— From sensational memoirs to sublime poetry, Douglas Stuart, Ali Smith, Colm Tóibín and others share lesser-known books about queer life that deserve to be classics, introduced by playwright Mark Ravenhill
It was a mention in a David Bowie interview when I was 15 that led me to William Burroughs’s 1971 novel The Wild Boys, bought in a secondhand bookshop in Brighton with money from my paper round. I was confused by Burroughs’s cut-up style and his jagged apocalyptic vision, entirely different from the Dickens and Shakespeare that we’d been introduced to in school. Here was a world of dissident queer teenagers, of lurid sex. I was puzzled, embarrassed, titillated. I carried the book in my school bag – a concealed weapon – and, when I was sure that I couldn’t be seen, read a few pages at a time.
Growing up a young queer in the early 1980s, I was a sleeper agent in an enemy territory: identity concealed beneath a carefully constructed alias, cautiously speaking an alien language, waiting for a sign from the mother country, unsure if the war would ever end. The only place to find a coded signal of resistance was in the pages of a book.
Homosexuality was partly decriminalised in 1967. Outside of a few big cities it made little difference to most young queers. No “out” politicians, sports people, entertainers. No visibly queer teachers, neighbours, family members. Queer existence remained stubbornly and, it seemed, eternally taboo.
Films and plays were watched with an audience: the possibility of giving yourself away with a response that was too great or too contained was terrifying. And the television – placed in the living room, watched with the family – more frightening still. A book – concealed in the bottom of a bag, hidden underneath the mattress – was the only place to find companionship: with the author, the characters. But also with another reader, who I imagined I might one day meet. And surely one day all we queers would meet: there couldn’t – could there? – be more than a few hundred of us in all the world. Any book that whispered of queer lives was greedily consumed.
Arriving in London in the last few months of the 1980s, I discovered that there were more than a few hundred of us and that books still had a potent force. Shared among gay friends, we could celebrate our growing confidence and visibility with new work from Alan Hollinghurst and Jeanette Winterson, develop a camp sensibility by quoting to each other lines from EF Benson and Ronald Firbank, imagine that London could become the queer Arcadia depicted in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.
As we moved towards assimilation in the 1990s, Dennis Cooper’s George Miles novel cycle was a reminder that sexuality was still transgressive, that desire remained a dark and disruptive force. Cooper’s world of teenage erotic brutality, summoned by a spare, blank prose, was not something to be seen reading on a tube train or in the work canteen.
In 1993, my partner spent the last few months of his life in an Aids hospice, the Lighthouse in Ladbroke Grove. (A few years later, and just before the arrival of new life-saving medication, I spent several weeks there myself.) Tim was very weak, leaning on a stick, his face concealed beneath purple lesions, his eyesight dimmed. We gathered with 20 other patients to hear a poetry reading. I hadn’t heard of Thom Gunn before but as he read to us from his collection The Man With Night Sweats I discovered a voice that expressed the pain and the dignity of our lives, that gave a classical weight to our contemporary experience, that acknowledged our shared history and imagined our uncertain futures, and explored the body’s potential for joy and suffering. The lonely reader had found their community.
Debut novel Shuggie Bain won the 2020 Booker prize; its follow-up, Young Mungo, was published last year
The Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp (Flamingo)<
This is a book that has fallen out of our consciousness and I think it could help many people today. It is best known for its sharp humour as Crisp charts his emancipation from a dull suburban childhood and begins his journey to become his authentic queer self. But it’s what lies underneath the humour that stays with you. He is incredibly composed about the everyday humiliation and hostility he faced from the “decent” folk who, feeling threatened by him, would kick him on the street and feel morally justified in doing so. In this time of continued hostility towards trans people, I really appreciate the enormous bravery it took for Crisp to be himself. What enormous courage to be gender nonconforming in 1930s Britain in the face of such mockery and loathing. There is a wonderful scene (look away if you don’t want me to spoil it!) where Crisp is sitting on an empty bus and, when an Australian soldier boards and sits directly behind him, he expects more public humiliation. Instead, the soldier takes out a comb and begins to gently brush Crisp’s lavender coif. It’s a such a tender moment and a reminder of the kindness and connection that is possible between all of us.
Author of Rainbow Milk
Ceremonies by Essex Hemphill (Penguin)
The hugely influential gay African American poet Essex Hemphill died of Aids-related complications in 1995, aged 38, just one month before the launch of protease inhibitors – early antiretrovirals – which might have saved or at least prolonged his life. Simply, Hemphill is the bridge between James Baldwin and today’s celebrated Black queer writers and theorists. In the writings and radical cinema he left behind – including collaborations with Marlon Riggs in Tongues Untied (1989) and Isaac Julien in Looking for Langston (1989) – he provided subsequent generations with evidence that we lived and loved, and of our fight against the effects of intersecting white supremacy, racism, homophobia and heterosexism. Gay American men had barely one decade’s grace between the liberation movement and the beginning of the Aids crisis, which Hemphill wrote about as vitally as anyone. Ceremonies (1992), an anthology of poetry and essays, captures Hemphill as sensual, mournful and brilliant but is out of print, with paperbacks currently exchanging online for well over £100. It maddens me that such landmark Black works languish in the archives, available only to a select few and distant from the public consciousness.
Author of Detransition, Baby, which was nominated for the Women’s prize for fiction in 2021
Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T Fleischmann (Coffee House Press)
In this book-length essay on the art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, dotted with portraits of the author’s friends and lovers in New York, Chicago and rural Tennessee, Fleischmann records an era in queer life (the Obama years) – but is unconcerned with rehashing the normal cliches and battles of that time. Fleischmann is non-binary, and their gender is a major subtext of this book, yet, to my recollection, the word “trans” appears nowhere in the text. This omission is typical of the book’s sly approach – both political and stylistic. Rather than seeking to name or identify themselves in any reducible way, Fleischmann – through incident, thought and character – reveals how it feels to inhabit their gender, how to look for love or beauty or humour with other people of indeterminate or unnamed genders, and how to do so with the same fine clarity with which Fleischmann themself might describe a work of art.
Crime writer whose books include The Wire in the Blood, The Distant Echo and 1989
Sisters of the Road by Barbara Wilson (Avalon)
Barbara Wilson translated her love of mysteries, her work as an activist and her experience as a member of a print collective into a trilogy of lesbian mysteries notable for their wit, intelligence and the quality of her prose. She was part of the so-called “feminist new wave” of crime fiction that brought us writers such as Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton. But Wilson was committed to showing a spectrum of queer lives and the bonds between those who live them, and in Sisters of the Road, the second of these, she tackles head on the issue of violence against women. Its ending shocked me when I first read it, but I understand why she made those choices and, rereading it, I remember all the reasons I loved it. Wilson went on to found Seal Press, a feminist publishing house in the US, and has written another series of engaging and smart mysteries featuring translator Cassandra Reilly.
Novels include Daughters of Jerusalem, which won the Somerset Maugham award, and most recently The Exhibitionist
Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara (Random House)
You don’t have to love poetry to love Frank O’Hara. Because, although his poems are brilliant, cultured and beautiful, reading them can also feel like messaging your funniest, busiest yet most joy-inducing friend, with whom you’re a tiny bit platonically in love. Celebrities, sandwiches, Manhattan, buses, cocktails, music, kangaroos, sex, anxiety, death and the joy of life: the intimacy and freshness of his direct, seemingly casual poems can win your heart with even a swift first reading. And, with every rereading, you discover more subtlety, more beauty. This is exemplified by my favourite of my many favourites of his poems, Having a Coke With You. It’s not only its narrator’s passion for art, the colour orange and yoghurt that delight me, although that’s obviously a full house. It’s also that O’Hara encapsulates, better than almost anyone, the thrill of intimacy when in public with your beloved, and how you feel sorry for everyone who doesn’t love them too. And if that isn’t the definitive gay experience, what is?
Novelist, playwright, poet and critic whose books include Brooklyn, The Testament of Mary and The Magician
The Trial of Father Dillingham by John Broderick (Abacus)
John Broderick was born in the Irish midlands in 1924 and died in 1989. In his novel The Trial of Father Dillingham, published in 1981, Broderick sought to dramatise the love between two middle-aged men, Eddie and Maurice, in contemporary Dublin, where they create a sort of family with two others – an ex-priest and an ex-opera singer. The value of the novel is the way it normalises the gay relationship. Broderick is determined not to make his characters alarming, or damaged by their sexuality. Nor are they angels. There is an element of dullness and ordinariness about them that is unusual in a novel of that time that has homosexuality at the forefront. Although homosexuality was illegal in Ireland then, the cops tended to leave gay people alone. All you needed to do was to remain invisible. Broderick’s novel is an important document that dramatises hidden gay lives in the Dublin of 40 years ago.
Debut novel The New Life was published this year
Frank Sargeson’s Collected Stories, 1935-1963 (Penguin)
Frank Sargeson’s short stories are conversational. Chatty, even. We are buttonholed by first-person narrators, or we listen to the back and forth of others. The prose has the plain informality of vernacular speech, more particularly the speech of the ordinary, working-class, usually male New Zealanders Sargeson liked to write about. Or so it seems: there is in fact a subtle modernist magic being worked, with rhythm, repetition, redundancy. And this superficially meandering conversational prose is what creates the deceptive logic of these stories, whose meanings and (sometimes shocking) denouements emerge from the effort, sometimes painful and always inadequate, to communicate. In 1929 Sargeson had been convicted of committing homosexual acts, and he wrote under an assumed name (he was born Norris Davey in 1903) to avoid being connected with his past. Occasionally, though, we get the unmistakeable sense that it is the author, and not just his character, who is trying to convey a reality resistant to capture by words. “What I want to tell,” the narrator of one story begins, “is about how I sat on a hillside one evening and talked with a man. That’s all, just a summer evening and a talk with a man on a hillside. Maybe there’s nothing in it and maybe there is.”
Theatre director, playwright and author of novels including Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall and Address Book
Nocturnes for the King of Naples by Edmund White (Picador)
In 1980, when I was living in a bedsit and “gay” was a word still largely spoken between contemptuous inverted commas, a chanced-upon newspaper review alerted me to the existence of an unknown American writer whose third book had just made it to the UK. I can still remember the amount of nerve it took me to walk into the nearest bookshop and order it; I can still remember how, when it arrived two weeks later, this slim volume looked and felt like a missive from another world. That copy’s dark red covers are faded now, and its pages are badly yellowed, but I still find every one of them astonishing.
In just eight short and shimmering chapters the story weaves eight discrete episodes from a young man’s history of love and lust into a pattern that is by turns filthy, elegiac and intense. Simply, it had never occurred to me that gay life could be this beautiful, or this real. Two years later, Ed’s bestseller A Boy’s Own Story changed everything, and kicked in the doors for the rest of us – but this is the one that kicked in the doors of my heart.
Her debut novel, Exciting Times, was published in 2020; The Happy Couple is out in May
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (Penguin)
Every few years, I revisit James Baldwin’s 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room. Depending on what I’ve been up to, it’s seemed to me like a continental expat novel, a Paris-specific novel, a sexual/existential-crisis novel, or just a book that makes me feel things. (Which is a feat; thank you, Irish repression.)
I sense that Baldwin wrote with an awareness of how his sentences both looked and sounded. I rarely subvocalise when I read as I’m quite a visual person, so I enjoy Baldwin’s prose in the shape-based way that I sometimes lose myself in poetry – but when I do say his words to myself, they’ve got musical value, too. Also, it’s impossible to dislike messy gays. Well, some people find that very possible indeed – but Baldwin’s not writing for them. So intimate is Giovanni’s Room that despite Baldwin’s momentous reputation, a small, frightened part of you still feels like his very first reader.
Author of poetry collections Hera Lindsay Bird and Pamper Me to Hell and Back
I Remember by Joe Brainard (Notting Hill Editions)
I remember reading I Remember. I’d just fallen in love with a woman for the first time and was thoroughly intimidated by all the super-serious lesbian poets, with their vague mythical allusions and female griefs. But reading Joe Brainard was like coming home, albeit to 1940s Oklahoma. Brainard, an artist and writer (who died of Aids-related pneumonia in 1994) was one of the lesser-known New York School poets, described by almost everyone as “magnetically nice”. This magnetism is evident in every line of his groundbreaking autobiography, a book-length prose poem composed of statements beginning “I remember”. The power of the memories is cumulative. They’re associative rather than chronological, veering wildly between the sentimental, the transgressive, and the hilariously banal (“I remember reading once about a lady who choked to death eating a piece of steak”). The book is a fascinating account of growing up queer in 1950s Tulsa (Liberace loafers, cinema handjobs, “playing bridge with Frank O’Hara. (Mostly talk.)”) but it’s also full of the texture of life, the pointless, intimate, half-remembered details that never usually achieve biographical status. I Remember is one of the most genuinely delightful and moving reading experiences I’ve ever had, rich with kitsch, generosity and deadpan wit.
Author, playwright and academic whose novels include How to Be Both, the award-winning Seasonal Quartet and Companion Piece
The Evolution of Darkness by Rebecca Brown (Small Press)
Back in the mid 1980s, sitting on a train, I read a book of stories called The Evolution of Darkness by the way-too-undersung US writer Rebecca Brown. It was her first book, and so good, strange, heady, visceral, unlike anything else, that when the train pulled into King’s Cross I didn’t realise it had stopped. I hardly even registered people around me getting off.
Brown’s first novel, The Haunted House, was also very powerful, and these books, in a decade when things were politically very pressurising and dark for LGBTQ+ people, gave me a sense that it was possible to challenge that dark, meet it head on and write anything and everything.
Author of Elmet, which was Booker-shortlisted, and Hot Stew
HERmione by HD (New Directions)
It is strange how a book can appear at just the right moment. I hadn’t read HERmione until a copy landed on my doormat last year, sent by its latest publisher, New Directions, with an introduction by Francesca Wade. It was as if, nearly 100 years ago, HD (whose full name was Hilda Doolittle) had given voice to my own reflections and adorned them with the sylvan aspect to which my own writing is frequently drawn. “Her Gart went round in circles” runs the opening line, and Her (short for Hermione) does indeed perform pirouettes – emotional; psychological – in this autobiographical novel. Her mind turns to the woodlands of her native Pennsylvania, which contain circles, too: tree rings, fairy rings. Circular thinking, dislocation, entrapment: these are the themes of a novel detailing HD’s own early adult life, her poetic and queer awakening, and her struggles to be heard over the cacophony of her volatile fiance, Ezra Pound, and her enigmatic lover, Frances Gregg. Written in 1927, by which time HD was living in Europe with her female partner, Bryher, HERmione remained unpublished throughout the author’s life and was found among the papers she bequeathed to Yale University in 1960.
Model whose memoir Transitional was published this year
Venus As a Boy by Luke Sutherland (Bloomsbury)
My all-time favourite book. I’ve read it cover to cover so many times I’ve lost count. It’s a beautifully immersive and twisted fairytale about a mysterious queer sex worker who is gradually turning into gold in a Soho flat and who can give people orgasms where they see heaven. It opened me up with respect to gender and sexual orientation.
I spent a lot of my childhood living in a dream world because I didn’t feel as though I fitted in. The way Sutherland writes about themes of gender, queerness and desire, wondrously expansive and otherworldly, was exactly what I needed in my late teens. It’s taught me to remember the effect we can have on others and made me believe in magic.
Author of poetry collections Physical, Pandemonium and Playtime
Say, Spirit by Alex/Rose Cocker (Girasol Press)
Recently I’ve been working on a programme for BBC Radio 4 about Michelangelo’s poetry; it wasn’t something I was much aware of before. As part of that process I chatted with Alex/Rose Cocker about their inventive translations of Michelangelo’s sonnets. Say, Spirit, published by Girasol Press, interrogates notions of voice and translation – three invented personas rework the hard stone of the originals, revealing new layers, carving out new ways of looking at love and the body and the self. When Michelangelo’s poetry was first published, the same-sex love of the sonnets was edited out, which makes a project like this feel even more vital, and it deserves lots of readers. “Remind me, friend; why I wake; / why this world, though it troubles us, / is worth our trouble still”, ends one poem. Discovering a book like this is worth waking for. It’s a reminder to keep digging into, and conversing with, our history, so we continue to move forward.
Journalist, screenwriter and author of Clean, Meat Market and Wonderland
Tell Me I’m Worthless by Alison Rumfitt (Cipher)
A gleefully twisted little oddity from a small indie press, Tell Me I’m Worthless follows two young women, Alice and Ila, who are both dealing with considerable trauma following an encounter in Albion, a haunted house, some years earlier. Rumfitt, an emerging talent from Brighton, uses Albion as an allegory for fascism; the house a worsening tumour at the heart of society. Once friends, Alice and Ila, scarred by their night in Albion, find themselves on opposing sides of the “trans debate” – both convinced they were raped by the other. The only way to know what happened for sure is to return to the house of horrors. Let me be clear, this won’t appeal to everyone. Tell Me I’m Worthless revels in its own nastiness, but Rumfitt is first and foremost a horror writer. There are loving nods to Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier, but Rumfitt is altogether more rebellious. I very much look forward to her follow-up Brainwyrms later in the year.
Award-winning Makar (National Poet for Scotland) and author of fiction and nonfiction including Red Dust Road, Trumpet and Bessie Smith
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde (Penguin Classics)
In an interview in Ada Gay Griffin and Michelle Parkerson’s 1995 documentary about her life, A Litany for Survival (the name of one of Lorde’s seminal poems), Audre Lorde said presciently: “What I leave behind has a life of its own.” Yet even she, pioneer that she was, would not perhaps have foreseen how much her ideas about poetry (“poetry is not a luxury”); about politics, about race (“the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”); and about sexuality have entered the public consciousness. Lorde, who would have been 89, has had to wait nearly 30 years for her work to be made widely available in this country through the beautifully produced Penguin Classics series. But she had first been published here by Sheba Feminist Press, back in 1983, and among black and white feminists she had a huge and admiring following. The wisdom of her words and her essays, collected in Sister Outsider – and in Silver Press’s Your Silence Will Not Protect You – have acquired even more weight over the years.
Her poetry, in particular The Black Unicorn, is still as fresh and vital as it was when it first appeared. “See me now / your severed daughter / laughing our name into echo / all the world shall remember.” Lorde’s work can be read as a unified whole. The poems, the essays, her “biomythography” Zami, all in active conversation with each other. Lorde believed in naming herself, and in living a life that led by example. When she had a mastectomy, she refused a prosthesis. To complement her newfound lopsidedness, she wore one stud and one dangling earring. The Cancer Journals, another extraordinary book, was way ahead of its time. For every challenge, Lorde chose a different path. She said: “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” Her work still sizzles. She’s still got the spark.
Novelist and critic whose books include The Friendly Ones, The Northern Clemency and To Battersea Park
The Last Enchantments by Robert Liddell (Appleton Century)
Nobody who reads one of Robert Liddell’s entrancing, elegant, observant and deeply painful novels can understand why he’s now so little read. He was much rated by his contemporaries, an intimate of Ivy Compton-Burnett, a giant of the time, and also of Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym, whose reputations have grown steadily. He was the epitome of the upright, public-spirited, homosexual expat, conducting a distinguished career from Alexandria and Athens – two of his best novels are about life in Alexandria, with illicit passion throbbing under the restrained surface. The Last Enchantments ought to be a classic – it’s been called the best novel ever written about Oxford. It celebrates ordinary social irresponsibility, giving in to comfort and kindness, and deplores the cruelty carried out when people want to save face or impress their community. It’s about a celebrated scandal of the time, when a woman who had married extremely well consigned her elderly mother to the workhouse out of parsimony. It proceeds from delicious light comedy to terrible tragedy with a sure step. I think only a gay man would have had the patience to observe all these character types, and render them with such unforgettable, catty clarity.
Essayist and author of Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, which won the National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography
Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall by Neil Bartlett (Serpent’s Tail, available on worldofrarebooks)
So often, boy-meets-boy narratives take place in some remote manor or tent, as if romance only occurs far from the madding gay crowd. In Neil Bartlett’s Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall, love is a group activity. In the nocturnal underground of 1980s London, Boy, raven-haired and ravenous, finds the handsome video store clerk known as O (for “older”). Their courtship seems to involve every punter at the unmarked bar they frequent. The proprietress constructs elaborate wedding rituals, making believe before legal same-sex marriage. The social circle extends to proto-gay ghosts, well-wishers and voyeurs from across history who gather around the matrimonial bed. Bartlett conjures ageless sensibilities while unblinkingly depicting a moment of relentless assault on gay men. I am spellbound by this novel’s heady mix. The characters anchor in a saturnine yet sparkling city, learning to trust in the frisson, discovering intimate surrender as an act of defiance.
Debut novel At Certain Points We Touch was published last year
My Tender Matador by Pedro Lemebel (Grove Press)
The Chilean artist and writer Pedro Lemebel was, to say the least, expansive: amorphous across both gender and genre, making live performance, writing crónicas and reading on the radio, talking about himself, herself, in terms that might make a contemporary (white) readership squirm. And rightly so – Lemebel’s critique of the western colonisation of sexual identity was almost as vicious as it was of the Pinochet dictatorship.
Despite a 2020 movie adaptation directed by Rodrigo Sepúlveda, Matador remains horrifyingly under-read, which really is too bad because it is a superb novel: astute, grimy, raucous and tender. It’s a love story, a political memoir, a defiant act of speculative fiction. Much like the author, it’s sui generis.
South African author whose most recent book was The Pink Line: The World’s Queer Frontiers
The Quiet Violence of Dreams by K Sello Duiker (Kwela Books)
When K Sello Duiker took his own life in 2005 at the age of 30, he was the brightest young star in South African literature. If his prize-winning debut, Thirteen Cents, is a taut picaresque about street kids, then his second novel, The Quiet Violence of Dreams, is a sprawling bildungsroman. Set in Cape Town in the first years of democracy and told through a multiplicity of voices, Quiet Violence has come to define queer black South African identity for an entire generation, and has inspired other works, from art exhibitions to theatre. Duiker’s Cape Town holds both the optimism of a new society and the dangers of a white supremacist order that refuses to die. Negotiating this, and the demons of a violent apartheid past, is Tshepo, an ingenuous cosmopolitan, who loses himself in a mental asylum and then finds himself working as a rent boy in a (very idealised) massage parlour. Quiet Violence is messy but filled with unforgettable characters and language. It lives with me, as it does with so many South African readers. It deserves a wider global readership.
Debut novel Mrs S will be published in June
La Bâtarde by Violette Leduc (Dalkey Archive)
In her preface to La Bâtarde, Simone de Beauvoir references a line from a letter once sent to her by Violette Leduc: “I am a desert talking to myself.” This is a beautiful summation of Leduc’s narrative style, in which she is always the desirer, her love so huge that a novel is the only place it has left to go.
Described at its release in 1964 as an “autobiography”, I doubt it would fall under the same category now. Everything is extracted from her world and then amplified – her childhood, her work, her affairs, her crushes. La Bâtarde is pure gay sensation. Her writing showed me it was possible to bring text close to the body. Almost every sentence is immediate, devastating and nonstop. Each time I read it I learn something new.
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