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Gay lit classics deserve a better list than what the LA Times cooked up.

August 9, 2010

Samuel R. Delany, black, gay, sci-fi pioneer, and owner of the coolest beard in modern American literature.

The list of gay literary classics cobbled together late last week by LA Times lit mavens Carolyn Kellogg, David Ulin and Nick Owchar is laudable top to bottom, but it leaves out many important, significant and just plan fun titles.

I do like that it starts with Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin’s pioneering novel of gay love, and includes classics like Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, E.M Forster’s Maurice, as well as pop fiction like Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle.

But the oversights are baffling: If we’re going to include Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, then why not Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman? If Paul Monet’s Borrowed Time: An Aids Memoir (a personal favorite, by the way), then why not Randy Shilts’ landmark investigative nonfiction book, And the Band Played On?

How could any such list not mention Andrew Holleran’s Dancer From the Dance? Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story? Where’s David Leavitt? Mary Renault? Michael Cunningham? Hilda Doolittle (who wrote as “H.D.”)? Christopher Isherwood?! Anne Rice? Larry Kramer? Audre Lord? Dorothy Allison? Truman Capote? Elizabeth Bishop?

And if the list is headed by Giovanni’s Room, wouldn’t it be groovy to include The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, Samuel R. Delany’s award-winning 1989 memoir of coming of age black and gay during middle of the 20th century?

Once the decision is made to include Sappho, some of whose love poems are addressed to a man, then why not Shakespeare, some of whose sonnets are likewise addressed to a man? If Sappho’s Greek poems, then why not Petronius’ Roman novel Satyricon?

Ahhhh…It is so much fun to sit in the back of the class and throw spit wads.

My point is that a rich and varied literature by gay writers on gay subject matter exists to be celebrated, read, enjoyed, savored. And that’s not even counting novels-in-drag, like W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, or Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, written during the long love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name era.

I’m sure I’ve left out worthy authors and books. So: What are some of your favorites?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    August 9, 2010 12:03 pm

    I am glad it mentioned Rubyfruit Jungle at least!!!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 10, 2010 10:37 am

      Don’t you love Samuel R. Delany’s beard as much as I do?

  2. PJ Parrish permalink
    August 9, 2010 5:24 pm

    Your column made me remember one of my favorite reads — Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex.” Not gay lit, but a terrific read about gender identity nonetheless.

  3. August 9, 2010 9:44 pm

    No Leaves of Grass? “I mind how … you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me, and parted the shirt from my bosombone and plunged your tongue to my bare stript heart and reached till you felt my beard and reached till you held my feet.” His bosom friend was male.
    And among others no sonnet 18, Shall I compare thee to a summers’ day? written most likely to the Earl of Southampton or possibly the Earl of Pembroke to whom Shakespeare’s colleagues dedicated the First Folio? These masterpieces should top the list in my humble opinion.
    I agree with Maurice, Giovanni’s Room, and The Band Played On. All of them are right on. Why do people do these lists anyway? It’s like the man running across the stage naked showing us his short-comings.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      August 10, 2010 10:35 am

      People love lists for reasons that are beyond my ken. Most lists, like the LA Times gay classics list, are purely arbritrary — I like it, so it’s going in! — and because they are lists, with little or no room for critical analysis or defense, we are meant to take them on face value. And then to argue about them, which, I suppose, is the appeal. A list, I admit, is more interactive than a closely reasoned book review or literary essay. As the human attention span approaches the vanishing point, these relics of a bygone era (by “bygone era,” I mean 2008) will fast become extinct, I suspect. Lists will utterly supplant criticism.

      Thanks for that lovely quotation from Whitman. Point well taken and thoroughly won.

  4. Andrew Rasanen permalink
    November 12, 2012 11:16 pm

    Confusion, by Stefan Zweig (1927). An ardent student idolizes his professor, who runs bafflingly warm and cold toward him for reasons that become apparent at the end. Wonderful psychological exploration of youthful passion and angst and misread clues, with a very satisfying final sentence.

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