Usually my politics would tell me never get involved with 100 best, unless it was cookies,” said Barbara Smith, cofounder of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. But she recently made an exception for the Publishing Triangle’s roundup of the 100 Best Lesbian and Gay Novels.
Smith was one of eight judges who defended the ranking before a packed house at the Mercantile Library last week. The list (on view at www.publishingtriangle.org) is modeled on the Modern Library’s compilation of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, which last year helped revive James Joyce as a hot seller. The top lavender laurels went to Thomas Mann, for Death in Venice. Leading female author Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, at #6, was one of 43 books by women, versus nine on the Modern Library’s list.
The judges, seven men and seven women, were offered 600 possible titles, which they winnowed to 100 over the course of several votes by e-mail. No more than two novels by any single author were permitted, and each judge was allowed to unilaterally add one favorite title.
The result certainly won’t narrow the definition of a gay novel. The list omits names like Reinaldo Arenas, Ann Bannon, Doris Grumbach, Larry Kramer, and Dale Peck, even as it includes writers and tales that aren’t explicitly gay. But, several judges argued, queer is where you find it. Anthony Heilbut, author of The Gospel Sound, voted for Balzac’s Lost Illusions because ”it links sex and social striving in a remarkable way,” even though Balzac himself was ”quite conservative and not homosexual.” Sarah Schulman, whose Rat Bohemia was #59, is a fan of Little Women because Louisa May Alcott’s Jo ”gives you a character to be.”
Others would have preferred more raunch. ”There aren’t enough jack-off titles,” complained David Bergman, author of Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature. Nevertheless, he hoped the list’s variety would enlighten bookstores, libraries, and readers. At the end of the evening, an audience member thanked the group for giving him something to shop for in A Different Light besides porn.