'Is it a queer book?' : re-reading the 1950s homosexual novel

Dines, Martin (2018) 'Is it a queer book?' : re-reading the 1950s homosexual novel. In: Bentley, Nick , Ferrebe, Alice and Hubble, Nick, (eds.) The 1950s : a decade of modern British fiction. London, U.K. : Bloomsbury Academic. pp. 111-140. (The decades series) ISBN 9781350011519


This chapter examines the proliferation of the ‘homosexual novel’ in Britain in the 1950s. This mode of fiction has broadly been understood to have served first and foremost as a vehicle for arguments for the decriminalization of homosexual relations. I show that these books demand closer attention as their alignment with reformist logic is far from unambiguous. Indeed, I demonstrate how the decade’s homosexual novels variously sustain, evade and problematise the prevailing liberal discourse on homosexuality; I contend that they cannot therefore be recruited straightforwardly to a progressivist history of sexuality. Novels by authors such as Martyn Goff, Rodney Garland and Mary Renault are ambivalent about the principal paradigm for appraising homosexuality in the post-war period, the social problem. Meanwhile, the investment in comedic modes of authors such as Angus Wilson, Michael Nelson and Brigid Brophy helped to shape visions of homosexual life that differed from those produced by mainstream reformist agendas. Further, I argue that all of these works of fiction show a deep investment in pleasure – including pleasures that derive from disreputable narrative modes – which undermines appeals to the respectable, restrained homosexual subject that were central to reformist discourse.

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