2012 was a big year for queer literature and literature in general. Let’s talk some issues, and then talk some books. A whole lotta books.
This year, popular literary discourse focused on two issues that have been around for a few years now: the eternal e-book v. physical book debate, and thoughts surrounding the meteoric rise of young adult literature, particularly regarding why “grown ups” like reading young adult so much. If I never had to read another article on either subject again, I’d be very happy. Maybe one day, we will accept that people like to read what they like to read, in whatever format they choose, and nobody’s choices ever actually signify the end of reading, or really anything negative at all. The end of the book is not nigh, and no, we are not becoming dumber, and yes, kids still like to read. So calm down, will you?
Within our own community, there was a bit of a tussle this fall over the Lambda Literary Awards, otherwise known as the Lammy’s, with publisher Steve Berman complaining in The Advocate about voting secrecy, genre distinctions, and the increasing pomp of the awards ceremony eroding the integrity of the awards themselves. The executive director of the Lammy’s, Tony Valenzuela, then shot back, addressing Berman’s complaints in what I perceived as a rather classy but firm manner. Taking criticism seriously is essential for any group as powerful as Lambda, so I’m glad the discussion was started. But while there may be problems, I do stand with Valenzuela in the assessment that the Lammy’s are as “essential as ever.” Indeed, the depth and visibility their organization brings to queer lit is unprecedented.
Another issue that’s been discussed in the Lammy’s and elsewhere in the last few years is the idea of gay literature written by straight people. The Lammy’s have accepted nominations by non-queer folk for two years now, a decision that caused a bit of an uproar at first. This year, Nobel prize winning author Herta Muller published The Hunger Angel, a gay novel Salon termed “dazzling.” But is it just as dazzling in light of the fact that Muller is herself not gay? And Muller’s book was certainly only one of many written by straight people this year; one of my own favorite lesbian stories was written by a straight woman, a fact which has stuck in my brain, for better or worse.
This is an issue which has eternally plagued writers (and readers): can white people write about black people? Can black people write about Hispanic people? Can women write about men, and vice versa? And can straight people write about gay people? The issue of “authenticity” and the right people have to portray lives other than their own can be applied in any number of ways. The argument for writing outside your own identity would be that doing exactly that is the very purpose of literature, to attempt to understand the world through the eyes of others, to create empathy for people we are not. But the level of hurt seems to increase when it’s a writer of privilege (straight; white) writing about those with less of it (gays; anyone who isn’t white). It seems to have become more of a problem in our community recently as public favor seems to be turning more and more pro-gay, and even straight writers are now unafraid to incorporate queerness in their stories left and right. Should this be a fact we celebrate, or mourn?
But hey, enough with issues and Big Questions! Onto the fun stuff: books!
The top three lesbian-centric books that received the most attention this year were Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, and Emily Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post. The first two make sense, as along with Sarah Waters, Bechdel and Winterson are what I view to be the powerhouses of lesbian literature. Are You My Mother? was Bechdel’s first major work since 2006’s Fun Home, and it did not disappoint. Winterson’s memoir also garnered her more attention on both side of the pond than her books have in many years, and well deserved attention at that. Cam Post, a YA coming-of-lesbian-age novel, might have been a surprise, but not too much of a surprise in light of the previously mentioned YA boom. There were in fact a number of fantastic lesbian YA books this year, but Cam Post seemed the most ambitious, the most sweeping and heartbreaking but most rewarding.
Both Bechdel and Winterson’s autobiographical tales dealt heavily with their mothers, while Cameron Post is a fictional young woman dealing with the death of both of her parents in a car accident. The wonderful first line reads thus: “The afternoon my parents died, I was out shoplifting with Irene Klauson.” So essentially, one could call 2012 the Year of Serious Lesbian Mom Issues. And I’m OK with it.
Since I mentioned her, Sarah Waters hasn’t released anything since 2009’s The Little Stranger, but this year she did receive the “Freedom of the City of London” honor, a centuries long tradition which includes privileges such as “the right to herd sheep over London bridge, to go about the City with a drawn sword, and if convicted of a capital offence, to be hung with a silken rope,” all of which is so weird and amazingly British that I had to share it. A drawn sword! What a dream!
Other high profile releases included Cheryl B.’s My Awesome Place (a memoir about being young in New York City, published after Cheryl’s untimely death from cancer); All We Know: Three Lives, a triple lesbian biography by Lisa Cohen; current AfterEllen.com book club selection The Last Nude by Ellis Avery; Carry the One by Carol Anshaw; and Astray by Emma Donoghue. One of the best places to find even more recommendations is on the blog Band of Thebes, where LGBT authors give their own favorites of the year. Seriously, there are too many amazing books mentioned on this list for me to cover properly. Go look for yourself!
To add on to the list of remarkable memoirs by remarkable women, there was also Beth Ditto’s Coal to Diamonds, penned with Michelle Tea. Rachel Maddow also made an impact in non-fiction with Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, which was a #1 New York Times best-seller, continuing to prove that girl is real smart and real awesome.
Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver published a new collection of poems entitled A Thousand Mornings, which won Best Poetry selection in the Goodreads Choice Awards. Maybe not as prestigious as a Pulitzer, but hey, when you already have one, who cares?
Many of the books mentioned on that Band of Thebes list are also included in the New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year, and there are at least five lesbian-themed YA books in Kirkus Reviews’ 100 Best Teen Books of 2012, all of which I find pretty rad. Either queer lit keeps getting better, or the mainstream literary world is finally starting to acknowledge it. Either way is fine with me!
In other news of excellence, the Lammy’s gave special recognition to the work of Armistead Maupin and Kate Millett at the beginning of the year, with book awards being granted to Laurie Weeks, Farzana Doctor, and Jeanne Cordova, among many others. The 2013 Awards will be held early next year, and you can check out the long list of nominations here. The contest for best lesbian memoir seems like a particularly tough race this year (obviously).
And for a different type of list celebration, the American Library Association released their most banned or challenged books of 2011, and for the first time in many, many years, everyone’s favorite picture book about gay penguins, And Tango Makes Three, was NOT included! Rejoice for gay penguin liberation!