Queer Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Queer Novel

Robert L. Caserio

“The queer novel” addresses a complex object. The phrase points to fiction in which characters are identified as gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered, and in which same-sex love is prominent. But that is only one meaning of the phrase. Scholarly use of the term “queer” intends to undo our certainties about erotic desire and our definitions of agents of desire, even when eros and its agents are denominated as gay or lesbian. Hence “the queer novel” comprehends more than “gay fiction” or “lesbian fiction,” more than fiction by gay or lesbian authors, even though it takes inspiration from the same-sex eros that religion, law, and society might identify as unnatural or abnormal. Identification of what is “abnormal” overlooks the arbitrariness and instability of the institutionalized conventions on which “normality” is based. “Heterosexuality” is also an unstable category or identity, itself a queer business. As Sigmund Freud declares in 1915 in a footnote to the first of his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, “the exclusive sexual interest felt by men for women is...a problem that needs elucidating and is not a self-evident fact.” Eros is unruly; attempts to regulate it are costly. “The requirement...that there be a single kind of sexual life for everyone,” Freud protests in Civilization and Its Discontents, “disregards the dissimilarities, whether innate or acquired, in the sexual constitution of human beings” (chap. 4).

The novel has always occupied itself with dissimilarities in humanity's erotic constitution; designating a subspecies of fiction as “queer” perhaps is redundant. If, however, we take the queer novel most obviously to mean an alternative to representations of opposite-sex eros, in the nineteenth century the genre originates in German Romantic fictions about male—male love by August, Duke of Saxony-Gotha, and by Heinrich Zschokke. In France, Honoré de Balzac's output includes La fille aux yeux d'or (1835, The Girl with the Golden Eyes), about a lesbian liaison; and three novels (1837—49) that feature a compelling homosexual master criminal (and eventual head of the Paris police), Jacques Collin. Balzac is not claimed as a gay writer, but the queer novel is alive in him. In North America, Herman Melville's novels imply sexual encounters between men: Moby-Dick (1851) includes a fantasy of male group masturbation and idealizes—significantly for future developments of queer fiction—a correlation between homosexual eros and radical democracy.

Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) initiates the queer novel in English and Irish fiction. Wilde's protagonist, who can be interpreted as bisexual, is ultimately punished for his departures from norms. His punishment might represent Wilde's submission to the legal and social conventions that, as a result of his trial for sodomy in 1895, condemned him to prison for two years. Yet when Wilde emerged from prison he did not recant his eros. And The Picture of Dorian Gray invests with homoerotic desire for Dorian the artist who paints the magical picture. The portrait painter is sympathetically rendered. If Dorian is punished by his maker, Wilde, it is in part because Dorian ruthlessly kills the blameless artist.

Homophobia (both external and internalized) has been said to dictate unhappy fates for same-sex love in queer novels written before Stonewall-era liberation (i.e., 1969 and after). Evidence of this view adduces multiple censorships: E. M. Forster's self-suppression of his novel Maurice (1913) because it asserts the happiness of a male couple; legal prosecution of A. T. Fitzroy's Despised and Rejected (1918), a WWI “coming-out” novel about a friendship between a lesbian and a gay conscientious objector; and the trial for obscenity of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928), in which the heroine, a novelist, loses her beloved Mary to heterosexual marriage, and swears thereafter to martyr herself to her queer “kind.” Her kind demand that she use fiction to “acknowledge us...before the whole world,” to “give us also the right to our existence,” even if service to the demand “tear[s] her to pieces” (chap. 5, §3).

In the face of such unhappy outcomes, one must keep in mind that realism and naturalism in fiction, of which Hall's novel is a mixture, tend to represent defeats of eros, no matter what its variety. The Brazilian novel Bom-Crioulo (1895) by Adolfo Caminha explicitly recounts a rivalry between a black gay sailor and a white Portuguese woman for the sexual possession of a cabin boy. The rivalry is disastrous; but the disaster is caused by naturalism's fatalistic view of eros, rather than homophobia.

Moreover, by the time of the trial of The Well of Loneliness, queer eros in fiction is more affirmed than stories of fatality or legal suppression suggest. Mikhail Kuzmin's Russian novel Krylya (1906, Wings), an experiment in modernist impressionism, unfolds the increasingly joyous sexual self-discovery of its young protagonist. In the U.S., Edward Prime-Stevenson's Imre (1906) also vindicates homosexual romance. In England fictions by Frederick Rolfe and Ronald Firbank maintain Wilde's vital influence. Rolfe's Hadrian the Seventh (1904) imagines a chaste but homosexual pope, who blesses a male—male union between his chamberlain and a failed candidate for the priesthood. Firbank's The Flower beneath the Foot (1924), about an imaginary European nation-state, exhibits routine lesbian love affairs, a boy-loving former prime minister, and gay migrant workers from North Africa. Such content in Rolfe's and Firbank's fictions was not prosecuted. Also not prosecuted was Virginia Woolf's Orlando, about a time-conquering transgendered protagonist, published in the same year as The Well of Loneliness. In France the prestige of the novels of André Gide and Marcel Proust, both of whom portray queer figures, commenced before WWI; the English translation of Proust's Sodome et Gomorrhe (Cities of the Plain), revealing the homosexuality of multiple leading characters, appeared the year before Orlando and The Well of Loneliness.

Multiple Orientations

The queer novel acquires intensity in the first half of the twentieth century by becoming the joint product of writers whose sexual orientations are diverse. Among English-language novelists whose lives conform outwardly to “heterosexual” practice but who produce “queer” fiction we might include such canonical modernists as Joseph Conrad, Dorothy Richardson, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence. They, like their gay and lesbian fellow-writers (Gide's 1902 L'Immoraliste, The Immoralist, is exemplary here), write novels that are scrupulously detached from, or downright subversive of, regulatory norms. The norms they distance themselves from include traditional moral distinctions; fixed definitions of what is male and female; and the conventional respect accorded monogamy and family. Conrad's “The Secret Sharer” (1909) dramatizes a virtually amorous male—male intimacy between a ship's captain and a criminal he hides in his closetlike shipboard quarters; Richardson includes in her thirteen-novel Pilgrimage (1915—67) a love affair between her heroine and a fellow suffragette; Joyce's Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939) include fantasies or scenes of transgendered people and polymorphous eros (including male—male incest); Lawrence in Women in Love (1921) creates a protagonist who believes that marriage “’is the most repulsive thing on earth....You've got to get rid of the exclusiveness of married love. And you've got to admit the unadmitted love of man for man’” (chap. 25). The belief appears to be seconded in Willa Cather's The Professor's House (1925). In Germany, Thomas Mann's novels, like their author, question the undermining of conventions, yet simultaneously make it heroic, as in his Doktor Faustus (1947, Doctor Faustus), where Faust is a bisexual modernist composer. Modernist fiction's subversive alliances across sexual orientations continue in representations of homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgendered people to be found in novels by Marguerite Yourcenar (her 1951 Mémoires d'Hadrien, Memoirs of Hadrian, exalts the Roman emperor who made his adolescent male lover into the object of a world religious cult), Iris Murdoch (The Bell, 1958; The Red and the Green, 1965), Brigid Brophy (In Transit, 1969), Hanif Kureishi (The Buddha of Suburbia, 1990), Pat Barker (the Regeneration trilogy, 1991—95), Jeannette Winterson (Written on the Body, 1992), and John Banville (The Untouchable, 1997).

Relation to Politics

The diverse sexualities that produce queer fiction often have been inspired by egalitarian motives, including beliefs (especially before WWI) that homosexual love democratically levels class and gender distinctions. Accordingly, the queer novel develops, during the middle and the latter parts of the twentieth century, along lines that exemplify queer love's continuing political vocation. Its vocation seems certain in mid-century fiction by John Horne Burns and James Baldwin. Horne Burns's The Gallery (1947), about the Allied liberation of the Italian peninsula in WWII, delivers excoriating political criticism of U.S. neo-imperialism by pairing the army's exploitation of “liberated” Naples with its repression of gay love among military men. Baldwin's Another Country (1962) undertakes to articulate intersections of American racial, sexual, and gender categories in order to forge an adequately complex model on which to base social and political progress.

An irony attends the development of queer fiction's democratic calling, however. For better or worse, it can loosen alliances among sexual orientations, and thereby reify the meanings of “gay,” “lesbian,” or “straight.” The paradoxical result makes the queer novel less comprehensively queer. For example, in Christopher Isherwood's career, the protagonist of The World in the Evening (1954) is bisexual; a secondary character is a gay man who predicts the vociferous queer identity and activism of 1969 and after. The secondary character's exclusively homosexual identity becomes primary by 1976, in Isherwood's Christopher and His Kind (a mix of novel and memoir). Isherwood's post-Stonewall consciousness insists on the uniquely separate character of gay men, on the basis of which he equates queer love's political tendency with an egalitarianism that is antinationalist and cosmopolitan. A complementary identitarian and political turn is exemplified by the Manx-born novelist Caeia March in Three Ply Yarn (1986), which proposes exclusive lesbian love and identity as the ultimate political weapon against patriarchy and androcentrism.

The politicizing use of fiction by novelists and readers as a vehicle for claiming a “right to our existence” was intensified in the 1980s by the AIDS pandemic and the scapegoating of homosexual men as the alleged “source” of the plague. In developing that use of fiction, however, criticism of celebrations of subversion enters the queer novel, perhaps as a result of post-Stonewall activists' practical engagement with state powers. Angus Wilson's Hemlock and After (1952) predicts the criticism: its gay protagonist believes that he must cede some of his unconventional liberty in order to share the benefits and the responsibilities of public life. Alan Hollinghurst's AIDS-era novels elaborate the gist of Hemlock and After. The Swimming-Pool Library (1988) casts a cold eye on gay men's capacity for self-destructive treachery and lack of solidarity; it also shows (pace Isherwood and despite cosmopolitanism) that gay white male citizens of imperialist nations easily exploit colonialized or postcolonial gay men. Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty (2004) suggests complicity between Thatcherite betrayals of public and global welfare and a gay man's self-indulgent innocence about national and international politics. Queer politics, Hollinghurst suggests, must avoid the pitfalls that his novels illustrate.

But while one vital tradition of the queer novel remains attached to politics, another—perhaps more directly continuous with modernist fiction—withdraws from it, as if restlessly searching for alternatives that are utopian, or forever beyond social articulation, or even beyond language. The philosopher George Santayana's novel The Last Puritan (1936) suggests that his closeted queer hero's tragedy is the hero's political impulse: a “wish to govern” that, essentially puritanical, blights eros. The heroine of Djuna Barnes's Ladies Almanack (1928), Dame Musset, sees struggles for gay rights—including a right to marriage—as already out of date, a reactionary limit on queer possibility. Barnes's cultivation of verbal opacity in Nightwood (1936) seeks to resist co-optation of eros by stock responses and clichés that might seek to “govern” sexual passion; James Purdy's novels (1956—92) are in line with Barnes's resistance. Jean Genet's novels (1941—52) dramatize the contention that legitimate social order and homosexual criminal life are mirror images of each other. They imply that political interventions cannot break through the deadlocked symmetry. A similar skepticism informs the fiction of the American anarchist Paul Goodman, an admirer of Genet. Goodman's Parents' Day (1951) represents the hopes but also the limits, due to sexuality's incalculable force, of the aims of progressive political and educational collectives. William Burroughs's novels (1959—71) invoke homosexual desire as a resource with which to destroy narrative and generic coherence and thereby to disclose alternative visions of experience and language; but they are visions that outdistance politics. The same might be said of the exilic consciousness that informs the queer eros of Juan Goytisolo's “Count Julian” trilogy (1966—75). Cuban novelist José Lezama Lima's Paradiso (1968) uses verbal and formal opacities to protect its investigation of same-sex anal erotism from censorious response and political interference. The fiction of Lezama's junior colleague Reinaldo Arenas, bitterly disillusioned by the hostility to homosexuality of Castro's “progressive” Cuba, refuses all political allegiances.

A recent trend in the U.K. has produced reimaginings in fiction of the sexual culture and experience of writers who, representing a spectrum of erotic diversity, stand at the origins of the modern queer novel: Wilde, Henry James, and Joyce, especially. Maureen Duffy's The Microcosm (1966), although reaching further back in time, is an avatar of this mode, which includes work by Jamie O'Neill, Colm Tóibín, and Sarah Waters.

SEE ALSO: Gender Theory, Sexuality.


1. Caserio, R.L. (forthcoming), “Queer Modernism,” in Oxford Handbook of Modernisms, ed. P. Brooker, et al.

2. Dean, T. (2000), Beyond Sexuality.

3. Edelman, L. (2004), No Future.

4. Wachman, G. (2001), Lesbian Empire.

5. Woodhouse, R. (1998), Unlimited Embrace.

6. Woods, G. (1998), History of Gay Literature.

7. Woods, G. (forthcoming), “ Novels of Same-Sex Desire,” in Cambridge History of the English Novel, ed. R.L. Caserio and C.C. Hawes.