Building a Queer Canon

the featured image is from electricliterature.com

by Annabel Paulsen

“[Queerness] is not something to be ashamed of, and I’m coming from a place of privilege because I was not ashamed. I want [my students] to feel the same freedom, and that’s why in my teaching, in my writing, in the artists I have picked for us to examine, I need all of those identities to be apparent.” – Roya Marsh, 2017

It’s not uncommon to credit our high school teachers with the beginnings of our writing career, or at least its earliest encouragement. If we’re lucky, our English classes draw new maps for us; we see the world expand upon itself, and paths wind away toward the horizon, beckoning for us to follow. But the impact of those classrooms does not end with literary scholarship. Beyond analytical training and the Great American Novel, English classes have the ability to provide space for underrepresented identities. Any kind of student can find a mirror in literature—including queer kids. 

This is still a relatively new development. Despite an existence spanning human history, queer stories have only really entered the mainstream market within the past couple of decades. For a long time, we only had a few archetypes by which to model ourselves; as with any identity, when we see more specific and nuanced representations of ourselves, we understand more possibilities for who we can become.

When I first began working on this project, I had narrowed my scope to the pedagogical Western canon, those works which have been imbued with significance by those who felt they could bestow it—mostly white, mostly straight, mostly upper-class, mostly cisgender. My goal was to explain that queerness in literature does not need to be sought out from the sidelines (though it is also an important exercise to read those writers who have not seen acclaim)—but that it exists within the confines of the traditional canon, which is brimming with works from LGBTQ writers already found on Advanced Placement reading lists. But this conception of “canon” is deficient.

A redefinition of the canon does not have to replace what already exists—instead, it broadens the scope. Human experience is expansive, and literature reflects that. A restrictive canon maintains exclusivity, not prestige. Our new canon has the potential to be as fluid as queerness itself, bending genre rather than bowing to it. 

LGBTQ+ writers do exist within the Western canon. Their queerness is considered incidental, their writing respected for other reasons: voice, symbolism, imagery, narration. But often, a writer’s queerness seeps into the work, shrouded by other elements of style, though still unmistakable—if you’re looking for it. 

Forster, Baldwin, Woolf, Dickinson, Whitman, Hughes: these writers produced stories, essays, and poetry that explored queerness explicitly. But even in their writing which was not plainly queer, it is possible, if not easy, to find threads of their identity. E. M. Forster wrote Maurice as a story of gay love, and did not seek to publish the novel during his lifetime, for fear of retribution; A Room with a View, more widely read, examines the murkiness of romantic feeling, and the secrecy it breeds (particularly in Edwardian England). Despite not being the “queer” novel, themes of queerness—of living with and hiding romantic feelings—overwhelm A Room with a View. 

Teaching queerness in the classroom does not have to focus on sexuality. Instead, we can look at the work produced by queer writers, and deepen our analysis through various lenses. It is not about projecting identity onto literature—many literature students learn early on not to infuse a piece of writing with knowledge of its author—but rather, reading with intention. Identity is not incidental. It is foolish to assume we can ignore its influence.

Even without teaching a queer text, teaching queer writers creates a safe environment for LGBTQ+ students. It’s powerful, even now, to not only view but think critically about art created by queer people. We’re working toward a future in which queer writing is abundant and widely read. Until we get there, we have a wealth of literature ready to step into a new light.

Below is a reading list of works commonly included in the Western canon, supplemented by novels and collections which have been historically marginalized. More challenging than finding these texts is finding those which depict and explore queer lives candidly; like Forster and his Maurice, many queer stories have been hidden, augmented by editors for public reception, or discarded altogether. But here, we can endeavor to develop a holistic survey of queer literature, challenge genre, and oppose outdated standards.

Queer Canon Reading List:

Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison

If They Come For Us, Fatimah Asghar

Another Country, James Baldwin

Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin

Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

Patsy, Nicole Dennis-Ben

They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full, Mark Bibbins

Poems, Elizabeth Bishop

My Ántonia, Willa Cather

The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee

The Awakening, Kate Chopin*

Plain Bad Heroines, emily m. danforth

The Miseducation of Cameron Post, emily m. danforth

A Passage to India, E.M. Forster

A Room with a View, E.M. Forster

Howard’s End, E.M. Forster

Howl and Other Poems, Allen Ginsberg

The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968-1998, Nikki Giovanni

Cleanness, Garth Greenwell

Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry, Essex Hemphill

The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith

Mucus in My Pineal Gland, Juliana Huxtable

Good Talk, Mira Jacob

How We Fight For Our Lives, Saeed Jones

Haruko/Love Poems, June Jordan

On the Road, Jack Kerouac

Humiliation, Wayne Koestenbaum

Gypsy Ballads, Federico Garcia Lorca

Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado

In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, T Kira Madden

The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers

Chelsea Girls, Eileen Myles

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson 

Bluets, Maggie Nelson

Violets and Other Tales, Alice Dunbar Nelson-Moore

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, Jenn Shapland

Homie, Danez Smith

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

Song of Myself, Walt Whitman

The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde

A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams

Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Close to the Knives, David Wojnarowicz

The poems of Constantine P. Cavafy

The poems of Emily Dickinson

The poems of Audre Lorde

The poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay

The poems of Frank O’Hara

The poems of Mary Oliver

The poems of Adrienne Rich

The poems of Sappho

The plays of Maria Irene Fornes

There is so much stunning queerness in contemporary literature that has yet to be canonized, if they ever will be—and the only way to ensure its growth is to read those LGBTQs+ writers who are living and writing now. Continue your reading with articles from our archives, essays and interviews from our Art of Teaching Writing series, and a selection of links for further recommendations. 

From the Teachers & Writers Archives:

Teaching James Baldwin

ARTivism Links & Resources

Some Greek Girls

Teaching Whitman in High School 

Getting the Word Out: The New York Writers Coalition Helps Develop both Voice and Audience for those Who Have Neither

Misery Is Fun: Using Langston Hughes’s Black Misery

The Lost Sense: A Favorite Writing Assignment

Teachers & Writers Interviews:

Claiming A Seat At The Table Of Belonging: An Interview With Poet And Educator Sarah M. Sala

The Talk: Roya Marsh On Student Voice, Black Queer Joy, And Getting Out Of The Way

A Home at the Nuyorican: An Interview with Lois Elaine Griffith

A Home at the Nuyorican: A Continued Conversation with Lois Griffith 

Interview with James Lecesne: How to Be a Human Being 

Interview With Nikky Finney: Say Hard Things Tender

The Art of Teaching Writing Essays:

Creating An Inclusive Classroom For Transgender Students: Lessons From The Corporate And Nonprofit World

Fundamentally About Access: Reflections On Creating A Trans-inclusive Learning Space

How (Not) To Teach Gender

Better Advocacy for Undocumented Students

The Cannibals

Uncovering Students’ Stories

Glories Strung Like Beads: The Queer Brilliance of Joe Brainard’s I Remember

More resources:

https://www.out.com/art-books/2018/4/30/25-queer-poets-read-national-poetry-month

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/collections/101691/queer-love-poems

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/a-queer-reading-list-from-lgbtq-identified-authors-at-the-pdx-book-festival/

https://www.lambdalegal.org/blog/20200612_25-anti-racist-black-queer-books

https://www.vulture.com/2018/06/38-best-lgbtq-ya-novels.html

https://poets.org/lgbtq-poetry

https://lithub.com/queer-black-poets-since-the-harlem-renaissance-a-reading-list/

*Though Chopin did not identify as queer during her lifetime, I would be remiss to exclude The Awakening from this list, because of its rich lesbian themes.

Annabel Paulsen is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She holds a BA from New York University, and is currently pursuing her MFA in fiction through the New School. Her critical essays, which often focus on gender and pop culture, have been published in NeoText, Electric Literature, Document Journal, and Riot Fest Mag.



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