Introduction to Comparative Queer Literary Studies

Dr. Petra Dierkes-Thrun

Lecturer in Comparative Literature, Stanford University

This course focuses on the comparative literary study of important gay, lesbian, queer, bisexual, and transgender writers and their changing social, political, and cultural contexts from the 1890s to today, discussed in the context of 20th- and 21st-century feminist and queer literary and social theories of gender and sexuality.  The aim of this class is to introduce you to some of the major critical debates in literary studies as well as in gender and sexuality studies, as they apply to, and are illuminated or sometimes uniquely complicated by, the study of modern LGBTQ literature. The focus is on the literature in dialogue with central literary studies questions and principled discussions about literary approaches with a specific focus on various examples of queer literature, with literary works ranging from the 1880s to today. We’ll also read some short texts by important literary/cultural and queer theorists, but the theory will always be in direct dialogue with our literary texts and help illuminate them.

Some of the questions we will ask and debate are: what role can, should, or shouldn’t biographical information about an author play in the interpretation of a literary work? For example, what’s the benefit and danger of the author’s biographical information for the interpretation?  How do the texts we read navigate the historical constraints and paradoxically liberating qualities of the closet?  How is “closet literature” different or not different to interpret than texts that are supposedly out in the open? How does a text represent or evoke “truth”, subjectivity, and alliance (problem of mimesis and individualism as well as group formation pre- and after Stonewall)?  What roles do style and language play in queer literatures? What rules or cautions apply when subjecting queer lit to well-established schools of literary theory beyond queer theory, such as psychoanalytic angles, reader-response angles, postmodern or deconstructive criticism (anti-subject, post-human), etc.?  How do we talk about mixed identities (race and queerness, specifically) when each so-called minority discourse is too narrow to capture the complexity of such mixtures, and how can literature capture the “extra” and “beyond” that exceeds definitional categories?  Are queer markers of “identity” (or the performance of identity) context-specific or transferable across times and cultures? What do queerness and transgression signify in literary, sexual, and political terms? Can or should a queer literature be canonized, and what would that mean?  Is it possible to study queer literature just like any other type of literature?

I really look forward to working with you this quarter.  Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.  Welcome to the course!

Readings (all texts in English/translation)

Please buy or borrow, and whenever possible, please get the following editions:

Rachilde, Monsieur Venus (1884)

Paperback: 160 pages

Publisher: Modern Language Association of America (October 2004)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0873529308

ISBN-13: 978-0873529303

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), with introduction by Gary Schmidgall

Paperback: 336 pages

Publisher: Signet Classics (March 6, 2007)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0451530454

ISBN-13: 978-0451530455

Kuzmin, Mikhail.  Wings.  Foreword by Paul Bailey. (Hesperus Modern Voices)  (1906)

Paperback: 112 pages

Publisher: Hesperus Press (September 28, 2007)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 184391431X

ISBN-13: 978-1843914310

Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness (1928)

Paperback: 441 pages

Publisher: Anchor (October 18, 1990)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0385416091

ISBN-13: 978-0385416092

Baldwin, James.  Giovanni’s Room (1956)

Paperback: 176 pages

Publisher: Delta (June 13, 2000)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0385334583

ISBN-13: 978-0385334587

Hwang, David Henry.  M. Butterfly (1988)

Paperback: 72 pages

Publisher: Dramatists Play Service, Inc.; First Edition edition (January 1998)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0822207125

ISBN-13: 978-0822207122

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragedy (2007)

Paperback: 232 pages

Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (June 5, 2007)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0618871713

ISBN-13: 978-0618871711

In addition, there will be various short stories and poems by LGBTQ writers from various countries (check Schedule).


Grading and Assignments: Overview

(For detailed descriptions of each requirement type, please see next pages.)


This course is available for 3, 4, or 5 credits.

Requirements for 5 credits:

Attendance and active participation in class/online exercises, comments  20%

Research paper (8-12pp. for undergrads, 15-20pp. for grads)                        30%

OR multimedia online project for the course

Close reading blog/journal entries                                                                             30%

  • 6 total for graduate students
  • 4 total for undergraduates

Presentation (oral or online) and class discussion leadership for

text/author of your choice in corresponding class discussion                        20%


Requirements for 4 credits:

Attendance and active participation in class/online exercises, comments            20%

Research paper (8-12pp. for undergrads, 15-20pp. for grads)                                  45%

OR comprehensive online project for the course


Close reading journal entries/blog posts and online exercises                                 35%

  • 6 total for graduate students
  • 4 total for undergraduates


Presentation (oral or online) and class discussion leadership for                          35%

text/author of your choice in corresponding class session


Requirements for 3 credits:

Attendance and active participation in class/online exercises, comments          20%


Research paper (8-12pp. for undergrads, 15-20pp. for grads)                                 80%

Or a comprehensive online project for the course


Close reading blog/journal entries                                                                                      80%

  • 10 total (graduate students)
  • 7 total (undergraduates), individually graded, plus all short online exercises assigned to the whole class

Detailed Description of Requirements


Attendance and active class participation:

I expect you to attend all classes and to be prepared by having read the assigned materials ahead of time, and done any occasionally assigned, required online homework/exercises.  More than 2 absences for the quarter will adversely affect your grade; if you miss more than 4 classes overall, I strongly suggest you withdraw from the course.  More than 6 absences overall will result in failure (F) for the course. Please discuss any special circumstances with me.

Your participation grade in class is a composite of your in-class and your online exercise and comment activity; please participate as actively as you can on both fronts. Let’s have lively and interesting discussions in and outside of class this quarter!

Presentation and class leadership on a text or/and author of your choice:

You can do your presentation in two ways:

OPTION A.  Either as an in-class oral presentation, plus accompanying hard copy 1-2 pp. outline as handout: bring enough copies for every student and for me. (Also see Class Discussion below.)

OPTION B.  Or as a more substantial, researched blog post that basically provides all the information you were going to give us in an oral presentation.  (Also see Class Discussion below.)

The latter option allows you to explore the online environment to provide links, images, video, or other media in connection with your chosen text/topic/author.  If you choose this option, your online presentation needs to be ready and announced at least 24 hours before our discussion of it in class, so that all students and I have a chance to look at and read it in advance and can jump into discussion well-prepared.


For your presentation, pick a text of your choice from the syllabus. A sign-up sheet for presentations will be available during the first week of classes. In your presentation (in-class or online), I expect you to: 

  • Introduce the main text of the day to us: general cultural, social, political etc. contexts, relevant background or history of the text itself, biographical information on the author as necessary.
  • Make some general observations that have interested you about the text, and why.
  • Come up with three interesting, concrete questions about the text to jumpstart class discussion.  These questions should cover both close reading aspects (e.g. a specific theme, character, symbolism, stylistic observation, etc.), and some relevant context for this text within the larger course.  For the context questions, you could for example ask us to compare the text to other texts or themes we’ve already discussed (how does this text possibly relate to some of them, how does it echo or oppose them?), or ask us how a certain political, social, or cultural circumstance might enter or influence our interpretation of the text.


CLASS DISCUSSION LEADERSHIP.  Independent of whether you choose Option A or option B, class discussion leadership is part of your job on the day we are discussing your chosen text in class. That means taking an especially active part in class discussion that day, asking provocative questions or bringing different strands of the conversation together, summarizing, jumping in whenever needed to advance our class discussion and keep us productive.

I will be more than happy to consult with you individually about your plans for the presentation. Feel free to run either your handout or your online presentation by me at least two days ahead of “your” class session for feedback and further tips or questions to think about.  I’m here to help.

Research paper (8-10 pp. for undergraduate students, 15-20pp. for graduate students) or digital research and writing project:


Please consult with me individually about possible topics for your final paper or final online research project for the class; the earlier, the better, but please make an appointment for office hour with me no later than Week 7. By Week 8 of the quarter you should have a good idea what you’ll be writing on.  Some non-virtual library research will be required for this paper as well as for any online projects (using the MLA International Bibliography and as initial databases for your library research).  Contact me early if you need some guidance about databases (online and at Green Library).  But the main object of your final paper/project is for you to pursue a certain text, author, relationship, issue, or question from the course that has interested you in more depth, and with the assistance of research.


Class conference: during our last class week, you are invited to discuss an outline of your paper/project with the main questions, theses, and research items (working bibliography) for your paper/project and receive feedback from the group and from me, in an informal workshop format.  Please bring enough hard copies of your outline to class (at least one for every two students and one for me.)

Blog entries:


IMPORTANT: Anyone posting or commenting on our blog should sign their contribution (be it an individual blog post or a contribution to a blog exercise) with initials or with a chosen screen name only. No full names! (FERPA issue.)

For inspiration on the format and range of topics, and to get a better idea what students have done with these blog posts in the past, take a look at the “Course Blog tab under (Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents, a class I taught in Fall 2012). You’ll see that while most students wrote analytical posts of about 500-750 words (this is the range I’d typically expect for a substantial analytical blog post), others chose a more creative visual, poetic, or mixed-media route.  In that case, obviously word count doesn’t apply, and you are free to do what interests and engages you, in your own way.

For your own blog entry for this class, the choice of topic is entirely yours, but it must be from that week’s readings and discussions in class.  First pick a text or an issue that came up in discussion during the week in which you write your post (how many posts you have to write depends on the number of credits you’re signed up for—check under “Grading and Assignments” above).  In your post, you could offer a close textual reading of a particular aspect, passage, issue; you can also contextualize the text/topic by bringing it together with another text/topic it made you think of, or respond with a creative contribution that uses sounds, images, video, a newly written text (by you), or anything else you can think of.  These types of writings are open in topic so that you can choose something that truly interests you.  They can be rather informal in tone and require no special research, but they should reflect genuine critical thinking and effort.  Each entry/post should be about 500-750 words long and carefully proofread. If you want to write more, please feel free to do so, but don’t go substantially below the minimum of 500 words in analytical posts, please.  My experience has been that it’s very hard to write a great, incisive, interesting post in less than 500 words; it doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but at least initially, I’d advise you to stick to the 500-750 words range and se if that feels right for the type of work you find yourself doing on the blog.

If you would rather not have your posts on our class blog, no problem. You may send these to me by email.  We will discuss blog privacy issues in the first class.


Guidelines for formal written work (applies to final papers and other writings submitted in Word or. pdf format, etc.):


All formal written work (papers) must be typed, 12 pt font, Times New Roman or similar font such as Cambria (no Courier), double-spaced, and have a margin of 1 inch on all sides for my comments.  If you give it to me as a hard copy, it must also be carefully proofread and stapled.  Please include page numbers and the correct word count.  You may print your paper out and hand the hard copy in, or you may send it to me on email by the deadline indicated.  Please include a formal header (your name, class, quarter, assignment name (such as “Presentation handout,” “Final paper,” etc.). Papers, posts, and reading assignments are due on the date and by the time indicated in the syllabus; lateness will inevitably impact your grade.  Feel free to talk to me about any special circumstances.

Written work will be judged both on contents (intellectual level and depth of thinking, creativity, correctness of facts, quotations and argumentative use of text/s cited) and form (level of style, diction, syntax, grammar, spelling, etc.).  Generally speaking, the content is certainly more important than any possible language-related errors in what you write and submit to me.  But since writing, thinking, and communicating your thoughts to your reader are intrinsically related activities, the overall quality of your paper or online post will inevitably suffer if it is poorly argued, presented, or proofread.  Please make sure you present your learning and ideas in the best form possible, and leave plenty of time for proofreading before you hand in your work to me.  Any out-of-class written assignment that looks careless or doesn’t follow the formal requirements may be returned to you ungraded and marked late for each day it takes you to revise it and turn it in again. Always keep a copy of our computer work on your hard drive or portable memory stick—it is your responsibility to ensure your work reaches me on time.


Honor Code (for Stanford students):

You are responsible for adhering to Stanford University’s honor code.  I do not tolerate any form of plagiarism, and depending on the severity of the plagiarism you may be asked to drop the class.  Please familiarize yourself with the code at, and ask me if you have any questions whatsoever.


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