There are some unspoken ideas that have been fueling this series since its inception—ideas about reading closely, creatively, and with an eye to finding, celebrating, and also problematizing the queer in a given text. Those ideas are a hybrid of the ways of reading that we tend to call “queer theory” over in academia and a sense of the vital importance of sharing and communicating about queer stuff from an activist standpoint. I haven’t had much impetus to pull those underlying structures out and talk them over, yet, but now I think I might.
I’ve recently read a book that I think might be fun for those readers who enjoy the work this series has been doing and want to dig deeper into the frameworks inspiring it, and that book is Donald E. Hall’s Queer Theories. It’s probably one of the best short introductions to queer theory I’ve read in a long while—accessible, intriguing, and open to any reader who likes to think about the ways they read now, and more ways to potentially try to read in the future.
Plus, the applied readings section of the book is full of speculative fiction of varying sorts—Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Woolf’s Orlando, among others.
I was pretty amused to find that the section where Hall does his model “queer readings” was so very speculative. Though this book makes no mention of genre—Hall is more concerned with giving the reader an idea of the bigger structures of reading with any kind of text—there is a certain implication that speaks to me as a reader about the utility of the speculative for queer narratives. Certainly I could quote a ton of Joanna Russ about the whys and wherefores of the link between the queer and the speculative here, but I think if you’ve been reading this series, you probably already agree.
But when we read speculative fiction queerly, what are we doing? How are we doing it? What received ideas about the act of reading and the proper way to do analysis are we participating in? Queer Theories offers an accessible set of answers to these questions, and then some.
The book is written for an audience that is presumed to be potentially straight and likely students—but it’s not condescending. Instead, this consideration of audience provokes Hall to give a great deal of detail and context for his exploration of how what we now call queer theory developed and the differing strands of criticism that went into it, as well as what might be missing. The text’s arrangement is as playful as the theory that Hall is talking about, too; after each chapter he writes “A Query” (hah) exploring further implications and questions that the reader might come away with.
Hall begins with “A Brief, Slanted History of ‘Homosexual’ Activity,” dealing with the historical context of queer identity and how the possibility for sexual identification has developed more recently in the West. It’s important to tackle history first because the idea of anachronistic reading is a barrier for lots of folks to doing “queer” work with texts—but, as Hall points out, it’s quite possible to do historically accurate queer readings of texts that were created before “queer” was, so long as the reader deals with the actual structures of identity available in that time period. You’ll note, in my mentions of the West and historical accuracy, that Hall is problematizing everything he claims—a very queer move, and also one that ends up giving a reader new to this stuff a full conceptualization of this set of theories as fairly heterogeneous and in conflict all over the place.
Next, he moves to two chapters that are more contemporary: “Who and What is ‘Queer?’” and “Queering Class, Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation.” The first of those gives a contextualized history, full of useful quotes, of the various strands of queer theory—who was writing, what they said, how we’ve come to adopt many of those practices, et cetera. For the reader who likes to think about writing, reading, and thinking, this section is kind of a blast; you might end up with quite a “to-read” list afterwards. However, the next section is the one that makes me recommend the book, though I liked the rest plenty well. In it, Hall problematizes all of the things that queer theory (up to 2003, when this was written) has missed, ignored, or explored inaccurately. It’s not utopia, over here—white queer readers can make just as many mistakes about race as the next white person, for example. Hall also deals with trans* critiques of queer theory and discusses the ways that critics would do better to acknowledge more about gender in their “queerings.” I appreciate greatly his intentional consideration of the critiques various folks have made of the project of queer theory (though he’s not afraid to critique the critique, as he does in a few cases when the critic in question makes wide generalizations that he disagrees with). Even when he thinks the actual critique is problematic, though, Hall still willingly engages with the ideas inspiring it, and explains the issue to the reader.
Then, we get a section of readings, dealing with various ways that we might read texts queerly; that’s a fun how-to, and speaks to some of the ways that I’ve been reading and analyzing texts in this space for some time. The speculative stories there are of the kind that provokes all kinds of readings—not just queer—so it’s enjoyable to see the contrast of how one might read “The Yellow Wall-Paper” as a ghost story (Russ) or a proto-queer story (Hall) or a feminist parable. Finally, Hall closes on a “Post-Queer?” section, discussing the ways that theory might go in the future.
Oh, but then there’s one more thing: an annotated bibliography of books on queer stuff! Half of which I haven’t read! Books that lead me to buy more books are kind of my favorite.
Overall, I recommend Hall’s book to any reader who wants a good background in queer reading theories and who likes to think about the way that they constitute identity when they read. Thinking about slash fanfic, and fandom, and the reading of queerness into putatively straight texts? Hall’s got some answers for you, and even more questions. Want to consider the ways that activism inspires reading, and politics fuels creativity? There’s a whole lot about that—Hall’s happy to concede that activists always do it first, and theorists come to it later.
There are longer, more in-depth books out there, certainly. Many of them are in the annotated bibliography. But, for its clarity, conciseness, depth and range, I give Hall’s introductory reader a gold star. In a small space, in understandable and open prose, he manages to give the reader a complex view of queer theory in a way that will, hopefully, open up a world of potential further reading to the person who gets curious about the critics mentioned.
And that world of ways of reading and thinking about reading is the one that “Queering SFF” is pretty firmly situated in. So, there’s the structure that’s hiding behind the work here: it’s a structure that’s concerned with politics, power, and the politics and power of texts. I hope you have fun looking at it and, possibly, applying it in your own reading.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.