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Classic queer fiction

By Kobo • June 06, 2024Big Ideas in Books

Check out these must-read queer classics of 20th century fiction

Readers today can select from an abundance of new books in every genre featuring characters from all over the LGBTQIA+ spectrum—but it wasn't always so. While the explosion of queer fiction we enjoy today warrants celebration (as well as protection from a zealous book-banning movement) we also recommend dipping into the groundbreaking work of these literary pioneers.

They by Kay Dick

After it was published in 1977, this dystopian masterpiece was all but forgotten. It was recently republished, and now 21st century readers can experience the nightmarish world of social control and conformity of author Kay Dick's imagination. In an England that's familiar-but-not, a group of artists struggles to survive, love, and hold onto who they are in a world increasingly defined by the shadowy they. Defy the social order, and they will find you and punish you.

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Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

First published in 1956, this is the melancholic story of David, a gay American man living in Paris. Struggling with self-loathing and shame, he muddles through life, until falling in love with an Italian bartender. Baldwin's compassionate characterization and keen insight make this a moving though occasionally difficult, heartbreaking read.

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The Membranes by Chi Ta-wei

This classic of queer speculative fiction was published in Taiwan in 1995 and has only recently been translated into English. In one of several underwater domes in which most of humanity has retreated to escape the effects of climate change, a highly sought-after dermal care technician named Momo works tirelessly to meet the needs of her famous and influential clients. But a surprise meeting with her estranged mother shakes loose Momo's sense of the social order and her sense of who she is.

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Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Set in Europe between the two world wars, this brief novel follows an eclectic cast of unforgettable characters. Told from multiple perspectives, Nightwood shocked readers in 1936 with its frank depictions of queer relationships told from a queer POV. Barnes' novel has stood for nearly a century as a landmark of not only queer fiction, but as a high point of the Modernist movement.

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Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

First published in Taiwan in 1994, this imaginative coming-of-age novel is a blend of bleak realism and experimental, fable-like writing. Set in Taipei in the 1980s, it follows a young woman, Lazi, through her four years of college. Lazi recounts through a mash-up of various media her relationships, as well as the struggles of her group of friends as they fall in and out of love, wrestle with feelings of isolation, and carry on freewheeling conversations about family, friendship, books, art, politics—and everything in between.

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Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet

Playwright Jean Genet's most famous work is this semi-autobiographical series of linked stories about a close-knit group of sex workers, outcasts, criminals and other characters existing at the fringes of society. While his wit as a playwright is on full display, there's a feverish, hallucinatory quality to this prose, which he composed while serving one of his many prison sentences.

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The Tree and the Vine by Dola de Jong

Set in the years just before the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam, this is a story about two women struggling in their own ways with their queerness. Erica, a daring and sometimes reckless journalist, and Bea, a quiet, reserved secretary, are immediately smitten with each other when they meet at a party. They soon become roommates, but Bea is too afraid to admit her true feelings; and though Erica is more open about the subject of desire, she has secrets of her own.

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The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Through a series of letters between sisters Celie and Nettie, Walker explores life for Black women in rural Georgia in the first half of the 20th century. Celie's journey to wholeness, though not without its pain and heartbreak, remains a joy to witness.

Walker won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for this novel—a shining example of queer artistic recognition and triumph from almost half a century ago.

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