The five gay novels that I love
Updated: May 18
I used to ramble in an all-knowing Oscar Wilde tone of voice, that there are about three categories of gay novel and they are all terrible. I’ve read a lot of gay novels, and I feel mean saying it, but I’m always amazed at how hard it seems to be for gay authors to write a good book.
The first type of terrible gay novel I would label “Aesthetic misery porn.” This book involves a lot of long train of thought passages filled with gay shame, evocative surroundings, and lust for cute twinks. This is the type of novel that is allowed into the echelons of highbrow gay literary fiction Andre Aciman and Alan Hollinghurst I’m looking at you.
Then there is the deluge of coming-of-age stories which in a more conservative time were the mainstay of adult gay fiction. They’ve now moved out of the adult sphere into my second category: Young adult. Most gay fiction being published at the moment seems to be young adult. I guess this is where the market is: young people who are just discovering their sexuality rather than us jaded older gays. But if I read another book about requited or unrequited high school crushes my face is going to explode.
At the other end of the market are self-published erotic/romantic novels by women for women. Two out of five of my favourite gay novels are by women – so I’m not prejudiced – in fact I think women write about gay men better than gay men do. I also full-heartedly support this more cerebral parallel of straight guys watching lesbian porn. But that doesn’t mean I want to read it.
The problem with most gay novels is the main point of interest is the character’s sexuality. If most of the storylines were adapted to be about a heterosexual relationship, they would lose what is interesting about them. I’m not saying the character, or the story should be separable from the character’s sexuality. But I hold gay novels up to the same standard as the rest of literature. I want unique story-lines, brilliant writing, and unforgettable characters.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
The only gay novel that I'd truly call a classic. James Baldwin a black gay author wrote this in the 1950s and was strongly advised against publishing it, but he did anyway because he was a LEGEND! This novel gives a scathingly perceptive view of the gay scene and gay relationships in the 1950s. The protagonist David is hangs out with an older gay man for drinks and money while claiming to be straight. He then meets Giovanni a bohemian bartender who lives in a crappy room. This could definitely fit into my ‘misery porn’ category, but it pre-dates and is much better than any of it’s contemporaries, and I think 1950’s gays are entitled to feel miserable.
“Love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters? And how long, at the best, can it last, since you are both men and still have everywhere to go? Only five minutes, I assure you, only five minutes, and most of that, helas! in the dark. And if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty— they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his. But you can make your time together anything but dirty, you can give each other something which will make both of you better—forever”
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
This novel is on almost every literary gay’s favourite books lists and deservedly so. Madeline Miller says it took her a decade to write. She re-wrote the entire book, trying to get the narrator Patroclus' voice right. Patroclus is a young banished noble in ancient Greece who becomes close to the demi-God, Achilles. The book manages to be both real and mythic at the same time. Patroclus is an empathetic humanist while Achilles is destined for glory as a warrior. It's that situation where you continue loving someone in spite of what they do. And the ending made me cry which is always a plus. He heard the edge in my voice and looked away. The pain on his face struck me, and I was ashamed. Where was my promise that I'd forgive him? "I'm sorry," I said. I asked him to tell me what it was like, all of it, as we had always spoken to each other. And he did, everything, how his first spear had pierced the hollow of a man's cheek, carrying flesh with it as it came out the other side... I listened to every word, imagining it was a story only. As if it were dark figures on an urn he spoke of instead of men.
The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels
This is the best novel on the subject of HIV/AIDS that I've ever read. Deeply moving, beautiful, and harrowing. Brian a young man with AIDS comes back to homophobic small-town America to die. The story is told from the points of view of Brian, his sister, and his wary Christian mother. It explores their struggle between compassion and prejudice in a way that is so real and human. It also enlightened me on not-so-distant history. Plus, I cried multiple times ... and the grandmother (Lettie) was brilliant.
Naomi tilts her head, practiced concern. “But, do you accept homosexuality?”
Lettie fiddles with the cross on her necklace, and looks shockingly like she might cry. Naomi often makes her guests cry, but I didn’t think she’d get to Lettie.
“Jesus loves everyone.”
“But, do you think—”
Lettie cuts her off. She’s composed herself. No tears fall. “Who am I to judge?” Lettie looks directly into the camera. “Everyone in Chester must think they’re God, by the way they’re acting. Well. They maybe ought to stop talking about the speck in their neighbor’s eyes and take care of that log in their own.”
The Binding by Bridget Collins
I wouldn’t class this as a perfect novel, but I did read it in just one day. The less you hear about it before you read it the better - don't even read the blurb – rip it off - it has a lovely picture of Bridget on the inside that you could frame. Just know that it is set somewhere between Victorian and Georgian times and is magic realism. The narrator Emmet has been suffering from a mysterious illness and is sent away to be an old bookbinder's apprentice. The beginning of the novel is atmospheric (if slightly slow), the second part is amazing and moving, and the final part was okay!
"I could remember more than they realised; I knew about the screaming and the hallucinations, the days when I couldn't stop crying or didn't know who anyone was, the night when I broke the window with my bare hands."
Disco Bloodbath by James St James
This isn't a novel - it's a true story. But I feel like it has been overlooked as the piece of hilarious observant literary genius that it is. It isn't even in print anymore! Original copies can set you back a few hundred pounds. The story is about James' close friend Michael Alig's arrival on the New York club scene – and his subsequent spiral into addiction and then murder. The story is sensational, and most people would just rely on that being the point of interest. But in this book it is just a vehicle for James St James' scathing bitchy hilarious deeply honest writing.
"Do you still love me? Really?" He asked. Hanging in the airspace above my head was the monstorously vain implication that I had ever love him in the first place. Endured him, yes. Admired him? Yes... but with clenched teeth. And I suppose I even got a vicarious kick from the improbable life he had always led. But it was a wistful kick, and it always made me sad, like I was in the back seat straining to see the fun that was going on ahead of me.
I think things are changing. With gay novels appearing in the mainstream, there’s a necessity to write things that are more innovative than self hate in a nice European setting. In my own writing, I'm trying to create what I want to see on the shelves. Memorable counter-cultural gay characters and original, thought-provoking storylines. In my first published novel: Theo, an anxious Londoner wakes up to find his drunken one-night-stand (Max) has bought them both tickets to Japan. Go over to Goodreads and checkout the reviews then Amazon to get twenty copies and give them to everyone you know!