Academic journal article College English

LGBT Literature Courses and Questions of Canonicity

Academic journal article College English

LGBT Literature Courses and Questions of Canonicity

Article excerpt

At the end of the spring 2012 semester, four students in their first year at my two-year institution asked me to teach an independent study course on the contemporary gay male American novel the following fall. I'd always wanted to teach such a course, and one of the more malleable selections-English 283, A Figure or Figures in Literature-allowed for such development. But as I began designing the course, an intimidating list of authors, novels, and perspectives came to mind. After considering many options, I started with three landmarks: Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar (1948), James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956), and Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City (1978). Then I floundered, for I've read many such novels, but I wasn't sure which merited teaching. Indeed, particular lists of authors and texts determine the content of many survey classes, and history and tradition argue that little disagreement exists over the notion that some works and authors are considered more indispensable than others. Still, instructors are also impelled to seek out texts that test or extend standard assumptions about the nature of literature and the literary, such as for more specialized courses including those on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender/transsexual (LGBT) literature. Is it possible, then, to speak of a canon of LGBT literature? If so, who would be included in such a canon, and what are the themes and theories driving the selection of these texts and writers? A

During its short and rather tense history, LGBT studies has infiltrated discussions of what it means to queer text selection, pedagogy, and curricula by means of questioning hegemonic practices, binary oppositions, and absolute truths. Since these discussions began in the 1960s and 1970s alongside calls for broader multicultural representations in literary, cultural, and social histories, scholars have solicited and communicated a variety of "best practices" when identifying and teaching these texts. At this time, in a presentation delivered at the 1972 NCTE Convention, Rictor Norton detailed the syllabus of his course The Homosexual Literary Tradition, offered through Florida State University's free university program in 1971. Norton included an extensive reading list from the ancient Greeks through contemporary novels such as James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room and John Rechy's City of Night. He also divided the course into units including The Pastoral-Mythological Tradition, Perversity, and Lesbian Literature, for which he provided teaching strategies for those facing cynical and defiant students. For example, he warns instructors to anticipate a politically conservative enrollment seeking to undermine all course objectives and productive discussions. Therefore, on the first day they must "debunk the notion that homosexual love is essentially inferior to or different from heterosexual love. Encourage the students to express their opinions frankly; let a heated argument begin; then debunk the whole argument" (678). On the second day, they must "debunk the notion that homosexual literature is essentially inferior to or different from heterosexual literature. Try to lessen the influence of preconceived critical theories just as you tried to lessen the influence of little-understood moral theories" (678). From the beginning, then, Norton implores teachers to disrupt generally accepted and unquestioned dominant heterosexual discourses in order to provide alternative ways of reading and knowing.

Norton's invitation to "debunk" more established schools of thought expands to a more reactionary rhetoric, for his emphasis on appropriate strategies for teaching The Homosexual Literary Tradition stems from its own tradition of censorship, scholarly suppression, and accusations of psychopathology. Shortly following this publication, he and Louie Crew contended with this "homophobic imagination" (272) as guest editors of the November 1974 special issue of College English on "The Homosexual Imagination":

In this particular issue of College English we have only obliquely exposed the lack of professional standards exhibited by traditional scholarship on homosexual literature, for at the moment we are concerned with the practical possibilities of teaching what has not become lost, strayed, or stolen, but we must begin to appreciate the extent to which academic publishing, research, and library services have contributed to the excommunication of homosexual literary history. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.