Recently, Alan Hollinghurst said the gay novel is dead. “There was an urgency, a novelty to the whole thing,” said the gay author, who won the Man Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty. “And in our culture at least those things are no longer the case.” With all due respect to Hollinghurst, it is still an urgent time to write (and read) about LGBT lives. Queer people face dangerous and deadly challenges — both in the United States and abroad — and it falls on writers to continue to bring these stories to light.
To this end, The Advocate asked the fiction nominees of this year's Lambda Literary Awards to nominate the best LGBT novels of all time. Our editors then added our own selections. Spanning from the 19th century to the present day, these books demonstrate that, while much has changed for LGBT people, many struggles persist. Their words have much to offer in lessons about our history, our shared experience of being otherized, and how to address the challenges of today.
Below, see The Advocate's ranking of the best LGBT novels ever written. Nominate your own favorites in the comments.
Author Chavisa Woods is far from alone when calling Giovanni’s Room “masterfully written, heartbreaking.” It’s a book that has resonated with so many queer people since first being published in 1956, speaking to issues of identity even now. Woods, a Lambda :Literary Award nominee for her novel Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country, says Baldwin succeeded at “blurring the lines of hero and villain and bringing the complexity of human nature into horrifying focus.” Maybe that’s because Baldwin said the book isn’t actually about being gay. “Giovanni’s Room is not really about homosexuality,” said Baldwin in a 1980 interview about queer life. “It’s the vehicle through which the book moves. Go Tell It on the Mountain, for example, is not about a church, and Giovanni is not really about homosexuality. It’s about what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody.”
A revelation when it was published in 1982, Alice Walker’s novel delves into the intersections of race, gender, family, and sexuality in Georgia circa 1930.
For all of the painful physical and sexual abuse and heartache Walker’s protagonist Celie endures at the hands of Mister, the man she’s forced to marry as an adolescent, and the violent, institutionalized racism she faces as a woman of color, the novel teems with hope and light. Epic in scope, the novel is, in part, a story of love between women —Celie’s love for her long-lost sister Nettie and for Shug Avery, the blues singer and former lover of Mister’s Celie falls for and with whom she eventually makes a home.
"An epic tale of perseverance and empowerment as well as a celebration of love in all its forms," Tailor-Made author Yolanda Wallac, said of the novel.
Of Walker's masterpiece, Long Shadows author Kate Sherwood said, "I loved how the characters found hope (and love) despite everything standing in their way."
Steven Spielberg directed the 1985 adaptation of the film that starred Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey and earned several Oscar nominations.
On the heels of her successful debut novel Strangers on a Train (with its own intimations of queerness), an encounter Patricia Highsmith had with a New Jersey socialite while working at a shopgirl at a department store became the seed for 1952’s The Price of Salt. The result, which Highsmith’s publisher forced her to publish under the pseudonym Claire Morgan at a time when a bold depiction of desire between women that eschewed the requisite tragic ending for those who transgressed could have tanked her career, would become that rare example of a lesbian-themed novel with what would prove to be a radically hopeful ending.
"A novel that is simultaneously of its time and timeless, and it holds the distinction of being the first of its kind to have a happy ending," Yolanda Wallace said of the novel. SJ Sindu, author of Marriage of a Thousand Lies, called it, "One of the first Anglophone works to challenge the trope of the sad/suicidal gays who die at the end, this book gave us a blueprint of what queer fiction could look like."
The Price of Salt's dizzyingly erotically charged prose also telegraphed her signature sense of an ominous "menace" (in this case, the threat of being caught or found out just as the Red Scare hit the United States). Highsmith went on to write more queer-tinged fiction, including The Talented Mr. Ripley and all of the Ripley novels to follow.
The Price of Salt, of course, became the critically acclaimed Todd Haynes-helmed 2015 film Carol ,starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.
Orlando, which Virginia Woolf wrote in tribute to friend and lover Vita Sackbville-West, is a study in gender fluidity across time and space.
The eponymous protagonist starts as a rakish young nobleman in Elizabethan England, finding favor with the queen, then falling out with her and indulging liberally in sex with a variety of women but having an intense friendship with a male poet. Later Orlando is sent on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople, where he finds he's become a woman, and the gender switch offers an opportunity for commentary on the limitations society places on women.
The book ends in 1928, with Orlando still a woman, with a husband and children but also a new sense of possibility, as this is the year women won full voting rights in England. And while the novel's action spans more than 300 years, Orlando ages only 36. A well-received 1992 film version, directed by Sally Potter, featured Tilda Swinton and Quentin Crisp.
Although the great E.M. Forster (A Passage to India, A Room With a View, Howards End) wrote the benchmark gay novel Maurice circa 1913, it was published posthumously in 1971.
In a lush tale of manners, position, and desire, the titular character meets and falls for his classmate Clive while at Oxford. The pair embark on a two-year affair until Clive leaves Maurice to marry a woman and live out his proscribed life as part of the landed gentry, leaving Maurice in shambles and seeking to cure his homosexuality.
But Forster’s novel does not end in gay tragedy. Maurice falls in love with another man, Alec Scudder, and finally abandons his station so that they can be together. The author of Night Drop, Marshall Thornton called the novel "the original gay romance." A note found on Forster’s manuscript for Maurice, which was discovered tucked in a drawer, read “Publishable, but worth it?” Ismail Merchant and James Ivory adapted the novel to the big screen in a gorgeous film starring James Wilby, Hugh Grant, and Rupert Graves.
Jeffrey Eugenides won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2002 coming-of-age story about intersex protagonist Cal Stephanides. Inspired by the 19th-century memoirs of Herculine Barbin, Middlesex incorporates elements of Greek mythology as well as Eugenides’s Greek-American upbringing to tell a groundbreaking story about gender identity in the 21st century. While Middlesex has received some criticism from the intersex community — the author does not identify as intersex, nor did he consult with those who do — the novel is undoubtedly a landmark in queer visibility. In some literary circles, it is considered a candidate for the title of the Great American Novel.
Alan Hollinghurst famously questioned the future of the gay novel this year, which is striking since he's often viewed as helping make queer books accessible to a mainstream audience. His 2004 novel broke through in a major way — The Line of Beauty won that year's prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction.
Hollinghurt was praised for his expert command of the English language and his flawless re-creation of upper-class British society and conservative political circles of the 1980s. Hollinghurst set his pen on the sexual hypocrisies of homophobic politicians, many of whom had their own indiscretions behind closed doors. The book follows Nick Guest, a gay graduate student unofficially adopted by the family of a schoolmate. Nick gets a sneak peek at the aristocracy, while indulging in no shortage of sex and party favors; the fun comes to a crashing halt as AIDS enters the fray. Amid all the human drama, there's an amusing and memorable cameo from the Iron Lady. "Captures a vitally important era in lovely prose" is how Night Drop's Marshall Thornton describes Hollinghurst's most acclaimed book.
Many queer female writers see Rita Mae Brown's 1973 coming-of-age book as an iconic work of LGBT literature: "[I love Rubyfruit Jungle] because, well, because. I think this was the first 'lesbian' book I ever read! And devoured. And loved," writes The Year of Needy Girls' Patricia Smith. Yolanda Wallace, author of Tailor-Made, tells us, "When I was a teenager questioning my sexuality, this book provided the answers I was looking for."
Semi-autobiographical, Rubyfruit Jungle follows Molly Bolt's amorous adventures from childhood to adulthood, including a stint in swinging New York City. While Molly has sexual adventures with men, her true love is women, and Brown never shies away from describing Molly's insatiable passion for the ladies (the title perfectly captures Molly's zeal for female anatomy). Now assigned in many queer literature courses, Rubyfruit Jungle is brazen and brave; its frank discussion of lesbian sexuality can seem shocking to modern readers who imagine life in the early 1970s was less raunchy. Rubyfruit Jungle is a page-turning reminder that queer lust and queer sex are timeless.
"She calls it a biomythography and leads us through a heart-wrenching account of the black lesbian experience." – SJ Sindu, Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction Winner
This 1982 autobiography by the iconic queer black poet Audre Lorde is an experience of intersectionality, in a genre of intersections. Lorde classified it as biomythography, which combines history, biography, and myth.
A fierce love letter to the strength women have given her throughout her upbringing, the book explores her challenges growing up blind in 1930s Harlem, fighting for dignity in the heat of Jim Crow, and finding a voice in the New York City lesbian bar scene.
While books like The Price of Salt show lesbians walking away from motherhood, Zami celebrates the beauty of when mothers stay through the harshest of challenges.
A quietly devastating exploration of love, loneliness, and the often-crushing weight of adult responsibilities, 1962's A Single Man might just be one of Isherwood's most beloved works. The short novel — under 200 pages — tracks the experiences of an aging college professor in Los Angeles. Wracked with depression over the loss of his partner in a car accident, George matter-of-factly plots his suicide. But, as Isherwood demonstrates, life gets in the way. After crashing into others who are suffering as much as he is, George has a change of heart. But a last-minute twist changes everything. While Tom Ford's 2009 film adaptation conveys the styles and anxieties of the early 1960s, it doesn't exactly capture the beautiful tone of despondency created by the incomparable Isherwood.
The City and the Pillar shocked America when it was released in 1948. The queer coming-of-age novel about Jim Willard and his search for love was the first novel from a respected writer (Gore Vidal) to speak directly and sympathetically about the gay experience in an era when homosexuality was still very much taboo. The book is remembered today for this legacy as well as for various themes — Hollywood’s glass closet, being gay in the military, the poisonous effects of homophobia on society — that still reverberate today.
The only novel by the great Oscar Wilde may not be overtly gay, but there’s plenty of gay subtext there for the careful reader – about as much gay subtext as a popular author could get away with in 1891.
Dorian’s friends Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton express intense admiration for his beauty, and passages that show Basil’s feelings for Dorian as more clearly homoerotic were excised by an editor, according to Nicholas Frankel, who edited an edition presenting Wilde’s original text in 2011.
Even the text as originally published has references to Dorian’s corruption of not only young women but young men: “There was that wretched boy in the Guards who committed suicide. You were his great friend,” Basil tells Dorian at one point. “There was Sir Henry Ashton, who had to leave England, with a tarnished name. You and he were inseparable.” “At the Wilde trials of 1895, the opposing attorneys read aloud from ‘Dorian Gray,’ calling it a ‘sodomitical’ book,” Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker in 2011. “Wilde went to prison not because he loved young men but because he flaunted that love, and ‘Dorian Gray’ became the chief exhibit of his shamelessness.”
City of Night, a 1963 novel by John Rechy, is a seminal piece of fiction that follows the life of a gay hustler in New York City, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Through stream-of-consciousness narration, the reader gets a glimpse of queer life in mid-century America, with a long and fascinating cast of characters that includes drag performers, S&M practitioners, and sex workers. The book has inspired music from the Doors as well as a film by Gus Van Sant, My Own Private Idaho. "This epic chronicle of gay culture in the American sixties is as far-reaching as it is important, giving us a glimpse into identity and motive,” affirmed SJ Sindu, the author of Marriage of a Thousand Lies.
Well ahead of its time, Leslie Feinberg’s 1993 Stone Butch Blues, about Jess Goldberg, a butch working-class lesbian, took massive strides in breaking down the gender binary. A story that is both hopeful in Jess’s determination to forge an identity and heartrending in its depiction of violence against her for her daring to be herself, Stone Butch Blues endures as essential to the queer canon. Feinberg, whose bio reads “writer and transgender activist,” would in later years become known more for activism, but the landmark novel about Jess’s refusal to fit into a prescribed box for gender is arguably Feinberg’s legacy.
Gay literature was forever changed the day Mary Ann Singleton first met her transgender landlady, Anna Madrigal, when she moved to San Francisco's 28 Barbary Lane. What began as serialized stories in the San Francisco Chronicle by writer Armistead Maupin became a 1978 novel. It was followed by a Tales of the City series of books, which chronicled decades of queer life in the Golden Gate City, including the AIDS crisis. Tales of the City was adapted in 1993 into a PBS television miniseries, which starred Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis. The pair are set to reprise their roles in an upcoming Netflix adaptation, proving the enduring power of Maupin's words.
A Boy’s Own Story is comparable to another literary classic, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The 1982 book by Edmund White, which begins with the first sexual encounter of a 15-year-old boy, is based on his own experiences coming to terms with his gay identity as a youth in the Midwestern United States. White would later write two additional novels, The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) and The Farewell Symphony (1997), which follow his gay protagonist into young adulthood. Together, they form a poignant trilogy that chronicles a gay life in the latter half of the 20th century.
Integral to the lesbian canon (despite its being considered somewhat problematic) British writer Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 novel focuses on Stephen Gordon, an upper-class lesbian who dons men’s clothing and becomes a novelist who eventually becomes a part of a literary salon in Paris at a time when there were no overt laws expressly barring homosexuality. Hall’s novel was groundbreaking in her introduction of the views of “sexologists” Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis, who posited that homosexuality was an inborn, unalterable trait that was considered a congenital sexual inversion that simply meant a “difference” and not a defect. The novel also stood trial on obscenity charges both in the United Kingdom where the book was deemed obscene and ordered destroyed, and in the United States, where it was eventually banned.
You might not expect to see a graphic novel in this list, but iconic cartoonist (and Bechdel test namesake) Alison Bechdel always takes the less traveled road. Off the success of her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, she created the deeply personal Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, which touches on her dysfunctional relationship with her father through a lesbian lens. Chronicling Bechdel's confusing childhood in rural Pennsylvania, the book took seven years to create in Bechdel's laborious artistic process, which included photographing herself in poses that are drawn into each human figure.
This queer exploration of broken family, unraveling emotions, and suicide was a New York Times best seller, and snagged nominations for the National Book Critics Circle Award and three Eisner Awards – becoming a mainstream critical and commercial success.
The book was adapted into a musical, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. When it hit Broadway in 2015, it won the Tony Award for Best Musical.
Some might say Death in Venice is not necessarily a gay novel, since there is no overt same-sex coupling or coitus. Others might say it's about a man with pedophilic tendencies. Then others might say it's brilliant.
German writer Thomas Mann crafted this novella based on his own experience in Venice, where he caught sight of a handsome young man who captivated him, body and soul. Is Aschenbach, the 50-something protagonist, just fixated on beautiful objects, where human beings and centuries-old buildings are of equal lure? Or is it something more lustful and disturbing? It's difficult, in 2018, to divorce the rich subject of sexual desire from the fact that it revolves around a 14-year-old boy. But the novella's legacy endures, amd it serves as an important artifact of secret desire at the turn of the 20th century.
"This lyrical book is a wonderful story with a background of a civil war and a love story between two young girls on the frontlines. Wonderful book," gay refugee activist and columnist Danny Ramadan raves about the global-minded story.
The book unpacks the emotional life of a young girl displaced by the Nigerian civil war who begins a gut-wrenching affair with a fellow refugee. These girls are from different ethnic communities, forcing them to face not only the taboos of being queer but the prejudices of surviving in a nation that is eating itself alive.
"A great recollection of everything anyone would say in Nigeria against homosexuality using the defense of religion," explains David Nnanna Ikpo, the Nigerian author of Fimisile Forever.
Jeanette Winterson’s first novel, published in 1985, is a semiautobiographical coming-of-age story about a girl growing up in a Pentecostal family in England’s industrial Midlands region.
Winterson captures the weirdness of religious zealotry with the authority of someone who’s lived in this environment, and her portrayal of the young woman’s burgeoning lesbian sexuality – problematic in the Pentecostal world – rings true as well. Quirky and memorable secondary characters further enhance the novel, which made Winterson a literary star overnight, esteemed by both readers and fellow authors.
“A beautiful piece of fiction, this novel takes us through the complicated relationship between religion and LGBTQ+ identity.”, says SJ Sindu, the prize-winning author of Marriage of a Thousand Lies.
Cunningham’s 1998 novel, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award, tells three parallel stories involving queer characters in different times and places.
In England in the 1920s, Virginia Woolf struggles with depression and writing Mrs. Dalloway, a novel to which Cunningham pays homage; in mid-20th-century Los Angeles, housewife Laura Brown, discontented with her life, confronts her attraction to women; and in 1990s New York City, Clarissa Vaughan, who is lesbian, plans a party for her best friend, writer Richard Brown, a gay man dying of AIDS.
Cunningham weaves their stories together seamlessly and movingly in a novel that is deservedly recognized as a modern classic.
The 2002 film adaptation, written by David Hare and directed by Stephen Daldry, received several Oscar nominations, and Nicole Kidman won Best Actress for her portrayal of Woolf. It costarred Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and Ed Harris.
In 2015, when the novel was published, reviewer and author Garth Greenwell declared in The Atlantic, “A Little Life: The Great Gay Novel Might Be Here.” Hanya Yanagihara’s story of four friends — Jude, Malcolm, JB, and Willem — lasts over 700 pages as you witness the evolution of friendship and love between these men who met in college. We follow them for three decades, withstanding alongside them the waves of trauma that life so often sends. The friends survive together, as described in intensely vulnerable detail. Yanagihara talked with The Guardian about friendship and hardship. “We might all have had that feeling: as a friend, what is my responsibility to save someone who doesn’t want to be saved? Or tell someone to keep living when they don’t want to live?” Gay men are often blindsided by A Little Life’s penetrating clarity about what binds them or drives them apart.
Sarah Waters’s 1998 page-turner is the coming-of-age story of Nan, a Whitstable “oyster girl” (talk about a euphemism) circa 1890 who, upon taking in a show in her local theater, becomes smitten with the charismatic masher (male impersonator) Kitty. Waters’s heroine follows Kitty to London, where the more experienced woman schools Nan in the ways of impersonating a dapper dandy onstage.
The pair begin performing as men together and become the toast of London’s music halls while simultaneously falling in love. Heartbreak eventually ensues and Nan is left to her own defenses on the streets in the big city. She dabbles in sex work to survive before she becomes a boy-toy for a wealthy older lesbian renowned for throwing Bacchanalian gatherings of women. Finally, though, without the trappings of a male alter ego, Nan comes into her own.
The book, an immediate smash with queer women for its frank depiction of lesbian desire and of flirting with gender roles, was made into a 2002 BBC miniseries that reinvigorated interest in the novel, which won the Lambda Literary Award and earned a place on the New York Times list of notable books the year it was published.
"Love the sensuousness of it, the unapologetic portrayal of Nan—the sex scenes," said Patty Smith, author of The Year of Needy Girls.
Larry Kramer, a founder of ACT UP and the playwright of The Normal Heart, may be known for his vocal AIDS activism. But his 1978 novel, Faggots, was also a loud statement that portrayed the hedonism of gay New York City. The book features a cast of dozens of gay men, who variously engage in bathhouse orgies, use a slew of party drugs, and cavort in clubs with names like The Toilet Bowl and Fire Island. The book was condemned by numerous LGBT people upon its release for what many perceived as sex-negativity. But the ensuing AIDS crisis established Faggots as a bellwether of the storm to come.