In literature, focusing on the work of any one group of people has inherent dangers. Though it can shine a spotlight on underrepresented writers, this attention can also have the unintended consequence of limiting the significance of their work. Putting Jane Austen in the box of "Women Writers" and Richard Wright in the "African-American Author" box can obfuscate the important fact that they are two of the greatest writers in the English language, including all the white guys.
It's in this spirit that we look at books with gay themes that just happen to be amazing books as well. At least two of these rank in my Top Books of All Time. And there's probably at least a couple of hundred that we couldn't include. To add your picks, comment on this article online at alibi.com. Let the reading frenzy begin.
Books That Became Movies You Saw That Didn't Come Right Out and Say It but Are Totally Gay
If somehow the scenes of shirtless men sweating all over each other in the movie didn't tip you off, you're not alone. Many people see the movie and its source material as paeons to hypermasculinity. In reality, Fight Club is one of the most insightful looks at the modern male that fiction has produced. A major theme is that while contemporary society encourages men to stand alone, there's a deep and primal need to bond with other men. Palahniuk himself is probably one of America's most popular authors, one whose work many men, gay and straight, have seen pieces of themselves in.
In the film, Idgie and Ruth's relationship is cast as a very close friendship, but in the book, they are soul mates. The movie gets unfairly lumped in with female friendship movies like Beaches and Steel Magnolias, but the novel is far more. With half of the action set in early 20th-century Alabama, the tale of two women loving each other and raising a family is quietly subversive and ultimately empowering. Like Ellen, these are lesbians your grandma would love.
OK, not a novel, but it's entirely possible to read it as one. Williams' play is concerned with, as one of the main characters (alcoholic ex-football star Brick) puts it, mendacity: the lies we tell and the other lies we live to convince ourselves the lies are true. The film whitewashes Brick's relationship with his dead friend Skipper, saying they were just best friends. The play isn't explicit about the truth of Brick's feelings, but that's part of the genius of Williams' work. Homosexuality wasn't talked about in open terms in the ’50s South (hell, the ’50s anywhere), so the characters dance around the truth. It's that the audience can see through this that makes Cat on a Hot Tin Roof so heartbreaking.
Yes, the same E.M. Forster who wrote Howards End, one of the best books about the power of repression. Turns out he knew a thing or two about that subject. Born in England in 1879, he struggled with accepting his sexuality during the Victorian era. He began his novel Maurice in 1913, though it wouldn't be published until the year after his 1970 death. The titular character in Maurice is an upper-class Englishman who wants to embrace his sexuality but finds that societal forces may be stronger than his resolve. More than anything, it's a fabulous love story. It’s also exceedingly rare for early depictions of homosexual relationships in that it has a happy ending. Shocking.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928)
Orlando is born as a man in Elizabethan England, makes a vow to never grow old, loves a bunch of ladies and then one day wakes up to find that he has become one. This is a summary that does no justice to the poetry of Woolf's writing, which is nothing less than revolutionary. Her treatment of identity and sexuality is riveting, and the book destroys lines of genre and gender. It's a mindblower.
Baldwin emigrated to Europe from America partially because of the racism he experienced as an African-American and partially because of the homophobia he experienced as a gay man. Giovanni's Room, his second novel, tackles the latter of those issues head-on, centered on the loves and losses of an American in Europe named David. There's a heavy beauty to Baldwin's work, weaving together themes of isolation, repression and resistance. There was a predictable outcry when it was first published, but it was also embraced for its artistic brilliance. In its way, it blurred some of the typical barriers of black/white, gay/straight in revealing that genius is just genius.
If Poetry Is Called “The Gay Science,” Then Are Gay Poets Gay “Gay Scientists”?
Powell's first three books of poetry are considered to be a loose trilogy about the AIDS epidemic. And yet, through the talk of needles and pills and treatments that work until they don't, Powell's poems are sharply beautiful. His work is controlled, sometimes fierce and often funny. The weight of even his smallest pieces is evidence that poetry matters.
This is only one of Hacker's many books. As a neo-formalist, her work uses traditional poetic forms to explore contemporary issues such as sexuality, illness and identity politics. As the editor of The Kenyon Review in the early ’90s, she made it a goal to include more works from LGBT writers in a mission to smash out the oppression of silence.