Behind the Scenes in Lesbian Fiction

 
 

Though Hart admits that her biggest audience is within the gay community, she also makes a point to avoid "preaching to the choir" and speaks at libraries, conferences, bookstores and book groups across the country.

"In a way," she said, "I think the kind of book I write [mystery fiction] can be quite subversive. I'm taking a form that's already popular and using it to write stories with a lesbian main character. In the past, gays appeared in crime fiction, but they were usually closeted, twisted souls — either the criminal or the victim." Now we have gay and lesbian heroes.

Because the focus is on plot, Hart sees mysteries as an important bridge in literature in which all readers "can walk toward a more complex and mature understanding of what it is to be something other than mainstream." Radclyffe agrees that mysteries and speculative or fantasy fiction have more crossover appeal, primarily because a character's sexuality is often considered incidental.

As far as the exploration of sexuality in more mainstream books, Lake notes the "watering down" of lesbian characters or themes by writers such as Sarah Waters or Rita Mae Brown, as oppose to a writer like Hart who "refuses to write her lesbian characters out of her books."

But Hart sees it somewhat differently. "I think that's not only important, but inevitable," she said. "Writers need creative access to all kinds of experiences. They need free reign to tell their stories using whatever sorts of characters the story dictates."

Changes within the publishing industry, both good and bad, have also impacted lesbian writers and lesbian-themed literature. During the mid-1990s, when LGBT-themed books were considered hot commodities, Hart's books moved from Seal Press, a small Seattle publisher, to the mainstream publisher Ballantine, a division of Random House.

Though the deal was a success for everyone involved, several gay and lesbian writers during that time did not make out as well. They received large cash advances but were unable to earn out those advances, and the books were considered failures.

"A backlash was created," recalled Hart. "What was once the 'new thing' in mainstream publishing now looked to be unprofitable, and thus many authors were dumped." The impact was significant and also affected independent presses. "Many of the older small presses found it harder and harder to compete with the GLTB books being published by the bigger New York publishing houses, and some of them went out of business."

Many independent and smaller presses are now climbing their way back up, including Bold Strokes Books. "My intention in creating Bold Strokes Books," said Radclyffe, "was to provide a forum for authors to write books for and about the lesbian community." Many of the writers BSB publishes, she believes, would not necessarily "find a voice in mainstream publishing."

Certainly the rise in smaller presses has opened the door to more writers getting published, said Lake: "There are more lesbian presses right now than ever in history, all working to further and support lesbian writing." The downside, if there is one, is that there is now a plethora of books to market to readers, making promotions extremely difficult.

The internet, however, has helped. "It represented an expansion into mainstream networks that make our works more accessible worldwide," said Radclyffe. "We have much more penetration into the marketplace than was previously possible." Getting these books into bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders is a major accomplishment for lesbian writers, even though online bookselling poses a challenge to independent bookstores.

Expansion is also the goal of the Golden Crown Literary Society, which in just three years has grown from about 30 participants to nearly 300. The conference, which included writing workshops, panels and an awards ceremony over four days, provided an opportunity for many fans, writers, editors and publishers to actually meet in person.

Patty Schramm, director of special events and programs for GCLS, pointed out that though the conference is specifically geared toward lesbian-themed fiction, the society does not exclude based on gender. "We welcome anyone that has a passion for lesbian fiction," she said, "including men and transgender folks."

Hart, who got involved with the GCLS through Lake and chaired a panel on self-promotion at this year's event, also recently participated in the annual Saints and Sinners LGBTIQ Literary Festival in New Orleans. "The importance of conferences can't be underestimated," she said. "[They] are a great way to meet fans, get a chance to actually have a conversation, as well as interest potential new readers."

Both the society and the conferences are intended to encourage people to read more, said Schramm. "People aren't reading like they used to. We have DVDs, we have computers, we have TVs. It's a hurry-up-and-wait society. Reading is one of the most important things you can do because it expands your mind and [allows] you to grow as a person."

And ultimately, added Radclyffe, "it's important for lesbians throughout the world to see our lives reflected in a positive and affirming manner in our literature."

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