June 17, 2012
The trouble with lesbian literature and other tales…
It is true to say that I have been out of the bookselling trade for a few years now, but both as a reader and a bookseller I always found the gay and lesbian section really uninspiring.
Usually these ever decreasing sections are a mixture of erotica, and well, erotica. And (when I was a bookseller) the few people who shopped in that section to buy the… lesbian erotica… tended to be men with a penchant for something a little bit naughty. There are of course some fantastic authors out there who cater for the lady-loving market – Sarah Waters, Ali Smith, Val McDermid, Jeanette Winterson, Jackie Kay, Stella Duffy… But where are the new young lesbian authors? (And must they write about being a lesbian?) This week, Radio 4 Woman’s Hour asked the same question. Surely they are out there, but why are they not getting published?
Both Stella Duffy and Suzi Feay (guest editor of Mslexia magazine) expressed their thoughts on the matter. But it was Stella Duffy who really resonated with me. “I’m not calling both of you ‘a straight’ but I do get called ‘a lesbian’ and it so reductive.” Thank you Stella Duffy and I agree. It is reductive. I am interested in characters who take me on an exciting journey and it matters not to me whether they are lesbian, bisexual, transgender, heterosexual or in fact not interested in sex at all. Write me a good story and I will read it. But I do not rush out to buy the latest book of lesbian content, because more often than not… they are just not very good.
‘Tipping the Pages’, Newcastle’s book group for lesbian and bisexual women, seems to agree with me. The first time I went along to one of their meetings I was told that they had given up on reading ‘lesbian books’ because after the canon texts it all just gets a little bit awful. So they had moved onto ‘good books’ and were feeling a little better about things. There is a practical reason however for why we may not be seeing so much ‘new stuff’ in the market place. (Warning, slightly dull paragraph on economics to follow.)
According to an article on the Guardian, although the sale of eBooks rose in sales last year by a massive 366%, the sales of physical books are still on the decline. The eBooks do not quite compensate the loss; figures from the Publishers Association reveal that book sales were down by 2% last year and seem to be declining still in 2012. So for all we can want, desire, hope for more books, more literature, more Sapphic loving ladies hitting pages everywhere, we also should be realistic and put this into an economic context. The book industry is having a battle of its own which makes publishers even less likely to take risks and bookshops (pray let them not become dinosaurs for my children whenever they arrive – I miss you Borders) unable to justify carrying diverse titles because the sales figures of ‘lesbian books’ are for the most part, marginal. This does not perhaps explain away why these books may not appear in eBook form, and actually maybe the new generation of digital print will lead to a new generation of writers?
So in other words, it isn’t all doom and gloom and there is hope out there for the optimistic writer. Speaking on Radio 4’s, Woman’s Hour, Suzi Feay put a shout out for writers who identify as lesbian to enter the Polari First Book Prize next year, “We’re looking for memoirs, poetry, novels, and we’re just not getting the submissions from women”. The entry date may have passed for this year but this gives you just enough time to get your debut novel published (self publish even) in time for the 2013 competition. Thoughts from Stella Duffy on why those submissions may be low, “There’s two things going on, one is that we’re just not seeing that many younger people getting published … We still live in a world, and this is a very Woman’s Hour point, where we didn’t really have the goals of feminism, we’re not seeing women in the front benches let alone many in the back benches, there’s going to be commensurately fewer lesbians”. Although, Duffy then goes on to say, “We’ve only been writing our own names for 160 years it is going to take a while to catch up.” In other words, actually women are doing okay given the fact that men have been chronicling their history for much longer. This writing thing is kind of new for us. That said, surely ‘lesbian authors’ are not yet set to become a protected species? Appearing only in some David Attenborough type documentary and to be seen only from the other side of a camera lens…
Another part of the problem is identity. Stella Duffy claims that she is taken more seriously as an author when she writes about men as oppose to when she writes about women. I am reminded here of a little unknown author going by the name of Mary Anne Evans aka George Eliot – not because George Eliot was a closet lesbian (don’t get excited ladies) – but because she changed her name to George so that people would think she a man and actually go ahead and buy her books. Stella may be onto something here and it ties back in with the economics of the publishing industry in general and risk taking (or lack of).
So where do we go from here? Well if you are disheartened, uninspired and feeling a little forgotten about, why not put your laptop where your mouth is and get scribing? Personally, I believe that although ‘coming out’ tales and lesbian chic lit still has its place on the shelf, a time for more diversity within our own writing is upon us. I don’t know about you, but there is more to me than my sexuality… I’m also ginger too… and I would love to see some fresh new fiction about interesting characters who just happen to be gay, or from authors who identify as lesbian and happen to be about well… anything.
Are we now finally in the privileged position where we can demand more from our literature and raise the bar of expectation? I hope so. Let me know how you get on.
KJ signing out until next time…
Pussy Riot video
Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot were jailed for two years on 17 August 2012 for “hooliganism”. This video features their latest song and images of the band and their supporters. It was created by The Guardian.
August 17, 2012