17 Pathbreaking Non-Binary and Gender-Fluid Novels


Contemporary literature is an amorphous, expansive thing, and it isn’t always easy to pinpoint how or why it is changing or what it may become. But in the current moment, at least one promising development is certain: literary writing that challenges or refuses stable gender binaries is of increasing critical and aesthetic prominence. The last month alone has seen the publication and widespread critical acclaim of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a moving, multi-genre consideration of gender fluidity (among other themes). At the end of April, too, American audiences were finally able to access Anne Garétta’s Sphinx — wonderfully translated from the French by Emma Ramadan — a novel that uses no gender markers to refer to its protagonists. The below list contains, with these books in mind, a collection of novels that feature agender, bigender, or gender-fluid characters and narrators. Not by any means a definitive list, the hope is that it can help expand the conversation started by Nelson, Garétta, and the writers featured here.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

This groundbreaking 1969 literary classic depicts a society that lacks fixed genders, and, as a result, gender discrimination. Its influence on later representations of gender in all categories of fiction is comparable to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.

Sphinx by Anne Garréta (trans. Emma Ramadan)

Newly translated and published last month, this debut work from Anne Garréta, one of the only female members of Oulipo, uses no gender markers to describe the relationship between two lovers.

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse: A Novel by Louise Erdrich

Much of Erdrich’s work subtly deconstructs accepted Western notions of gender, and The Last Report, with its figure of Father Damien Modeste, is arguably the most powerful instantiation of this theme in her novels.

The Twyborn Affair by Patrick White

The Nobel winner Patrick White here tells the story of one soul that inhabits three different bodies — one male, the other two female — in the years before and after World War I.

The Cook and the Carpenter by June Arnold

On New Year’s Eve of 1970, a supergroup of women’s liberation groups banded together to renovate an abandoned building in order to help clothe and shelter women in need. Less than two weeks later, the New York City police predictably and violently expelled the women from the building. One of the organizers, Arnold wrote this novel — which avoids gendered language — shortly after being released from prison.

Embassytown by China Miéville

Firmly in the mode of The Left Hand of Darkness, Miéville’s excellent Embassytown continues its author’s exploration of the relation between gender and power. Narrated by the ungendered Avice, this novel looks at a society that seems to have transcended patriarchy.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

One of the most cited — certainly among the most influential — novels in gender and transgender studies, Woolf’s Orlando is the mind-blowing fictional biography of a poet named Orlando who changes gender at the age of 30 (and lives for hundreds of years).

Discworld (series) by Terry Pratchett

It’s worth pointing out that Discworld series contained complex and evolving considerations of gender. Consider, if you will, the dwarves, whose gender identities are still being debated.

Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

This influential book, one of Winterson’s best, features a nameless, non-gendered narrator in a love affair with a married woman.

Lilith’s Brood (series) by Octavia E. Butler

This series of novels (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago) features the oankali, an alien race with three genders: male, female, and ooloi.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

One of the most revered science-fiction novels of the last several years, Leckie’s Ancillary Justice features the Radchaai, a race that does not distinguish gender identities, although the usage of female personal pronouns for everyone sometimes leads to confusion.

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Although not as transparently non-gendered as some of the other novels on this list, I would argue that Barnes’ Nightwood aggressively complicates gender representation, often through modernist experimentation, thereby changing what was possible concerning gender in the novel.

The Culture (series) Iain M. Banks

A fascinating collection of books that consider anarchism, post-scarcity, and gender, among many other things. In particular, gendered language in the Culture series is linked to the relative entrenchment of patriarchal structures within a given community.

The Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell (trans. Charlotte Mandell)

A fascinating update of the nouveau roman, Littell’s collection of novellas, which, to my mind, secretly forms an entire novel, leans on beautifully written gender-fluid and non-gendered passages.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

Winter’s award-winning 2010 novel about an intersex child (called both “Wayne” and “Annabel”) is a widely praised representation of the interiority of a gender-fluid youth.

The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter

Carter’s short, brilliant depiction of a dystopian American excoriates the dogmas (in cinema, religion, psychoanalysis, and various other mythologies) that bolster essentialist representation of gender.

River of Gods by Ian McDonald

This dense, rewarding work of science fiction uses the pronoun “yt” to describe its genderless characters.