What makes a novel a “gay novel?” I put forth the following criteria:
- The novel features at least one character who identifies as LGBTQ or is involved with the LGBTQ community OR
- At least one character, regardless of their actual sexuality identity, engages in homosexual sex or falls in love with a member of the same sex
Under this broad definition, books as diverse as David Levithan’s utopian YA novel Boy Meets Boy and Chad Harbach’s baseball-themed The Art of Fielding and Phillip Roth’s absurdly homophobic The Humbling and Bret Easton Ellis’ ultraviolent American Psycho can all be safely labelled “gay novels.” My definition does, however, leave out queer classics like Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (long considered a queer classic because of its subtext) and Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, neither of which are able to check off points one or two of my guideline. Both books were written by gay authors, so in order to include them as “gay novels,” I could add
3. The author is a member of the LGBTQ community
to my list, but then everything kind of goes to shit because then pretty much every book ever* is then a “gay novel” and the phrase becomes meaningless.
“So Cass,” you might ask, “why are you trying to define something that is making your brain hurt when you could just say ‘I know it when I see it?’”
A short time ago, the twitter account for Huffington Post Books tweeted a link to an article by Ryan Quinn entitled Is My Novel Gay? My initial reaction –”I don’t know, have you asked it?”–seemed obvious enough to me that I clicked through to read what Quinn had to say.
You see, Quinn’s new novel reached the #1 spot on Amazon’s Best-Selling Gay & Lesbian fiction list. After an initial period of happiness at being number one on a best-seller list, Quinn began to have some doubts:
Here’s the thing: my book’s not gay.
Well, maybe it is. Or part of it is, but not all of it. Look, fine, there’s a main character who comes out of the closet. And there’s that one scene (OK, three scenes) that leads to masturbation. But the other main characters–a girl and a football player (who masturbates just as often as his gay counterpart)–are straight. See, it’s not just a gay book.
(Emphasis mine.) Consider my hackles official raised. If featuring a character coming out of the closet does not make a book a “gay novel,” what does? I would also like to point out that being considered a “gay novel” does not make the novel suddenly unsuitable to be identified under other labels such as science fiction or literary fiction or mystery or what have you.
So what kind of book does Quinn believe is suitable for a Gay and Lesbian Bestseller list?
[...] I don’t want readers to come to The Fall looking for erotic tripe and leaving disappointed for lack of throbbing and thrusting. I want readers to come intrigued, and then leave entertained and a little more conscious of this world we live in.
By his definition, a “gay novel”
- Only contains depictions of gay sex (otherwise known as “throbbing and thrusting”)
which leaves only erotica as suitable to be considered gay fiction.
Categorizing fiction is tricky business. All sorts of disputes about what label to place on any novel that can, in some way or another, be considered “genre fiction.” The easy answer to this seems to be to reject labels all together, place all novels in the fiction section at the bookstore, and continue on our merry way.
I agree that it’s tough to use labels, especially since so many works are not cut-and-dry, gay-or-not-gay. But as someone who wants to read books featuring LGBTQ characters, being able to use a Gay & Lesbian Bestseller list or tags on Goodreads or whatever else is extremely helpful to FINDING books that I may otherwise have over looked.
It is not an insult to a book to call it a “gay novel.” And now that my open definition of “gay novel” has made every book ever** gay, it should be easier to accept that.