Books

The Bookish Queer: Locating Queer Literature, Then and Now

Installation shot of Ulrike Müller's Herstory Inventory: Shoes and Books (2007–2013), at Oakville Galleries, 2013. (Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid, from Oakville Galleries Facebook Page)
Installation shot of Ulrike Müller’s Herstory Inventory: Shoes and Books (2007–2013), at Oakville Galleries, Toronto, 2013. (Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid)

As someone who loves books as much as anything in life, one of the first things that happens when I see a list of new books is skim to see what new treasures are available. Looking at the list of finalists for the 25th Anniversary Lambda Literary Awards for LGBT writers anyone could recognize that it serves as a potential reading list for all those wondering where to find new queer stories. As some winners pointed out in the awards ceremony on Monday evening and in emails to me on the subject, the list is open to critique, particularly around questions of who it leaves out. But it’s a double-bind, because not only can the awards feel exclusive at times, but the publishing industries that bring potential content to the awards are well-known for lacking diversity (there’s been particular attention of late to this issue within children’s and young adult publishing).

If lists of queer writing feel exclusive and the book industry has a poor track record, even today, for publishing queer content, then how do readers find LGBTQ content? It may seem like there are obvious answers to that question — gay bookstores, LGBT sections in not-gay bookstores, the internet. But the reality is that many physical bookstores have closed in recent years. In fact, for this piece I reached out to two of the people who have formed a collective to save what is now the “oldest gay bookstore in the world,” Glad Day Bookstore in Toronto. It’s only the oldest because others that were a bit older, like Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York, have closed in recent years. And feminist bookstores, which have a long history of stocking and supporting queer content and writers are also struggling. According to all the counts I could find, the number of feminist bookstores has dropped from about 100 in 1990 to about 10 today (read this interview with the co-owners of Chicago’s iconic Women & Children First bookstore for context).

In her acceptance speech this week, Sassafras Lowrey, one of two winners of this year’s Dr. Betty Berzon Emerging Writer Awards, thanked “all the feminist bookstores” for helping her to gain access to queer writing. But Lowrey and others have far fewer such shops to turn to now than they did just a decade ago. And any queer writer who has been put in one of those Gay & Lesbian sections at one of the last remaining major chain store knows the deep frustration that comes with being relegated to a subcategory (this recent Wikipedia kerfuffle is a kind of corollary).

Sassafras Lowrey accepting her Dr. Betty Berzon Emerging Writer Award at the 25th Annual Lambda Literary Awards, June 3, 2013 (Photo: David Martin)
Sassafras Lowrey accepting her Dr. Betty Berzon Emerging Writer Award at the 25th Annual Lambda Literary Awards, June 3, 2013 (Photo: David Martin)

So, what are the alternatives? Ulrike Müller, a conceptual artist based in New York, was recently part of the group exhibit, After My Own Heart, at the Oakville Galleries, just outside of Toronto. Extending the Herstory Inventory project that she started in 2007, this iteration of the work, titled Herstory Inventory: Shoes and Books (2007–2013), involved Müller asking a handful of queer artists to name books that were formative for them. She then acquired a number of the books to be displayed in a reading-room like setting in the gallery. But the heart of the work actually had more to do with the fact that she arranged for the books to become part of the local library’s collection after the exhibition ended—literally seeding the public library with queer content that might otherwise be hidden or lacking entirely.

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Müller’s clever and poignant project picks up on a long history of deliberate interventions and carefully traded information amongst members of the queer community. A queer scholar I spoke with about Müller’s project mentioned how important writing and books were to the early homophile movement. Groups like Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society (along with others), published newsletters that became lifelines for those in the community that could not be present at group meetings—offering them not only practical information, but also written expression from other queer individuals—memoir, poetry, fiction, book reviews, essays, and more.

Out of that movement came figures like Barbara Gittings and Carol Seajay, who worked for years to make sure queer content was not only on bookshelves in the shops that would stock it, but also in libraries. After helping to found a chapter of Daughters of Bilitis and editing its publication The Ladder for a few years in the 1960s, Gittings’ political activism spread, among others places, into the American Library Association and the gay caucus within it that she helped found. Gittings’ legacy goes far beyond libraries, but her determination to include positive queer stories in public spaces was enormously important to helping people find queer content that didn’t shame or condemn those who live outside of heterosexual norms.

In a different but related arena, Seajay was working to make sure booksellers around the country and the world knew about queer and feminist content that they could stock in their stores. After co-founding the lesbian feminist bookstore Old Wives’ Tales in San Francisco, she started the Feminist Bookstore News, which helped to link publishers and writers to booksellers who wanted to stock queer writing. When that newsletter folded in 2000, Seajay started Books to Watch Out For, riffing on Alison Bechdel’s popular syndicated comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. That newsletter had separate editions for gay men’s content, lesbian content, and feminist content. But it too folded a few years ago.

And beyond those specific cases, there’s the wider gay press that developed in the 20th century, which is actually written about in detail in one of this year’s Lambda Award finalist books: Gay Press, Gay Power: The Growth of LGBT Community Newspapers in America by Tracy Baim.

Given all that history, I was eager to hear how queer writers and bookish types found queer content in the past and how they do it today, when so many of the past networks would appear to have dispersed. Below are some of their responses to my questions.

Where did you find out what to read when you were younger and wanted to find writing with queer content?

“Darling, I’m so old that my girlfriend and I used to go to the local newsstand and ask the college boys who worked there to order the books we’d heard of. They’d say, ‘That’s out of print, but there’s another book by that author, do you want it?’ We always said, ‘Yes!’   Later we got book titles from The Ladder, and scoured the pulp novels section in the (used) bookstore in our town. My first lover, while we were courting, went to the bookstore and ordered a collection of Gertrude Stein’s work, then gave it to me. I open to ‘Miss Furr and Miss Skeene’ one night in a hamburger joint. I had to sit there, with a straight face while reading it and then, finally, when we got outside again, sat down and the curb and laughed and laughed forever. That was probably one of the most hysterical and erotic moments in my entire life.” —Carol Seajay, winner of a Publisher’s Service Award from Lambda in 1989

GayComics“In Utah I had no idea about books with queer content, and during our youth everyone was too closeted to talk about it. Ironically, I discovered my first adult-oriented and underground ‘hippie’ cartooning (Jules Feiffer, Gilbert Shelton, R. Crumb) at the student bookstore at Brigham Young University when I was on a journalism field trip there during junior high school.” —Robert Triptow, winner of an early Lambda Award in Humor for editing Gay Comics

“Endless haunting of libraries and random dipping—queer reading of not especially queer texts—the shock of recognition of queer content in texts not advertised as such.” —Roz Kaveny, finalist this year in Transgender Fiction for Dialectic of the Flesh

“There wasn’t that much in the 1960s and 1970s and most of it was extremely negative in its depiction of gay and lesbian characters (and ‘queer’ had not been reclaimed; it was a epithet.) I found books almost by accident, John Rechy’s The City of Night, Mary Renault’s The Charioteer, the poetry of C.P. Cavafy and Walt Whitman and W.H. Auden. Meager but choice.” —Michael Nava, one of the first Lammy winners in both Gay Men’s Mystery/Science Fiction and Gay Men’s Small Press Book Award for Goldenboy

 “In college I became exposed to the lesbian literature scene—not in class, because the first school I attended, the University of Chicago, barely had any books by women in the curriculum—but in the world. This was the era of Rubyfruit Jungle, Mary Daly’s Gynecology and Adrienne Rich‘s work. Later I went to Hunter College, in the early 1980’s and Audre Lorde was my professor. Lesbian Poetry was one of her assigned texts. —Sarah Schulman, finalist for over 10 Lambda Awards in the past 25 years

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“I grew up in the Middle East so as you can imagine finding any gay writing was a huge challenge. I started with biographies of people I knew to be gay (Rock Hudson, Oscar Wilde) and then graduated to reading the odd gay novel that I could find in libraries: Dancer from the Dance was among the first. When I moved to England in the late 1980s, I went to a gay bookstore in London and nearly cried when I saw all the titles available to me. I can never separate my gay identity from the books that helped me shape it.” ‚—Kamal Al-Solaylee, finalist this year in Gay Memoir/Biography for Intolerable

“Magazines! The AdvocateOutAttitude, and Gay Times were essential to my voracious need for queer visibility.”
Scott Dagostino, co-owner of Glad Day Bookstore

“It was the mid-90s, so it was a mixture of PlanetOut on AOL (there was a teen area called OutProud that I was active on) and other queer proto-blogs. In terms of finding books, it was at Barnes & Noble. My high school library had 2 in 20, the sequel to 1 in 10 (a book of personal essays by young queer people about coming out, etc.) which I stole my sophomore year so I wouldn’t get caught checking it out. I don’t know exactly who I thought I was fooling, but this makes me think I probably owe them a donation.” —Tom Léger, co-founder of Topside Press

“I had almost no access to queer books when I was young. I think as a teenager I may have somehow got a copy of some lesbian porn, but I don’t even remember where from. I was probably in college when I started reading queer stories.” —Mia McKenzie, winner this year in LGBT Debut Fiction for The Summer We Got Free

Where do you learn about new books with queer content today?

“The net, personal recommendations, websites.” —Roz Kaveney

“Happily, those same magazines are still around (though the British ones are far superior, especially for book news) but also there’s terrific blogs like Towleroad, AfterEllen, and, of course, Lambda Literary.” —Scott Dagostino

“Besides word-of-mouth, the most reliable form of review? God, everywhere from The New York Times to The San Francisco Chronicle to The New Yorker to The Portland Mercury (a snarky weekly related to the Seattle Stranger). The Mercury is the best about covering anything with queer significance out of all those publications. The S.F. Chronicle? Ha! They finally ran a story on queer cartooning only after it had been around for 30 years!” —Robert Triptow

“I must say that my main source for gay books is the Lambda Foundation followed closely by a great indie bookstore in Toronto called Glad Day. Funny how after almost 30 years of being out, I still go to gay bookstores to stay in touch with the community. It says something about the limits of integration into the larger society. I mean, one or two shelves in Barnes and Noble labeled Gay and Lesbian are never going to be as inclusive or as well curated as a gay bookstore.” —Kamal Al-Solaylee

“Blogs, GoodReads and the Lambda Literary site are the best places to find out about new queer books today. The mainstream industry magazines are hit-or-miss about finding or reviewing queer books. The New York Times and other mainstream news organizations pretend queer books don’t exist whenever possible, which is ironic, since all of those companies are staffed by a high percentage of gay men.” —Tom Léger

“I read the Lambda Foundation’s newsletter and hear about books from writer friends on Facebook. Much easier now than when I was 16 and hiding in the stacks at the Sacramento Public Library in the abnormal psychology section!” —Michael Nava

“Honestly, they come in the mail.” —Sarah Schulman

How do you feel about the way you access queer writing today?

“I feel guilty about all the books other people want me to read. I have a pile sky high that I can’t bear to deal with. All I want to do is read the book on scientology but I can’t spare the time.” —Sarah Schulman

“Sometimes too spoon-feedy. I want books that excite and challenge me rather than just meet my needs in a bland sort of way.” —Roz Kaveney

“As a reader, I’m privileged by my position here—I’m like a spider in the middle of the web, listening to the plucking of the strands—but I am frustrated by the shrinking number of publishing sales reps. The indie publisher reps work ever-larger territories while the giants are more interested in mergers. We do have a great rep at Penguin, even though they publish very little queer stuff, while there are interesting new books from Random House occasionally that we never hear about.” —Scott Dagostino

“Frustrated.Very … ” —Carol Seajay

“Queer writing has always flourished on ‘social’ media—far before the term social media came into existence. Where the Village Voice, the New York Native, all the Windows Media gay newspapers left off, blogs have picked up the slack. The frustrating thing is that the mainstream American literary canon basically believes that gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people don’t exist. Pick up a copy of ‘Best American Short Stories’ from the last couple years and try to find even one text with a LGBT protagonist.” —Tom Léger

“I don’t ‘access’ queer writing. It accesses me. I don’t go looking for it and, really, don’t think of queer fiction as being much different from any other form of fiction. The ‘queers’ are just the characters, no different from non-queer characters unless there’s sex going on.” —Robert Triptow

Do you think it’s harder or easier to find writing with queer content today than when you were younger?

againsthecurrent“Ironically, I think there’s less visibility for queer writers today than 20–25 years ago. A few queer writers — generally men, for the same tired reasons — may be getting more mainstream press than they could have then. But 25 years ago we had our own distribution system. New lesbian books would show up on the New Arrivals tables of 100-120 women’s bookstores and maybe 40-60 gay stores. Which is to say that lesbian readers in 140-180 communities walked into their bookstores and had a feast of new books to see and choose from. Today there might be a dozen communities where this is true. I live in San Francisco, and there’s no place I can go and be sure to see all the new lesbian and other queer books that I want to know about. If I already know the names of the books I want, I might be able to root them out of their scattered places in a good bookstore, but that defeats the purpose. It’s the books that I don’t know about that I miss.

“25 years ago publishers could drop $25 for a mailing list of 200-250 bookstores that would stock lesbian and queer books, send out a mailing, and be pretty confident that 100-150 stores would buy the books and sell—depending on the title, 10 or 20 to a few hundred copies. That made publishing queer books easy and made our lit a pretty good risk, financially. Now, due to the consolidation of publishing, publishers ‘need’ to sell more copies for a book to be ‘successful’ and ‘everyone’ is reading the same few books. Fewer of them are queer, and there’s less room to the left of the mainstream books for non-mainstream (read white, east coast, middle-upper class) literature. Lesbian, other queer, black and other of-color, working-class, immigrant, et al literatures.

“I picked up a book the other day (Against the Current, Bev Hickok), a sweet and insightful coming out in the 1940s. Turns out it’s sold a total of about 200 copies in the 10 years it’s been out. It’s a book that, in my years as a bookseller, I would easily have hand sold at least that many copies, myself, in a single store. It would have been a best-seller back in the day — but today it’s invisible.” —Carol Seajay

“Feels about the same. There’s so very little marketing for queer writing that the public will almost never just stumble upon it. But if you seek it out, there’s great stuff out there.” —Scott Dagostino

“Obviously, it’s easier because of the internet. But, if you compare queer literature today to the queer books coming out in the 80s, I don’t know if the ‘today’ books win that contest. I don’t know if we have matured as LGBT writers, or stagnated. Most of the successful LGBT writers are successful because they are closeted. It’s good that the Lambda Literary Foundation is 25 years old because if it didn’t already exist, I don’t know if we would start it today.” —Tom Léger

What were some books that you have read that helped open up new possibilities for you around identity and/or love, queer or not?

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“Recently I read a few books that opened up new ways for me to think about identity and relationships, particularly around gender, sexuality and the feeling of being an outsider or other. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a great coming-of-age story that helped me see how humor can be used to communicate oppressive situations to people who are outside of those experiences but still wish to understand them and be supportive of marginalized people. E. Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories is the collection of stories that includes “Brokeback Mountain,” which was really important for me to read as a queer and transgendered person from the prairies, a place similar to the American Midwest. Swing Low: A Life by Miriam Toews is a fictionalized memoir that she wrote in her father’s voice, years after he committed suicide. This book was based in Manitoba, the Canadian prairies, and the themes of mental illness and family resonated with my own experiences, including those experiences that have informed much of my writing. Finally, Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist is another good coming-of-age story about the role that normative ideas of masculinity, such as aggression and violence, can play in forming an identity, and also how to unravel those parts of an identity after discovering that masculinity can include more than that. All of these books show how people can begin to make sense of their own lives and, in a way, put themselves back together after experiencing trauma and marginalization.”Rae Spoon, finalist this year in Transgender Fiction for First Spring Grass Fire

The Color Purple, which is my favorite book and in my opinion one of the best five books ever written. It speaks to so many parts of my identity. I think the relationship between Celie and Shug is ultimately the best model of love I can imagine because of the ways they help each other become free. To me, that’s what love is—helping each other get free, even when it’s hard, even when it seems impossible, even when we are not yet free ourselves.” —Mia McKenzie

 

Funeral Rites by Jean Genet, The Diary of Anne Frank, Harriet The Spy, and Portnoy’s Complaint were the most influential books of my youth. Also The Bell Jar.” —Sarah Schulman

“I’m forever indebted to Paul Monette’s essay collection Last Watch Of The Night for teaching me about love, Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider for teaching me about faith, Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw for teaching me about identity, and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series for teaching me about family.” —Scott Dagostino

Orlando—because it is so beautifully written and witty and camp. City of Night—as a teen queer in the 60s, it gave me a sense of the possibility of being happy and not respectable. Specifically Miss Destiny, the proto-trans character, gave me something to aspire to and some hints about how I might find myself. Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons—Hacker is one of the poets I owe most to. She is part of why I adopted sonnet structure as my natural medium; she was also amazingly kind to me the one time we met. The Sandman—because Neil is a close friend, I got to watch over his shoulder the process of producing a huge piece of art—it taught me that the shortest journey begins with a single step and it is possible to at the same time know most of where you are going and be constantly surprised along the way. This was valuable both to my poetry and my fiction.” —Roz Kaveney

What are some of your favorite queer books?

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Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles, Ballad of The Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers, Memoirs by Tennessee Williams. I have always loved Aquamarine by Carol Anshaw, and one of the goals of my life is to adapt it to the stage.” —Sarah Schulman

“It’s sadly out-of-print but Blue Heaven by Joe Keenan is the funniest book I have ever read, while recent Stonewall winner Aristotle And Dante Discover The Secrets Of The Universe by Benjamin Saentz is a young-adult book that made me cry. I adored the autobiographical Tango by the fabulous Mx. Justin Bond and I also remember gasping at the end of The Easy Way Out by Stephen Macauley, a writer whose easy-going comic style is the sugar that helps tough medicine go down.” —Scott Dagostino

The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan; After Dolores by Sarah Schulman; Don Juan In The Village by Jane Delynn; Nova by Samuel Delany.” —Roz Kaveney

Some of the Parts (T. Cooper) and Holding Still For As Long As Possible (Zoe Whittall) are both great trans novels that I really connected with. Sarah Schulman’s People in Trouble is a novel that was very inspiring to me as a queer person, and an activist.” —Tom Léger

“Andrew Holleran, Dancer From the Dance; The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse, Lonely Christopher; Alexis, Marguerite Yourcenar; and Martin Hyatt, A Scarecrow’s Bible.” —Donnie Jochum, co-owner of Bureau of General Services Queer Division (bookshop, NYC)

What queer writing/books/publishers are you excited about at the moment?

“I’m pretty happy for Justin Hall’s success with No Straight Lines, his new history of queer cartooning. It’s coming out in paperback soon after a successful hardcover run. And my new book, Class Photo, is almost finished.” —Robert Triptow

Sibling Rivalry Press, Midsummer Night’s Press, Publication Studio, Little House on the Bowery, Kink Zine, Headmaster, and FAQNP. On-line presses/blogs that are doing some critical work: I’m From Driftwood and In the Flesh.” —Donnie Jochum

“Right now I’m excited about Amber Dawn’s new book How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir, which she wrote about her time as a sex worker in Vancouver. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m really looking forward to it, and to seeing how Amber Dawn writes about the role literature can play in overcoming the most difficult of situations and experiences. Imogen Binnie’s Nevada is another book I’m looking forward to reading; it’s about a trans women living in New York and the reviews have been very positive.” —Rae Spoon

“I am really enthusiastic about the work of so many queer Latino/a writers like Rigoberto GonzalezCharlie VázquezEmanuel XavierAlicia Gaspar de AlbaGibrán Güido and so many more! I never thought I would see the day when queer Latino/as would proudly claim both their ethnic heritage and their sexuality. It makes an old man weep tears of joy!” —Michael Nava

What necessitates queer publishers?

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“I think, in particular, queer and trans* POC publishers are needed right now and I hope to see a lot more of them. Because so much of our work is marginalized even within the general queer literary community, without even getting started on the literary world as a whole. That’s the reason I started BGD Press. I already had a publisher for my book, but I decided at the very last minute (I literally had the contract in my hand) that I wanted to do it myself. I wanted control over my own work and I wanted to decide everything about how it would meet the world. There’s a stigma about self-publishing. Many people think that writers self-publish because their work isn’t ‘good enough’ for a ‘real’ publisher. But no one thinks that about independent filmmakers or musicians. With writing, somehow there has to be this entity, this publishing house, that deems the work fit for readers. It’s nonsense, especially since most of those places aren’t run by queer and trans* people of color and don’t necessarily connect to our stories. I knew that there was an audience for my book and because of the popularity of Black Girl Dangerous, I already knew how to reach some of that audience, so I just did it. I know so many amazing writers who are sitting around waiting to get that stamp of approval from a publisher. They may never get it. That doesn’t make their work any less amazing. At some point, I hope, they will all realize that it’s within their power to do it themselves. If and when that happens, there will be a renaissance of queer and trans* POC fiction. I’m seriously looking forward to that.” —Mia McKenzie

“In 2013, publishing still has a lot of political power and small queer publishers have a lot of influence about how queer people think about themselves. Even though everyone is running around like chicken little, worried that books are going away, it’s just not true. Queer writers are going to keep writing no matter what and queer readers are still going to want to read their books. Someone has to be in the middle to make the connection. At Topside Press, it is certainly our experience that demand outpaces supply. There is a real hunger for good trans and queer books. If we had enough good manuscripts to publish, we’d put out 20 books a year. I hope, if there’s a writer out there reading this and considering going to grad school, they stop themselves and just write a good book instead. They’ll save a pile of money and get their work to readers much faster.” —Tom Léger

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