Jan 23, 2012
The Lesbian Question
A question from a reader:
“Setting aside the tangled web of labels of low, dark, high, heroic, etc. fantasy (or speculative fiction) — do you consider yourself to write ‘lesbian’ books, or books that happen to be about lesbians?”
I’ve been thinking about how to answer this question for some time now. It’s about categorization, and I think that writers are sometimes the worst people to ask about what kind of books they write, because they may be too close to the story to tell. Usually, I think that categorizing is best done by the book’s publisher, because it’s basically about marketing: Where does the book fit best in the bookstore, so that it can be found by people who would want to read it?
However, there are some problems with that theory, too. Because often books about minorities are categorized as minority books even when they might fit into a broader genre. That has the detrimental effect of limiting their audience and ghettoizing the writer. (For a great analysis of why this is a problem, read N.K. Jemisin’s post, “Don’t Put My Book in the African American Section.”)
I think that with the increase in online and e-book buying, categorizing books becomes both more important (for discoverability through search) and more flexible, because more than one category can be applied. Many books, after all, fit into multiple categories. I think that my books do.
Both Ash and Huntress are fantasy novels, but there are other categories they could fall into: young adult, most obviously; fairy tales (for Ash); high fantasy (for Huntress); speculative fiction. They also could be categorized as lesbian books, but that depends on what you mean by “lesbian books.”
Are they books about lesbian main characters? If so, we need to ask the question, “What do you mean by ‘lesbian’?” On the surface this might sound rather simplistic, but it’s a complicated and politically charged issue. In Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture, 1668-1801, Emma Donoghue argued: “Certainly, it was not until the late nineteenth century that the sexologists cemented a selection of such elements into the stereotype called ‘the lesbian’ (tall, flat-chested, intellectual, frustrated); however, a wide variety of lesbian types had been described in texts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”
Donoghue’s point is that even if the contemporary words we use to describe lesbians were not common before the nineteenth century, that certainly doesn’t mean that women who who loved women (sexually) did not exist before then. Similarly, while I don’t believe that any of the characters in my first two novels would self-identify as lesbians, that doesn’t change the fact that they do, in fact, engage in same-sex relationships.
(Why wouldn’t they self-identify as lesbians? Because that concept does not exist in the world of Ash and Huntress. They’re fantasy novels set in an alternate world where there is no word to describe same-sex relationships, because they are not considered abnormal. Things that are normal become default and are not marked as other or called out as exceptional. Their love is not “gay love,”; it is love.)
So … while none of the characters in my first two novels would identify as lesbians, I wouldn’t object to categorizing them as lesbian books, given Donoghue’s point.1
But the whole question was: “do you consider yourself to write ‘lesbian’ books, or books that happen to be about lesbians?” Putting aside the debate about what a “lesbian book” is,2 my answer is no, I don’t consider myself to write “lesbian” books, but nor do I believe I write books that happen to be about lesbians.
The reason I don’t believe that I write “lesbian” books is because I don’t actually set out to write books about being lesbian. I guess even though there’s plenty of room for flexibility in discussing what a “lesbian book” is, personally I believe a “lesbian book” is about the lived experience of being a lesbian: coming out, dealing with the real world’s homophobia, telling insider lesbian jokes, going to lesbian bars, etc. I’ve definitely lived this kind of lesbian life before (especially when I worked at AfterEllen), and my books are so far from that experience. So far. That’s why personally, I can’t see them as lesbian books. I’ve read books that I consider to be lesbian books and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them. But I haven’t written any.3
Secondly, the idea that a book could be about a person who happens to be a lesbian doesn’t work for me. I know that plenty of readers are seeking books featuring minority characters but aren’t about the experience of being a minority, and sometimes those books are identified with the “happens to be” tag. (E.g., “This is about an awesome demon/werewolf hunter who happens to be Asian!”) But I don’t believe that sexual orientation (or race) just “happens to be” to anyone. I think it’s very deeply ingrained in a person’s whole being, and it is in all of my characters. I have read books in which a character’s minority identity feels tacked on as a “happens to be,” and those books disappoint me. (No, I won’t name them.)
So, in conclusion … it’s complicated. I’m fine with others identifying my books as lesbian novels, even though I don’t personally believe I’ve written any lesbian novels. I know that the lesbian label does help my books find new readers (often, lesbian readers). I know that it also turns some people off (usually people who are uncomfortable with lesbians), but that’s inevitable. I hope that the benefits of the label outweigh costs.
- There’s another way to think about “lesbian books.” There’s a whole category of publishing devoted to LGBT fiction. It has its own conferences, its own LGBT-focused publishers, its own awards and superstars. These books tend to be shelved in the LGBT sections of bookstores, and I think this category of publishing arose out of a time when mainstream publishers did not widely publish books about LGBT people. So there’s a real history of activism and community support in LGBT publishing. My novels are not published by these LGBT-focused publishers, and I haven’t been an active part of that community of writers, but I know that my books were able to be published partly because of the work that these publishers have done in the past. [↩]
- Or, are “lesbian books” books written by lesbians? If so, my books do qualify, because I identify as a lesbian. But there are so many books about lesbian characters that aren’t written by lesbians, and vice-versa, that I don’t believe this is the right definition. [↩]
- That doesn’t mean I won’t! [↩]