It’s easy for queer book-lovers to feel a little left out by Valentine’s Day. Our literary paths have historically been defined by stories of catastrophe and shameful secrets. Straight couples on the page, while not escaping entirely unscathed, get a rather more generous share of epic romances.
But not all hope is lost. The path to queer literary romantic fulfilment is complicated, but it’s also characterised by a wonderful variety that deserves celebration. Before we attempt to find happy endings in the canon, it’s worth mining the tragedy of the queer classics and remembering that the pain of kisses stolen in secret corners often provides fertile ground for incredible emotional intensity.
Short-lived pleasures like the disastrous dalliance between David and his barman beau in James Baldwin Giovannis' Room (not a spoiler, it’s in the first chapter!) may not paint pictures of eternal bliss, but there’s still comfort to be found here. To resist love will destroy you as much as any ill-fated affair, so why not chase pleasure where it can be found?
There’s something comforting as well in the idea that queer love need not be extraordinary. Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts both explore the soft mundanity of domestic life. In the former, George Falconer looks back on a decades-long relationship with his now-deceased partner Jim, and it’s the loss of their old morning routine that is most keenly felt. Even having the room to move around the house without bumping elbows is a tiny tragedy. In The Argonauts, significant changes to both partners’ bodies – a pregnancy for one and testosterone injections for the other – are marked not by dramatic pronouncements and realisations, but by small transformative moments, like passing as male at a restaurant or snatched conversations during idle channel-hopping. This is not monstrous mythical change, but the quiet transformation of two people growing together.
You may not be after cosy coupledom. There’s surely room on Valentine’s Day for unabashed flirtation, and queer writing doesn’t let us down here. Andrew McMillan's physical is a gloriously intimate, sweaty, fleshy collection that examines what it is to be a gay man. Locker rooms and urinals become the sites of almost religious sexual revelation, masterfully balancing the quotidian and the divine. If you’re of a more Sapphic persuasion, Patricia Highsmith’s Carol is a remarkably erotic book, particularly given its publication in 1952. Barely detectable brushes of the hand are loaded with electric potential. Every silence between Carol and Therese hints at suppressed desire. This novel is proof that no-one is more skilled at ratcheting up sexual tension than a thriller writer.
If you’d like your romantic endings a little less complicated, contemporary fantasy fiction has been significantly kinder to same-sex love. Isabel Greenberg’s sumptuous graphic novel, The One Hundred Nights of Hero, sees two women escape their patriarchal palace in search of their own happily ever after. It’s a story that could comfortably sit alongside the Greek epics without detection. Kirsty Logan too weaves queer love beautifully into her writing. In novels gone by, the arrival of a mysterious woman might have led to tragedy, but in The Gloaming the worn-out trope of the dead lesbian is gone, replaced instead with Mara and Pearl going on a dark, magical journey of sexual discovery.
LGBTQ readers need not fret this Valentine’s Day. Whether ailing from lost love, settling into domestic bliss, or heading out in search of a one-night stand, there’s plenty to be found for queer souls everywhere.