of man-loving men … Eccentric to the point of queerness, it is a book unlike any other, neither memoir nor fiction, neither dissertation nor tract. It deserves a helpful edition with footnotes to keep the reader abreast of the details of Colette’s life in Paris.
Hemlock and After by Angus Wilson
A serious comic novel about the limits of liberalism. Its central character Bernard Sands is a married, middle-aged writer who has come to accept that he is gay. Writing in a Dickensian tradition of moral satire, Wilson plunges Sands into one of the most troubling dilemmas of modern liberalism: how to reconcile a social conscience with personal comfort and desire. The book is unusual in not portraying camp gay men negatively. Bernard is standoffish with them, but that is seen as his moral weakness, not theirs.
Another Country by James Baldwin
One of the greatest American novels of the postwar period, full of passionate rhetoric and fury at social injustice. Reading it is not a comfortable experience. The reader is wrong-footed by what happens at the end of the first section, and indeed never fully recovers from it. At the book’s heart is one of the happiest portrayals of a gay male couple that you’ll find in any novel before the gay liberation period. Significantly, Baldwin locates their idyll not in the US but in France. Even the apparently happy ending is undercut by a nervousness about US society’s capacity to offer the pursuit of happiness – let alone its capture – to everyone.
The Twyborn Affair by Patrick White
Eddie Twyborn is born a boy. As Eudoxia, she marries an elderly Greek man. As Eddie, he fights heroically in the first world war before working as an increasingly masculine jackaroo in the remote outback. As Eadith, she runs a brothel in London. As Eddie, at the start of the blitz, he walks out on his previous life … White’s great meditation on gender fluidity and the contingency of desire is both lushly camp and awkward in its campness, as if the author could not quite come to terms with the inflexions of his own gendered vocal chords. Often rather brash, White is paradoxically also a master of the tentative. He sees social manners from the inside of the outsider. Fathers tend to be silent, mothers silencing. Lovemaking is fumbled when it comes to the words, but snatched or worse from the body.