The announcement of the 23rd annual Lambda Literary Awards in New York City last month was a wonderful celebration of LGBT literature. Within 24 categories, more than 520 books were nominated by 230 publishers; 114 finalists emerged and 26 winners were named (two categories this year were tied and thus had dual winners.) The Lambda Literary Awards demonstrate the vibrancy of our literary culture.
I applaud the winners, finalists and the Lambda Literary Foundation, and, in fairness, I should note that I served as a judge on this year’s panels, am a frequent contributor of reviews to LambdaLiterary.org, I support the organization financially. Obviously, I believe in Lambda Literary Foundation and in the vision it has for queer literary culture.
While there is much to celebrate in queer literary culture, there is something to bemoan as well, particularly for lesbian writers and readers. The lack of attention by mainstream publishers to lesbian writing, particularly lesbian fiction, is appalling.
As it has for more than four decades, lesbian publishing is flourishing in small, often lesbian-owned, publishing houses like Bold Stroke Books, Bywater Books, and Naiad Press. These small publishers are vital and important to our literary culture, but they must operate in conjunction with mainstream publishing. By mainstream publishing I mean (generally) New York-based trade publishers, who market books to broad audiences and sell books through mainstream bookselling venues, now primarily big-box bookstores, but also locally owned booksellers. Mainstream publishing brings us Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, and Stieg Larsson, but it is also brings us Rita Mae Brown, Jeannette Winterson and Emma Donoghue.
For the Lambda Literary Awards, lesbian fiction is divided into a variety of categories; I’ll consider three. First, Lesbian Debut fiction. In this category, none of the five finalists were published by large publishing houses.
Perhaps debut fiction is more difficult for authors to attract the attention of mainstream publishers. So consider Lesbian Fiction. Of the five finalists in this category, again, not a single one of the books was published by a mainstream publishing house. All the finalists were published by small, independent presses or a university press.
Lesbian Mystery fares a bit better; two books were published by trade publishing houses – Val McDermid’s new book Fever of the Bone (HarperCollins) and Ellen Hart’s The Cruel Ever After (Minotaur/St. Martin’s).
Why are mainstream publishers important? Mainstream publishers tend to sell more books for authors. They have a larger distribution system, more money to support marketing and advertising for the book. More sales of books mean more income to writers. More income, more writing. More writing, new books by lesbian writers. When mainstream publishing works, it supports writers to do what they do well and it provides a stream of books to readers.
So what does the lack of attention from mainstream publishers mean to readers? In short, it means that excellent books by lesbian writers don’t get time and attention from the mainstream publishing industry. It means that it is difficult to find books that have compelling lesbian characters.
In reviewing lesbian books nominated for Lambda Literary Awards, among mainstream publishers there is a paucity of books that have lesbians as their central characters. Moreover, too often, lesbian characters are circumscribed to banal narratives about coming out. What we need and want to read are stories of lesbian life and lesbian experience in a variety of settings; we want characters that are real, struggling with something other than coming out; we want characters that are funny, wise, flawed and fun.
The only place lesbian writers are thriving with mainstream publishers are in books that originate in the United Kingdom. In the U.S., lesbian writers and lesbian readers are overlooked by mainstream publishers. Perhaps they think the market is too small; the audience too niche. This attitude robs us all.
Certainly, mainstream publishers are not a panacea for lesbian writers. But in 2010 and 2011, we have had fewer lesbian novels published. Yes, publishing is a beleaguered industry. But lesbian writers deserve better. And lesbian readers deserve better. While I laud the achievements of this year’s winners and finalists of the Lambda Literary Award, lesbian literature is poorer for the lack of attention by mainstream publishers. We need to take action to change the situation for our literary culture to thrive.
Julie R. Enszer is a writer and activist based in University Park, Md. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.