“Covering” Contemporary Queer Fiction

At first glance, Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North — a gripping tale of women fighting a
repressive government in dystopian near-future Britain — and Jennifer Cody
Epstein’s The Painter From Shanghai
a debut novel about Chinese post-Impressionist painter Pan Yuliang — have
little in common beyond their authors’ skill.

Look again: both have bisexual heroines, and include
same-sex love affairs in their plots.

But you can’t tell that from reading the backs of the books.
In fact, if you stumbled on either one in your local library or an online
bookstore, you might have no idea they have any queer content.

Lesbian and bisexual readers are used to their lives
being invisible in pop culture. But the tremendous surge in visibility of the last two decades has not
bypassed bookshelves, and many books with LGBT subjects have had out-and-proud
jackets.

Felicia Luna Lemus’ novels of Latina gender-queer life,
for instance, pull no punches about their protagonists’ transgender identities, and it’s rare to find a young adult title with lesbian or bisexual content that
tries to hide it.

You’d
think that the same would be true for adult literature – that it’d be old hat
by now to mention a same-sex love affair on a book jacket – but both Daughters of the North and The Painter from Shanghai were
published in April 2008 in the U.S. (Daughters
was first published in the UK in 2007 under the title The Carhullan Army.) Yet, as with many similar titles, their jacket
and flap copy, blurbs and even many reviews omit any mention of their same-sex
romances.

This type of marketing is an example of what gay legal
expert Kenji Yoshino (Covering: The
Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights
) describes as “covering,” the toning
down of a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream.

Kenji Yoshino

Author photo credit: Beth Kelly

Apparently it’s become acceptable to publish books with
bisexual or lesbian characters, but not to call attention to the fact.

Book marketing is all about calling attention to the book,
in the hopes that prospective readers will buy it. Publishers want the largest
possible audience for the largest possible sales, and may think revealing too
much about a book’s contents will scare off straight readers.

At the same time, however, they need to send subtle clues to
LGBT readers.

Linda Villarosa’s Passing
for Black
is a great example. The book description refers to sexual
liberation (“a chance meeting leaves Angela consumed with desire for an intriguing
stranger”) and transformation in terms most lesbian or bisexual readers would
pick up on, but avoids any mention of coming out. It’s the blurb-writers (including
E. Lynn Harris and Staceyann Chin) who make the plot explicit, and their words
are literally covered — located inside the book.

Author Linda Villarosa

But is such marketing really necessary in 2008? Is it a
backlash to recent victories for the rights of same-sex couples, or just
another step sideways in the shaky progress of visibility?

Covered books might, in fact, be an inevitable step in the
mainstreaming process.

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