Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Literature


Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Literature

For further information on Gay and Lesbian Literature, see CLC, Volume 76.

Literature written by and about gays and lesbians has been highly visible and have attracted considerable critical attention since the 1960s in the United States. Whether through fiction, drama, poetry, or autobiography, homosexual literature typically explores issues of gender and identity, as well as the influences of ethnicity and social class on the individual. Since the act of openly declaring oneself gay or lesbian can sometimes inspire personal, economic, and social prejudices, many homosexual writers have heavily utilized metaphors and allegories in their works rather than address overt themes of gender identity or sexual preference. One of the most prevalent trends in homosexual literature has been an examination of issues surrounding the AIDS virus which has exerted a powerful impact on many gay communities since the 1970s.

The literary and the personal are often intertwined in discussions of gay literature. For example, autobiographical and fictional works such as Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982) by Richard Rodriguez and How Town (1990) by Michael Nava have been noted for their authors' intimate depictions of individuals who are doubly marginalized by being both gay and a member of an ethnic minority. Critics have also discussed the importance of style in homosexual literature, arguing that word choice and narrative structure can frequently reflect the sentiments of the author or characters. John Vincent has asserted that poet John Ashbery uses his own personal blend of “peculiar poetics” to depict his feelings about the “peculiar” experience of being gay. Mark Lilly has traced the expressive sense of weariness in the prose of Andrew Holleran—particularly in Dancer from the Dance (1978) and Nights in Aruba (1983)—commenting that the weariness reflects the frustrations of Holleran's gay characters as they struggle to find love and acceptance. Severo Sarduy's works are filled with images of imminent danger, mirroring the sometimes hurtful and even violent experience of being gay in the modern world. Homosexual writers regularly address issues of secrecy and shame, and the coming-out novel has remained a popular and enduring subgenre in gay literature. David Leavitt's The Lost Language of Cranes (1986) is widely considered to be a prime example of a forceful and discerning coming-out narrative. John J. Clum has argued that, in the late twentieth century, significant strides have been made towards addressing homosexual themes and concerns in the genre of drama. Productions such as Tony Kushner's Angels in America (1991), Terence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994), and Naomi Wallace's In the Heart of America (1994) have helped broaden the scope of contemporary theatre, bringing a new emphasis on gender roles and sexual politics to the stage.

Lesbian literature confronts many of the same issues as literature written by gay men, but it also addresses several singular themes that are unique to same-sex relationships between women. Many scholars have discussed the treatment of lesbians and lesbian relationships in works by Sara Maitland, Brigid Brophy, Jeanette Winterson, and Emma Donoghue, among others, tracing the progression from oblique references in early works to frank treatments in contemporary lesbian literature. Lynne Harne and Tara Price-Hughes have explored the variety of roles available to women in lesbian literature and have additionally compared how women and lesbians are viewed in world cultures—suggesting that women in these settings are offered a wider spectrum of roles than in Western culture. In such discussions, Harne and Price-Hughes have focused on texts including Leslie Marmon Silko's Almanac of the Dead (1991), Louise Erdrich's The Beet Queen (1986), and Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982) to explore the roles available to lesbians and women in societies that differ from a traditional patriarchal order. Scholars and critics have emphasized that lesbian relationships need to be viewed as separate and distinct from either heterosexual or gay relationships, due to the additional pressures on women living in a male-dominated world. Overall, there is a strong political component within both gay and lesbian literature, as the worlds these literatures depict are routinely filled with characters who suffer from violence, discrimination, marginalization, and ridicule.

Representative Works

Samuel Adamson
Clocks and Whistles (play) 1996

June Arnold
Sister Gin (novel) 1975

John Ashbery
As We Know (poetry) 1979
A Wave (poetry) 1984

Neal Bell
Somewhere in the Pacific (play) 1989

Brigid Brophy
The King of a Rainy Country (novel) 1956

Barbara Burford
The Threshing Floor (novel) 1986

Joe Calarco
Shakespeare's R & J (play) 1997

Emma Donoghue
Stir Fry (novel) 1994
Hood (novel) 1995

Louise Erdrich
The Beet Queen (novel) 1986

Ellen Galford
The Fires of Bride (novel) 1986

Patricia Highsmith
The Price of Salt (novel) 1952

Andrew Holleran
Dancer from the Dance (novel) 1978
Nights in Aruba (novel) 1983

Arturo Islas
The Rain God (novel) 1984
Migrant Souls (novel) 1990

Tony Kushner
Angels in America (play) 1991

David Leavitt
The Lost Language of Cranes (novel) 1986

Sara Maitland
Virgin Territory (novel) 1984

Terence McNally
Love! Valour! Compassion! (play) 1994

Michael Nava
How Town (novel) 1990

John Rechy
City of Night (novel) 1964
Numbers (novel) 1967

Richard Rodriguez
Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (autobiography) 1982
Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (autobiography) 1992

Severo Sarduy
Cobra (novel) 1973
Maitreya (novel) 1978

Leslie Marmon Silko
Almanac of the Dead (novel) 1991

Alice Walker
The Color Purple (novel) 1982

Naomi Wallace
In the Heart of America (play) 1994

Jeanette Winterson
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (novel) 1985

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Lynne Harne (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Harne, Lynne. “Beyond Sex and Romance?: Lesbian Relationships in Contemporary Fiction.” In Beyond Sex and Romance?: The Politics of Contemporary Lesbian Fiction, edited by Elaine Hutton, pp. 124-49. London: Women's Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Harne is critical of early lesbian fiction which tended to portray lesbian relationships as similar to gay or heterosexual ones, and discusses contemporary lesbian fiction that depicts lesbians in a more complex and realistic manner.]

I have been reading lesbian feminist contemporary fiction on and off since the early days of the women's movement in the 1970s. For me as for many other lesbian feminists, such...

(The entire section is 8600 words.)

John M. Clum (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Clum, John M. “Love and War: Gay Drama at the Turn of the Century.” In Still Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama, pp. 284-316. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Clum presents an overview of themes in contemporary gay drama, theorizing that there has been an evolution from depicting the impossibility of gay life to presenting realistic portrayals of such a lifestyle.]

In a state of war, as in a state of love, the familiar world is turned upside down, belief systems and values are put to the test, and the body becomes central, vulnerable. Whereas war is intent on destroying the body, love has the...

(The entire section is 15854 words.)

Tim Libretti (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Libretti, Tim. “History and Queer Consciousness: The Dialectics of Gay Identity in U.S. Literature.” In Literature and Homosexuality, edited by Michael J. Meyer, pp. 239-65. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.

[In the following essay, Libretti discusses various contemporary authors's contributions to the building of gay identity, focusing on a sense of solidarity, identification with other politically-oppressed groups in the U.S., and awareness of parallels between identity and literary representation.]


At one point in his provocative 1977 documentary of the male homosexual underground The Sexual Outlaw, gay...

(The entire section is 10593 words.)

Criticism: Contemporary Gay Literature

Rene Prieto (essay date spring 1985)

SOURCE: Prieto, Rene. “The Ambiviolent Fiction of Severo Sarduy.” Symposium 39, no. 1 (spring 1985): 49-60.

[In the following essay, Prieto explores the themes of death and mutilation in the novels of Severo Sarduy, noting that his characters are always changing, with destruction often acting as the agent for change.]

La muerte—la pausa que refresca—forma parte de la vida.

Severo Sarduy, Cobra

C'est en somme d'un codage de la pulsion de mort, dont Freud nous dit qu'elle est antérieure à l'objet et à l'amour, qu'il s'agit dans le récit obscène.


(The entire section is 5686 words.)

Mark Lilly (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Lilly, Mark. “Andrew Holleran: Dancer from the Dance and Nights in Aruba.” In Gay Men's Literature in the Twentieth Century, pp. 190-205. New York: New York University Press, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Lilly discusses the themes in two of Andrew Holleran's novels about gay men—Dancer from the Dance and Nights in Aruba—concluding that both books convey a sense of weariness in waiting for love.]

Towards the end, I used to sit on the sofa in the back of the Twelfth Floor [disco] and wonder. Many of them were very attractive, these young men whose cryptic disappearance in New York City...

(The entire section is 5804 words.)

Mark Lilly (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Lilly, Mark. “David Leavitt: The Lost Language of Cranes.” In Gay Men's Literature in the Twentieth Century, pp. 206-19. New York: New York University Press, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Lilly analyzes David Leavitt's Lost Language of Cranes as an outstanding example of the coming-out novel.]

The Lost Language of Cranes1 is an outstanding example of the recent tradition of coming out novels, many examples of which appeared in the 1970s and 1980s. The formula normally used in such novels involves, first, showing us the family relationships before the coming out, then the more or less traumatic coming out period itself, and...

(The entire section is 5463 words.)

Ricardo L. Ortiz (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Ortiz, Ricardo L. “Sexuality Degree Zero: Pleasure and Power in the Novels of John Rechy, Arturo Islas, and Michael Nava.” In Critical Essays: Gay and Lesbian Writers of Color, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, pp. 111-26. London: Haworth Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Ortiz examines the works of gay Chicano writers John Rechy, Arturo Islas, and Michael Nava in terms of how they use sexuality to create a literary voice that attests to their “doubly marginalized but defiant” status.]

The writer is always on the blind spot of systems, adrift; he is the joker in the pack, a mana, a zero degree … his place, his (exchange) value,...

(The entire section is 5616 words.)

John Vincent (essay date summer 1998)

SOURCE: Vincent, John. “Reports of Looting and Insane Buggery behind Altars: John Ashbery's Queer Poetics.” Twentieth Century Literature 44, no. 2 (summer 1998): 155-75.

[In the following essay, Vincent theorizes that John Ashbery's linguistically difficult poetics mirrors the difficulties of being gay, and that his poems build up to a sense of closure that seems to elude the poet in life.]

Among critics there is no disagreement about John Ashbery's sexuality. Perhaps that is because Ashbery is actually a registered homosexual. He came out to the draft board and was exempted from military service during the Korean War (Shoptaw 5). On the other hand, Ashbery,...

(The entire section is 8969 words.)

Randy A. Rodriguez (essay date winter 1998)

SOURCE: Rodriguez, Randy A. “Richard Rodriguez Reconsidered: Queering the Sissy (Ethnic) Subject.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 40, no. 4 (winter 1998): 396-423.

[In the following essay, the critic argues that Richard Rodriguez's work is rejected by many conservative Chicano critics not only because of his assimilationist narratives, but also because as a homosexual, he is considered to be a “non-man” in Chicano culture.]

I don't like the word “gay.” Gay is a word better used for a butterfly, not human beings. Queer says “in your face.” Queer says “I'm here whether you like it or not.”


(The entire section is 12324 words.)

Criticism: Lesbianism In Contemporary Literature

Patricia Juliana Smith (essay date fall 1995)

SOURCE: Smith, Patricia Juliana. “Desperately Seeking Susan(na): Closeted Quests and Mozartean Gender Bending in Brigid Brophy's The King of a Rainy Country.Review of Contemporary Fiction 15, no. 3 (fall 1995): 23-31.

[In the following essay, Smith discusses Brigid Brophy's The King of a Rainy Country as an early lesbian text in which Brophy tries on different roles for women with the freedom afforded by operatic structure.]

At first glance (and perhaps second and subsequent glances) Brigid Brophy's second novel, The King of a Rainy Country, might not seem an Ur-text of lesbian postmodernity.1 Like many of its earliest critics,...

(The entire section is 4429 words.)

Rachel Wingfield (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Wingfield, Rachel. “Lesbian Writers in the Mainstream: Sara Maitland, Jeanette Winterson and Emma Donoghue.” In Beyond Sex and Romance?: The Politics of Contemporary Lesbian Fiction, edited by Elaine Hutton, pp. 60-80. London: Women's Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Wingfield analyzes the works of Sara Maitland, Jeanette Winterson, and Emma Donoghue in the context of the history of lesbian literature, comparing and contrasting their handling of themes and characters.]


I am beginning with a contradiction. In a chapter on lesbians in mainstream publishing I am going to start...

(The entire section is 6635 words.)

Tara Price-Hughes (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Price-Hughes, Tara. “Worlds In and Out of Balance: Alternative Genders and Gayness in the Almanac of the Dead and The Beet Queen.” In Literature and Homosexuality, edited by Michael J. Meyer, pp. 1-21. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.

[In the following essay, Price-Hughes explores the treatment of “two-spirit” women in two contemporary novels—Almanac of the Dead and The Beet Queen—pointing out that Native American tradition offers a much wider spectrum of possible gender roles than traditional Western culture.]

In recent years, gay and Native American writers have devoted increasing attention to Native American two-spirit...

(The entire section is 8879 words.)

Ana Marie Fraile-Marcos (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Fraile-Marcos, Ana Marie. “‘As Purple to Lavender’: Alice Walker's Womanist Representation of Lesbianism.” In Literature and Homosexuality, edited by Michael J. Meyer, pp. 111-34. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.

[In the following essay, Fraile-Marcos discusses Alice Walker's The Color Purple in the context of the idea of “Womanism”—one which connects the African American female community.]

If in the United States the 1980s belonged to African American women writers in terms of literary prominence, as it is generally agreed, the beginnings of that decade also saw the emergence of Black lesbian literature and criticism. Lesbianism was explored in...

(The entire section is 9314 words.)

Further Reading


Foster, David William. “John Rechy: Bodies and Souls and the Homoeroticization of the Urban Quest.” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 25, no. 1 (winter 2001): 196-209.

Foster praises Rechy's Bodies and Souls for its realistic treatment of gay Chicano urban culture in Los Angeles.

Freedman, Jonathan. “Angels, Monsters, and Jews: Intersections of Queer and Jewish Identity in Kushner's Angels in America.PMLA 113, no. 1 (January 1998): 90-102.

Freedman discusses the portrayal of Jews and gays in Tony Kushner's Angels in America.

Haggerty, George E., and...

(The entire section is 672 words.)