Primo Levi, the greatest document-arian of the Nazi genocide, once wrote that the survivors of Auschwitz, like himself, were not the true witnesses of the Holocaust. “The true witnesses, those in possession of the terrible truth, are the drowned, the submerged, the annihilated.” You can say much the same of AIDS, a plague that wiped out some of the brightest and greatest of a generation — and continues to devastate lives, albeit against a growing sense of hope that it may soon be vanquished. But faced with a disease of appalling suffering, and with a society and government that largely shunned them, writers and artists living with HIV and AIDS have bequeathed us some transcendent writing. For our 25th-anniversary issue, we invited Richard Canning, editor of Vital Signs: Essential AIDS Fiction, to select and discuss 25 of the best literary works to explore AIDS and HIV.
This isn’t the best novel about the syndrome — but, alongside Armistead Maupin’s Babycakes (1984) from the Tales of the City series, it has a claim to being among the very first creative responses published. Raw, moving, and honest as Reed instigates a new genre.
With few precedents, English author Mars-Jones and the American author of A Boy’s Own Story set out in these powerful stories to humanize not only those with HIV/AIDS but also those affected by it, afraid of it, or grieving because of it. You need the expanded second edition (1988). White’s “An Oracle” is a masterpiece.
Before Susan Sontag had even considered how to write responsibly about the epidemic — her AIDS and Its Metaphors first appeared in 1989 — Dreuilhe had published this widely overlooked visceral account of mortal combat with the syndrome, published as Corps a Corps (1987) in French. He unwittingly broke all Sontag’s rules, winningly deploying a series of military metaphors. Dreuilhe also radically described his own illness as a mental, not physical condition, since the key themes of the memoir are isolation, alienation, and anguish.
One of very few AIDS best sellers, ever. Monette’s memoir may at times feel gushy, but for many it has stood the test of time. On publication, The New York Times described it as having “the leanness and urgency of war reporting,” and it has lost none of its force in the intervening years. To his own astonishment, Monette survived long enough to write a half-dozen more AIDS-themed books.
This collection of the acclaimed author’s Christopher Street essays was later reworked into the bigger, easier-to-find Chronicle of a Plague, Revisited: AIDS and Its Aftermath (2008). Originally written out of fear and impotence, as Holleran struggled with the idea that anyone could ever write fiction about AIDS, these poignant, poetic reports from the first and most terrible years remain essential reading.
The funniest, smartest, deftest debut novel by a contemporary gay author, period. Somehow it didn’t become a best seller: everyone’s loss. Weir perfected the book by reading it aloud; it has much of a great comic’s timing and verve. You also need his What I Did Wrong (2006), which described his role as caretaker to his friend, David Feinberg. Equally accomplished, Feinberg’s Eighty-sixed (1989) is a breezy account of life before and after the epidemic hit.
A radical rethink of what AIDS fiction could be, it featured sketches, diagrams, and maps alongside Maso’s impeccable prose. She positioned the epidemic within our idea of contemporary America, not somehow beyond it — and dared to make grief her (de-) structuring principle.
Schulman was among the first AIDS activists to channel her experiences into literature, and her fourth book is just about the truest account of NYC activist politics, even though it is fiction. Her Rat Bohemia (1995) runs it close. Also: Don’t miss Stagestruck (1998), which showed how the musical Rent “prettied up” the plot of PIT to make its rock-era La Bohème rewrite palatable for the mainstream.
If you ask writers whom they revere among “AIDS writers,” Barnett’s name comes up most often. He scarcely lived long enough to see his only book come into print — and wrote nothing else. The prose is beautiful; the characterization sophisticated and diverse. In “The Times as It Knows Us,” Barnett captured illness, fear, and loss in the gay community — but equally the stigma and indifference in mainstream culture, including the supposed newspaper of record.
Precocious French talent turned to the syndrome that would kill him — but not before he penned a stream of equally subversive HIV-related titles, with its informal sequel The Compassion Protocol (1993), Paradise (1996), and Cytomegalovirus: A Hospitalization Diary (1996) all highly recommended. A sort of unreliable, decadent, latter-day Journal of the Plague Year: transgressive, breathless, and defiant.
This isn’t an anthology, strictly speaking. It’s a verse collection like no other, featuring more than 50 poems by 10 men with AIDS who took part in a creative-writing group Hadas led for Gay Men’s Health Crisis. You’ll never have heard of this book, sadly. But once read, never forgotten.
Play scripts are tough — the emotional punch packed by William Hoffman’s As Is (1985) and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart (1985) demands to be felt in the theater. But Kushner’s two-part project of unequaled ambition remains so profound as a “gay fantasia on national themes” that it also demands to be read — and re-read.
Doty’s groundbreaking third poetry collection mixed poems clearly addressing HIV with others gesturing toward loss, despair, destruction, and even the apocalypse. The title references the great, gay, Greek poet Cavafy and his home city. This and his more challenging collection, Atlantis (1995), are best read alongside Doty’s remarkable prose account of the demise of his partner, Heaven’s Coast (1996).
Another one that got away. If you only know of the underground drug networks through the film Dallas Buyers Club, try this title instead. It’s a moving, finely written account of a young Hollywood whiz kid’s early diagnosis and subsequent move into smuggling, concocting, and distributing.
Only the Brits got the novel as Peck intended it to be titled (it is Fucking Martin in the U.K.). Something between a collection of stories and a single story line, it’s challenging, postmodern, self-aware, and highly lyrical. Several of Peck’s subsequent novels and short stories have also addressed HIV/AIDS, each in a different way. His debut is where to start.
Brown’s prose is pared back to absolute essentials, intentionally refusing to signpost her narrator’s emotional highs and lows, or to coerce the reader into obvious responses. Technically fictional, TGOTB was based on Brown’s experiences as a care worker in an AIDS hospice.
Brace yourselve — this novelistic update of Sophocles’s Trojan-era tragedy Philoctetes is — sort of — relocated to 1980s gay Manhattan. Read it to understand why author Paul Russell celebrated the recently deceased Merlis’s “willingness to take astonishing risks.”
Every Hollinghurst novel has responded to AIDS somehow. But this — his fourth, a deserved winner of the Man Booker Prize — addressed it most directly. Expect echoes of Fitzgerald, James, and Anthony Powell in this nonetheless utterly contemporary masterpiece. Also, Margaret Thatcher gets a walk-on role.
Scarcely known, shockingly, outside Wright’s native New Zealand, this brilliant book and its near-sequel Terra Incognito (2006) speak of dancer-choreographer Wright’s global career, his return to Auckland, his battles with addiction and ill health, and, ultimately, his determination to channel his experience back into “AIDS choreography.” Inspiring and instructive.
Smash Cut is a heartbreaking account of Gooch’s arrival in ’70s New York and his courtship of would-be film director Howard Brookner: the fun, the decadence, the screwups…and then the tragedy. Edmund White put it this way: “So glamorous, so sexy, and so devastating, this love story will be the gay picture of the ’70s/’80s.”
In his debut novel, Koolaids (1998), the Lebanese-American author daringly compared the fight against AIDS in San Francisco to civil war in Lebanon. Alameddine’s 2016 novel — set in the waiting room of a psychiatric clinic — features Yemeni-born poet Jacob reminiscing over his time on the West Coast during the worst years of the epidemic, as Satan urges him on his storytelling, while Death urges him to give up the struggle to live.
If you have time for just one nonfictional account of the American epidemic’s history, this is it. It follows France’s 2012 documentary of the same name — but there’s so much more here. Still picking up awards and acclaim as I write. This can finally undo all the distortions and prejudice in Randy Shilts’s popular history And the Band Played On.