Hundreds of writers, publishers, editors and fans gathered earlier this month in Atlanta, Ga., for the third annual Golden Crown Literary Society conference, which celebrates the diverse world of lesbian literature. The society was founded in 2004 when several lesbian writers and publishers realized there was no organization specifically focused on promoting lesbian-themed fiction.
"Lesbian fiction is its own little cottage industry," said Lori L. Lake, one of Golden Crown's founding members and author of several novels including, most recently, Snow Moon Rising. "Despite the demise of a number of wonderful presses, many enterprising lesbians have opened new publishing houses in this new millennium."
Among the new publishing houses is Bold Strokes Books, founded by Len Barot, who writes under the penname Radclyffe. With more than 25 published books under her belt, Radclyffe is another of Golden Crown's founding members. How do you define lesbian literature? "One recognizes it when one sees it," Radclyffe said.
Ellen Hart, author of the Jane Lawless series and the Sophie Greenway series of mystery novels, believes that while stories with lesbian themes may have parallels in subject matter, the forms and styles are still too varied to use the term "genre."
If there is a distinguishing characteristic among these works, Radclyffe suggested, it would be books that have lesbian characters who on some level explore their sexual identity. "Lesbian themes frequently center on reconciling freedom of self-expression and self-realization," she said, "with the risk of loss of family and friends, and the establishment of an alternative community."
She also sees what mystery writer Claire McNab termed the "love imperative," or the need to be loved and to love in return, as a significant theme.
Despite the variety of subject matters, including modern society, relationships, family, community, discrimination, gender issues and bisexuality, Lake agreed that "right now there seems to be a lot of emphasis on sex, erotica and romance."
That doesn't surprise Hart, though, because the same is also true in mainstream fiction. "Thematically, these books provide a quick, entertaining read while using the standard girl meets girl, girl loses girl, girls are reunited with a happy ending — or a variation of some sort," Hart explained.
What is lacking from that formula, Hart maintained, is a matter of opinion. While many readers pick up these books because they are easy reads and offer the "standard romantic tease," others want to see "a greater attention to language, a deeper exploration of character or what it is to be a lesbian in today's world, more nuanced story lines or a novel that contains political and social critique."
And though lesbian writers and publishers may have captured the market on romance, many agree that there is still room for growth. "There's a lot of ground to be broken regarding other cultures, other countries, other experiences," said Lake, who would like to see more serious fiction outside the realm of the "able-bodied, white, usually American, middle-to-upper class lesbian."
What's also missing, continued Hart, is a "standout, kick-ass, huge lesbian bestseller." Though Sarah Waters and Jeanette Winterson have made strides, Hart believes that what the industry needs is fairly simple: more good writers producing lesbian-themed books "which will give us chances to reach, say the New York Times bestseller list. Once we crack that nut, it will be much easier the second time around."
We need to keep moving forward, Hart said, as authors such as Waters open doors for other lesbian writers. "Nobody's success as a writer diminishes any other person's success," she said.