Words guaranteed to raise a few queer eyebrows

I’m not on Twitter (nor will I ever be, after reading Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed) so it’s a fluke I even saw this morning’s tweet from Literary Hub:

But as soon as I read the words “queer canon” my queer little eyebrows raised. There’s an official queer canon? What’s in it? Wow, I could read along with a Harvard course without leaving Cedarvale? I’m in.

But then I read the course description and the reading list:

America’s Queer Canon: from Melville to Moonlight, Harvard University
Taught by Kathryn Roberts

Course Description: This course examines a range of works from the US canon that engage themes of same-sex desire, homosexual and transgender identity, and other “queer” relations. Questions around sexual norms have been central to American literature from its beginnings, but the course will focus on texts from the second half of the nineteenth century through the very contemporary. With help from queer theorists and social historians, we’ll pay close attention to how changing legal, medical, and religious discourses shape queer literary expression, and how queer writers have changed culture. Authors include Melville, James, Cather, Larsen, Baldwin, Lorde, Bechdel, and Nelson.

Required texts:

Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name
Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart
Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
James Baldwin, Another Country
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Nella Larsen, Passing
Dennis Cooper, Sluts
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
Tony Kushner, Angels in America
Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons
Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Bartleby, and Other Stories
Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

Wait a second. That’s the queer canon? Apart from the delicious synchronicity that I happen to be reading the first title on the list, Audre Lorde’s Zami (and it’s been on my bookshelf for a couple of decades, waiting for just the right moment for me to open it and drink it in, which happened to arrive last night), it seems to me there are a few titles missing, plus a few that make me go hmm. (Death Comes for the Archbishop? Really? Just because Willa Cather was a lesbian?)

For starters, where is Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers? What, you don’t think it should be on the list? Just because it made this list of 40 trashy novels you must read before you die? I no longer have the dog-eared copy I used to hide in the back of my closet (ironically) when I was about 13. Granted, its queer content is limited (if memory serves me correctly) to one scene that involved two women, one of whom was wearing men’s silk pajamas. But that one brief scene was my first encounter with the idea that two women might have sex together—an idea that startled and thrilled me, even if I shoved it back into my internal closet and locked the door for another twenty years).

Also, where is Virginia Woolf’s Orlando? Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues? Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeannette Winterson? Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle? In Her I Am, by Chrystos? Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics?

I could go on. And on. And on. But I think I’ll just go back to reading Zami. If you’d like to join me, you can download it here.

What’s on your queer bookshelf, if you have one?


4 Responses to “Words guaranteed to raise a few queer eyebrows”

  1. Joseph Schreiber

    I don’t have a queer bookshelf though I do have quite a few books from the years I was questioning and exploring sexuality and gender. The internet was much newer and I didn’t own a computer so books were pretty critical. I wrote about my bookish journey through transition for Literary Hub last year. You might find it interesting: http://lithub.com/a-readers-journey-through-transition/

    Now I find I often gravitate toward gay essayists, poets, and writers, but in most cases sexuality is an aspect of who they are but does not dominate their writing. I’m infinitely more uncomfortable with the recent increase in novels and essays dealing with gender, so many do not speak to my experience and some are simply terrible. One significant exception for me is a book called The Surrender by writer and editor Scott Esposito. This combination memoir/film critique/reading diary traces Scott’s exploration of the depth of his longing to express his female self. As a straight cross dresser, his a story not generally heard, especially in a literary work. His book came out around the time I published my own existential essay on the body. We found we shared some very key feelings about gender and have since become good friends.

    • commatologist

      Thanks, Joseph. I’ve read your LitHub essay quickly and I’ll read it again slower tomorrow. You always give me so much to ponder, and I appreciate it, and you.

  2. Wilson

    Neither Virginia Woolf nor Jeanette Winterson are american, so it makes sense they are not included on a course called “America’s Queer Canon”. Have a nice day!


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