by Virginia Woolf
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Here’s a summary of Orlando: a lonely young man with nice legs (very nice, we are repeatedly assured) gets dumped by a Russian princess after their ice river carnival was swept away in a sudden thaw. He’s sad for a while, and decides to go abroad as a royal ambassador. Then one night, in a flurry of trumpets and Spensarian theatrics, Orlando transforms into a woman for some reason (who still has nice legs). And everyone’s cool with, though she does need to go through a lengthy legal process to retain ownership of her property now that she’s a woman. So she returns to England, and spends time writing poetry and hosting famous poets at her estate. Eventually, Orlando wins her lawsuit for her property and decides to marry a sea captain named Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine (seriously). They then live happily ever after for at least several hundred years.
I love Orlando for how un-seriously it takes itself. There aren’t many ‘great English authors’ who were willing to let themselves have this much fun. Even when composing parodies or satires they’re always very serious about their art and their reputations, but perhaps Woolf cared less because she had other reasons for writing this novel. Orlando is sometimes called ‘the longest love-letter in literature’ because it was written for Woolf’s close friend and sometimes lover Vita Sackville-West, represented by the character Orlando. In Virginia’s eyes, Vita transcended the limitations of gender, time, and place, so Orlando does too (she must have had very nice legs too, if the pattern holds). I find it incredibly romantic that one of the most radical and celebrated novels of the 20th century sprung from such a relationship. What a monument to the lover!
While Orlando is one of Woolf’s most accessible novels, it’s still written in dense, high-modernist fashion and may prove a bit difficult at times. Goofy as the plot can be, it’s not really a laugh-out-loud comedy though it does have its moments. It’s a bit difficult to say how the character Orlando would be labelled in our current moment. The concept of transgender didn’t really exist at the time, and Orlando continued to dress as both man and woman as it suited them, suggesting that neither their male or female version is more correct than the other. The obvious term might be ‘genderfluid,’ but Woolf had some slightly different ideas about the relationship between the masculine and feminine. In A Room Of One’s Own, she muses upon the necessity for the artist to be “man-womanly” or “woman-manly” in order to consider all points of view and achieve lasting art. I find this interesting to consider in our era of names and labels. What if, fifty years from now, we discover we’ve had this whole gender thing wrong the whole time? Or some other aspect of sex and sexuality that we treat as fact today? Orlando helps us think about those questions, and so it remains one of the more important LGBT+ books yet written.
The Motion of Light in Water
Samuel R. Delany
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Oh boy it’s Delany again! My bias should be pretty clear by now, but I can’t help it if the man is responsible for so many essential texts in gay literature, and in so many different genres. This time around it’s a Hugo award-winning memoir covering portions of Delany’s childhood up through the early years of Delany’s extensive writing career. The book offers a fascinating window into both the author and his environment, a newly bohemian, pre-Stonewall East Village. Among the numerous experiences he recounts are his marriage to the lesbian poet, Marylin Hacker, his foray into folk music, a nervous breakdown, and brushes with famous personages such as Bob Dylan, W. H. Auden, and James Baldwin. And of course, descriptions of New York’s homosexual underworld (the memoir is subtitled Sex and Science Fiction Writing after all).
There are a lot of reasons to read this book. The obvious reason is, of course, to gain a greater insight into the mind of a popular science-fiction writer, but that’s only one dimension of it. Interracial marriage, open relationships, pre-Stonewall gay life, mental health, the writing process, civil rights, hitchiking, these are only some of the topics covered by Delany’s memoir. By the age of 21, Delany had already written and published three science-fiction novels and was an active participant in the city’s avant-garde art scene at the time. Perhaps the overflowing creative forces around him contributed to the nervous breakdown that serves as the centerpiece of the memoir. Delany is quite open and matter of fact about it, as he is about everything, from the reality of being a professional writer to the ins and outs of anonymous sex in the city. It’s this frankness which forms much of the book’s appeal.
Besides it’s subject matter, what sets The Motion of Light in Water apart from other memoirs is the intense open-minded gaze Delany brings to bear upon himself. He is unafraid to criticize himself, or to plumb the depths of unpleasant and even traumatic memories. And he does all this with the skill of a grandmaster storyteller. The events and people he depicts are every bit as vivid as those in his science-fiction and makes the memoir feel more like a novel. There are moments throughout the text where Delany descends (or ascends) into the abstract and philosophical, usually when discussing art, and these can feel a bit confusing. But I found that as I read more of Delany’s experiences, I gained a better understanding of what he was talking about. In sum, Delany’s deft depictions of complex and wide ranging issues during a time of significant social change makes The Motion of Light in Water a seminal and essential work for any reader interested not just in gay history, but in 20th-century American history as a whole.
City of Night
by John Rechy
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City of Night is the single most important book about American LGBT culture ever published. I cannot think of any other work which so honestly and lucidly depicts the many marginalized and underground communities that existed, and continue to exist, in American cities. It was published in 1963, well before the Stonewall Riots, and much of the events are based on Rechy’s own experiences, including the lesser known Cooper Do-nuts Riot in 1959 in which Rechy himself was arrested. Nearly every contemporary gay author praised the book, and it was enormously influential to the many upcoming gay writers yet to appear. Characters like Miss Destiny and Chi-Chi are permanently etched into my mind as the ancestors of every campy queen character to come after, and I have never stopped thinking about Sylvia and her endless wait or the protagonist’s decision in the final chapter. Obviously I can go on praising this book forever, but some more practical info is probably more useful.
City of Night is the story of an unnamed young man who has taken up hustling in various American cities. It’s split into numerous episodes focusing on one or another of the many people the narrator comes in contact with, and each episode is separated by reflections on America’s grand “city of night.” Sometimes these people are clients, other hustlers, or just members of underground communities, but all reveal important truths about what it means to live this lifestyle, and why so many people chose to. And it’s written in a Beatnik style, with lots of invented, mashed-up words that help to give the interactions an authentic, even folksy, feel.
There aren’t a lot of books that I would consider to be essential, but this is one of them. With City of Night, Rechy helped to usher in a new era of American gay literature, one in which writers proudly presented their worlds, warts and all, and made no apologies for them. But of course nothing is perfect. Some of City of Night’s episodes are much stronger than others. For example, Chuck and Skipper’s chapters have proven to be very forgettable, while the entirety of Part Four is now a permanent fixture in my mind. And if I recall correctly, there’s a notable lack of lesbians throughout the book. They’re present of course, but don’t get quite as much screen time. But I don’t think these issues do much to tarnish the book’s value. It still remains a towering literary landmark in the history of gay culture and I encourage everyone to at least give it a try.