Queering the bookshelves: a Century of Same-sex Fiction

Lauren takes us on a tour of Queer Representation within the last century of literature, examining the various positive features, and issues, that have arisen as time has passed.

As a self-confessed bookworm, fiction has always been my way of making sense of the world. But when I began to question my sexuality in my mid-teens I became disenchanted with the popular Young Adult series that I was reading; the best-selling books, such as The Princess Diaries, Harry Potter, Twilight, Divergent and The Hunger Games, were all were incredibly heteronormative. But does diversity matter, if fiction is inherently made up anyway?

“Better representation not only challenges stereotypes but offers validation and normalisation of LGBT+ relationships and identities”

Yes, I’d argue it does. Heteronormativity is ingrained into our culture, and better representation not only challenges stereotypes but offers validation and normalisation of LGBT+ relationships and identities.

On the other hand, labelling a book by sexuality or gender identity often ignores any other aspect of plot or narrative.

Within the last decade, diversity and representation has become a much-debated issue within contemporary literature, thanks to movements such as #weneeddiversebooks. And to those who argue that such a movement is reflective of tokenistic representation forced into contemporary literature, queer issues and LGBT+ characters have always played a prominent role in literature. As perceptions of same-sex relationships have changed over the last century, so too have their literary representations.

“Yet representation in literature remains a contentious issue…”

Yet representation in literature remains a contentious issue, though a more positive representation of LGBT+ relationships reflects progressive views emerging over time. During the last century, LGBT+ literature has come a long way as tropes surrounding sexual and gender identities have altered. To illustrate this, I’ll be exploring how conceptions of female same-sex relationships have altered, and how literature across the last century reflects this.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, theories regarding homosexuality emerged from prominent sexologists such as Havelock Ellis. Homosexuality was regarded as an ‘inversion’. The concept of the invert was explored by many writers in the early twentieth century, Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness being one example.

Meanwhile, the literary movement Modernism sought to challenge conceptions of what literature ought to be, and queer issues continued to be prominent. The French writer Marcel Proust, himself a homosexual, explored same-sex desire within his series In Search of Lost Time. An admirer of Proust, Virginia Woolf, wrote Orlando in dedication to her lover Vita Sackville-West.

“Historically, queer fiction has been known for its typically bleak endings…”

Across its centuries-long narrative arc, Woolf questions and explores the status of men and women, and their relationships with one another through her protagonist Orlando.

Beginning the novel male, but awakening one morning to discover they are now women, Orlando offers an articulation of same-sex attraction, possibly Woolf’s own feelings: “though she herself was a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man.”

Historically, queer fiction has been known for its typically bleak endings, and, as a genre, was often informed by views on inversion and social stigma attached to homosexuality. However, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, better known as Carol, published in 1952, has been argued to be one of the first lesbian novels to subvert such tropes by featuring a less decisively bleak ending.

During the 1950’s, the butch/femme lesbian subcultures emerged. Based upon class divisions of the time, working class women were typically seen as ‘butch’, whilst middle or upper-class women were seen as feminine. In The Price of Salt, Highsmith resists this dichotomy, instead purposefully portraying two feminine women as lovers. However, Highsmith initially published the book under a pseudonym to avoid negative connotations associated with writing about same-sex love.

“More contemporary queer fiction has continued to address the experiences of women of colour…”

Over the last thirty years, literature has come to reflect a wider range of backgrounds and experiences outside that of middle class, white women. For instance, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, published in 1985, and Alice Walker’s 1983 novel The Colour Purple address the experiences of working class women.

More contemporary queer fiction has continued to address the experiences of women of colour. Robin Talley is known for writing Young Adult books with queer characters. Her debut Lies We Tell Ourselves, was shortlisted for the Carnegie medal in 2016. Set in Virginia in 1959, the novel explores an interracial relationship in which two young women fall in love, against the backdrop of the civil rights movement in America.

“Tokenistic representation within major literary series remains an issue”

Likewise, Alice Oseman’s Radio Silence features a mixed-race bisexual protagonist. Refreshingly, the tired stereotype of an opposite-sex love interest is rejected. Instead the male protagonist is her asexual best friend. Not only does the novel depict LGBT+ characters without this becoming the forefront of the novel, but Oseman focuses on the emotional support and power of friendship rather than romantic or sexual relationships.

However, tokenistic representation within major literary series remains an issue. Notably, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a controversial example: the reveal of Dumbledore’s homosexuality post-publication led many fans to question the legitimacy of such representation. Considering Harry Potter has come under considerable criticism for its lack of diversity, whether sexuality or ethnic representation, adding in that Dumbledore is gay feels shoehorned as opposed to genuine.

Yet many writers have successfully integrated LGBT characters, whether primary or secondary into their novels, without this feeling forced or detracting from the narrative.

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami features a plethora of well developed LGBT+ characters in his novels, from the transgender character Oshima in Kafka on the Shore to the relationship between Sumire and Miu in Sputnik Sweetheart. Such representation is even more significant considering that coming out can be particularly difficult within Asian communities, raising the question of experiences differ due to cultural backgrounds.

Whilst popular novels predominantly feature heterosexual characters, reflective of our traditionally heteronormative society, the representation of LGBT+ characters has become increasingly nuanced and offers a challenge to existing stereotypes. As LGBT+ issues become part of everyday conversation, and become reflected in changes to global legislature, such recognition within mainstream literature may become more visible.

Lauren Winson

Featured image courtesy of bobistraveling via Flickr.

Article Images courtesy of crowbot, Iain, via Flickr.

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