Some Queer Books


The clickbait site Book Riot just released a list with the ridiculous title "The 100 Most Influential Queer Books of All Time" — as if such a thing could ever be determined. Influential how? For whom? Measured with what criteria? 

The list itself is fine if you're looking for some new reading material, particularly from recent years (like many such lists, this one pays token attention to the past but is fundamentally interested in what's recent), but it's not much good for anything else — it does not include Gertrude Stein, Samuel Delany, Judith Butler, Edmund White, Dennis Cooper, Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs, Michel Foucault, or Kathy Acker, the exclusion of any one of whom renders the title meaningless. Such lists aim for a kind of objectivity that predestines them to be bland. What would be far more interesting would be lists from readers and writers of the books they themselves feel most affected by. Good lists pay no homage to the false gods of objectivity and comprehensiveness, but instead celebrate the queer arts of subjectivity, self-making, and transgression. Such lists embrace dark corners, weird alleyways, niche experiences, and offense to the status quo.

To demonstrate, then, and perhaps inspire a few others to bloom, here is a totally personal list of my own. As I started making it, I expected it would not be comprehensive, that it might shift completely if compiled tomorrow or yesterday, but then I kept adding to it, and it grew and grew. I think now that though inevitably there will be items I didn't remember in time, as well as items that would be added or subtracted in the future as my thinking changes, for the most part, and for better and worse, this is pretty comprehensive for my own reading history.

One book per writer, alphabetically organized, no separation of genres (genre, like gender, is sometimes necessary but often oppressive):

Empire of the Senseless by Kathy Acker: This was not the first book by Kathy Acker I read around in (I can't say I've ever read any Acker cover to cover), but it was the one that made me sit up and realize Kathy Acker's work is a serious achievement, and seriously queer. I don't know if I even like the book. I don't know if I "like" any of her books. The question of "liking" Kathy Acker's writing seems  irrelevant. I am challenged by it, I find it alternately as boring as watching paint dry and as fascinating as sustained meditation, I go back to it again and again and again, and I really wish she had lived a lot longer, because we still need her.

Another Country by James Baldwin: Because I wish more people would pay attention to Baldwin's later novels, I'm tempted to cite Just Above My Head here, but Another Country is the book of Baldwin's that I have spent the most time with, the novel of his that I have returned to the most, a book I have wrestled with and argued with and ultimately come to love, in all its gangly imperfection.

A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes: Though Foucault has influenced my sense of the world more than any of the other Famous French Theorists, it is Barthes I love most as a writer, particularly A Lover's Discourse and Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes. (In grad school, I wrote a paper linking A Lover's Discourse to Robert Glück's Jack the Modernist [see below], a pairing that works better than I actually thought it would when I began the paper.) Foucault is, of course, a great writer, but it is Barthes' attachment to fragment, collage, aphorism that I cherish and feel close to. A Lover's Discourse is, for me, a model of using fragments for meaning, of finding theory in life, of searching for what is ephemeral and yet meaningful. It is a book I live with.

When the Sick Rule the World by Dodie Bellamy: A recent favorite, as I was late coming to Dodie Bellamy, having made the sexist mistake of sticking with the New Narrative men and not investigating the women further. I think I first read this book in one sitting; it eviscerated me and built me back up. I sought out everything else I could find by Bellamy. Her prose can feel meandering, haphazard, chatty, but for all its apparent ease, it is a style difficult to achieve well, to give a sense of heft and meaning to, and Bellamy does it as well as anyone, writing essays that read at the speed of thought, and are a pleasure to think with.

Dust Devil on a Quiet Street by Richard Bowes: A small section of this book first appeared here at The Mumpsimus, Rick Bowes remembering Stonewall. Even if I hadn't first published a piece of it, I would cherish this book, partly because it is so very Rick Bowes, and Rick is my friend, a man who has himself had a huge influence on me, but also because it does a bunch of things with incredible grace and style, making what is immensely difficult look easy. It melds fact and fiction, fantasy and reality, memory and dream. It is a work of wonder and it ought to be celebrated as one of the truly great queer texts of our time.

My Sister's Hand in Mine: The Collected Works of Jane Bowles: In his Paris Review interview, Gary Indiana said, "I think there is only one perfect modern American novel—Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies." If I wracked my brain for a while, I might come up with one or two others, but yes. For me, even more than the novel, even more than her marvelous play In the Summer House, it was the short stories that made me forever love Jane Bowles. "A Stick of Green Candy" was in an anthology that my class read when I was in eighth grade, twelve or thirteen years old maybe, and it rearranged my entire idea of what a story could be and how point of view could work. That story is one of the most deeply (and invisibly) influential texts of my life. Jane Bowles was a miracle, a writer with a small oeuvre whose every sentence is worthwhile.

The Stories of Paul Bowles: Paul Bowles was a writer unlike any other, and also a writer with more of a scenic and poetic imagination than an architectural one, thus making the short story his ideal form. The quality of Bowles's stories varies, and I tend to prefer the work of his earlier years — I almost put The Delicate Prey here rather than his collected stories, since it is one of my all-time favorite collections of tales, but that would leave out a number of great works, including the wondrous long story "The Time of Friendship". You could certainly do worse than reading all of Paul Bowles's stories.

Three Novels: The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Wild Boys by William S. Burroughs: Though I find it impossible to choose just one Burroughs novel as an interest/influence, I am not cheating with this volume, because it was the first I ever bought. I even remember where I got it: Tower Records in Boston, which had a wonderful selection of weird, underground, and transgressive books, a selection I learned a lot from. As with Kathy Acker's writings, I read around in Burroughs' work, seldom cover to cover. I can't think of another writer I can read just one page from and feel as invigorated. Sitting down and reading a whole Burroughs book from first page to last would feel like an electrocution.

Undoing Gender by Judith Butler: Of course, Butler is most famous for Gender Trouble, but it took me a while to get to that book, and it and Bodies That Matter are both too wrapped up in the minutia of Philosophy for me. I've long had a conflicted relationship to Philosophy as a field, often finding myself frustrated by its abstractions, obfuscations, and compulsions, its frequent disconnections from the world. I do read philosophical texts, and enjoy some of them, but I am as often as not annoyed. Undoing Gender had a different effect, the ideal effect — it opened up new ways of thinking for me, and began an engagement with ideas of gender (and its undoing) that continues for me. I don't like gender, and this was the first book that showed me how and why I don't like it.

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson: It has been many years since last I read this book, but still it haunts me, still it sings to me.

feeld by Jos Charles: A book of poetry that does what the best poetry does: it rewires the reader's understanding of language. And it does so in an utterly queer way. I have not loved a book of contemporary poetry so much in years.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham: The huge and utterly unpredictable success/canonization of this novel has in some ways warped our perception of it, but I want to pause and cherish the moments when The Hours was new. Cunningham's earlier novel A Home at the End of the World was important to me because (in its tightly-bound mass market paperback) it was the first book I remember buying at a gay bookstore: A Different Light in downtown Manhattan, probably fall of 1994. I don't know why I bought it. I was trying to learn about contemporary gay fiction at the time, and I wouldn't be surprised if Cunningham's novel was highlighted as a staff pick or something. I read it and loved a lot of it, but also thought it was a bit ... waxy? A compelling read, one I truly appreciated, but also somehow like a TV movie. I felt this even more with Cunningham's next novel, Flesh and Blood, which at the time seemed to me like a shallow soap opera. I almost didn't pick up The Hours because I had thought so little of Flesh and Blood, but the premise captured my imagination, especially as it included Virginia Woolf. So I got a copy from the library's New Books shelf and read it, enraptured, in a couple days. I reread it soon after first reading it. I returned the library copy and went to the local bookstore to get my own. It was one of those books that, at the time, I deeply needed. I had never before felt so deeply that it was a book I wished I had written. It was, for a while, everything I wanted literature to be. I even loved the movie for a while (I revisited it recently and decided some passions are best left to the past). I assigned The Hours in a couple classes I taught, both high school and college, and a few students occasionally appreciated it. I haven't reread it in some years, but it still holds a special place in my heart.

Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse: I am not a big reader of graphic narratives, but Stuck Rubber Baby, like Diane DiMassa's Hothead Paisan, got to me at exactly the moment where I was most ready to receive it. Later, I read Cruse's very different but equally important Wendel comics. In the wake of his death, Cruse has gotten some attention as a groundbreaking writer and artist, but there's plenty of room for more appreciation.

The Mad Man by Samuel R. Delany: Given how much I've written about Delany over the years, choosing one book is difficult, but this is the one I devoted an entire chapter to in my own book. It is the first novel of Delany's that I read where I felt the fascination that would keep me reading him to this day. I got a remaindered copy of the hardcover at St. Mark's Books in the mid-1990s for about $5. I picked it up because I had read some of Delany's science fiction and thought it was interesting, though I had not connected with it in a signficant way. By the time I bought The Mad Man, my deep engagement with science fiction was over and I had moved on to other forms, modes, and genres — so the fact that The Mad Man is not SF was in its favor. I had read some gay male fiction at this point, was living in NYC, and was ready for my mind to be blown apart. It was. The book was fascinating, disgusting, tedious, astonishing — more revolting than any horror novel, more intellectually engaging than most science fiction. I have been thinking about it ever since.

The Revenge of Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist by Diane DiMassa: The anger and violence of Hothead Paisan was a great purgative joy for me in the mid-1990s. Hothead was a radical queer middle finger to the world, an explosion of homo id. She was one of the great loves of my life, and this book (the second collection of Hothead comics) has lived with me for many years. I would never recommend Hothead as a role model, but I still need, now and then, to tap in to her fury.

Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality by Anne Fausto-Sterling: I first read Sexing the Body around the time I first read Jennifer Terry's American Obsession (below), and the two books together reconfigured many of my ideas of gender and sexuality. Though some of its science has likely been complicated and developed since the book was published in 2000, and social ideas have certainly moved in new directions (partly thanks to it), Sexing the Body remains a radical book, a book we need, a book I return to.

Grove New American Theatre ed. by Michael Feingold: Not quite everything in this anthology is queer, but the ethos sure is. This book provided my greatest education in playwrighting, and my favorite of the writers in it, David Greenspan, even became one of my teachers at NYU. His play herein, Dead Mother, or, Shirley Not All in Vain, remains a touchstone for me, an ideal of what theatre might be. Feingold's introduction is a manifesto, a call to arms, an inspiring defense of art against a world of prudes and bean counters. This was a book made to piss off Jesse Helms and Newt Gingrich. It is a book of possibility, inspiration, and fire.

Maurice by E.M. Forster: I first read this around the time the movie adaptation made its way to cable, allowing me to watch it when the parents, for whatever reason, happened to be away. I sought out the novel similarly, surreptitiously, and found it quite dull in comparison — I was not yet ready for Forster's great subtleties of expression and thought. In my early twenties, though, its quietly revolutionary portrait of repression and love became one of my favorite things. Later, I read the epilogue Forster had discarded and decided it was the best thing in the entire book.

Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault: Maybe History of Sexuality vol. 1 belongs here, but it is Discipline and Punish that I first picked up, first wrestled my way through, first felt both defeated and inspired by. For all its ideas, it was Foucault's writing that got me, his style, his use of examples, his approach to narrative — and for all the deep effect of his ideas on me, I still turn to him first as a writer.

Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years by Nicholas Frankel: One of my favorite works of biography, and a book that returned me to Oscar Wilde (and Oscar Wilde to me). It is an important history, one that complicates our idea of queer tragedy and triumph.

The Torturer's Wife by Thomas Glave: Kevin Brockmeier brought Thomas Glave to my attention when we were working on Best American Fantasy 3 together and reprinted the title story from this book. It is extraordinary writing, rich and evocative and challenging. I continue to be surprised that Thomas Glave is not more famous. Certainly, I have felt the impress of his approach to story form and language on my own aspirations.

Jack the Modernist by Robert Glück: As with many of the books on this list, this novel is one I first read while in college in New York City in the 1990s. Like others on this list, as well, it is a book I did not really understand or appreciate when I first encountered it, but which nonetheless held a spell over me, and which I returned to later, finding revelation. Some of Glück's other work has recently come back into print, and I can only hope this strange book does, too, because it is wondrous.

Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP's Fight Against AIDS by Deborah B. Gould: A rich history and analysis of one of the defining political movements of my life. Read this alongside Sarah Schulman's magnificent Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993 and you will be far better prepared to understand our history and its relationship to the present moment. Gould's book is the first that really helped me understand what happened with ACT UP, why the ACT UP I encountered was no longer the ACT UP of the tv news a few years before. It also helped me think about the strategies and appeals of activism generally and queer activism in particular. Though I was only briefly an activist, and have little inclination for that sort of work, I am nonetheless fascinated by activism and how, now and then, it changes the world.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith: Highsmith is one of those writers I adore and whom I'm glad I never got to meet, because by all account she was disliked even by her friends. She said and did terrible things. Had she been a less impossible person, she might not have written such challenging, thorny, and fascinating books, and since I never had to know her, I'm happy to take the books. I could put many of them on this list, but Talented Mr. Ripley was the first I read, and I read it without knowing a lot about it (not yet having seen any of the films). It sent me on to all the others, Ripley and otherwise, and I am now even a defender of The Boy Who Followed Ripley (the most overtly queer of the series), a novel I think only five or ten of us on the planet actually like (one being Alexander Chee). Still, there's nothing like the pure queer desire of the first Ripley novel, a book that fully embodies the old commandment: Be gay, do crime.

Let It Bleed: Essays by Gary Indiana: Much as I think Gary Indiana's fiction ought to be better known and celebrated, it is his essays that are closest to my heart. I could easily have chosen Vile Days, the marvelous collection of his Village Voice art essays, or the recent Fire Season: Selected Essays, but Let It Bleed is the first book of his I read, the one that burned its way into me, a book I have given away and lost in moves and always sought out replacement copies for. In a recent review of Fire Season, Sasha Frere-Jones said, "Indiana’s work is sensitive to the endlessness of the feeling within the endlessness of the pain. Things actually happen—life is not a wacky accretion of characters who conveniently embody that week’s intellectual whims." One paragraph of Gary Indiana's writing is worth more than most of what gets published today.

Christopher and His Kind by Christopher Isherwood: I'm very fond of Isherwood, a writer who links the worlds of Bloomsbury and Weimar Berlin to post-WWII California. Christopher and His Kind was the first of his books I read, simply because it was in the local library when I was growing up and I had somehow seen it referred to as a book candid about homosexuality, and I hardly knew any of those, so I sought it out. Christopher and His Kind presented gay worlds of England and Germany that would continue to haunt my imagination for decades after I first read of them.

Dancing Ledge by Derek Jarman: Any of Jarman's books would be appropriate on this list. I think Modern Nature was the first I read. I have chosen Dancing Ledge because it offers his journals from the time when Jarman was working on his first feature films. The book ends in 1982, just as AIDS was entering everyone's awareness, everyone's lives. I read it with a sense of possibility, of hope, a sense of how art and community can come together, of how art work matters ... and a sense of impending doom, as well as impending grace.

Counternarratives by John Keene: This is the most impressive short story collection by an American writer published in the 21st century that I have read. It is a work of gobsmacking brilliance, breadth, and insight. If you want to understand what contemporary literature can be and do, this is the book. This is the book.

Let the Dead Bury Their Dead by Randall Kenan: A book I bought in the summer of 2000 at the little bookshop set up at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, where Randall Kenan was a workshop leader. I was not in his workshop, but I went to his public events and was fascinated by him enough to buy this book. I have had it with me ever since. His approach to form, myth, history, and storytelling caught my imagination in a deep way; I have not reread the book in ages, but much of it still remains like a vivid dream in my mind.

Angels in America by Tony Kushner: I wrote about my relationship to this play (its two parts) in my essay about reading and AIDS for LitHub a few years ago. When I needed it, Angels mattered to me in ways few texts have.

Last Watch of the Night: Essays Too Personal and Otherwise by Paul Monette: I have written elsewhere about the effect of Paul Monette's Becoming a Man on me, and in many ways that should be the book I cite here, but Last Watch of the Night is the first book of Monette's that I owned rather than borrowed from the library, a book I saved money from my summer job to buy in hardcover, and a book that confronted me with the concept of the personal in writing in a way that proved productive. It wasn't long after I bought the book that Monette died, perhaps the first time I had to reconcile myself to the loss of an author I was actively reading.

The Importance of Being Iceland by Eileen Myles: Like Dodie Bellamy, Myles is a relatively recent influence for me, but a strong one. I had tried reading their work earlier, but never connected. For some reason, in recent years, Myles became a writer I needed. Poetry, prose, whatever. I needed it. The Importance of Being Iceland is the book that made the turn for me, a book that is perhaps one of their least known, yet its vision of the world is a pure delight to spend time with. Like Frank O'Hara, Myles has an enviable ability to make casual language into gorgeous and meaningful art.

The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara: So wild, so queer, so everything. I find myself falling back on (and into) lines from O'Hara almost daily.

Martin and John by Dale Peck: This might have been the first literary novel I read that gave me the same vertiginous sense of wonder I had gotten from science fiction, a sense of scope and possibility that also taught me new ways to think about writing and the world. Though Peck's oeuvre is highly uneven, it deserves more attention — even his notorious collection of book reviews, Hatchet Jobs, seems to me to have survived better than many of the books it was criticized for not appreciating — and his memoir Visions and Revisions is excellent. But it is Martin and John that will always be closest to my heart, a book that influenced me in more ways than I probably know.

The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy: Purdy's novels are wild and nuts and unlike anything by anybody else, but it's his short stories that I most love, both because I prefer short stories to novels and because it seems to me that Purdy's imagination , like that of Paul Bowles, was primarily scenic and poetic rather than architectural, and it is in short stories that such an imagination is at best advantage. One of the greatest American writers, truly unique, and truly, truly queer.

What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics by Adrienne Rich: I could put Rich's Collected Poems on this list as well — though especially the volume that came out around the time of this collection of essays, An Atlas of the Difficult World — but it is What Is Found There that really affected my ideas of politics, poetry, and queerness in the deepest way. It is a book I saved and saved to be able to buy in hardcover when it came out, a book I pored over endlessly like a sacred tome. Which is what it is for me, still.

Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination by Sarah Schulman: In truth, Schulman's novels Empathy and Rat Bohemia are probably bigger influences on me, essential books in my pantheon, but her often messy polemics like Stagestruck, Conflict Is Not Abuse, and, especially, Gentrification of the Mind are books I have engaged with a lot over the years, alternately feeling on one page she is brilliant on another frustrating and on another infuriating. (Though really, for me, her greatest book is Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993, which should have won the Pulitzer.) Schulman is not a careful analyst or a rigorous philosopher. She shoots from the hip, makes big leaps, generalizes. And yet I still find her provocations great for thinking through tough ideas of aesthetics and politics, morality and ethics, being and nothingness. Even when she does not make great arguments, she makes great material to argue with.

Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction ed. by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: I could put almost any book by Sedgwick on this list, but it's Novel Gazing that really opened up my mind, because not only does it contain one of Sedgwick's own most important essays ("Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading"), but when I first encountered the book, I mined it for other writers to read, both the contributors and the texts they wrote about.

Queer in America by Michelangelo Signorile: Reading this book in its original bold, pink paperback cover felt like a revolutionary act in my youth. The contents challenged me tremendously, as well. I haven't revisited it since, and would probably now have a lot to argue with, but at the time it opened a world to me.

How to Write by Gertrude Stein: As with Kathy Acker and William S. Burroughs, I've never read Stein cover to cover but rather here and there, a few paragraphs at a time, a few pages, whatever my eye happened to land on. There are many books of hers that I could list here (in terms of my own prose, The Making of Americans is probably the biggest influence; I feel its rhythms often). How to Write is the big one for me, though, a book I've kept around for decades, a book I used as the basis for an essay on teaching Stein in a volume from the MLA (associated resource list here). Whenever I need to recharge my sense of what English can (and might!) do, I turn to Stein, who truly queered language.

An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society by Jennifer Terry: This book revealed histories that I had never before been aware of, and it was only after reading it that I began to feel that I could figure out my relationship to Foucault's writings and find a way into them in a serious way (though the book is not at all about Foucault). It's a book where nearly every page offers a wild story.

Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics ed. by TC Tolbert and Tim Trace Peterson: I had been interested in trans writing and thinking for a while before I encountered this marvelous, massive, and eclectic collection, but it was this book that truly opened my eyes to the breadth and depth of trans identity and writing. It is a book I still hold in awe, a book I return to repeatedly for new inspirations.

Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation by Urvashi Vaid: I got this book from the new (review copy) hardcovers for sale at half price in the basement of The Strand right around the time it came out, and it is the book that taught me what I needed to know then about contemporary queer activism, its fault lines and fractals, its stakes and hearts. Urvashi Vaid's recent death was a real blow; her work will live on.

United States: Essays 1952-1992 by Gore Vidal: I do not remember where I got this book or how, nor do I remember when Vidal first hit my radar, but in high school this massive hardcover was a bible for me, a testament to a world where literary and aesthetic seriousness triumphed. It taught me a lot about literature, certainly, but the book also taught me — challenged me — about society and politics, too, about power and knowledge. I would later move away from many of Vidal's opinions, but his stance of high queer seriousness has always remained appealing.

The Beautiful Room Is Empty by Edmund White: Hard to choose one Edmund White book, but this was, I think, the first I read, the first that made a deep impression, the first that gave me a dream for my own destiny: to move from rural America to New York City, to find my queer brethren and live in glory. As an angsty, confused, tormented teenager, I had a little mass market paperback of this novel, a book that was easy to hide among my various science fiction paperbacks, and in many ways this book gave me my life.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: It took me a while to warm up to this book, one of those canonical texts I grabbed ahold of when I was a kid trying to figure myself out and didn't have a lot of access to other books. A lot of expectations and assumptions have sedimented around it, and it wasn't until, only a few years ago really, I approached it as fresh as I could, trying not to impose anything onto it, that I found it gripping and still subversive. The differences between the various versions, including the "uncensored" edition, are fascinating to consider and, for me, helped illuminate the book.

Art and Lies by Jeanette Winterson: Winterson has written better books than Art and Lies, and certainly more famous books, but this was the one I needed when a friend gave me her copy, the first of Winterson's books I read. I read it with energy and a sense of new worlds opening before me, new possibilities for fiction and language, for art and life.

Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz: Wojnarowicz was scary! Or so I felt back in the 1990s. A good scary, a necessary scary, but still ... I didn't know what to make of his work, what to do with it, how to bring it into my own consciousness. Nonetheless, it always held a fascination. The importance of his writing and his perspective has only grown over the years, and now, having lived almost ten more years than he got to live, I find myself yearning for him more than ever before.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf: The most overtly (and playfully) queer of Woolf's novels, and one of the first I read, so it is the only possible choice, even as others are ones I now value more. For me, Woolf is the lodestar of language.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: No novel has had as deep an emotional effect on me. Yes, I know, lots of people hate it, there's been a backlash against its popularity, it's not politically/ideologically in line with Twitter this morning, whatever. Many people misread it. Others just don't like melodrama and the gothic. Go your own ways. Enjoy your small, well-behaved novels. This book astonishes me.