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A Few Impressions

Some Books That Defy the Straight White Male Tradition

It includes everyone from Flannery O'Connor to Tony Kushner to Lorrie Moore.

Image by Gerry Weber

Last week I published a portion of my reading list for grad school. Looking back on it, I realised how few women or writers of color I included, and I think it misrepresented the type of work that I’m interested in. So this week, I’ve compiled a list of writers who aren't straight white dudes. I know I've now left out a bunch of other groups, but this is at least an alternative list of books that have been important to me.


1. Walt Whitman – Leaves of Grass (1855)

The godfather of queer lit. I got to study Whitman with the master of Whitman studies—Michael Warner. Check out his “Whitman Drunk” essay.

2. Emily Dickinson – The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1891)

The lonely master. With Whitman, she's one of our American foreparents.

3. Marcel Proust – Swann’s Way (1913)

Just about the best study of a man obsessed (both the character and the writer of the book). I read this thing at least once every three years.

4. Virginia Woolf – Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

A classic.

5. Virginia Woolf – Orlando (1928)

Queer studies at its finest.

6. Hart Crane – White Buildings (1926)

There are some great poems in here. I particularly like,“My Grandmother’s Love Letters” and the “Voyages” series. It was before he got weird and opaque.

7. Hart Crane – The Bridge (1930)

There are some great poems in here too—this is after he got weird and opaque.

8. Jean Genet – Our Lady of the Flowers (1943)

9. Jean Genet – Querelle (1947)

Queer rebel.

10. Dorothy Hughes – In a Lonely Place (1947)

A great mystery/serial killer story that uses perspective in a great way. It was turned into a Bogart film that was directed by Nicholas Ray, starring his ex-wife Gloria Graham. The film's subject is especially interesting, considering that Ray divorced Graham after finding her in bed with his son.

11. Patricia Highsmith – Strangers on a Train (1950)


This is the old "switching places" idea, later turned into a Hitchcock classic. Raymond Chandler worked on a version of the script but didn’t get along with Hitch and was let go.

12. Patricia Highsmith – The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)

The sociopath that we want to love.

13. Carson McCullers – Ballad of the Sad Café (1951)


14. William Burroughs – Junky (1953)

Before Burroughs got weird, he wrote about what he knew the best—heroin. This slim book was published by Carl Solomon, who was institutionalized with Ginsberg, and to whom “Howl” is dedicated.

15. Allen Ginsberg – Howl (1955)

The most famous poem of the 20th century. There are other poems in the book, too.

16. Allen Ginsberg – Kaddish (1961)

A disturbing and moving portrait of his mother going insane.

17. Flannery O'Connor – A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955)

One of the best short stories around. Haunting.

18. Flannery O'Connor – Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (1957)

Essays on writing from a master.

19. James Baldwin – Giovanni’s Room (1956)

A classic.

20. James Baldwin – Sonny's Blues (1957)

A wonderfully structured story, recommended by one of my best teachers, Robert Boswell.

21. Truman Capote – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958)

Very different from the movie. A beautiful little gem.

22. Truman Capote – In Cold Blood (1965)

The prose master turns his sights on true crime and creates a new genre.

23. Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)



24. Sylvia Plath – The Colossus and Other Poems (1962)

The poems—great.

25. Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar (1963)

The prose—great.

26. Sylvia Plath – Ariel (1966)

More great sad poems.

27. Sylvia Plath – Crossing the Water (1971)

I think these were published after her suicide.

28. John Reichy – City of Night (1963)

A classic of street hustling, and an influence on Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho.

29. Frank O'Hara – Lunch Poems (1964)

The best of the “I did this, and then I did that,” kind of poems, like “The Day Lady Died.” A beautiful confection of a book that could be read once a day.

30. Frank O'Hara – The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara (1971)

More great poetry.

31. Michel Foucault – Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1964)

Some theory that influenced everything after.

32. Michel Foucault – Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975)

Some theory that influenced everything after.

33. Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation (1966)

Sontag is the master reader of art and life.

34. Susan Sontag – On Photography (1977)

A early examination of how we live now—in order to photograph. We take trips, do things, meet people, in order to photograph everything and to have a record.

35. Susan Sontag – Illness as Metaphor (1978)


36. Susan Sontag – AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989)

An extension of the above, dealing with AIDS.

37. Susan Sontag – The Way We Live Now (1991)


More about AIDS.

38. Susan Sontag – Regarding the Pain of Others (2003)

An extension of the above.

39. S.E. Hinton – The Outsiders (1967)

How did she write this in high school?

40. Marianne Moore – Complete Poems (1967)

A master poet.

41. Toni Morrison – The Bluest Eye (1970)

One of our living masters.

42. Toni Morrison – Song of Solomon (1977)

Wacky, poignant, disturbing, and moving.

43. Toni Morrison – Beloved (1987)

A classic as important as The Grapes of Wrath or Moby Dick.

44. Frank Bidart – Golden State (1973)

The first book by my dear friend, it contains “Herbert White.”

45. Frank Bidart – The Book of the Body (1977)

The second book, it contains the great “Ellen West.”

46. Frank Bidart – The Sacrifice (1983)

More good stuff. Dark.

47. Frank Bidart – In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965–90 (1990)

You can see the Ginsberg influence in the title. He has Lowell in one hand and Allen in the other.

48. Frank Bidart – Desire (1997)

More good stuff. Still dark.

49. Frank Bidart – Music Like Dirt (2002)

More dark.

50. Frank Bidart – Star Dust (2005)


51. Frank Bidart – Watching the Spring Festival (2008)

The master still has it.

52. Frank Bidart – Metaphysical Dog (2013)

An incredible book that should have won every award out there.

53. Louise Gluck – The Garden (1976)

54. Louise Gluck – The Triumph of Achilles (1985)

55. Louise Gluck – Ararat (1990)

56. Louise Gluck – The Wild Iris (1992)


57. Louise Gluck – Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry (1995)

58. Louise Gluck – Averno (2006)

59. Louise Gluck – A Village Life (2009)

60. Louise Gluck – Poems: 1962-2012 (2012)

Bidart's dear friend and a master lyricist.

61. Elizabeth Bishop – Geography III (1977)

Bidart’s other big influence. Her best book—a game changer.

62. Elizabeth Bishop – The Complete Poems: 1927–1979 (1983)

More goodness.

63. Marilynne Robinson – Housekeeping (1980)

An old school practitioner of great American writing.

64. Vito Russo – The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (1981)

A history of gay representation in film.

65. Mona Simpson – Anywhere But Here (1986)

My old teacher at UCLA. This is her own childhood, told through fiction. Great.

66. Lorrie Moore – Like Life (1990)

Some of the best short stories around.

67. Judith Butler – Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990)

A classic in gender studies and my mother’s childhood friend in Ohio.

68. Michael Warner – The Letters of the Republic (1990)

My teacher’s old dissertation turned into a book.

69. Michael Warner – Fear of a Queer Planet (1993)


70. Michael Warner – The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (1999)

An alternative take on where we’re going with all this gay marriage stuff and beyond.

71. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick – Epistemology of the Closet (1991)

A master of queer theory.


72. John Cheever – Journals (1991)

The master short story writer writes about his own life.

73. Tony Kushner – Angels in America (1991)

A classic in line with Death of a Salesman, Streetcar, Long Day’s Journey, and August: Osage County.

74. Thom Gunn – The Man with the Night Sweats (1992)

One of the best contemporary poets.

75. E. Annie Proulx – The Shipping News (1993)

A master.

76. E. Annie Proulx – Close Range: Wyoming Stories (1999)

Dark stories.

77. E. Annie Proulx – Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 (2004)


78. E. Annie Proulx – Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3 (2008)


79. Grace Paley – The Collected Stories of Grace Paley (1994)

A New Yorker through and through. You’ll fall in love with these.

80. Mark Doty – Atlantis (1995)

One of the best contemporary poets.

81. Chris Kraus – I Love Dick (1997)

A great bit of cross genre.

82. Michael Cunningham – The Hours (1998)

The Pulitzer-winning classic by my old teacher and friend.

83. Anne Carson – Autobiography of Red (1998)

Cross-genre genius.

84. Anne Carson – Nox (2010)


85. Katherine Hayles – How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999)

Theory about how we interact with technology.

86. Katherine Hayles – How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis and Writing Machines (2012)

A follow-up to the above.

87. Alice Munro – Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001)


A master of short stories.

88. Gabrielle Calvocoressi – The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart (2005)

A great young poet and teacher. What passion.

89. Amy Hempel – The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel (2006)

One of my favorite teachers. A protégé of Gordon Lish.

90. Wendy Chun – Control and Freedom (2006)

Theory about the internet and how it frees us and enchains us.

91. Antonya Nelson – Some Fun Stories and a Novella (2006).

A very serious writer.

92. Deborah Eisenberg – Twilight of the Superheroes: Stories (2007)

Great short stories.

93. Deborah Eisenberg – The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg (2010)

She’s married to Wally Shawn—you know, the little guy from The Princess Bride and Gossip Girl.

94. Maggie Nelson – Bluets (2009)

Experimental and moving.

95. Lydia Davis – The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (2009)

A master of the short form. These are almost like little performances on paper.

96. Stacey D’Erasmo – The Sky Below (2009)

My former teacher. So good.

97. Stacey D’Erasmo – Wonderland (2014)

Her newest. Also read her book on intimacy.

98. Jennifer Egan – A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010)

The Pulitzer-winning new classic about the music business.