BOOK REVIEW: Queer: A Graphic History

This is one of the more challenging reviews for me to write, because I want to engage with my reaction to the ideas presented as if they are being expounded and put forward for debate – but that is actually not the purpose the authors set out in their introduction. (So perhaps I shall discuss those points in another post.)

Queer: A Graphic History is not putting forwards an idea, but is an introduction to the field of Queer theory and the activism and academic disciplines and ideas that form, and form out of, Queer theory. As such it is more like a school textbook than a treatise or position, and therefore it is only fair to judge it first and foremost on how well it communicates its material rather than on my engagement with the positions of the material.

The school textbook analogy is apt in another way. The combination of author and artist produce on each page a paragraph or exposition with an illustrative drawing and sometimes one or two key positions of the academics quoted (sometimes they are activists, but the impression is mostly of academic-level thinking and writing). This resembled the style of many of the textbooks that I remember from when I was in secondary school, about 25 years ago now and is what made me think of the analogy in the first place.

There is another way in which I think of this as a school textbook, and that is simply that it would make a very good foundation for a syllabus at secondary level and Lord knows, if I’d had access to material like this at that age then I might have got to a better understanding of myself a lot sooner. Or maybe not, because maybe I was not ready to listen then. But I think particularly as we seem to be facing an essentialist backlash in culture at the moment, simply giving young teens tools like these to work with would benefit society immensely, whether they themselves identify in a queer way or not (since one of the themes is how queer theory looks at heterosexuality in the same ways as it does other identities and expressions).

So, I’m recommending the book for our schools, which must mean I liked it as a textbook introduction! So you know what my answer will be.

What I had been expecting was something like the rather fun and excellent “Cartoon History of Time” – an introduction to cosmology and quantum physics comparable to the Hawking book but funnier and more accessible! In that book, the concepts are introduced and expanded through a series of cartoon vignettes featuring a cat and a chicken who are best friends (it also references Dark Star and therefore earns super awesome ratings from Yours Truly).

I was hoping that a similar cartoon comicbook style romp through the world of Queer Theory would be my introduction, but I cannot really blame the authors for that – I am the only one responsible for my wishes and expectations in this matter, after all. (Although now the idea is out there, if someone wants to run with it – the style of Existential Comics could help…)

I feel like the book covered the subjects I had hoped, for the most part. I would have liked more discussion of kink theory, and I would have liked the focus taken away from “researchers” and put onto the forms that kink communities generate for themselves. But then, kink is kind of my community and perhaps people in other groups that got a similarly brief mention might feel the same. I felt that the ways in which the BDSM communities I’ve engaged with have examined (or not examined) aspects of kink would have made a good practical study of how the ideas in the book worked. Again, maybe other groups would feel the same.

That is a criticism in general: there was very little about how queer theory relates with lived experience. Indeed, in the section on criticisms of Queer Theory, this was a point raised – that many people feel that it doesn’t engage very well with practical concerns or doesn’t demonstrate its relevance very well.

The structure was very academic, and again, set out like a school textbook: “history , development, exposition, further points/challenges.” For me, this sometimes felt like I was leaping ahead with my responses to the text and anticipating later passages. That’s because one of my big reasons for buying the book was that I had already encountered a lot of references to the ideas and I wanted to fill in some of the blanks and have a better foundation to engage with them. I certainly feel like I have that, but need to go to the next level (and some of the further texts suggested in the back may be on my amazon wishlist before long).

As an introduction for someone new to feminist and queer thought, I am not sure how well I can gauge the effectiveness. As mentioned, I think as a text for a school syllabus, with a teacher to help explain points or expand on the material I am sure it would be excellent. For someone seeking to learn on their own or figure out “is this for me”, in the way depicted in the introduction, I am left wondering how steep the learning curve is, and whether or not it could be shallower without losing important elements of the ideas. On the other hand, maybe the fact that I found it easy to work out which bits were familiar and how they fit into the picture, means that it would be easier than I imagine.

Some of the points also felt as if they were skimmed over – for instance, the presentation of “sex-positive” as a problematic binary and a “celebratory” stance bothered me, but I do recognise that the way people use that term has drifted from the original principle it represented so perhaps it is fair. On the other hand, some recognition by the authors of that drift would have been good to see.

In conclusion:

I think the best uses for this book are the aforementioned “school textbook”, and for someone who like me may have encountered some of the concepts “in the wild” and wants to find out what it’s all about. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a cold starter. As always, in order to keep it short and comprehensible, some details have been left out and it is less than comprehensive.

But as a starting point for study, it offers a lot and is definitely worth seeking out.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Gender, Kink, Philosophy, Politics, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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