In a 1926 letter to once-lover Vita Sackville-West, literary giant and Bookbarn favourite Virginia Woolf included the observation: “What a queer thing fiction is.” We know full well that the term “queer” has been on quite a journey through the years. Its definition began as ‘strange’ or ‘unusual’, was taken for a derogatory slur against gay people, and is now used as the proud (if slightly controversial) marker of the LGBTQ+ community and popular area of academic study ‘queer theory’. Today, as we approach the end of Pride month and stand at the culmination of those definitions, we’re thinking Ginny Dubs might have been on to something…
Literature in general has never been silent on queer issues or devoid of queer voices. In fact, queer desire in literature can be traced back centuries. We see it before Oscar Wilde, before Shakespeare and his seminal sonnet sequence dedicated to the “fair youth”, who was undoubtedly male, and to whom Sonnet 18 (“shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) is addressed. And possibly the earliest known queer literature comes from everyone’s favourite lesbian: Sappho. Queerness may have been buried in subtext ten layers deep, but it has always been there. Alex Pilcher’s brilliant A Queer Little History of Art (2019) sums this up perfectly:
"It's fitting that so much queer writing - from Christopher Marlowe's Edward II to the novels of Sarah Waters - resurrects the ghosts of queer ancestors. We somehow need to affirm that such people were, before we were, and that no regime that punishes deviance has ever eliminated the defiant expression of difference."
As such, to show that such people were and are, the following is intended as a mini-celebration of queer literature and is in no way representative of the myriad realities of the queer community globally. As you will know, the struggles both minor and major that each person who identifies as queer has to contend with varies by background, by country and culture, by social situation. This article is instead an expression of love for queer literature and the role it has been playing up until now; the role it will be called upon to play once more as we move toward a more understanding and accepting future.
Photograph taken from Why We March: Signs of Protest and Hope (Artisan, 2017)
Djuna Barnes’ most famous text Nightwood (1936) is a twisted and hauntingly beautiful depiction of female love. The novel explores a less-than-idyllic relationship between its protagonist Nora and her flighty love Robin, a pair which are commonly understood to have been modelled after Barnes’s own relationship with artist Thelma Wood. Though inevitably heart-breaking, the relationship on display in Nightwood is at turns beautiful—“In the passage of their lives together every object in the garden, every item in the house, every word they spoke, attested to their mutual love, the combining of their humours”—and unflinching in its intensity— “[Nora] said: She is myself. What am I to do?”. This novel came during a time where queer fiction was not exactly in public demand, and obscenity trials for depictions of same-sex love had been a staple of literary society for decades. Radclyffe Hall’s infamous and well-attended trial for early lesbian classic The Well of Loneliness had taken place only eight years before.
Notoriously decadent, cape-wearing Truman Capote entered the arena of queer literature with his 1948 classic novel Other Voices, Other Rooms. Protagonist Joel Knox is sent to live with his estranged father, step-mother, and eccentric uncle Randolf. Randolf as a character is equal parts vibrant and dejected as a result of his tempestuous past. He is misinterpreted by the family as a ‘ghost’ when seen wearing a dress and make-up, and opens up to Joel about the brutal story of his great love for another man. At the novel’s close, Joel sees this lady in the window once more, smiling; “she beckoned to him, shining and silver, and he knew he must go”. Many read this last page as Joel’s final acceptance of the queer desire in himself and others. Regardless of your take on the novel, it remains a beautiful work of queer literature.
Literature has never been shy of exploring the undercurrents of society which popular culture avoids. Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) explores the precarious racial tensions of New York in the 1920s, in which mixed-race women Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield are often found “passing” as white for ease of movement through certain social situations, a regular practice for many people during this time. The old friends reunite after a long time apart and Clare immediately rocks Irene’s stable foundations as a wife and mother. The story quickly descends into confusion on the part of Irene, who begins to feel a desire for Clare she has desperately tried to repress. This desire conflicts with both characters’ questioning of racial authenticity, of what it means to be black in predominantly white spaces, and presents the pains inflicted on the soul when one denies oneself such a deep and complicated longing.
I suppose it’s just as well to linger for a moment on the bad. The bad is obvious to many people: queer literature has in the past often fallen short of illuminating the realities of those very marginalised groups it sought to uplift, and has too often told sad stories ending in heartbreak or death. And there are many renowned literary figures who have been uninterested in, for example, the lives and love stories of queer people of colour, or queer folks with disabilities, or trans and non-binary folks. Indeed, trans people currently feeling disillusioned with J.K Rowling and her anti-trans Twitter rants will be all too familiar with this gap in representation. Many writers queerbait all they want, playing same-sex romantic dynamics for a laugh, but when the time comes to entertain the actual possibility that they may have Veered Towards the Queer in their writing of “romantic friendships” or (puke noise) “bromances”, they are suddenly vocal and adamant that there is nothing in their text to imply anything but heterosexuality. And sadly all this does is tells young people who might be struggling with their sexuality that in using their analytic minds to find representations of themselves in their favourite books, they are “over-reading” and “not taking things seriously”.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, and since this is Pride month, after all, we can celebrate where literature has succeeded. Many contemporary authors have proven themselves up to the task of adapting to where their story has naturally led them, and open to exploring the infinite possibilities offered by devoted fans. Take Becky Albertalli for example, young adult author of Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda and other popular works. After the success of this debut based on Simon Spier, a high-school student contending with the fact that he is gay and in love with a boy he writes to online, Albertalli heard the responses of her readers. Fans had picked up on a possible romantic dynamic-- which Albertalli herself had not noticed—between two of Simon’s friends, Abby and Leah. Albertalli has said
"...you can't imagine the volume of feedback I got for years about Leah and the character who ended up being her love interest. There were lines in Simon that signalled Leah's bisexuality to a huge portion of my readers, even if I hadn't fully unpacked that in my head. So, I kind of jumped at the chance to explore that."
And explore it she did: Albertalli wrote a sequel to Simon vs called Leah on the Offbeat, which depicts Leah falling in love with Abby, and dedicated it to her perceptive fans:
There are hundreds more works of modern and contemporary fiction we could point to; Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen, Alex As Well by Alyssa Brugman, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith. This is to say nothing of the many YA authors telling LGBTQ+ stories (Albertalli, David Levithan, Emily M. Danforth, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, the list, happily, goes on).
And Young Adult is a great subsection of literature for these wonderful explorations of queer life to take place. Because what many young people today know, and are not afraid of, is that everyone, l i t e r a l l y e v e r y o n e, Veers Towards the Queer. We’re all born with fluid minds that are capable of believing or accepting anything. The boxes and the barriers and the boundaries come after, when we’re shoved into the pink dress with the bow, or asked if we have a girlfriend before we’ve learned how to effectively wipe our own arses.
(--- Readers whose brains may be slightly shocked at this accusation of fluidity, I call forward the power of this beautiful phrase in Capote’s Other Voices: “The brain may take advice, but not the heart; and love, having no geography, knows no boundaries.”)
Pride Month display in our shop
At the Bookbarn, we cannot wait to hear more queer stories from around the globe. We want more of it all. We want queer love stories from inside refugee camps, women in STEM falling in love with each other, coming out tales of trans people in small British towns. We want stories from the bottom to the top; we want to read historical fiction about James I and his passionate love for the Duke of Buckinghamshire, and we want to read about their maids falling in love alongside. We want to keep hearing what fans think about the books they adore, because as the Rowlings and the Albertallis of the world show us, readers are more intuitive and creative than any author can imagine. And readers are willing to accept revolution, will march in the streets to defend groups we may not personally identify with, or to call out against injustices we have not personally faced, because we are readers: we have a vision of the world as it could be.
So here in the 2020s, we shout what Woolf gently mused: What a queer thing fiction is.
Literature has a role to play in the boundary-pushing, barrier-breaking, colourful direction of the future. So tell your friends, tell your kids, tell your nan that The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: The Revolution Will Be Lit.