Classic LGBT Literature
The definition of a "classic" novel can be difficult to pin down. Is it based on the number of sales, quality of its reviews, or staying power? One way to define a classic is as a work that impacts future works, that feeds the creative conversation. This list contains classic LGBT literature from the 20th century that did just that, influencing the novels that followed.
Maurice, by E.M. Forster (written in 1913, published in 1971)
In this story we follow Maurice Hall through public school and Cambridge, and into his father's firm. In a highly structured society, Maurice is a conventional young man in almost every way, "stepping into the niche that England had prepared for him": except that his is homosexual.
The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall (1928)
The timeless story of a lesbian couple's struggle to be accepted by "polite" society. Shockingly candid for its time, this novel was the very first to condemn homophobic society for its unfair treatment of gay men and lesbians.
Orlando, by Virginia Woolf (1928)
Orlando doubles as first an Elizabethan nobleman and then as a Victorian heroine who undergoes all the transitions of history in this novel that examines gender, sex roles, and social mores.
The Folded Leaf, by William Maxwell (1945)
Edmund Wilson described The Folded Leaf as "a quite unconventional study of adolescent relationships--between two boys, with a girl in the offing--in Chicago and in a Middle Western college: very much lived and very much seen." He praised this "drama of the immature" for the compassion Maxwell brings to his male protagonists, whose intensely felt, unarticulated bond is beyond their inchoate ability to understand.
The City and the Pillar, by Gore Vidal (1948)
Jim, a handsome, all-American athlete, has always been shy around girls. But when he and his best friend, Bob, partake in “awful kid stuff,” the experience forms Jim’s ideal of spiritual completion. Defying his parents’ expectations, Jim strikes out on his own, hoping to find Bob and rekindle their amorous friendship.
The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith (1952)
Therese, a struggling young sales clerk, and Carol, a homemaker in the midst of a bitter divorce, abandon their oppressive daily routines for the freedom of the open road, where their love can blossom. But their newly discovered bliss is shattered when Carol is forced to choose between her child and her lover.
Giovanni's Room, by James Baldwin (1956)
A searching, and in its day controversial, treatment of the tragic self-delusions of a young American expatriate at war with his own homosexuality.
A Single Man, by Christopher Isherwood (1962)
George is adjusting to life on his own after the sudden death of his partner, and determines to persist in the routines of his daily life. An Englishman and a professor living in suburban Southern California, he is an outsider in every way, and his internal reflections and interactions with others reveal a man who loves being alive despite everyday injustices and loneliness.
The Color Purple, by Alice Walker (1982)
As a young, black woman living in 1930s Georgia, Celie faces constant violence and oppression. She survives the brutality of incest before being married off to "Mr.," who routinely abuses her both physically and emotionally. Eventually, Celie develops a deep bond with her husband's mistress Shug, and it is through this relationship that she understands she is a woman capable of being loved and respected.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, by Fannie Flagg (1987)
Mrs. Threadgoode's tale of two high-spirited women of the 1930s, Idgie and Ruth, helps Evelyn, a 1980s woman in a sad slump of middle age, to begin to rejuvenate her own life.
The Hours, by Michael Cunningham (1998)
Passionate, profound, and deeply moving, "The Hours" is the story of three women: Clarissa Vaughan, who one New York morning goes about planing a party in honor of a beloved friend; Laura Brown, who in a 1950s Los Angeles suburb slowly begins to feel the constraints of a perfect family and home; and Virginia Woolf, recuperating with her husband in a London suburb, and beginning to write "Mrs. Dalloway." By the end of the novel, the stories have intertwined, and finally come together in an act of subtle and haunting grace.
List compiled with the help of The Advocate's "The 25 Best LGBT Novels of All Time" and Out Magazine's "The Greatest Queer Books Ever Written." Be sure to check those lists for even more classic LGBT literature.
Interested in more recent offerings? The Lambda Literary Award has been celebrating LGBTQ literature for the past 30 years. Browse past nominees and winners on their website.
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