Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
WHAT IS LESBIAN FICTION?
The Lesbian writer is one who re-envisions female reality. She is one who imagines beyond her own fear.
- 'Lesbian Writing: Adventure in Autonomy', by Cy-Thea Sand
People argue about stories: who should tell them, which ones to tell, whether they should be literally true in whole or in part, who they should be shared with. People argue about stories, especially when the stories challenge their sense of how the world works and who exists in it. People argue about stories, even if they insist that certain stories are "only fiction" and incomparable to such real life concerns as poverty, the economy, and the ever-receding prospect of world peace. Nevertheless, people will argue about stories, because no matter how realistic or metaphorical stories may be, they are relentlessly political. This makes sense, because stories provide the frameworks of of our lives, the tools we use to interpret and order our experiences and then communicate with others. When people encounter few stories in which they can recognize themselves and the matters they care about, the arguments are all the more fraught. Lesbians are certainly in this position, and so the question of lesbian representation in popular culture is a regular topic of discussion in lesbian communities. One of the most rewarding and frustrating angles of this discussion considers the genre of "lesbian fiction," starting with the question of what it even is.
Cover of an italian edition of Joanna Russ' famous and perennially misunderstood novel, *The Female Man*, via pinterest july 2021.
Rewarding, because from this angle lesbians can see beyond the vicious and pornographic caricatures typically on offer to more accurate and three-dimensional depictions. But also intensely frustrating in this time of postmodernism and the neoliberal turn, which have led far too many lesbians to insist that they don't know what lesbian fiction is and that they cannot successfully define it, on any number of grounds. This is at complete odds with the extraordinary work of the late twentieth century by lesbian activists, scholars, and philosophers, many of whom were all three of these at once. Bonnie Zimmerman's wonderfully readable The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction 1969 - 1989 presented her proposed definition of lesbian fiction, and her application of it. She made no claim to have said the final word on the question and contributed constructively to the discussion. Meanwhile, back when I still spent time participating in mailing lists, I was involved in a truly disheartening discussion of lesbian fiction that led after awhile to a far from constructive definition.
I will give the definition from the mailing list here as I understand and understood it, because it did appear to reflect what was actually being published at the time of the discussion. Whether it reflects what little is still being published post-2010 is another question again. To wit, "lesbian fiction" was defined as what we usually consider fiction so long as somewhere in it two women are "having sex." This is not quite as helpful as it may seem, since "having sex" is vague, so vague the women could be having sex with anybody but each other. Still for now, let's be generous and assume this means some form of genital contact between two women where one or both women involved have orgasms. In other words, the sexual derring-do has to be between women, not women and men, to count. More than a few folks, myself included, found this definition unsatisfactory. It hardly seems enough to throw in a couple of women "playing with each other's genitals" to borrow a phrase from Sheila Jeffreys, to make "lesbian fiction." But defining it as being a story where a lesbian romantic relationship is at the centre also seems too restrictive, and could easily flunk the "sex test" if we try to combine it with the original proposed definition. Which is not to say that this wouldn't be a reasonable description of a more restricted sort of lesbian fiction, say lesbian formula romance fiction. Except that the question at hand was not how to describe the typical fare published by a temporary fluorescence of small presses hoping to grab some lesbian dollars.
Since this first attempt was not satisfactory, some effort went into trying to define "lesbian culture" in order to see if that would help better capture the breadth many of us were trying to express. This is a promising route to take, because it turns back to community and action in the world, and therefore how lesbian community and action is represented in the media. But as soon became clear, even if attempts are made to restrict the definition of "lesbian culture" to one continent, and assuming at least implicitly culture is given not built, defining lesbian culture also soon hits a dead end if nobody successfully questions liberalism, let alone neoliberalism. In the end what did all "lesbians," whether they'd use that term or not, have in common? They relate sexually to women, declared the majority. Well, this is starting to sound like a broken record, and its starting to sound eerily familiar. Compare the results of the defining process so far to this:
"We're just like anyone else. We build families, hold down regular jobs, pay our taxes, vote. The only way we're different is that we're not heterosexual." This is the general liberal-style argument, deployed most famously and persistently by gay men, and not a few lesbians. "We aren't threats to the status quo. We kind of like it except for the discrimination and fear for our lives and bodily integrity."
Not such an unreasonable position, if the status quo serves you, or at least seems to serve you. Or even seems like it could serve you, if only this whole sexual orientation thing stopped being such an issue. If this position propagates into what is currently called "lesbian fiction" as indeed it seems to have done, this leads directly to the definition of "lesbian fiction" already given, in which "lesbian" is a particular sexual proclivity, and nothing else – neatly rendering the concept of "lesbian culture" stuff and nonsense. No political dangers here whatsoever, no deeper questions about gender or sex-based stereotypes or anything like that.
For those of us with a political bent and/or omnivorous reading habits, these arguments should be sounding eerily familiar. As Sheila Jeffreys has pointed out, this definition comes straight out of sexological literature. In its early days, sexologists focussed on telling everyone that gender was biological destiny. It is to such stuff that we owe the "inversion model" featured by Radclyffe Hall, and its 2010-era revision as "transgenderism." Then and now, sexological literature is really about teaching us how to behave properly when we have sex (if we have sex), and thereby in society at large. The proper state of society in the sexological eye, is patriarchal and heterosexual. And if lesbians can't be forced to at least pretend to be good heterosexual women with men, they can at least be persuaded to do so with other women. Sexological literature is profoundly antiwoman stuff, among the fundamentalist texts of patriarchy and heterosexism. Nevertheless, early twentieth century lesbians like Hall thought that if they accepted and applied the model to themselves, they could thread the needle to social respectability. In 1928, Hall published her (in)famous novel The Well of Loneliness, a longer and more sophisticated rendering of the noble and tragic invert theme she had worked with in an earlier short story. The subsequent attempts to suppress the novel via obscenity trials and overseas publication delays have had the unfortunate result of pushing this novel into the english literature secondary canon.
Sheila Jeffreys proposed a radical definition of heterosexuality in the late 1980s that makes some people so angry that she is evidently on the right track. Indeed, if fiction mimics life or illustrates the way the author believes life is meant to be, and we have no real reason to think otherwise, then she has turned a spotlight on what "heterosexuality" really means, and how it coopts efforts to end patriarchy. In brief, Jeffreys defines heterosexuality as the eroticising of power differences. Dominance/submission is therefore rendered an everpresent subtext, even if it is never a maintext. Furthermore, heterosexuality is assumed to exist throughout history, with no need to prove genital connection or fend off arguments that heterosexuals could not have existed in any way before the term was invented in the nineteenth century.
Jeffreys' definition was published before email and the explosion of fan fiction, but right at the start of a new wave of "lesbian fiction" that had mostly played itself out by 2010. It's remarkable how well her definition has stood the test of time and the range of writers in the fan fiction realms of the internet, who are truly among the most diverse communities of writers on Earth. Take a look at almost any popular author of "lesbian fiction" as defined above, be they internet published as "fan fiction writers" or hard copy published as "authors." One iconic series has the boss sleeping with her immediate underling in the corporate hierarchy (no pun intended). Another features a wealthy woman who ultimately takes up with a poor woman whom she nearly kills in a hit and run accident. Then there are the specialists in stories of blue collar, working class women in perhaps unconventional careers in relationships with upper class, older women who don't need to work. It almost goes without saying that the woman on the more empowered end of the spectrum is white. Sex scenes seem obligatory in such stories, interrupting the flow with imitations of penis in vagina sex, or other modifications on staples of men's pornography. I can't say I've read a lot of hard copies to survey material for this essay; it's so much mercifully easier to skip the dull parts on-line. There's a lot of rubber, plastic and silicon, enough that many lesbians with budgets to respect would be priced out of the running if this was all that lesbian sex was or could be. I've also been struck by a weird trend among authors who don't have overt sex scenes; they have rape scenes or the shattering of a character by a rape instead. Not that heterosexual women characters are necessarily treated better, even by some of the longest-writing and better known authors, which is gobsmacking in its own right.
This strikes me as a painfuly hollowed out version of what I hope "lesbian fiction" could be. In fact, it seems an awful lot like high class pornography for men. Writers follow the models they have the greatest access to on average, especially when they are finding their feet, so it is no surprise that this is the sort of material many end up turning out. At first, we're all primed to use whatever ideas are ready to hand when we get started at something with many potential unknowns. Alongside Jeffreys' definition of heterosexuality, these trends suggest why it was so hard to talk about "lesbian fiction" or "lesbian culture" on that email list. They even suggest why the debate had a helpless, postmodern tone, an aspect that baffled and horrified me at the time. I couldn't understand the apparent resistance to imagining beyond this. It seemed no one else had read Judy Grahn's extraordinary book Another Mother Tongue, in which she envisioned lesbian and gay history in a way that acknowledged how we are far more than fodder for pornographers or moral panic purveyors to profit from. We were all talking about books, yet somehow only a very narrow range of books was allowed into the discussion.
In a nutshell, the problem was that most people discussing the question were avoiding politics and any potential wiff of lesbian bread and butter: Feminism. You cannot change a patriarchy – a racist, capitalist, slavery-loving patriarchy – by tweaking the bad stuff a little here and a little there. That isn't change. That's a thing called "relieving the pressure." Necessary, critical to survival, but only a stopgap measure.
Obviously this essay can't go on without me giving my own definition of lesbian fiction. It shares many elements with others that refuse to stop at genital connection between women. The idea here is to open up the possibilities for representing lesbians, lesbian community, and lesbian culture, not close them down.
Lesbian fiction is speculative writing that wrestles with the questions of how to dismantle patriarchy and the complex of additional oppressions used to maintain it. It visualizes alternatives to patriarchy and how they would work. It portrays a world where women and children are not prey or dirt but respected human beings. That's what lesbian fiction is. The rest is just outliers of mainstream fiction or pornography. In addition, this gives us a definition of "lesbian culture": cultural forms lesbians develop as constructive alternatives and resistance strategies to patriarchy and its complex of interrelated oppressions. Notice those cultural forms could be adopted by non-lesbians as well, and that not every character has to be a lesbian, nor does every non-lesbian have to be a villain.
Another writer commented to me on reading this definition that she "isn't as hard on lesbian fiction as I am." Fair enough, although this is quite an interesting way to look at how I've defined lesbian fiction here. Effectively, it denies the definition, yet, I actually don't think the bar the definition presents is that high. After all, the reason Rebecca West's dry statement that she was called a Feminist whenever she said something that differentiated her from a doormat or a prostitute is so biting and amusing is because turning sexism on its head is surprisingly easy, practically speaking. The big question is whether lesbian writers will permit themselves to write lesbian fiction as defined here at all, using the easier approaches (i.e. girl meets girl and together successfully resist the homophobia and sexism they face as themselves, rather than pretending to be 'just like straight people, really') as well as the more involved ones (i.e. imagining what a society would be like that treated women and chidren as human beings, and how to get there, illustrated by the experiences of lesbian characters). Then again, maybe that isn't the big question; maybe the big question is whether lesbian writers will permit themselves to imagine such things, write them down, and share them with others.
Since I mentioned Bonnie Zimmerman's book above, and she also proposed definitions of "lesbian fiction" and "lesbian culture" in its first chapter or so, it is worth pausing to see how our ideas compare to each other. Zimmerman writes from an explicitly lesbian Feminist perspective, so she takes as a starting point that positive relationships between women, the expression and continuation of love between women, is the central point of definition. She actually begins by defining lesbian culture as analogous to a philosophical or religious system that provides a "ready-made mythology, history, literature and ethos" which lesbians had been constructing at that point for roughly twenty years, producing "a similar cultural identity from existing traditions, lifestyles, myths, and stories." Zimmerman is an american scholar, so she was and is well aware of the complexities of race, class, and religion, and the need to strive for definitions that respect them. It seems to me that this definition does this very well. It doesn't demand a singular version, declaim that there is only one way to be a lesbian per se, and recognizes that "lesbian culture" is a creation that may be built up from various components that we have inherited or appropriated. Thinking this over, I would have to add an explicit caveat, because "appropriation" is such a powerful and dangerous tool, central to the action of oppressors as much as the oppressed. So we have to take care to seize back elements of our own cultures and rework them, not try to seize interesting shiny "objects" from people we perceive as weaker than us.
Next then, is Zimmerman's nuanced definition of "lesbian fiction," in the 1990s a flourishing product of lesbian culture. Like lesbian culture, she defines lesbian fiction as fluid and reflective of its historical and social context, not a list of "static characteristics that can be easily and uniformly identified and agreed upon." This is by no means a cop out, this is in fact a common feature of literary genres, although subsets of stories within a genre may have been rendered highly formulaic over time, such as the more simplistic police procedurals. With this in mind, Zimmerman notes that lesbian writing and writers can therefore be best identified by a cluster of factors, and emphasizes that the factors she identifies pertain to the period from approximately 1969 to 1989. With this foundation set out, she describes three factors, and considers and discards a fourth. The three factors she kept are:
- The writer herself is a lesbian, and may identify herself as such through a range of tactics including autobiographical elements in her writing and active participation in lesbian events and organizations.
- The story itself centres a lesbian character who knows she is a lesbian, and lesbian characters, all explicitly, not by allusion and coded wording. Men are firmly marginal to the main story, which centres love and sexual passion between women.
- That lesbians read the novels and stories in order to affirm lesbian existence, and the reading may itself be a means of participating in and enacting lesbian existence.
The fourth factor that Zimmerman considers unconvincing is the notion that there is a special "lesbian style" of writing that itself upends the usual modes of fiction and insists that lesbian fiction does not simply mirror "real-life." Zimmerman sets out clear evidence that contradicts this notion, including the fact that very few lesbian writers have in fact produced such challenging literature and that many of them fiercely oppose "unrealistic" fiction as such precisely because they are challenging and excising lying portrayals of lesbians. This remains true today to a significant extent in american and canadian lesbian fiction to my knowledge, and is not related only to this important work. Feminists in general value accessibility as a key value, including intellectual accessibility of fiction and non-fiction writing, and this has often been equated to realism. On the other hand, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote brilliantly on the difficult relationship between mainstream american culture and uncompromisingly "unrealistic" fiction, which is another important element here. None of this, as Zimmerman also notes, denies that lesbian writers explore characteristic subjects and themes.
Zimmerman's definition is more specific than mine to be sure, and unlike myself she is quite clear that the writers should be lesbians. At the time of the original discussions that led me to develop a definition of my own, I would probably have denied that this factor is necessary. However, bearing in mind Zimmerman's definition of lesbian culture, which so powerfully captures the importance of it as a means of existing as lesbians and asserting lesbian existence, I have to revise my position on this point. Further consideration made me realize that this revision was overdue, because as an Indigenous woman it is obvious to me that non-Indigenous people cannot assert our existence for us. If they try, they are in fact denying our existence by suggesting directly or indirectly that it is their right to define us, decide who and what we are, and construct "authentic" versions of us. The same argument applies to lesbians, and Zimmerman's discussion made me realize that I had not applied this reasoning consistently. All this said, I don't believe or want to suggest that Zimmerman believes that non-lesbians are incapable of representing lesbians fairly, nor that non-Indigenous people are incapable of representing Indigenous people fairly and accurately. Clearly that isn't the case.
Many authors of what they feel is "lesbian fiction" will be deeply offended by both of these definitions. They may or may not consider themselves "cutting edge," "brave," or even "transgressive." And indeed, to speak positively about women at all, let alone women-identified-women in anything let alone fiction is these things, at least to a non-threatening degree. It seems to me that many such authors have become skilled at deploying certain tropes that are titillating for the audience most publishers are really selling to: men. Heterosexual men, to be precise, in the Jeffreys sense of the term. It's a remarkable, but unsurprising, irony that mainstream lesbian fiction is apparently not for lesbians. The representation of lesbians on film and on screen is for the same audience. If it were otherwise, they would not practically all be selected to look as feminine as possible.
There is a certain logic to this. Women, heterosexual or no, are disproportionately poor, and somehow these books are always acutely expensive. On average they make a ten dollar Stephen King opus look cheap. The point here being that the publishers find a way to print that opus for a cover price of ten dollars, not that Stephen King is a lousy writer. Ah, but Steven King is very popular, the publisher can expect to sell loads of his books. So the economic argument goes, while quietly eliding the intensive flogging of Stephen King's books, or any mainstream book via advertising, author tours, and so on. These means of encouraging book sales are generally denied to any book that challenges the status quo, let alone lesbian fiction. This was a key reason that Feminists founded their own presses during the 1970s and 1980s.
Then there is the "oh thank god" factor. Lesbians are often so starved for positive reflections of themselves in damn near anything that damn near anything that comes remotely close will do. The creators of X:WP dined off of this for at least four years in the most cynical fashion possible. Even if the thought-provoking, heart-building, visionary stuff never makes it to them because of "economics," lesbians can at least get by on thin gruel. Frankly, I'd like to hear what "economics" had to do with the publication of the works of men like William Burroughs.
But here I think we hurt ourselves by accepting the mainstream rules. My point of view is, lesbians are not going to get time off for good behaviour in this crazy society. We do ourselves no favours playing by rules set up to see us lose. From what I can see, the "economic argument" for the diluted version of "lesbian fiction" is a cop out at best, a face saving statement at worst. A cop out is at least more honest; it may be a little shamefaced, but it doesn't hide.
It's time we drew on the concepts of "copyleft" and applied them not only to the electronic versions of stories, but also the physical ones. Let's think in terms of getting that heart-building, visionary, thought-provoking stuff out there, not just to lesbians lucky enough to have regular access to computers or a fair amount of money, but to as many as possible who want it. Let's devise a book format meant to be easily copied in cheap physical formats so that lesbians of all means can get hold of them if they want them. The hoighty-toity versions (i.e. the ones with fixed bindings and fancy covers) can be produced more restrictively with additional content apart from the story. The chances that only writing fitting my definition of lesbian fiction would be reproduced this way is of course nil should the idea take off, but to me that's a lesser evil to start out from. Right now, too many lesbians have no choice at all, and no workarounds legal or otherwise. I was very poor not so long ago, poor enough that to go to university I often went without my own copy of the textbooks so I could eat. Conversely, sometimes I ate less and read more. There's nothing respectful or pragmatic about saying to somebody who can't afford books printed according to the usual rules "too bad" or "have your library get a copy."
This copyleft stuff isn't just me dreaming in technicolour, though it felt like it when I first drafted this essay. Once again, the place to look for early implementations is wherever the ever determined, creative, and inventive women of fan fiction are working. An important group of those women came together to found and run An Archive of Their Own, a fan-owned, fan-run, fan-coded, non-profit, non-commercial archive of fanworks. Since fanworks are such a key source of lesbian fiction, and venues that post them are places where lesbians figure out how to write it as well as produce stories of extraordinary polish and length, I think it is fair to say that lesbians are indeed drawing on concepts of copyleft. Nevertheless, important as electronic and online approaches are, I still think hard copies matter. Regular access to computers is not a given, and indeed to AO3's credit, it is quick and easy to generate printable files, and it sounds like podficcing and its implications for audio versions of fanfic more generally are great news for people living with visual impairments.
Having thought the matter through in this way, it becomes much easier to understand why "lesbian fiction" is so important to lesbians, and how we can end up trapped in hopeless frustrating circles discussing it. We need to leave off our attachment to that wellworn air of "noble suffering" and the cringeing fear of the disapproval of others. We're going to be disapproved of anyway, so let's take a stand for a real lesbian fiction – fiction written for lesbians and an end to the structures that oppress them. If we stick together, much of that disapproval will wear off, and what doesn't won't be able to do us any harm because we can support and defend each other from it. Lesbians already know how to do this, we have our own elders ready and eager to share how they built community and made amazing things happen so we can build on their work and stop treating it as if it never happened.
PostScript: Purple Sage has been thinking about and working on lesbian fiction as both a reader and a writer since she started her blog several years ago. Her 24 november 2017 post, A Few Thoughts on Lesbian Fiction adds critical information on the subject, especially in light of the open and ever increasing attacks on lesbians being fuelled by so-called "transactivists" who are in fact regressive anti-Feminists. For some reason this post seems to have wandered off of Purple Sage's blog, but luckily it is still available via the wayback machine. (If all else fails, it is available in one more place besides.)
- Pp. 97-110 in Fireworks: The Best of Fireweed (1978-1986).
- The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction 1969 - 1989, Bonnie Zimmerman. Beacon Press, Boston, 1990.
- The Lesbian Heresy, Sheila Jeffreys. Spinifex Press, Australia, 1993. Pages 7 and 20.
- Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds, Judy Grahn. Beacon Press, Boston, 1984. beacon press is remains a vigorous publishing house, and continues an over 150 year tradition of publishing challenging non-fiction books including many lesbian classics such as Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology. Nevertheless, beacon had unpromising beginnings in that it was founded by the unitarian universalist church in order to print books to support cultural warfare in the form of missionizing. Things changed considerably for the press in 1900, changing its manuscript choices considerably. A Brief History of Beacon Press describes the change.
- Zimmerman, page 14.
- Ibid. Another excellent essay on lesbian culture as a concept is Chapter one of Claudia Card's 1995 book Lesbian Choices.
- This continues to foil the efforts of scholars like Matthew Jockers who have been striving to automate tasks like categorizing novels and short stories in hopes of making statistically valid claims about english language fiction writing. Jockers provides an overview of his ideas in Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, 2013).
- See Le Guin, U. K. (1974). "Why are Americans afraid of dragons?" in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, 34-40 (Putnam: New York).
- I should note that Corinne M. Blackner in "Lesbian Modernism in the Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein," in Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings (New York University Press, 1997) provided a closely related definition in a footnote on page 94. "I am drawing a historical distinction between 'lesbian literature' (literature about lesbianism written by women who identify as lesbians) and 'the literature of lesbianism' (literature about lesbianism regardless of the sexual orientation or gender[sic] of the author)." There is an important distinction here, but it seems to me that literature written by people who are not in fact lesbians, in which the writer claims to be "writing about lesbianism" is doing no such thing. They are writing out their ideas about lesbianism, no more and no less.
- A key reason but by no means the only one. See Kristen Hogan's The Feminist Bookstore Movement: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018) for a rich account of the many roles and purposes of Feminist bookstores and publishers.