Three Things – Because Sandra said so…

Clearly, I’m not Sandra Moran. Nor do I play one on TV. I am, however, a concerned third party who is capable of publishing a post for her because my internet loves me at the moment and hers doesn’t love her.


As a “woman of a certain age,” it recently occurred to me that my life is more than likely half over. Granted, there’s an outside chance that I will reach the 100 mark, but realistically, I probably won’t. Please understand, I’m not being morbid. Nor am I bemoaning the fact that I’m aging because you couldn’t pay me to be in my angsty 20s again. (It was non-stop Melissa Etheridge medley.)

I like being comfortable in my own skin. But the perspective has caused me to really examine what I want to do with the second half of my life. I’ve started to think about what I want to leave behind as a legacy. I didn’t procreate, so my reputation, my work as a teacher (and as a writer), and the impact I’ve had on others is really all that will remain when I’m gone. The onus lies with me to make that as meaningful as possible – which brings me to the point of this month’s blog.

What do we, as writers, want our contribution to be to future generations? What do we want to tell them about who we were and what was important to us personally, politically, and culturally?

Last month at the Golden Crown Literary Society’s annual conference in New Orleans, Marianne K. Martin (Bywater Books) and I facilitated a Master Class on the past, present, and future of lesbian literature. The first part of the class examined, by decade, the history of the genre beginning with the 1920s and the 1928 publication of Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness.” Then, as placeholders within each decade, we looked at works that we felt embodied the socio-political dynamic of the time and how that, in turn, shaped the authors’ world view and was reflected in their work.

The books we discussed* (particularly up through the 1990s) were classics. Our criteria for determining these were books that were profoundly moving to the reader, were re-read multiple times and that, with each reading, provided something new. These were also books that were politically or culturally significant and helped readers define themselves, their generation, and their experiences. They contained broad universal messages and were often part of a larger canon of work.

Choosing authors and novels was an interesting (and telling) exercise because it became very clear that our literature for each time period was a reflection of our place within the larger whole. For example, we see it go from clandestine (in the first part of the century), to classical (in the 1950s and early 60s), to consciousness-raising in the 1960s and 70s.

And this continues into the 1980s where, as society changed and the cultural construct of being a woman changed, so too, did the literature for and about lesbians. We see lesbian publishing houses and an expansion within lesbian fiction to include genre lesbian fiction (erotica, butch-femme, young adult, science fiction, romances, mysteries, and works by women of different ethnicities).  Within the 1980s and 90s, we also see a broadening of the scope of the “lesbian experience” and a portrayal of their lives in the “real world.” As lesbians became more visible in politics, entertainment and literature, there is an increase in stories that reflect personal experience rather than overt political agendas.

Fast forward to the new millennium and a slow change in public perception and increased acceptance of lesbians. With it, you see an explosion of gay and lesbian literature – not just in the variety, but also in the availability thanks in no small part to the great equalizer – the Internet — and trailblazers such as Elllen DeGeneres, Melissa Etheridge and Illene Chaiken, who chose to live openly and produce unapologetic work that impacted the social consciousness. We see this, too, in lesbian fiction. And, as social perceptions of gays and lesbians changed and we became more accepted and integrated into mainstream society, so too, did our literature. What was at one time a dearth of lesbian fiction became a flood. Not only were there print books, but the Internet allowed for the writing and sharing of lesbian stories in all sorts of forums – including femslash and fan fiction.

The market further expanded with the appearance and popularity of e-books and e-book readers – which brought about programs like Smashwords and CreateSpace that allow independent authors to publish on their own.

So, by now, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with anything. Well, it all goes back to where I started out – that if we are to look at the past and how the work produced was a reflection of the sociopolitical and cultural climate of the time, what does our work say about us and the time during which we live? And more importantly, what do we want our legacy to be?

As a college instructor, every time I walk into the classroom, I see a generation of lesbians who are so much more self-assured, comfortable with who they are and integrated into the cultural whole. They, I believe, are going to demand stories that reflect themselves and their experiences.  And, as we see an increase in diversity, more crossover to mainstream, increases in the ability to self-publish and the permanence of the e-book I think we will see a maturation of the genre to include stories that look at lesbian couples with children, marriages that go awry, marriages that endure, death, love — universal themes that are part of the human experience. And this, I believe, requires us to ask the very tough (but necessary) questions regarding the fate/future/need of/for lesbian specific fiction.

I don’t have the answers, but I welcome the discussion.

*Books/Authors Discussed in the GCLS Master Class:

  • 1920s
    • The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall
  • 1930s and 40s
    • Nancy Drew, Carolyn Keene
    • We Too Are Drifting by Gale Wilhem
    • Pity For Women by Helen Anderson
    • Torchlight to Valhalla, Gale Wilhem
  • 1950s
    • Spring Fire, Marijane Meeker, (pseudonyms of Ann Aldrich, M.E. Kerr, Mary James, Laura Winston and, perhaps most famously, Vin Packer)
    • Women’s Barracks, Tereska Torres
    • The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith
    • Beebo Brinker, Ann Bannon
  • 1960s
    • Isabel Miller’s Patience and Sarah
    • Desert of the Heart, Jane Rule
  • 1970s
    • Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown
    • The Latecomer, Anyda Marchant
  • 1980s
    • The Color Purple, Alice Walker
    • Annie on my Mind, Nancy Garden
    • Bastard out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison
    • Oranges are not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson
    • Zami: A New Spelling of my Name, Audre Lord
    • Curious Wine, Katherine V. Forrest
    • The Swashbuckler, Lee Lynch
  • 1990s
    • Sea of Light, Jennifer Levin
    • Hood & Slammerkin, Emma Donoghue
    • Hard Love, Ellen Wittlinger
    • Tipping the Velvet & Fingersmith, Sarah Waters
Advertisements

14 thoughts on “Three Things – Because Sandra said so…

  1. I was actually thinking about this a couple of days ago, Sandra (though Jove is clearly masquerading as you at the moment). I’m just finishing up writing a novel and one of the characters has some family issues that I touch on that surround her sexual orientation and identity (which is lesbian). Part of those issues are that she comes from a rather traditional Chinese family and though she is clearly American (born in America) and her parents wanted her to be American and acculturated, they blame American culture for her lesbianism.

    So I was thinking–will lesbian literature in future generations still have to deal with those issues? Or will cultures around the world get to a point where it’s “no big deal” that someone’s LGBTQ? If so, what will LGBTQ stories look like? Or will there even be LGBTQ stories, if we’re all part of the larger cultures in which we’re born and live?

    Fascinating to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the post Jove (Sandra). As someone who was not able to get to New Orleans, would you and Marianne be willing to share a list of the books you used to illustrate each decade of the history? I would be very interested in seeing it. History and where we go are two topics I have a great deal of interest and your session would have been one I would have been on the front row for had I made it to New Orleans. Thanks!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Something I think about a lot is that we are going to lose our history if our current generation of writers doesn’t write it. No one but us cares enough (yet) to write about it, and the last generation of outlaws and outcasts needs to tell its story, so that when a future young person asks, What was the big deal anyway? we will have a literature to show, on a personal level, what our lives were like “before”.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. As just a reader and not an author after reading this I was looking at my bookcase..I guess I never thought about it before..they were just books I loved and read and reread..I see the progression in my books of how lesbian literature and myself has changed and grown over the years…This is why I love these Posts they make me see and think of things that I had just taken for granted!

    Like

  5. I second the request for the book list! As a history major who should have been soc/anthro, this is exactly the sort of thing I ponder- so good to read your thoughts on it!
    P.S. You used one of my favorite words “dearth” :). Bonus points.

    Like

    1. I remember the very first Lesfic book I ever read. I was 20 and it was none other than….Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita. I read most of her books before the cats. I’m not a cat fan. They had a profound influence on me. Now, there are so many available – it’s mind boggling. I would like to see the list too. I’d love to see the presentation.

      Like

  6. I remember the very first Lesfic book I ever read. I was 20 and it was none other than….Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita. I read most of her books before the cats. I’m not a cat fan. They had a profound influence on me. Now, there are so many available – it’s mind boggling. I would like to see the list too. I’d love to see the presentation.

    Like

  7. Great blog. What a trip down memory lane. There are so many wonderful choices out there now and I agree that lesfic will probably evolve as we see more stories of married couples and families dealing with the same issues that straight couples and families deal with. Probably less coming out drama.

    Like

  8. I think we need to see, and am writing, novels that reflect the diversity of our communities (intentionally plural.) We are not a white, able-bodied, middle-class, educated monolith and our novels have to some degree reflected that but need to reflect it with greater frequency. We have to go back and reclaim that part of our history as well, such as the dykes and transwomen involved in Stonewall. I don’t see this as political correctness, but as historical reality. Sandra, I love what you have done with historical representation in Letters Never Sent and look forward to continuing to read your historical novels!

    Like

  9. It was a privilege to attend this master class and I found it fascinating and inspiring. Growing up as I did, hiding books by Ann Bannon and Vin Packer, really fearful of discovery, it was an amazing experience to sit in at this class and freely discuss our literature. Everyone I talked to after the class wanted more! I would happily sign up for a full semester! I was surprised and delighted to find that I had not read a couple of the books in the list so I look forward to catching up. While I am an avid reader of contemporary lesbian fiction, I don’t want to lose the connection to the past and the very rich literary history we share. I know there is a lot to be said for going mainstream and getting to the point where we can shrug and say ‘what’s the big deal’ but I also want to keep for ourselves what is uniquely ours. There can never be too much representation of the LGBT community-after all we are a minority surrounded by a dominant culture, so it seems to me we can never have too much fiction, too many movies or enough presence in commercial media that presents us as we are now, warts and all. Are we there yet? I don’t think so!

    Like

  10. First, thank you very much for this blog, Jove. Had I been at the conference last month, I would have attended Marianne’s and Sandra’s presentation. Second, thank you, Onamarae, for your comments. I agree with everything you said. Third, I’d like to respond to the issue of legacy. I’ve reached the age of “legacy concern.” Before I retired from the classroom, I realized that I valued kindness more than anything else. Certainly, I’d love to say that I communicated so well my passion for foreign languages that dozens of my former students decided to major in Spanish or French and then become teachers. But at the end of the day, I clung to the saying, “People don’t always remember what you’ve said to them, but they do recall how you made them feel.” Now I’m ten years into my writing career and this blog resurrects my concern with legacy. I would like to think that I’ve made sound contributions to the body of African American lesbian literature. That I’ve written skillfully and passionately. I hope I’ve created memorable characters who have dealt with their challenges, strengths and frailties in a very human way. I hope my stories engaged readers of all ethnicities and sexualities, readers who simply wanted to meet believable characters and enjoy well crafted expressive language. I hope my books reached women like myself, women who’ve been excluded so often from the pages between the covers.

    Like

  11. What a great reading list! Good choices to represent the progression through the 20th century. I sometimes wish, though, that people didn’t think that lesbian literature didn’t exist before Radclyffe Hall (or, in some cases, that lesbians didn’t exist before that era). A survey of 20th century literature gives the impression that there has been a linear progression in how lesbian themes are treated in literature, while material from earlier centuries presents a much more complex and fascinating picture.

    Like

  12. I really appreciate your comments. At 64 I often what will remain ofme once I am gone. Of çourse there will be my wonderful an loving son. But so much of what I once thought would be my life changed in so many ways so now it does enter my mind that here will be little left at all. My partner thinks I should finally write of my childhood and how I survived, so others will know they can also. I wonder if people want to read of such horrors. But if even one gains hope maybe it is time. Thanks for making me think!
    Sam Ruskin

    Like

Comments are closed.