This is a list of gay fiction I’ve read over the years. Particularly books and writers who’ve influenced me. The list is not intended to be comprehensive and I know there are likely to be huge holes in it. Around the house I have twenty or, perhaps even thirty books, which should probably be on the list but I haven’t read yet. As I get to them, I’ll do an update. The list is presented in roughly the order I discovered the books.
LATE ’70s/EARLY ’80s
The Front Runner, Patricia Nell Warren – I should probably reread this book. I read it in paperback shortly after it’s original publication in 1976 and my memory of it is dim. What I do remember is the book being a bit melodramatic and the ending very exciting. Don’t take the word melodramatic as a negative. Melodrama is an important element of popular books and this was certainly popular. Like the next few books it was purchased at a mainstream mall bookstore. I was living in a small town in upstate New York and only those books that “crossed over” were available to us.
The Persian Boy, Mary Renault – My mother was a great fan of historical fiction and read this book when it came out in paperback sometime in 1973 or 1974. I was about sixteen at the time and was not out to my parents. When I asked to read the book, she had to think about it and then said, “Well, the way to get through it is to think of the Persian boy as a girl and then the romantic scenes will be easier to read. That’s what I did.” I however did not. I remember the book as being tremendously sexy, though in retrospect it was probably not. I was sixteen and finding anything remotely gay was a huge turn-on.
Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown – Most of the books on this list will be gay, rather than lesbian, however I wanted to include this because coming-of-age or coming-out books are pretty similar and important regardless of sexuality. As a young gay man a book like this was every bit as valuable regardless of the fact that it’s about girls who like girls. During this period I also read a lot of women’s books. They were very popular at the time. Fear of Flying, Kinflicks, The Women’s Room, et al. Given the realities of the period, women’s fiction, with it’s focus on acceptance of self and sexual expression was appealing to me as a gay man – who had much fewer reading options.
The Lure, Felice Picano – I remember reading this in a mass-market edition sometime around 1979/1980. I re-read it last year. There are a lot of elements in the book that are very good. At times, it’s a little murky and I prefer a crisper writing style but it’s definitely worth a read. It covers some of the same territory as the movie Cruising but is far, far superior.
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde – I know I read this sometime during my first college career as a theatre major, and it may seem an odd choice for this list. One could argue that this is not a gay play at all. Certainly, none of the characters are gay. The humor however is distinctly camp and for that reason I include it. We covered The Picture of Dorian Gray in a GLBT fiction class I took in the ‘90s. Arguably that is the more queer of Wilde’s acknowledged works. However, I just adore this play and it’s hard to imagine that anyone could have written it without being somewhat set outside of society. Obviously, it pre-dates Wilde’s fall but simply knowing you’re gay sets you outside society whether it’s literally happened or not. Wilde’s vision is distinctly queer, even when sexuality is not his subject matter.
James Kirkwood – Recently, somewhere, I saw Kirkwood referred to as a cult novelist. If that’s true, it’s a shame, since the word cult implies a small readership. I’ve read all his books and people should be reading him. Recently, I re-read my favorite P.S. Your Cat is Dead and, though it was written almost forty years ago (1972), it holds up very well. In today’s market, the book would be called Gay-For-You, though I doubt that’s the way Kirkwood intended it. It is, however, a must read for anyone approaching that subgenre and was a strong influence on my book Desert Run. There is also an excellent play based on the book.
The Boys in the Band, Mart Crowley – I read this play some time during this period. I remember being annoyed by how bitchy and effeminate the characters are, a complaint many have logged. I’ve since come around and have to say that it represents what was many people’s experience during the period. Now that there’s a much broader representation of gay life it’s easier to feel that not everything has to be happy-happy and the truth of these characters lives can come to the forefront. The movie is not bad either – oddly it was directed by William Friedkin who also directed Cruising.
Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin – When I was twenty-two I took a train from Chicago back to upstate New York to direct a play. At the train station, a friend gave me the first two Tales of the City books to read on the twenty-two hour trip, probably one of the nicest gifts anyone’s given me – certainly one I remember (which probably says more about my relationship with books than the lovely people who’ve given me gifts over the years.) I’ve worked my way through the series a couple of times. I’ve had many copies over the years. I recommend the omnibus. It’s big, it’s heavy, but it’s all there.
Nice to see James Kirkwood mentioned. Good Times/Bad Times was required reading for my high school Modern Novel class in 1979. It was terrifying and funny, and soon as I was done reading, I bought all the Kirkwood books I could find. I’d like to reread it, but I’m afraid my tattered copy will fall completely apart. Just curious – have you read Larry Kramer’s Faggots?