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Underrated Lesbian Books

NewPages posted today about Curve Magazine’s “10 Most Underrated Lesbian Books,” which got me thinking about my book and how it is a lesbian book but resists such labeling. Only if a reader has read Written On the Body, and only if s/he maintains that the narrator in it is a woman, will s/he understand that the “you” in mine is an homage to Louise and is playing the same sort of narrative trickery. In any case, here are some other things I got to thinking about: Aren’t all lesbian books underrated? What makes a book a “lesbian book”? Will anyone read the books on Curve‘s list? Does the word “lesbian” turn people off (from reading)? Are the writers of these lesbian books lesbians themselves? And if this is the tradition then where do I fit in? Is this part of the reason these books are underrated–because only lesbians care to write about lesbians (and thus only lesbians want to read about lesbians)? In a woman-hating, man-loving world, here are people who embrace women, reject men (as lovers). Conversely, in this woman-hating, man-loving world, gay men reject women and embrace men (as lovers). I’m thinking that my point here has something to do with the publishing industry as a reflection of the woman-hating, man-loving world. I could stand to hold off on hitting “Publish” here, but I’ve got a student on her way for a consultation and maybe by the time I come back to this post you will have made the sense of it that I’m trying to. Help me out. Tell me that just because a book is a “lesbian book” it isn’t fated to being underrated.

13 thoughts on “Underrated Lesbian Books

  1. Molly,

    I appreciate this post. We do to raise awareness of books, writers and topics that are shied away from. On the other hand I’m not so into categories. I like books and stories, I don’t like novels about Jesus Christ, I don’t like mother and son stories, I don’t like books and stories set in New York or Rio, I just like books and stories.

    Last night I heard DA Powell read two poems for about five minutes in the midst of twenty other readers at the National Book Critics Circle reading. Those five minutes were probably the most beautiful and moving I’ve experienced in any of my experiences with art. That he is a gay or straight has no effect on how I experience his work (he is gay). He is a human being I fully embrace, a poet I adore. He is a poet.

    Elizabeth Bishop refused to have her poems included in all-women anthologies.

    I never thought of Two Serious Ladies as a Lesbian book, I just thought of it as a book. I will always.

  2. I don’t think the first four are underrated, but that’s just me. I like lesbian books. Ha. But yes, of course Susan Sontag’s books would never be called lesbian books, though she was a lesbian. But this was partly her own desire, her own resistance to queer politics, to connecting her private life to her public persona.

    I don’t mind the labels, but if a book is brilliant (Bechdel’s Fun Home, not on the list) the label means less. (I agree that Two Serious Ladies hardly needs the recommendation.)

    I’m a huge fan of Written on the Body, so looking forward to reading your book.

    1. I like that you mention Fun Home, by Bechdel. Not only does it resist categorization as a lesbian book, it also resists categorization as a graphic novel (though it qualifies as one). It’s too complex to be anything but its own animal.

  3. I’d say the labels (earned rightly so or not) both tap into and, beyond that, limit a book’s potential reach. Calling something a “lesbian” book, or calling it “dirty realism,” or hemming a book into a specific market tells fans of a kind thus to “read this–it’s right up your alley”, but definitely limits the book in a wider (or should we say unspecified) market. It seems purely a function not of creating the books (though certainly people aim to create books for specific markets) so much as the selling of books.

    As to books being underrated–I guess I feel (nothing earth-shattering here) that all books are underrated…because anyone who might get something that makes them a better human being from a book they haven’t read bascially means that book hasn’t yet reached everyone it should. But then we’re back to selling books again, and not just making them.

    I guess if a book is written (or edited, after the fact) with a certain target audience in mind, then it is embracing the label. If it’s just a good book that doesn’t “fit” anywhere else, then maybe it does better with a label, at least in the short term…though suffers in the long haul? Hard to say. Maybe it’s too romantic a notion, but I’d hope any good book, beyond it’s labels, would eventually be found by readers–a few or many–who will love it. Is that too much to dream for?

  4. Labels help young readers who are trying to find themselves in every which way find books they may not otherwise find. A 40 year old man may not need labels whereas a seventeen year old lesbian in Omaha, Nebraska may find them very useful. To undestand the use of labels is to not condescend to those who do find them useful.

    I’m sort of shocked The Price of Salt isn’t on here. Maybe because it’s not underrated? But surely neither is Bowles or Barnes.

  5. Hi y’all, I’m the editor in chief of Curve magazine and I think I may have a different world view, because well, I publish a magazine that’s aimed at readers and doesn’t mind the label and I’m the author of mystery novels that are billed as “lesbian” as well (and they aren’t lit fic, I know I don’t belong on any best-off lists but I think they’re fun, wacky little murder mysteries populated by people I’d like to see). I guess I’m thinking more often of those 17 (and 27 and 47) year old women outside the large metros and gay meccas, and maybe outside the ranks of literature lovers overall, but who would pick up a book because we say they are brilliant or moving or important or what not.

    Also, what you’re missing in this discussion is a prior article we ran, entitled 20 Powerful Lesbian Authors, in which we profiled queer women or lesbians who whose works were among the most recognized, most celebrated, or most beloved. When we started that I talked among our regular writers and editors, some from academia and some from publishing and other disciplines, and someone said, you know what’s a shame? It’s a shame that we have all these books that are lesbian (and for us that’s defined as being written by, featuring or aimed at—among other audiences—lesbian, queer, bisexual, gender-variant women) that never get recognized in these “best of” type of lists, and we have these authors that just don’t get the credit they really deserve regardless of their own sexuality or orientation or identity politics.

    So we did the big piece and this accompanying piece on the underrated books.

    At least you know that if you’re unhappy with it, it came from a place of respect and admiration.

    Thanks!
    Diane

      1. Diane,

        Thanks so much for weighing in here. I can’t say that I’m unhappy with the article; I’m thrilled it’s there — even more thrilled to learn about the “20 most powerful” list! If there’s anyone I’m picking on, I suppose it’s readers (maybe publishers who choose what readers read?), and that’s why I so appreciate Paula’s earlier comment.

        It’s so cool when someone you blog about pops up! Hello!

        M.

  6. As a once 17-year-old girl looking for ANYTHING lesbian-related (granted, Newport Beach is a far cry from Omaha), I can attest to the awkwardness of a book’s label, but also it’s efficiency. Funny to think I’d been searching for any type of erotic lesbian story after reading literary vanguards of early queer writing, and doing so in a mainstream bookstore, where — and, here comes the awkward aspect — I would quickly scuttle past the “Gay/Lesbian” section, so as not to be seen by any potential passing non-queer peers (no pun on the “passing”, ’cause I so entirely was at that time in my life).

    However, the section itself was a blessing. That is, at least until I found myself in a long-line at the register, knowing I was about to out myself to the, most likely, equally pimple-faced cashier, after the ISBN popped up under queer reading (or whatever the category had been). It’s laughable now, but the closet’s a pretty strange, hyper-critical place, where the sting of the Cartesian blade can be quite dicey.

    Thanks for mentioning the list. I’d also really like to recommend [her, as an underrated lesbian author] and hear what others think of Rebecca Brown (Annie Oakley’s Girl, etc…). I’m pretty blown away by her right now; and, living in Costa Rica, actually don’t know if she’s “underrated”, or if I just missed out on her in queer courses at University.

    Saludos!

    1. LOVE Rebecca Brown–a friend just reminded me of The Terrible Girls, which I loved (so many years ago). I haven’t read Annie Oakley’s Girl–thanks for the reminder!

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