Madonna and Oscar Wilde have more in common than their status as icons of the LGBT+ community: they’re both authors of ‘obscene’ works. After 136 years of censorship, Oxford University is opening its restricted collection—one of the world’s largest—to the public in a historic exhibition.
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Though her pop star persona has somehow eclipsed her literary career, Madonna is the author of controversial coffee-table book Sex. The carefully curated collection of erotic and soft-core photos landed her a spot in the Oxford Bodleian Library’s restricted collection alongside author superstars D.H. Lawrence and Oscar Wilde. Lawrence achieved lasting notoriety for his novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the distinctly not soft-core tale of an unsatisfied paraplegic’s wife… and her trysts with the estate gardener. The novel was famously subject to an intense obscenity trial: the copy from the trial itself recently sold for a record-breaking $72,689.
Wilde never wrote anything so overtly sexual, but at one point, society deemed his work obscene. The Picture of Dorian Gray faced controversy for its homosexual elements. In Oscar Wilde’s own sodomy trial, accusers used his work as evidence to convict him. Wilde’s imprisonment (and his work’s original placement in the restricted collection) is yet another example of how society has historically conflated homosexuality with deviancy.
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Curator Jennifer Ingleheartacknowledgesthe censorship and misjudgments of the past, and she has created the exhibit to explore “how ideas about sexuality and suitable reading material have changed over time.” The ideas Victorian librarians had about suitable reading material were, in a word, Victorian (read: prudish). These are the kinds of ideas that cause restricted sections. Somewhat unbelievably, Oxford University students (otherwise known as real adults) had until recently needed a tutor’s approval to access the collection. Starting on November 15, 2018, the Bodleian Library’s ‘obscene works’ will be available to the public for eight weeks.
October is LGBTQIA+ History Month, which means it’s time to celebrate the stories so many writers and individuals have been (and sometimes still are) unable to tell. These five novels have persisted through ruthless bans and censorship efforts to fill our hearts and our bookcases.
It’s important to note that this list does not address the full history of LGBTQIA+ literature. Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs. Dalloway, published as far back as 1925, features a bisexual protagonist who reflects on her relationships with men and a young female flame— of course, Woolf does not call her bisexual. It’s perhaps for that reason that this book has been controversial more for its inclusion of mental illness than for its bisexual elements. Another of Woolf’s works, Orlando, features a protagonist whose gender abruptly changes halfway through the novel. This book also faced little controversy— perhaps the public saw this change in gender as more of a metaphor than a nuanced commentary on gender identity. The term ‘transgender’ as we know it did not exist before the1960s, though gender-nonconforming individuals were definitely present.
One of the most famous writers of all time, decadent intellectual Oscar Wilde reminds us of his wit, charisma, and tragic imprisonment. A notoriously well-dressed and charming member of the era’s wealthy intelligentsia, Wilde suffered a terrible decline at the end of his lifetime. Two years of hard labor and imprisonment laid waste to his health, psyche, and bank account. Destitute at the time of his death, Wilde himself said: “I can write, but have lost the joy of writing.” His crime? Homosexuality. Wilde was the subject of two sodomy trials in 1895, and he died at the age of forty-six— only three years after the end of his sentence. The courts used Wilde’s own works as evidence to convict him. Though the novel’s homoerotic passages contributed to its author’s imprisonment, The Picture of Dorian Grayremains a crucial part of Wilde’s enduring legacy.
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The novel focuses on young, attractive aristocrat Dorian Gray, whose soul is trapped within a portrait. As Gray sinks further into decadence and cruelty, he remains outwardly unchanged… but the new, visceral ugliness in the portrait shows what Gray has become. The Picture of Dorian Grayfaced heavy criticism in its time. Contemporary newspapers called it “heavy with… the odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction.” In 1891, Wilde revised the original publication for its formal book released, removing the more homoerotic chapters. Fortunately, after over 120 years, the uncensored original text is now available to the public. As one of the original edits was the removal of the word ‘mistress,’ it seems Wilde’s intent was to present Gray as bisexual.
Best known for his novel A Passage to India, E.M. Forster secretly wrote this novel depicting a loving homosexual relationship. As he feared the controversy his work may face, particularly as a gay man himself, he kept the work hidden with specific instructions that it must only receive posthumous publication. Attitudes at the time were so negative that Forster concealed his own desires for many years, not acting on his homosexuality until the age of twenty-seven. Though he wrote the work from 1913-1914 as a much younger man, the public did not read it until after his death. Famously, his final comment on the manuscript reads: “Publishable. But worth it?”
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Maurice is a groundbreaking work beyond its gay elements, featuring working class characters and situations that other historical gay writers, including Oscar Wilde, did not address. More importantly, it also gives gay characters happy endings. The ‘Bury Your Gays‘ trope, a phenomenon in which authors often kill LGBTQIA+ characters (or shower them with endless misfortune) is sadly commonplace in historic and contemporary works of fiction. This pessimistic viewpoint suggests that to be LGBTQIA+ is only ever awful, that these characters and people don’t get happy endings. Forster, conversely, regards homosexual love as one of the deepest forms of connection— as opposed to relationships with the motive of procreation, homosexuality’s “only purpose is love, so it can result in a spiritual union between two people.”
James Baldwin‘s impressive novel about an American man’s overseas affair with another man (Parisian bartender Giovanni) almost didn’t exist. When Baldwin himself arrived arrived in Paris in 1948 with no more than $41 to his name, he sought refuge from the bigotry of the United States, a place where he felt his writing came second to his race. Baldwin’s agent would eventually confirm these fears, telling him to burn the manuscript over fears that his sexuality would further alienate his audience.
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Baldwin’s novel explores themes of alienation reminiscent of Nella Larsen‘sPassing, the Harlem Renaissance story of a black protagonist with a lighter skin color that enables her to ‘pass’ as a white person. Giovanni’s Room also comments upon the eternal catch-22 of marginalized identities— concealing them may, at times, be safer… but it can also be infinitely damaging. The novel stands the test of time as a complex portrait of homosexuality and bisexuality.
The depiction of Celie’s sexual identity is unambiguous; Walker writes that Celie and lover Shug “kiss and kiss til [they] can hardly kiss no more.” (And no, it doesn’t stop there.) It’s a queer story, but it’s also so much more. Protagonist Celie is an illiterate black woman, pregnant at 14-years-old— not the kind of character canonized literature typically includes. The novel boldly depicts the transformative power of love, showing how love can make the powerless powerful in the end. While the novel has ranked on the Top 100 Banned & Challenged Books List, Walker’s story remains a powerful tale of underrepresented characters.
It’s difficult to imagine that a ‘historic classic’ could have been published within our own century. But up until this unique moment in time, both intersex and transgender stories have not been a part of the literary canon. When it comes to published books, they’ve hardly existed at all— despite the millions of people who live these stories daily. Jeffrey Eugenides‘ novel, winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, brought explorations of gender identity into public eye and onto bookshelves around the world. Texas prisons have banned the book due to its supposedly controversial subject matter.
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Intersex protagonist Cal’s parents raised him to be a girl. When he discovers his male genetics, he comes to embrace what he feels is his true identity. Eugenides’ bildungsroman is a novel of uncertain dichotomies (male and female, Greek and American, nature and nurture, present and future) and the nebulous space between two binary opposites. The novel opens: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” These words address the oft-unheard voices of those throughout the world whose gender identities may not always correspond with their bodies.
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It’s incredibly important to note that this list does not address the full spectrum of LGBTQIA+ identities. Some identities, including pansexuality, asexuality, nonbinary genders, and many more, are only recently entering a larger public consciousness. As such, there are few overt depictions of such identities in classic works of literature. Likely, that will change in time. Maybe you will even be the one to change it.
Readers everywhere have often experienced the profound, baffling, and exciting experience of trying to find more novels written by your favorite author just to realize there are none.
When we think of novels and the ways in which they have shaped our literary minds and the world around us, it can be quite baffling to realize that the incredible, shocking, and intense nature of the novel isn’t always followed up by another work.
While many novelists, from Jane Austen to Stephen King, are known for their variety of works, here are some famous authors who have only published a single novel.
Published in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye was immediately thrust into the spotlight for its haunting coming-of-age portrayal of Holden Caulfield, an angsty rebellious teen who managed to both resonate with many readers and offend others. The Catcher in the Rye, which has frequently been banned by schools all over the country, was Salinger’s only novel.
He also released an array of novellas and short stories including the novella Franny and Zooey, and his collection of short stories Nine Stories (1953), which featured “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “The Laughing Man.” Salinger published his last written work, the novella Hapworth 16, 1924 in 1965. He passed away in January of 2010, leaving us with the legacy of The Catcher in the Rye.
Published in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray was written during the Victorian Era and challenged its rigid sexual and ethical norms by portraying a seductive young man whose narcissism and scandalous behavior becomes his downfall. Though the novel’s editor reportedly removed 500 provocative words from the unpublished manuscript, the blatant sexual tones, homosexual undertones, and depictions of violent crime were met with controversy and criticism.
While Oscar Wilde wrote an array of short stories and plays, notably The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray was his only novel and he passed away just ten years after it was published.
Published in 1847 under the pseudonym “Ellis Bell,” Wuthering Heights was met with mixed reviews. It was criticized for the selfishness of its characters, however garnered praise for its originality and the power of the author.
While the title is considered a classic today and is praised by readers and critics alike, Brontë was unable to experience the positive reception in her lifetime, dying just one year after the novels release.
Published in 1963 under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas,” The Bell Jar offers fans a haunting representaion of mental illness. The novel is centered around a protagonist who falls into a spiral of insomnia, depression, anxiety, and more. The semi-autobiographical novel presented an honest and unflinching portrayal of the protagonists descent and gave readers an insight into the Plath herself who used her real-life experiences as inspiration.
Plath tragically died roughly one month after the novel’s release. She was working on a second novel, Double Exposure, at the time of her death but the unfinished novel disappeared after Plath’s husband inherited her estate. Along with a collection of short stories and much poetry, The Bell Jar remains Plath’s only published novel.
Published in 1997, Memoirs of A Geisha was a long-time coming, having been written over the course of 6 years. Golden became inspired by Geisha culture while living in Japan and meeting an individual whose mother was a geisha in her younger days. The time it took to complete the novel was partially due to Golden shifting the novel’s perspective back and forth between third-person and first-person and destroying two drafts before his final unpublished draft, he told CNN.
The 6 years paid off as Memoirs of A Geisha spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list. Though the novel was a popular success, and was adapted into Academy-Award winning film, Golden never published another book.
Published in 1957, Doctor Zhivago barely made the cut, having been written under Soviet rule. The novel was originally rejected from USSR publishers because of its challenging of socialism and many of the cultural norms of the Soviet Union.
The novel exists today because Pasternak smuggled the manuscript out of the Soviet Union and into Milan. The novel earned Pasternak a Nobel Prize in 1958, two years before his death. While Doctor Zhivago wasn’t his only written work, it remains his only novel published.
Published in 1952, The Invisible Man brought issues of racial identity, perception, and division to print. It’s startling depictions were met with acclaim from critics and readers alike, and it won the US National Book Award in 1953.
Invisible Man remains Ellison’s only novel published during his lifetime until his death in 1994. Before his death he was working on a second novel, Juneteenth, however a fire destroyed the original manuscript.. Ellison re-wrote a partial manuscript beofre his death and the novel was finished by editors John Callahan and Adam Bradley. It was published in 2010 with a new title, Three Days Before the Shooting.
Oscar Wilde was undeniably one of the wittiest people of all time. I don’t make the rules. His repertoire of funny quotes is vast, so I’ve gone ahead and narrowed down my top ten favorite Oscar Wilde quotes.
1. “Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.”
2. “The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself.”
3. “Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike.”
4. “The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything.”
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5. “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.”
6. “You can never be overdressed or overeducated.”
7. “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”
8. “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
9. “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
10. “Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing.”
Lionsgate have announced that Annie Clark, A.K.A St. Vincent, rock star extraordinaire, will direct an upcoming adaptation of Irish writer Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
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Variety reports that Clark will direct the female-led production, with David Birke writing the script. Birke penned Paul Verhoeven’s film “Elle,” for which Isabelle Huppert was nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars.
At the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Clark debuted her short film “Birthday Party,” as a part of the female-driven “XX” horror anthology. She co-wrote, scored and directed the film. In 2015, Clarke’s album ‘St. Vincent’ won the Grammy for Best Alternative Album. She has also received the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award and the Q Maverick award, both given for outstanding innovation in the arts.
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Given how multi-talented Clark has already proven herself to be, we are super excited to see what she does with Wilde’s classic tale of vanity, decadence and obsession.
Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ has been brought to the silver screen a number of times since it was first published in 1890, most recently in 2009, starring Ben Barnes and Colin Firth.