Literary Criticism and Theory

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Literature's impact on LGBT people, culture, politics, and history cannot be overestimated. Numerous writers such as Sappho, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, André Gide, Marcel Proust, Hart Crane, Alice Walker, Jeanette Winterson, among many others, tantalize LGBT imaginations. Whether or not these writers "actually" belong to the LGBT "family," the pantheon of "queer" literary icons is important: the language they cultivated rearticulates, challenges, and transforms the worlds of sexual and gender minorities. The scenarios, plots, images, and ideas found in imaginative writing produce possibilities of reading about "queer" characters, actions, and themes, giving audiences opportunities to identify with, enjoy, identify against, and criticize what they discover on the page. And if LGBT plots or figures do not explicitly appear, there are always creative ways to "queer" what is being read. "Made-up" worlds are readily remade and will often yield to the desires of interested readers. Literature can and does provide pleasurable escape from worlds that have not historically valued LGBT lives. At the same time, it can provide alternatives to sexual conventions and gender traditions and can provide new ways to think about culture, society, and politics.

At least since the rise of new social movements, including gay liberation and lesbian feminism, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, literary critics and theorists concerned with sexuality and gender have done important work in the United States. After the 1960s, literature scholars could no longer pretend to be innocent about the ways in which their work was deeply embedded and implicated in the sexual, gender, and other struggles of their eras. In the early 1980s, the tragic advent of the AIDS epidemic added a specific kind of urgency to the academic and institutional knowledge about sexuality and gender that had begun to thrive in U.S. college and university literature departments. Within such a politically charged climate, open to the serious study of marginalized and neglected groups, more and more academic institutions began to include sustainable sexuality and gender curricula. Literary critics and theorists played key roles in these developments, publishing groundbreaking scholarship and training large numbers of students dedicated to exploring LGBT perspectives on art, culture, literature, history, and politics.

LGBT literary criticism and theory has developed beyond its initial focus on recovering "lost" and neglected queer texts (such as Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and Djuna Barnes's Nightwood), establishing a queer literary canon (with texts such as James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room and Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle), and confirming or speculating about the sexualities and genders of various writers (such as Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Langston Hughes). Over time, the sustained study of LGBT literature has yielded much more than additions of major works to established national canons, though this has been an important accomplishment. The field has also increasingly engaged in more than just exercises in literary appreciation; it has inspired critiques of dominant heterosexual and gender-normative societies and cultures and has interrogated the ways in which sexuality and gender are often used as vehicles for expressing ideas about ourselves, our cultures, our histories, and our futures. Literary artifacts, including poems, plays, novels, and short stories, provide readers with opportunities to be deeply concerned about the language and representation of characters, lives, societies, and contexts filled with sexual and gender complications.

Literature, by definition, is concerned with language—its symbols, images, ideologies, effects, and historical references and influences. From the dialogues of Plato's Symposium and the intricacies of Marcel Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu to the spare and urbane poems of Frank O'Hara and the harsh conditions of Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina, the "wordy" presentations of diverse sexualities and genders have provoked literary scholars to focus their reading talents on the topics of sexuality and gender. The major skills of literary study—inventive and imaginative practices associated with being careful, attentive, and slow readers—allow for the excavation of the rhetorical devices, images, associations, and implications of sexuality and gender. Sexuality and gender, in turn, are linked with a virtually limitless array of topics, including love, desire, power, politics, identity, community, society, nationality, internationality, birth, death, health, disease, science, technology, and art. As a consequence and in line with developments in other literary fields, in the past thirty years LGBT literary criticism and theory have moved beyond a fairly exclusive focus on analyses of canonical literary texts and now contribute greatly to various cultural studies domains. Exploring all sorts of items that can be read for their rhetorical and linguistic properties and effects, LGBT literary critics and theorists today examine, for example, political rhetoric, government documents, court records, film, music, art, advertising, television, sermons, diaries, and letters, not to mention noncanonical literature. The queer study of literature now tends to function as a form of intellectual inquiry that explores the ways words about sexuality and gender describe, code, shape, evaluate, and transform the worlds in which we live. One does not simply read about LGBT sexuality and gender anymore—one reads for what representations of sexuality and gender illuminate about life on and off the page.

Major Influences, Methodologies, and Thinkers

The dominant reading protocols of literary criticism and theory are often shifting and are influenced by a variety of disciplines, movements, and theories that are not simply literary. These include history, anthropology, and philosophy; African American, Native American, Latina and Latino, and Asian American movements; and Marxism, psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, and postmodernism. Perhaps more than any other discipline, movement, and theory of the late twentieth century, feminist studies, feminism, and feminist theory initiated the kinds of analyses and conversations that developed into LGBT literary criticism and theory. Although not all critics and theorists of sexuality and gender are feminists and are free of misogynist tendencies, the field's indebtedness to feminist studies and women's studies is undeniable. Feminism's interrogation of sex differences and gender hierarchies helped scholars think about the ways that "gender," despite its foundation in seemingly natural categories of anatomical sex difference, was not merely biological fact. Instead, gender reflected and produced uneven and unequal social, cultural, and political arrangements. Because of its "constructed" and constructing qualities, gender could be considered a category of experience open to interrogation and transformation.

Yet while feminist knowledge developed, various women who did not identify with white and heterosexual definitions of feminist experience challenged feminist biases about the "natural and universal character" of sexual desire; they questioned whether women automatically desired men as sexual and emotional partners and in what ways violations of what it means to be a "woman" transforms the definition of "woman." From their insights, LGBT literary critics and theorists learned about the ways in which sexuality, like gender difference, is open to scrutiny and revision. Debates about pornography, about lesbian sadomasochist practices, about men's place in feminism, about gay men's relationship with feminism, among other issues, further fractured unified ideas about feminist consciousness and inspired important interventions and sophisticated analyses of sexuality that made their ways into literary scholarship. Texts such as Monique Wittig's The Lesbian Body, Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp," Adrienne Rich's "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," Gayle Rubin's "The Traffic in Women" (1975) and "Thinking Sex" (1993), Shulamith Firestone's A Dialect of Sex (1971), Audre Lorde's Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1984), Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa's edited collection This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981), Barbara Smith's edited collection Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (1983), Carol Vance's edited volume Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality (1989), and Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality, volume 1 (1980) helped build on and transform feminism's crucial insights and were particularly important for the development of the reading protocols that sustained LGBT literary scholarship.

With the publication of the massive The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader in 1993 (Routledge), LGBT theory and criticism established itself as a more recognizable field of inquiry. The striking number of literary essays and essays by literary critics and theorists in this collection is notable; the numbers demonstrate just how influential the study of literature and literary methods have become in sexuality studies—and vice versa. A quick list of other titles by literature scholars also demonstrates some of the ways in which LGBT criticism has had a dramatic impact on the study of most major literary periods, genres, and national literatures: D. A. Miller's The Novel and the Police (1988) and Bringing Out Roland Barthes (1992); Teresa de Lauretis's Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction (1987); Paul Julian Smith, The Body Hispanic: Gender and Sexuality in Spanish and Spanish-American Literature (1992); Emily Apter's André Gide and the Codes of Homotextuality (1987); Jonathan Goldberg's Sodometries (1992); Diana Fuss's edited collection, Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories (1991); Michael Moon's Disseminating Whitman (1991); Michael Warner's edited volume Fear of a Queer Planet (1993); Susan Wolfe and Julia Penelope's edited volume Sexual Practice, Textual Theory: Lesbian Cultural Criticism (1993), Lee Edelman's Homographesis (1994), Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval (1999), Leo Bersani's Homos (1995) and The Culture of Redemption (1990); Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands=La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987); Lauren Berlant's The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (1997); Josiah Blackmore and Gregory Hutcheson's Queer Iberia: Sexualities, Cultures, and the Crossings from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance (1999) ; Mary Pat Brady's Extinct Lands, Temporal Geographies: Chicana Literature and the Urgency of Space (2002), among numerous other important titles.

In these works, one can see that literary criticism and theory today focuses on more than "literature" or literary texts. These works explore larger ideas about culture, conceptions of selves and others, and the ways that power, race, class, gender, religion, and nation all join sexuality in making the story of desire and identity that much more complicated. Much of this work is strongly influenced by what is now called "queer theory," a method of thinking about LGBT politics, arts, and culture that synthesizes the insights of multiple disciplines, particularly those fields engaged in philosophical, linguistic, and psychoanalytic work.

Anthropologist Gayle Rubin's landmark essay "Thinking Sex" (1993), for example, was a call to make sexuality an intellectual and political priority; her thoughts—influenced by historical and cultural analyses of power offered by Michel Foucault—are paradigmatic and helped inspire scholars to interrogate social arrangements organized by conservative hierarchies of sexuality and gender. Numerous other critics followed suit, most notably Judith Butler, who, in her popular Gender Trouble (1989), linked together continental philosophy, French feminism, and Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis in order to explore the ways that sex, gender, and sexuality differences are not natural, but rather are performed through complicated repetitions of legal, political, medical, and artistic words, rules, ideas, practices, and anxieties. Although a philosopher by training, Butler's work galvanized literary theory and criticism, especially with its attention to the ways that acts of language and speech can provide further insights into the constructed quality and politically charged nature of sex, gender, and sexuality.

The other major scholar that made LGBT literary criticism into what is now commonly called "queer theory" is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. The author of books such as Between Men (1985) and Epistemology of the Closet (1990), Sedgwick produced literary readings, readings that explored links and relationships between homoeroticism and heterosexuality in numerous literary genres. But her work consisted of more than just studies of major canonical writers such as Henry James, though it was also that. Especially in Epistemology, Sedgwick offered contagious speculations about the ways that the secrecy of the "closet"—and specifically the secrecy of the "homosexual" closet—grounds much of Western knowledge and much of how we know what we know.

Although the name "queer theory" stuck, notable queer studies scholars Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, in a column that in 1995 appeared in the official publication of the literature and language professional guild, the Modern Language Association (MLA), described what they saw developing in literature departments as a kind of theory specifically inflected by literary training. They argue that what was actually being created in the 1990s would more accurately be named "queer criticism," by which they meant cultural studies practices that did not offer sweeping theories about sexuality and gender as much as they offered particular analyses of a whole range of important literary texts, films, political developments, and media that are important for queer subcultures. As Berlant and Warner's column notes, this kind of literary criticism has found a vibrant home in the literature departments that gave rise to its creation. In 1976 the MLA Gay and Lesbian Caucus was formed, reflecting the notion that the deep study of sexuality and gender from an LGBTQ perspective is not merely a fad but a vital part of the profession's scholarly activities. And each year, the best essay in lesbian and gay studies is given an endowed honor by the MLA, the Compton-Noll Prize.

"Other" and Future Issues

Given LGBT literary criticism and theory's place within a lineage of post-1960s politicized fields of knowledge, it is perhaps not surprising that study of the links between race, class, religion, nationality, sex, gender, and sexuality is a goal. But goals are not always met. Although women of color had been calling attention to the ways that race and class complicate any analysis of sexuality at least since edited volumes such as This Bridge Called My Back and Home Girls, extensive engagement with race and class analyses has been lacking, and not exclusively because of white critics' neglect. The articulation of antihomophobic criticism has faced opposition among a number of more heterosexually conservative racial and ethnic minority groups. The work of a number of LGBT literary critics of color, however, has made notable contributions to this project, especially Philip Brian Harper and his analysis of masculinity and race in Are We Not Men?: Masculine Anxiety and the Problem of African-American Identity (1996). Robert Reid-Pharr's collection of essays, Black Gay Man (2001), performs similarly useful moves in exploring vexing relations between race, sexuality, and gender. José Esteban Muñoz's Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (1999) describes the manner in which those outside of mainstream culture negotiate norms of race, gender, class, and sexuality by identifying with film, art, performance, photography, and television. In 2000, Dwight McBride and Jennifer Brody edited a volume of Callaloo, a journal of African and African American literature and arts, calling for a more rigorous conversation to happen between critical race studies, literary studies, and queer criticism. And David Eng's Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America (2001) is a helpful inquiry into the specifically Asian American dynamics of racial embodiment in the United States.

The study of queer sexuality is increasingly complicated, especially when we take into account the issues posed by bisexual, transgender, and disability perspectives. For all of its complexity of method and thought, sexuality studies is often reliant on the notions of stable and able bodies, with clearly articulated sexual preferences. Bisexuality is certainly a sexuality position that often does not receive enough critical attention. Two helpful anthologies have set out the particular terrain of inquiry: Elizabeth Reba Weise's Closer to Home: Bisexuality and Feminism (1992) and Loraine Hutchins and Lani Kaahumanu's Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out (1991). Marjorie Garber's Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life (1996) is a detailed literary and historical account that challenges the easy oppositions between heterosexuality and homosexuality, arguing that bisexuality is not a sexual orientation as much as it is a sexuality that undoes sexual orientation as a category.

Exciting new work about trans and transgender sexuality, identity, and desire makes the practice of LGBT literary criticism and theory more difficult and more productive. Urgent questions arise: What does it mean when one's anatomical sex does not correspond with the gender identity one feels one has or one wants to acquire? How do psychiatric definitions and medical procedures transform the story one tells about sex, sex difference, and sexuality? Pat Califia's Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism (1997) and Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw (1996) are particularly important, initial responses to such questions. But while such trans work might not be so transgender oriented; the play and flow of different gender roles and positions makes traditional oppositions between masculine and feminine, between male and female, harder to assume. Literary scholar Judith Halberstam's Female Masculinity (1998) is a crucial study to consider. Halberstam interrogates the diverse experiences of masculine expressions of female identity and sexuality from the nineteenth century to the present. Using novels such as Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness and exploring topics such as femme/butch roles, transgender dykes, boxing, and film, Halberstam transforms our understanding of masculinity and the ways we think about gender and sexuality categories.

And the interest in the large concept of "disability" also provokes new directions in the critical repertoire: What does it mean when a body is immediately distinguished from "normal" sexual abilities and sometimes requires prosthetics and other devices in order to function? A 2003 special of issue of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, "Desiring Disability: Queer Theory Meets Disability Studies," organized a number of essays that question the particular challenges and crises when desire and embodiment can no longer assume physical dexterity and health. The issue encouraged thinking about "crip theory" and the performance art of queer and disabled artists and activists. Mobility devices, fitness, prostheses, transformed abilities, disease, access to public places and institutions all influence and transform what often is taken for granted: functioning bodies and conventional sexualities.

What these even newer variations on LGBT literary criticism and theory reveal is that queer criticism is still a relatively young field. Although the success of its impact on the scholarship of literature departments and disciplines worldwide is impressive, the conceptual and curricular problems it faces are important and familiar. Faculty positions exclusively in LGBT literature or queer theory in literature departments are still rare, and many institutions have not programmed substantial numbers of LGBT literature classes. It remains to be seen how the literary study of LGBT sexualities and genders will continue to develop beyond assertions of identity difference into even more nuanced arguments that push our thinking about the status of sexuality, gender, and literature. What, for instance, will LGBTQ texts tell us about the study of literature in general—is there a specifically queer form of language, a queer form of speech? It also remains to be seen what will happen once the now-familiar gestures of queer literary criticism and theory are mainstreamed and assumed as basic starting points for literature scholars. Whatever the horizon, sexuality and gender most certainly will surprise us, and no doubt there will be a book and a critic waiting to describe, analyze, and challenge new revelations.


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Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderland = La Frontera: The New Mestizo. Berkeley, Calif.: Third World Press, 1987.

Anzaldúa, Gloria, and Cherrie Moraga, eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. New York: Kitchen Table Press, 1981.

Apter, Emily. André Gide: And the Codes of Homotextuality. Saratoga, Calif.: Anma Libri, 1987.

Berlant, Lauren. The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.

Berlant, Lauren, and Michael Warner. "What Does Queer Theory Teach Us About X?" PMLA 110, no. 3 (May 1995): 343–349.

Bersani, Leo. The Culture of Redemption. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

——. Homos. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Blackmore, Josiah, and Gregory S. Hutcheson, eds. Queer Iberia: Sexualities, Cultures, and Crossings from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999.

Bornstein, Kate. Gender Outlaw. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Brady, Mary Pat. Extinct Lands, Temporal Geographies: Chicana Literature and the Urgency of Space. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Califia, Pat. Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 1997.

De Lauretis, Teresa. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre-and Postmodern. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999.

Dollimore, Jonathan. Sexual Dissidence. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Eng, David. Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001.

Firestone, Shulamith. The Dialect of Sex: The Case for the Feminist Revolution. Rev. ed. New York: Bantam, 1971.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction. New York: Random House, 1980.

Fuss, Diana, ed. Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Garber, Marjorie B. Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Goldberg, Jonathan. Sodometries. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.

Harper, Philip Brian. Are We Not Men?: Masculine Anxiety and the Problem of African-American Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Hutchins, Loraine, and Lani Kaahumanu, eds. Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out. Boston: Alyson, 1991.

Lorde, Audre. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Trumansburg, N.Y.: Crossing Press, 1984.

McRuer, Robert, and Abby Wilkerson, eds. "Queer Theory Meets Disability Studies." GLQ 9, nos. 1–2 (March 2003).

Miller, D. A. The Novel and the Police. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988.

——. Bringing Out Roland Barthes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in Leaves of Grass. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Reid-Pharr, Robert. Black Gay Man. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs 5, no. 4 (1980): 631–660.

Rubin, Gayle. "The Traffic in Women." 1975.

——. "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality." The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Edited by Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, David M. Halperin. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Sedgwick, Eve. Between Men. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

——. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.

Sinfeld, Alan. Cultural Politics——Queer Reading. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

Smith, Paul Julian. The Body Hispanic: Gender and Sexuality in Spanish and Spanish American Literature. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Sontag, Susan. "Notes on Camp." Against Interpretation. New York: Delta, 1979.

Vance, Carol, ed. Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. London and Sydney, Wellington: Pandora, 1989.

Warner, Michael, ed. Fear of a Queer Planet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Weise, Elizabeth Reba, ed. Closer to Home: Bisexuality and Feminism. Seattle, Wash.: Seal, 1992.

Wittig, Monique. The Lesbian Body. New York: Avon, 1976.

Michael L. Cobb

see alsobeats; cultural studies and cultural theory; foster, jeannette; harlem renaissance; language; literature; pulp fiction: gay; pulp fiction: lesbian.