Queer novelty: reading publics and canon formation in 20th century US fiction




Wallace, Laura Knowles

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Queer Novelty investigates the reception histories of four mid-twentieth-century novels that are now read as LGBTQ+ fiction in order to demonstrate how popular reading contributes to and complicates the constitution of gay and lesbian literature as a category in the academy and how early- to mid-twentieth-century print networks provided a framework for today’s digitally networked LGBTQ+ culture. Queer Novelty tracks the reception histories of four novels: Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles, and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. The archive for these histories encompasses scholarly analyses; reviews from newspapers and magazines; and online discussions on Goodreads and Amazon. Queer Novelty argues that reception studies demonstrate the force and effects of literary texts more fully than close reading, literary theory, or historical context alone, because reception study includes and accounts for shifts and variations in public reading practices and literary circulation. Queer Novelty brings together the investments of queer theory and affect theory, the methods of reception studies, and the writing practices of feminist criticism to demonstrate the possibilities of fiction reading in contemporary US culture. Chapter 1, “Thinking We Know Them, What Do We Know?” establishes the methodological framework for the project, focused on my theory of reading as public. Chapter 1 examines arguments for LGBTQ+ literature as a category, from Donald Webster Cory’s The Homosexual in America to discussions on Twitter and Tumblr in the 2010s. Chapter 2 reveals the feedback loop between popular and academic reception through the history of Nightwood, a canonical modernist text and a central text for queer female counterpublics. In Chapter 3, my analysis of Two Serious Ladies’ publication and reception histories is an investigation into the changing horizons of expectation that make yesterday’s odd novel today’s cult classic. In Chapter 4, I analyze the reception history of Giovanni’s Room and of Baldwin as a public intellectual to demonstrate how expectations about “gay literature” as a category have changed. Queer Novelty demonstrates that mid-20th century public cultures around books performed the groundwork necessary to keep them circulating, so that canons could be expanded when LGBTQ+ studies reached universities.



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