The Amazon Trail: What is lesbian literature? by Lee Lynch

It’s nice that some non-gay writers include us in their stories. I’m thinking of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder detective novels in which he has an amusing lesbian friend who is a dog groomer. Very respectful and matter-of-fact that she’s a dyke. But that doesn’t make the novels lesbian any more than the presence of Robert B. Parker’s gay male bartender and strongman in his Spenser series makes the books gay male.

How about Sylvia Plath’s much revered novel The Bell Jar? The writer implies that a secondary character, who typically for that era commits suicide, is gay. Or Mary McCarthy’s The Group, in which one of eight old college friends has a woman lover. Should we consider these lesbian books?

And Mary Oliver, a lesbian, but the reader must hunt for allusions to her affectional orientation, and then be uncertain. Her beloved books are probably included every lesbian library and the poems express the experience of one lesbian. Can they be claimed as our literature? Hardly.

Leonardo Padura Fuentes, novelist, critic and essayist, wrote, “I bury myself in Cuba deeply so that I can express what Cuba is, and have not left Cuba because I am a Cuban writer and I can’t be anything else.”

Padura Fuentes creates Cuban literature. Substitute the word “lesbian” for “Cuba” and his sentence describes an author of lesbian literature. Genre doesn’t matter, nor era, fiction or non-fiction. Truly lesbian writing delves deep into the lesbian psyche, not to the exclusion of the rest of human experience, but through the unique perspective of gay women.

Jeannette Foster’s renowned and lengthy history and analysis of writings which hint of, refer to, or portray lesbians, is titled Sex Variant Women in Literature. Itself decidedly a prime example of what I call lesbian literature, the book does not pretend to examine that subject, but only to identify dykes in writings since the Bible. That is lesbians in literature, not lesbian literature.

Again, when Barbara Grier published her bibliography, she included hundreds of works that may only have brushed against the rare gay female individual. The title she chose was The Lesbian In Literature, not lesbian literature.

Neither author claimed to address actual lesbian literature. There was little of it to examine in any case.

And now the label is being slapped on all sorts of books, and categorized that way by LGBTQ people themselves. This trend is not encouraging queer women to tenaciously explore and document our lesbian experiences. It only encourages the assimilation that manifests in crossover books, books written to appeal to all readers. It only discourages most publishers from accepting submissions whose focus is fully and earnestly lesbian. It only denies lesbian readers works that reflect the reality of our lives.

While it’s true that we can only write that which inspires us, when teachers, editors, agents and awards administrators, among others, hold mainstream writing as the standard, and all but ignore books with an exclusively lesbian focus, they lead us away from serious, in depth examination of our lesbian selves. No matter how popular or literary, including a gay female character or a dalliance between women or a minor character who is questioning—none of those are legitimately part of lesbian literature.

This may smack of separatism and early gay liberation, but we have a right to our own cultures, whatever kind of queer we are. As we focus our words on ourselves, we build a legacy for the future-dykes of two or two hundred years, whether next door to us or in a place where queericide is the norm.

When I see today’s writers of unabashed lesbian stories who show the same spirit as Jane Rule, Isabel Miller, and Radclyffe Hall not getting their due, I wonder how far have we really come? These are the women who are struggling to communicate the essence of who we are by writing from their very lesbian hearts.

Copyright Lee Lynch 2019

March 2019


  1. And then there’s the whole “is it lesbian enough?” issue… But your analysis explains why I personally feel so rankled when plays with lesbian characters get produced but are written by cisgendered straight people. Thank you for this, Lee.

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  2. Lee, thank so much for this really important point you are making. I agree that we have to draw a distinction between lesbian/queer literature and mainstream literature that demonstrates some degree of lesbian/queer inclusiveness. Maybe it’s like a prism. In one situation, it is the lesbian/queer woman who is looking through the prism (we can call this the “lesbian gaze”) and in the other, regardless of the sexual orientation of the author, it is the non-queer/non-lesbian looking through the prism (a very different gaze).

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  3. Hear, hear, 1,000 times over!!! I remember how desperately I searched for any for of media that reflected our lives even remotely accurately. We must never return to those times. Thanks for articulating that so well.

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  4. Can’t get any clearer than Lee Lynch’s piece here and I’m grateful that one of our lesbian fiction, trailblazing icons has spoken about it. I pray that books written by lesbians about lesbian love or lives will never be eroded or forgotten by pubs in the ever-expanding “lesbian fiction” (which should prolly be renamed, “wlw-fiction” or “f/f-fiction” nowadays, tbh) because of the inclusion of other wlw sexuality, non-lesbian identities to make their authors’ books more appealing to the general masses and represent the other wlw identities, obvs. Sometimes I do want to read about strictly lesbian romance, love, and lives in lesfic, you know what I mean? Anyway, cheers, Ms. Lynch & Jove Belle of “Women and Words” for publishing this article! Much obliged! 🙂

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  5. Lee, I would be interested in your take on Alexandria Marzano Lesnevich winning the Lambda award for her memoir, The Fact of a Body. I discovered this book when I asked our local library what the LGBTQ book-club selection was a couple of months ago because I’d missed it. As I was reading the book, I thought it was absolutely stunning and amazing — but I was sure it was for a different book club because she hadn’t mentioned anything about being a lesbian, and doesn’t until toward the end. Being a lesbian is not the focus of the memoir at all, so while it was absolutely brilliant, should it have won best lesbian memoir simply because the author is a lesbian? (I understand that folks could say that what she writes about has a direct bearing on her sexuality but that would have been true if she had come out as a straight woman as well. Abuse is always relevent to sexuality in some way.) I haven’t discussed this issue with anyone and have been out of the loop lately so don’t know if there were fb discussions and so on about it.

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  6. Lee, you win today’s “let’s-make-Renée-think” award. I tilt in favor of diversity, mostly to prove that people of all genders, ages, races, sexual expression, sizes, etc. share more in common with each other than they/we might imagine. I also possess the immutable belief that writers must be free to write about anyone or anything they want. So…it wasn’t until I read your blog post a second time that I realized you weren’t expressing thoughts contrary to mine. I am free to write a novel about Pacific Islanders, but that doesn’t mean my novel will be an example of Pacific Islander literature. D.W. Griffith directed “The Birth of a Nation.” That movie was not an example of an African American film. You are so right-on-time to point out the difference between lesbians IN literature and lesbian literature. If the former is written accurately, that’s wonderful. It is the latter that affirms us and gives us the emotional energy we need to survive, now more than ever. Mahalo, Lee. Thank you.

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    • Thanks, Renee, for so clearly restating what I was trying to say. I appreciate that you took the time to do a second read through and, of course, that you wrote these words: “It is the latter that affirms us and gives us the emotional energy we need to survive, now more than ever.”

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