Reading lists

Brilliant LGBTQ+ books you may not have discovered yet

From E. M. Forster to Ali Smith, Alison Bechdel to Virginia Woolf, these books – spanning fiction, poetry, memoir, and non-fiction – are the perfect way into the queer canon.

Natalie Williams & Steph Tait
A host of LGBTQ+ classic titles, including books by Ali Smith, James Baldwin and E. M. Forster, laid over a yellow background.
Image: Flynn Shore/Penguin

These are books that make you feel strange in the pit of your stomach; books that make you feel a part of something; books that make you feel like you belong to something bigger. They are also books that celebrate otherness and queerness. They are different, often groundbreaking. Some were written at times when being LGBTQ+ was something too dangerous to admit to. Others were written when being LGBTQ+ was finally something you could safely celebrate. Some point to a new wave of liberation.

Most importantly, they are about love. They are about being utterly and uniquely yourself.

This list certainly doesn’t seek to provide a detailed account of the queer canon, but rather to give you a starting point, or an ‘I need to read that again’ moment, or simply to remind you that there are lots of other folk in this world, folk who felt the same strange kick in the gut when they read Giovanni’s Room, or Genet, or Hollinghurst for the first time, or who recognised the oddly liberating sorrow of Jeanette Winterson’s coming out gone wrong in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, or enjoyed the comforting company of community in the inhabitants of Armistead Maupin’s San Francisco. To nab a phrase from Allen Ginsberg, we’re "putting [our] queer shoulder to the wheel", and we’d very much like for you, wherever you are in your journey, to join us.

Love Speaks Its Name edited by J.D. McClatchy (2001)

This wonderful collection of LGBTQ+ love poetry is a veritable who’s who of the queer canon, including voices from Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Elizabeth Bishop, Federico García Lorca, Sappho and Hart Crane, to name but a few. These poems capture the full spectrum of love, from the heady moments when you first catch someone’s eye to the warmth and comfort of an established relationship.

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The Price of Salt (aka Carol) by Patricia Highsmith (1952)

"She thought of people she had seen holding hands in movies, and why shouldn't she and Carol?"

Patricia Highsmith originally published her 1952 work under the pseudonym ‘Claire Morgan’, using an alias as she didn’t wish to be branded a “lesbian-book writer”. Carol depicts the relationship of the eponymous heroine Therese Belivet, a young woman living in Manhattan. It is a world where lesbianism is used as a weapon in a custody battle and is enough to brand a woman an unfit mother. It is also a deeply romantic and compelling gay love story with an unprecedentedly nuanced, perhaps even happy, ending.

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City of Night by John Rechy (1963)

"Maybe I could love you. But I won’t. The grinding streets awaited me."

City of Night is a stark depiction of hustling in America in the 1960s. It follows a young man as he travels across the country - from New York City, to Los Angeles, San Francisco and New Orleans - while working as a hustler.

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The Thief's Journal (Journal du Voleur) by Jean Genet (1949)

"Betrayal is beautiful."

A part-fictional autobiography that charts the author's journey through Europe in the 1930s. The novel is structured around a succession of love affairs and forays into male prostitution between the protagonist/author and a number of characters, from a policeman to a con man, a pimp to a criminal. It is widely considered to be Jean Genet’s greatest work. Dedicated to Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Genet described it as a doctrine on ‘the pursuit of the impossible nothingness.’

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Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)

Vast themes spill from the pages of Middlesex, which spans generations, cultures and gender. It is a bildungsroman, a ‘great American novel’, and a modern Greek Myth. Middlesex is the tale of three generations of a family, and how they deal with a mutated gene which provides them with female characteristics. The protagonist, Cal Stephanides (aka Calliope), is intersex and moves through their world like a kind of modern day Orlando. This is a transformative novel about transformation.

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