What is Queer Lit?

According to all-knowing Wikipedia, the sixties[1] marked the beginning of the end for the paragons of the literary canon and their champions of the ivory watchtower.  As it stands, the Great Canon Debates seem to be at a stand-still, stalwarts of canon preservation, anarchists of canon destruction, and the moderates. One of the results[2] we’ve seen of this great war is the formation of endless mini-canons. There’s an African American literature canon, a feminist canon, a canon for each century, and each genre. And of course there’s the queer literature canon. I’ve almost[3] always been an avid supporter of labels. For ill or for good, it’s a shortcut our brains use in order to organize and interpret the massive amounts of data we perceive at any given moment. In terms of sexuality, it’s a way in which we discover camaraderie and foster community.[4] In terms of literature, though I don’t support the Canon with a capital C, I am still a supporter of labels and genres such as “Native American fiction” and “queer fiction” because it makes representative work so much easier to find. [5] Imagine Amazon without the genre links panel on the left-hand side. If books were only organized chronologically by their release date, that would be daunting enough for me to maybe never buy another book again.[6] But how do you define queer literature, and who gets to decide what the “official” definition is? Does it have to be written by a queer author? Does it have to feature a queer character? Does it have to be a main character, or can it be a side character? Does their sexuality have to be the or a focal point of the work? Does there have to be a queer sex act? What about smut? And who gets to decide all of this? Amazon? The publishers? The author? The reader? Therein lies the rub.

Though it’s all good and noble when a writer sets out to write “gay work” and for publishers/distributors to create a “gay” genre section in order for readers to find the works they want to read and purchase, the final and deciding power always lies with each individual reader. You can tell a lot about a person by the way in which they categorize things. I sort queer works by a hierarchy, with a few exclusionary clauses, which looks like this:[7]

queer heiarchy

For me, a work by a queer author makes it queer by default, regardless of the content. The only exception I make to this rule is when the author themselves goes out of their way to say their work is not queer fiction or they are not a “queer writer, meaning that they don’t write queer fiction, for whatever personal or professional reason that is their own. (A good example of this is Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours). I don’t have to agree with them, but it is their decision to make.

The next tier down is where I usually meet resistance. Because being queer automatically puts an author in the top tier, authors who are queer and write about issues specifically pertaining to their sexuality automatically make it into the top tier (such as Alex Sanchez, Sarah Waters, and Emily M. Danforth).  The ones who won’t make it to the top tier are authors who are straight, but have main queer characters.  This is, in my reading experience, actually a rare occurrence, more than people might think, where characters openly and actively identify as queer and engage in queer acts, but the author is straight. The two major ones I can think of are Anne Rice novels and Annie Proulx’s short story, “Brokeback Mountain” (I’m sure readers can think of more. Leave them in the comments below). The push-back I always get[8] is “well, if a straight person can write a good gay character [just as well as a gay author] then why does their sexuality matter?”[9]  And the reason it matters is because self-representation matters. There are some experiences that you just can’t do justice to if you’ve never lived through them, and they can range from the truly monolithic[10]  to the more everyday: sure, there’s a level of ostracization in getting teased for your glasses or your braces as a child which you can use as inspiration, but it’s an entirely different feeling of isolation, being shunned by the boys in their games because you’re a girl, and being shunned by the girls because you wanted to play with the boys. Instead of asking “why can’t straight people write gay characters?” the real question should be “who can I support, who is queer, so that their voice can be heard too?” instead.

To be honest, I should have made the distance between stories with queer main characters and queer side characters longer. There are times—most times actually—that I don’t really count works that have queer side characters as works of “queer lit.” Though in a canon that has thin representation as it is, sometimes I’m just starving for anything I can get my hands on. I am almost always giddily surprised when a book I expected to be “normal” (read: straight) turns out to have a queer character in it, and I will almost always like it more because of it. It’s a bias I admit to having. Sometimes, people (again, read as: straight people)  will marvel at how excited I get about being surprised by a queer character. And I’ve seen others deal with similar reactions. But it’s different for queer people to see representations of ourselves when we don’t expect it because we’ve come to expect not being represented whereas straight people assume they are always being represented.  

This short post doesn’t even begin to cover all the facets of queer literature as a genre and as a canon. Where does fan fiction come into play?[11]  Does smut or gay porn count? How do you take into account bad literature written based off stereotypes, even those written by queer authors? At what point—when a character doesn’t come out and state that they’re queer—do you consider them queer?[12]  What about intimate same-sex “ “friendships” ”? (bromances, as it were) Where is that invisible line? That invisible box?

I don’t pretend to know all the answers, nor that the answers I do believe are always right or without fail or exception. What I do know is that nothing I say on the subject matters because once the work is out there, everything is determined by the reader. The author is dead. Long live the reader.



[1] I could make a case that there was resistance to canon-formation as early as the beginning of the twentieth century, but that’s probably a dissertation.

[2] Another is that we have yet to form a “literary movement” for this century. Part of it might be that we’re yet to young as a century to determine what we are (neo-realists? Post- postmodernists?), but it may also be an unforeseen consequence of the canon debates. How do you cultivate a literary movement if there’s no canon?

[3] Except for a brief wayward period as a young teenager

[4] In a perfect world where labels were never used to exclude “undesirables”

[5] Now, we wouldn’t have this problem if white cis-heteronormative culture (and therefore literature) wasn’t prized above all, but that isn’t the world we live in.

[6] Probably not really, but it would make my reading life much much harder

[7] Bear in mind, fiction is my specialty, so my categories are skewed to reflect that. You can tell a lot about what I read by this chart.

[8] Mostly from well-meaning straight people

[9] the other retort I get a lot is “well, what about other kinds of characters? Should white people never write about people of color?” and my answer to that is (1) they don’t, by and large, in any meaningful way, and (2) if they do have a poc main character taking on racial issues and being praised for it, they probably stole it from a person of color who deserves the credit way more than they do.

[10] for instance, I feel it’s very hard to truly do justice to how inhumanly awful the Jewish death camps were during WWII, which is why first-person survivors’ accounts are so important to archive and maintain.

[11] This is not a subject I feel I’m entirely qualified to answer, but I’ve read some good analysis by others who are. I will try to dig them up

[12] This is a question I’m currently grappling with in terms of N.K. Jemisin’s character Nijiri in The Killing Moon which I might write about when I finish the series and my thoughts coalesce a little better.

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