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:
- 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
- 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
- Isabel Miller’s Patience and Sarah
- Desert of the Heart, Jane Rule
- Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown
- The Latecomer, Anyda Marchant
- 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
- Sea of Light, Jennifer Levin
- Hood & Slammerkin, Emma Donoghue
- Hard Love, Ellen Wittlinger
- Tipping the Velvet & Fingersmith, Sarah Waters