I got interested in this subject lately because I have a John Rechy novel sitting on my bookshelf, just unpacked from a box. It’s been in an out of my shelf for years, and I have always been too terrified to read it. I practically get an anxiety attack just picking up the book to look at it. I did some research on Rechy and learned to my sadness that for the most part, he is only read by gay men, even though he is a truly great writer.
Which got me to wondering which other gay novelists might be worth a read for a straight person. Of course all gay novelists are going to be heavily read by the gay crowd. But how many have mass appeal for the rest of us?
I already discussed Dennis Cooper (don’t read), William S. Burroughs (highly recommended), David Leavitt (one book was great), and E. M. Forster (his novels are great, but Maurice can probably be avoided).
A commenter suggested Carole Maso, James McCourt, Allan Hollinghurst and Jeanette Wilkerson.
Carole Maso: She is an excellent if difficult writer. In addition, she doesn’t really write much about lesbian stuff. A great choice.
James McCourt: He is an excellent writer, and he doesn’t always write about gay stuff. Worth looking into.
Ronald Firbank: Very highly regarded. The “camp” attitude might be a turnoff though. Valmouth is supposed to be a gay novel, but it is incredibly tame. Just a lot of innuendo, as much of it straight as gay. Totally harmless.
Jeanette Wilkerson: Her famous book is Rubyfruit Jungle, which is a lesbian novel. However, it received accolades across the board as a classic. Might be worth a read.
Allan Hollinghurst: Another gay writer. He writes almost exclusively about gay themes, but he is a great writer. I would avoid.
Let us look at some others:
Gore Vidal: The City and the Pillar and Myra Breckenridge are the gay books. Everything else lacks a gay theme and is excellent. I would forget The City and the Pillar, but Myra Breckenridge is superb – recommended by Harold Bloom.
Manuel Puig: Kiss of the Spider Woman. This is very much a gay book. I saw the movie, but I have never been able to get through the book for some reason. The movie was very good. Not sure about KOTSW, but Heartbreak Tango and Betrayed by Rita Hayworth are excellent. Neither one has a gay theme.
Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time. Of course this is one of the greatest (and longest) books ever written. Does it have a gay theme? Who knows? Proust himself was gay, but I am not sure how much of that is in his book. But everyone who is anyone reads it anyway. Highly recommended.
Petronius: Satyricon. Yes, this is a gay work, but this ancient story is also very famous. Influenced T. S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Oscar Wilde. Highly recommended.
Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire. Why this is supposed to be a gay novel is beyond me, as homosexuality is not an important part of the theme. Nabokov himself was not gay, and this is one of his finest works. The rest of Nabokov’s works have no gay characters, and they are all superb.
Marquis de Sade: Philosophy in the Bedroom, 120 Days of Sodom. Not so much gay novels and polymorphously perverse. Yes, there are bisexual characters, but most of the characters are simply depraved and often evil pansexuals who screw anything that moves. Avoid at all costs – these books are truly evil. Great novels for budding serial killers though.
Thomas Mann: Death in Venice. Yes, this is very much a gay novel, but it is also one of the finest works of literature ever created. Very much recommended. He also wrote quite a few other excellent books that lacked gay themes.
Christopher Isherwood: A Single Man, Berlin Stories. Berlin Stories is great and there is not a lot of homosexuality in the two books that combine to form this volume. A Single Man is very much a gay novel, and I would probably avoid it.
Truman Capote: Other Voices, Other Rooms. I read this at one time, and I thought it was one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. It is written in Southern Gothic style. At the time, I had no idea this was a gay novel, but supposedly it is in some secretive way that was lost on me when I read it. Oh well, it is very much worth it!
In Cold Blood is also superb. A Tree of Night and Other Stories is very good, written in Southern Gothic style like Other Voices, Other Rooms. The Grass Harp is an excellent novel. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a fantastic novella and was heavily praised by Norman Mailer as one of Capote’s finest works. The Dogs Bark: Public People and Private Places showcases his journalism and is a good book.
Although Capote was very much a gay man, he mostly socialized with the jet set high society type and counted many couples and heterosexuals among his friends. Most of his work lacks a gay theme except for Answered Prayers, an unfinished posthumous novel which is not worth reading.
Andre Gide: The Immoralist, The Counterfeiters. Yes, Gide was very much a homosexual, but these two books are out of this world. The homosexuality of The Immoralist is not too evident. Yes, there is one gay character, but we don’t really see this in him until the end. And the two other characters are straight. Anyway, how could you not read prose like this?:
I did not understand the forbearance of this African earth, submerged for days at a time and now awakening from winter, drunk with water, bursting with new juices; it laughed in this springtime frenzy whose echo, whose image I perceived within myself.
The Counterfeiters is gay as Hell, but it is also a great modern classic. Verdict: Yes on both. The Fruits of the Earth is also great, though it too seems to have some subtle gay theme. Any book praised by Sartre, Camus and Maurois has to worth it. Straight Is the Gate and Lafcadio’s Adventures are also fantastic, and they lack a gay theme.
Edmund White: Another gay writer like Rechy who has ghettoized himself. He mostly writes about homosexuality and nothing else. A Boy’s Own Story and The Beautiful Room Is Empty are both very well-written and gay as all get out. A Boy’s Own Story is recommended by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, and that’s good enough for me. Avoid the other one and everything else.
Yukio Mishima: Confessions of a Mask. One of the great writers of the 20th was, yes, a bisexual man. All of his work is fantastic, including this book, which is definitely gay all right. Go for it. Thirst for Love, The Sound of the Waves, After the Banquet, Runaway Horses, The Decay of the Angel, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace to the Sea, Temple of the Golden Pavilion, The Sea of Fertility, Death in Midsummer and Other Stories, The Way of the Sumurai, The Black Lizard and Other Plays; Patriotism and Kyoko’s House are all very good, and they all lack gay themes.
Samuel R. Delaney: Hogg. Another fantastic writer who has ghettoized himself by writing about gay themes too much. Hogg is one of the most horrifying books ever written and is extremely gay, but Norman Mailer and J. G. Ballard are fans. Proceed with extreme caution.
Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, Nova, Babel-17, Dhalgren, The Motion of Light in Water, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, The Einstein Intersection, Triton, The Jewels of Aptor, Tales of Nevèrÿon, Flight from Nevèrÿon, Aye, and Gomorrah and Other Stories, The American Shore, Starboard Wine, The Jewel-hinged Jaw, Longer Views, Silent Interviews, and 1984: Selected Letters are all excellent and most lack strong gay themes. The Motion of Light in Water, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders and Triton have gay themes but the rest lack marked gay themes.
Bret Easton Ellis: American Psycho. I really do not understand how this is a gay book, but supposedly it is. His books do sometimes have gay or more typically bisexual male characters, but there is a lot of straight screwing around too. Characters are typically pansexual screw-anything types who are also into drugs and all sorts of depravity. American Psycho is awful, but Less Than Zero is very good. He has written a number of other novels, but none of them are very good and certainly none are as good as Less Than Zero.
James Baldwin: Another Country, Giovanni’s Room. Forget about Giovanni’s Room as it is only read by gays, but Another Country is a fine book. Both are very gay novels, Giovanni’s Room much more so.
Alex Beecroft: Captain’s Surrender, The Witch’s Boy, False Colors and Shining in the Sun. Gay historical fiction written by a lesbian. Avoid – only read by gays in general.
Nick Alexander: 50 Reasons to Say Goodbye, Sottopassaggio, Good Thing, Bad Thing, 13:55 Eastern Standard Time. Life and loves of a gay everyman in a series of novels. Avoid – only read by gays.
Mary Renault: The Chairoteer is the famous one. Lesbian author of novels, often with gay themes and historical fiction. I would avoid The Chairoteer and the novels, but The King Must Die is great historical fiction with no gay theme.
Edward Prime Stevenson: Imre. One of the first gay novels, published in 1907. I would avoid this.
Andrew Holleran: Dancer from the Dance is the famous book about the AIDS epidemic, but it is mostly only read by gays. All of his work has a gay theme. He has a number of other novels, but only gays read them.
Augustus, Duke of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg: Cyllenion: A Year in Arcadia was written around 1800 and is probably the first gay novel. It is beautifully written, but only gays read this book.
Bayard Taylor: Joseph and His Friend: A Story of Pennsylvania. Another very early gay novel written in the 1800’s. I would avoid this one. The author was apparently gay himself, and he wrote many works including a number of travelogues and works of poetry and drama. The poetry is worth seeking out, but it might be hard to find.
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