Review: Fifty Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must ReadFifty Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read
Edited by Richard Canning
Published by Alyson Books
Reviewed by Max Fincher
‘Must read’ or ‘must do’ lists rouse my hackles, initially at least. My immediate feeling is: ‘Why must I?’ Why should I read this or that book in preference to another? Or one I have chosen to read or had recommended to me? It is similar to the mixed feelings you might experience being told to read certain ‘classic’ works of fiction at college or university, because they are somehow inherently ‘good for you’. We all know what is good for us (sometimes we even enjoy it) but we don’t always necessarily want to be good all the time. However, this collection of essays in no way attempts to persuade you why you must read these books along the arguments of their literariness, popularity or for self-improvement reasons; in fact, one or two of the essays argue against reading their choice. Instead, the reader is given very personal reflections by the contributors on the pleasures they have yet to discover. After putting off reading Moby Dick for years, I might now try reading the novel, as well as revisiting again, with a better understanding, Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.
So Fifty Gay and Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read ‘...isn’t a canonical book’. As Richard Canning makes clear in his introduction, there is no overarching grand narrative that links the selections together according to some linear, developmental history. The range of books covered is not merely limited to novels either. Letters, diaries, poetry, and autobiography are included, and the essays span Plato, Gilgamesh and the Bible to contemporary fiction by Herve Guibert, Rebecca Brown and Matthew Sadler. This is not intended to be a comprehensive survey or history of gay literature in the manner of say Gregory Woods’s A History of Gay Literature, but is a highly subjective and personal choice of works by both new and established contemporary writers. There are gaps and holes between writers and periods and ‘the babble of gathered voices’, gaps that we can fill in if we choose. Inevitably, everyone will have their own ‘must read’ list. But as Canning says to focus on who is left out is to miss the point: ‘the value of this book not by what isn’t here, but by what is’ (p.xiv).
And for some readers there may be surprising omissions. Forster, Gide, Genet, Joe Orton, Armistead Maupin, Alan Hollingshurst and Sarah Waters are all absent. One aspect of this collection that makes it immensely readable and enjoyable, is that the essays are not consistently in the vein of classic biographical or literary-critical appreciations. Instead, many contributors offer subjective viewpoints, reminiscences and musings on the process of reading, the writers or describe how certain characters changed or affected them personally. Many essays read against established interpretations. For instance Robert Glück’s reads Edmund White’s, A Boy’s Own Story as a transgressive piece of fiction that argues against reading the novel as an example of ‘crossover’ literature with mainstream audiences. Regina Marler admits she doesn’t like Henry James’s The Bostonians, finding James’s characterisation of the latent lesbian attraction between the characters of Olive and Verena ‘mean-spirited’, ‘spiteful’ and ‘grotesque’.
Frequently, the essays are stylistically inventive, as in Kathy Acker’s appreciation of the fiction of William Burroughs. In addition, there are exciting cross-currents occurring between readers and writers, where sexuality is not a centrifugal point: straight and lesbian women read gay men’s writing, and (previously straight) and gay/bisexual men read straight women’s fiction. The essay by Mark Behr on The Color Purple is a shining example, and shows the power of fiction to both transform and connect people.
Out of the fifty books chosen, I have read six: Horace Walpole’s Letters (only selections; reading all thirty-four volumes would take forever); Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room; Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy; Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. For my Christmas holiday reading, I decided I would choose five books to read. Vestal McIntyre’s description of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as ‘...a story bursting at its seams, assembled and sewn together as roughly as Frankenstein’s monster’ and Melville’s daring, experimental language intrigues me. I have shied away from modernist fiction, but perhaps Melville will engage me. Second on my list is Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. Edmund White describes how Yourcenar’s had an unconventional upbringing, tutored by her father in Latin and Greek, and how she is ‘a philosophical writer with a deep and wide culture’. I am hoping to discover a brilliant historical fiction writer, to see how she portrays ‘one of the great same-sex love stories of all time’. Thirdly, I would like to read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. David Bergman has whetted my interest by describing Ginsberg’s curious mix of spirituality and explicit sexuality, his inclusive and embracing attitude to other people, and how the experience of reading his poems is like ‘holding the book and holding the man’. J.R. Ackerley’s autobiography, My Father and Myself, is, according to Andrew Holleran, ‘a wonderful comic portrait of people with an almost Dickensian cast’. I am anticipating from Holleran’s description something in the realm of Alan Bennett’s wonderfully observant character-sketches, Talking Heads, mixed with Kenneth Williams’ diary. Holleran’s description of Ackerley as ‘entertaining’, ‘acerbic’ and ‘never boring or monotonous’, suggests a pleasurable journey of exploration of a complex man’s relationship with his father and his own sexual feelings. Finally, I would like to read Andrew Holleran’s own novel, Dancer from the Dance, to submerge and lose myself in a heady era of ‘intense artifice’, the disco moment of the 1970s, and to discover perhaps the ‘first real novel of Gay Liberation’, which as Matias Viegener says is ‘a wild and unexpected fulfilment of Walt Whitman’s utopian call for the “love of comrades” to “sing the body electric”.
Reading the essays in this collection has opened my eyes to the diversity of voices and his(her)stories that are out there for us all to explore and experience. You may find your assumptions and expectations about a particular work or writer confirmed or overturned, but hopefully you will make new discoveries. I am hoping my own selections will be entertaining, challenging and informative, and that each will contain something that, in some small or large way, changes my own ‘certainties’. To this end, I would like to conclude with a quotation from Mark Behr’s essay on The Color Purple, as a coda for why everyone must read:
The Reader doubts, often. From book to book, his doubts multiply. The Reader believes that if more people were less certain more often, and tasted the emancipation that comes with doubt, there would be fewer wars and fewer hungry and unhappy and angry people in whose eyes he sees himself reflected.