For the second year in a row, print book sales are on the rise. But how are lesbian and bisexual women writers faring? Are they, too, riding the publishing wave? Or have they continued to be relegated to the margins, and considered “too niche” for publication? In a conversation last month, Eileen Myles told me that when publishers turn down queer women’s manuscripts as “too niche, statistically they’re telling you how many people eat pussy without saying that.”
Myles is a paramount example of the success of the queer women writer: Delayed. Untimely. Desired. On her recent mainstream success with the publication of the critically acclaimed I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems 1975-2014, and the simultaneous reissue of Chelsea Girls, Myles said it was a matter of time. Or, rather, a matter of geology:
“I think that it’s geological—I simply have done so much that it would be impossible to not publish me in the mainstream. It makes sense there would be one smart editor who would see a book people wanted. And this is work that people already know and care about. It’s sort of like, they’re not making something be true, they’re just capitalizing or commodifying something that is true.” (emphasis added)
Eileen Myles has always been here, but the visibility of her work and correlative success is a matter of commodification. Regardless of Frank Rich’s assessment about the “invisibility” of lesbian culture, lesbian and bisexual women writers have always been present, writing and publishing. In 2015, we have seen our culture move into the mainstream, especially when it comes to literature. Patricia Highsmith’s Carol, first published as The Price of Salt in 1952 under a pseudonym, found itself adapted this year into one of the best movies of the decade (and, arguably, the best lesbian-not-lesbian film ever made).
Likewise, this year we saw the cinematic adaptation of David Ebershoff’s novel, The Danish Girl (2000), as well as out lesbian Emma Donoghue’s Room (2010), for which she wrote the screenplay. All three films have received critical and public acclaim; all three have garnered multiple awards and award nominations—Donoghue, in fact, received a Golden Globe nomination for writing the screenplay for Room.
Out lesbian Patricia Cornwell—the all-time bestselling crime fiction writer—saw the publication of Depraved Heart (HarperCollins), which marks the 25th anniversary of the Kay Scarpetta series. The literary world was abuzz with the controversial publication of alleged lesbian Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (HarperCollins), featuring a grown-up Scout who, as readers of To Kill a Mockingbird know, continues to set off #DeepLez alarm bells as she happily embraces spinsterhood.
This year, in fact, we witnessed the “mainstreaming” (otherwise known as “acclaim and general recognition”) of a number of lesbian and bisexual women writers, who produced some damn fine work. Below is a selection—in no way comprehensive—of some of the most celebrated and most beloved books of 2015 by or about lesbian, bisexual and queer women.
Dreamy visionary Miranda July gives readers a doozy of a plot—about a sexual relationship between a young, pregnant woman and a much older woman—in The First Bad Man: A Novel (Scribner). Nell Zink’s Mislaid (Ecco) was shortlisted for the National Book Award for good reason: It’s a wild ride! The plot details the unconventional relationship between Meg, a lesbian, and her professor—a gay man. They get married and have two children. What happens next is a comedy of queer manners, including a plot twist apropos a la Rachel Dolezal.
Oprah loved out bisexual author Cynthia Bond’s 2014 title Ruby (Hogarth) so much that she named it a title in her book club in early 2015. Bond’s style echoes Black literary foremothers—the haunting qualities of Morrison’s prose, the daring psychological tension of Hurston—as her protagonist Ruby transcends the racial violence of her birth and upbringing to find love (including with a woman).
Out lesbian Chinelo Okparanta was inspired to write Under the Udala Trees (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) from her own life experiences. Her protagonist, Ijeoma, labors to salvage her relationship with her mother who disapproves of her sexuality while mourning the death of her father. Ijaw and Urhobo Nigerian dyke performance activist Yvonne Fly Onakeme Etaghene tells the story of Taylor, a queer Nigerian college student, who explores her own femme identity through two very different relationships, in For Sisakele (RedBone Press).
Out writer Annie Liontas’s debut novel, Let Me Explain You: A Novel (Scribner), offers a modern-day Greek drama, packaged as the American Dream. Lointas unpacks family myth and familial archetypes as her protagonist, Stavros Stavros Mavrakis, attempts to find peace with his three daughters—including the eldest, a masculine lesbian—before his death.
With a protagonist seemingly out of Pretty Little Liars, Sara Jaffe’s YA novel Dryland follows a teen girl into the swimming pool and into the arms of a swim team crush (Tin House Books). M.E. Kerr (also, Patricia Highsmith’s ex!) has written a collection of 15 YA stories, titled Edge: Collected Stories (Open Road Integrated Media), that address the gamut of issues facing teenagers, including sexuality. Queer literary favorite Sassafras Lowrey reimagines the story of Peter Pan—butch bois, queer punks, and all—in the deliciously fun Lost Boi (Arsenal Pulp Press).
Lidia Yuknavitch explores the ethical contract between the artist and her subject in The Small Backs of Children (Harper), in which her protagonist, a bisexual photographer, realizes that making children of war-torn Eastern Europe the subjects of her art does not come without moral obligation.
Non-lesbian content by lesbians: Out lesbian author Jeanette Winterson put a male homoerotic twist on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale in her modern-day adaptation of the play in her novel, The Gap of Time (Hogarth Shakespeare). Out lesbian writer Lori Ostlund delivered one of the most critically acclaimed novels of the year with After the Paradise (Scribner), which explores the psychic trauma of the breakup of an intergenerational gay couple. After the Paradise is Ostlund’s debut novel, and it won the Edmund White Award and the Flannery O’Connor Award.