How Queer Theory Shaped the Literary Canon

Of Oscar Wilde’s Trial to the discourse surrounding Virginia Woolf’s affair with Vita Sackville-West, conversations about sexuality have been linked to many big names in literature. But beyond the sexuality of individual authors, homosexuality has played a deeper and often less recognized role in shaping the literary canon, according to scholars in academia who spoke to The Herald.

Queer theory, an academic and literary field, is based on the examination of texts from the angle of their interaction with the notions of gender and sexuality. The domain examines the identity on a spectrum rather than as binaries.

While queerness is often used to refer to all individuals who belong to sexual or gender minorities, it can also be understood as a framework of “non-normativity” that challenges social categories, said Lynne Joyrich, professor of modern culture and media.

Sexuality “makes pre-existing notions of identity problematic and complicated”, added English professor Jacques Khalip, who has written on queer theory.

Through queer theory, readers can “expand our understanding of the mainstream canon” by examining the “in-between spaces” of texts that challenge heteronormativity when not overlooked, he added.

Khalip cited an essay titled “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a pioneer of queer theory, as an example of discovering homoeroticism and sexual complexity in parts of a text previously considered as meeting heteronormative norms.

Homosexuality has also always been present in television culture, Joyrich said, although “depending on your perspective as a viewer, you may or may not have thought of it,” citing the American sitcom “I Love Lucy” as an example. “While I wouldn’t say (best friends Lucy and Ethel) were lesbians, the visual delight in the text was watching the women enjoy each other,” she said.

Recently, homosexuality has been highlighted more explicitly in the media. For example, where Emily Dickinson’s poetry was limited to subliminal homoeroticism, writer Adrienne Rich included overt descriptions of physical and emotional intimacy with her lover in the collection “Twenty-One Love Poems” a century later.

Explicitly queer media featuring openly LGBTQ characters has become increasingly common in recent times, including in films such as “Call Me By Your Name” and shows “Sex Education” and “Schitt’s Creek.”

While the rise in the portrayal of homosexuality in today’s media might seem like substantial progress, it’s more complicated, Khalip said.

“Many researchers have challenged models of reading development that assume that what was opaque now becomes highly readable,” Khalip added. “It’s kind of like a rescue model.”

Some texts in the past dealt with queerness without explicitly describing it, which is not so common anymore, he says. “But I think we also have to be careful not to subscribe to the idea that our present moment is where we can step back and assume that we now see everything very clearly.”

In reality, we might not be able to see things that were visible in the past, Khalip added.

Joyrich also questioned the validity of equating visibility with progress.

“Sometimes visibility can be a two-way sword – sometimes it means people being turned into spectacles, people being objectified or turned into scandals,” she said.

“This idea that we’re always on a line of progress is absolutely not true,” Joyrich said.

In terms of LGBTQ programming for this Pride month, Joyrich recommends TV shows “Work in Progress,” “Killing Eve,” “Vida,” and “I May Destroy You.”

Dixa Ramírez-D’Oleo, an associate professor of English, noted that her research does not focus on queer theory, but that Shola von Reinhold’s “Lote” is an LGBTQ text she would recommend this Pride month. Written by a queer African-Scottish author, the book is “one of the best novels there is, on anything,” she pointed out in an email to the Herald.

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While noting that it is difficult to define “queer literature and media”, Khalip said Hart Crane’s poetry is one of his favorite contributions to the field, although he added that a reader ordinary might not explicitly interpret the text as homoerotic. “He was an early 20th-century American poet who was openly queer at a time when that was impossible,” Khalip explained.

Sharon D. Cole