A few thoughts on lesbian fiction

An article written by lesbian author Julia Diana Robertson talks about how a publication changed her words when they published her interview, making her sound less lesbian and more “queer.”

“Among other things, throughout the interview, where I said “lesbian” the word lesbian was changed to “queer.”

Why were words I would never use to describe myself or my novel, like “queerness” and “LGBTQ” and “gender presentation,” put into my mouth?”

This article provides a perfect illustration of the sneaky ways in which lesbians are erased by “queer” culture. Queer culture doesn’t like the word lesbian, because it’s too specific, and because it describes women whose sexuality excludes men. Queer culture prefers to promote the idea of “queer women” instead. Queer women are any women who defy the traditional conservative norms of sexuality, sometimes by engaging in sex with other women, or sometimes by engaging in other outlawed forms of sexuality. Queer is a deliberately vague term—all it means is “odd” or “strange,” but it doesn’t name a sexual orientation or set any boundaries. In fact, the “queer woman” umbrella includes males.

As Robertson comments:

“I was rebranded. I became the mythological “if the situation was right” lesbian. The appropriated slur “queer,” has become the popular descriptor of choice for a “yes” girl or a “maybe” girl— An “I’m not going to rule anything out because I’m open-minded” girl. It doesn’t carry the sting of lesbian. The stigma of lesbian. The boundaries of lesbian. Lesbian is a solid “No.” ”Not even if…” And that unwillingness to bend is the very reason lesbians are targeted with insidious psychological warfare.”

As she comments later in her article, when you take the word “lesbian” out of a statement a lesbian made and replace it with “queer,” you are erasing lesbians. Even though “exclusion” is considered a deadly serious crime these days, no one is concerned about excluding us.

I have to also add something here, because it drives me crazy when I see this, and it was mentioned in the quote above: a person can’t be described as “LGBT.” It’s not possible to be a gay man and a lesbian at the same time, nor is it possible to be homosexual and bisexual at the same time. You are only one of the letters LGB, not all of them! Now, I do think you could argue that it’s possible to be either an L, G, or B while also being a T. Fair enough, but you can’t possibly be all four of these letters. When someone calls a person “an LGBT author” or “an LGBT activist,” this makes no sense—you’re calling one person several people.

Anyway, this article by Robertson got me thinking about the issues surrounding lesbian fiction. As she mentions, and as many of us have noticed over and over, there are lots of published works labelled “lesbian” that weren’t written by lesbians and don’t reflect who lesbians are. There is also a problem of writing by real lesbians being marginalized in a culture that prefers “queer women” and believes that lesbians are “exclusionary” and “bigoted.” When mainstream LGBT publications all adopt a mandate to cater to queer culture, where do lesbians get their work published and reviewed? We’re limited to advertising our work on anonymous blogs, in secret Facebook groups, and by word of mouth. We should be able to publish in mainstream publications like anyone else—we aren’t doing anything wrong by being lesbians.

I have been thinking about the genre of the “lesbian novel” and what makes it different from, say, a “queer” novel or a mainstream novel that has some lesbian content in it. I define a “lesbian novel” as a novel written by a lesbian, that focuses on lesbians, that represents us authentically, and that tells our truth so that other lesbians can see themselves among the pages. A “queer” novel, on the other hand, either represents a performative sexuality in which same-sex activity is used as a strategy to “spice things up,” or in which characters have a bisexual or ambiguous orientation. There’s nothing wrong with bisexual characters or experimental same-sex activity, there’s only something wrong with mislabeling non-lesbian characters as lesbians. Then there is such a thing as a mainstream novel which has mostly straight characters, but also devotes a small amount of text to a lesbian or bisexual character. This is cool, but it’s not a “lesbian novel” just because of a tiny bit of woman-loving-woman content.

A lesbian looking for a lesbian novel has two problems: when she looks through mainstream sources for published works, she is shown lots of material that is not authentically lesbian, and the writing that is authentically lesbian is hard to find because it hasn’t been publicized or reviewed by mainstream sources.

In another article by Julia Diana Robertson, she discusses the idea of segregated literature. She wrote a book that was designed to be a piece of mainstream literature that happened to have a lesbian love story in it, but where “sexuality wouldn’t take center stage.” You know, like straight people do. The literature that straight people write is mainstream and isn’t necessarily “straight literature,” nor does it have to focus on sexuality just because characters are heterosexual. She pitched her story to mainstream publishers, and was rejected. She found that she was expected to be either a mainstream straight writer, or pigeonholed as a “lesbian” writer who just wrote for lesbians.

Should literature be desegregated? On the one hand, it would be nice if a lesbian writer could just be a writer, and not be marginalized as only writing for a small group of people. Anybody can read a work of literature that has lesbians in it, not just lesbians. But at the same time, when lesbians try to work with mainstream institutions, we get lost, forgotten, and erased.

I’m mostly in favor of lesbian writing being a separate genre for a niche market. I wouldn’t want to “sell out” by submitting my own writing to a publisher who wanted to make my work more palatable to either straights or “queers.” I am happy to write for a limited audience, and I’d rather represent lesbians authentically than make a lot of money. I’m not concerned about writing literature where the focus is on a storyline and sexuality isn’t the main theme—I actually prefer when lesbian sexuality is the main theme.

But lesbians should be able to be mainstream writers if they want to be. There’s a paradox going on here where going mainstream would be good for us but it would also be bad for us. We need mainstream representation and visibility, but we also need the authenticity that comes from being in control of our own publications. Imagine if we could have both though? If we could have authentic lesbian representation from mainstream publishers, then that would be a sign we were no longer discriminated against.

I do hope to read more novels written by lesbians and review them here, but as you all know, my reading list is long and always growing. If only I could quit my day job and just read and write full time!

Dear readers, do you have any thoughts on lesbian writing and publishing?

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An anthology of queer fairy tales

I came across an anthology of erotic lesbian fairy tales while looking up lesbian books online, and I had to buy it because that is right up my alley, plus I’m working on writing a lesbian fairy tale right now. It’s good to see what else is out there, right?The description of the book provided online goes like this:

In this sexy, erotic anthology of twisted fairy tales, the damsels are the ones doing the rescuing! Full of ancient, adapted tales that were changed to include female/female pairings and also some brand new stories of feminine heroics and sexual dominance, this collection of stories will leave readers under a spell of lesbian love!

If you’re a lesbian who’s ever searched for erotic lesbian writing, then you’re aware that it’s hard to find anything that’s actually good and that’s actually lesbian. It’s really hit-or-miss out there, since there are people writing “lesbian” books who aren’t lesbians, and since women who write erotica tend to be sex-pozzies, and sex-pozzies tend to present sexuality as something artificially performative and kinda weird.

I was willing to take a chance, because here’s my attitude toward erotic writing: if it’s good, it’s really good, and if it’s bad, it’s still weirdly entertaining. Well, this anthology turned out to be an eclectic collection of the good, the bad, and the ugly. There were some stories I enjoyed, and there were some that left me baffled and shaking my head.
For entertainment purposes, I’m going to tell you about some of the mistakes I saw in some of the writing. Although, do keep in mind that there was something to like about each story, and some of them I enjoyed all the way through, even though I’m bringing up these criticisms here.

One mistake I saw a few times is that authors introduced their characters as disliking each other and then they suddenly wanted to have sex with each other for no apparent reason. I’m puzzled as to why an author would decide to make their characters hate each other first before having sex. I can understand that this provides a plot twist, but that only works in a longer piece like a novel where there is time for the characters to interact with each other long enough for them to change their opinions of each other. In a short story where everything moves quickly, it’s really unrealistic that someone hates someone on page 3 and then on page 4 she’s feeling aroused at her touch, with no actual character progression in between. If you’re writing a quick sex scene, with no character development beforehand, you should be establishing immediately that your characters actually like each other. I can’t say this about heterosexual couples or queer sex-pozzies, but lesbians only have sex with women we actually like.

The worst example of this was the story where a woman was riding along in a carriage, and she was attacked by a robber queen who killed everyone who was travelling with her, and then the robber queen’s daughter pulled her away for sex. In that situation, you would be really upset about the fact that you just got attacked and everyone you know murdered. You wouldn’t be at all interested in having sex with anyone in that situation, but certainly not someone related to the robber. It’s okay for fiction to be imaginative, but it shouldn’t be completely preposterous.

Oh, and that story gets so much weirder. The woman who gets robbed, she turns out to be part wolf, and her canines lengthen when she’s aroused. The robber’s daughter seems to be part wolf too, I think, because she’s also described as having sharp teeth. A red cloak is mentioned briefly in this story, so I think the author has made a weird version of Little Red Hiding Hood where the protagonist and her love interest both turn out to be the wolf? Anyway, I guess because she’s part beast, when she is riding away on a reindeer with her captor, she can’t help humping it as they ride. Maybe reindeer-humping is normal behavior for an imaginary half-woman, half-wolf creature, but it’s not related to actual human lesbians in any way and that’s not something I can get into.

You know, I always assume that the purpose of erotic writing is to arouse your reader. But some people seem to think that the purpose of erotic writing is to baffle the reader with the weirdness of your imagination. And call me old-fashioned, but I think the way you arouse your reader with a sex scene is by creating palpable chemistry and sexual tension between the characters so that the reader is emotionally invested in the consummation of their desire, and feeling desire along with the characters. The reader has to therefore identify with the characters and relate to what they’re feeling.
I did enjoy the stories where princesses or witches saw each other naked in beautiful forest pools and found each other arousing. It can be an imaginative situation, it just shouldn’t be completely bizarre.

Anyhoo, onto the next writing mistake I saw a couple times, which was abrupt and nonsensical changes in tone. All of these stories were meant to be fairy tales, and the almost universal thing about fairy tales is that they take place in the distant past. Now, sometimes people write modern fairy tales (and there was a very cool version of Rapunzel in this book that took place in a condo in San Francisco, and that was one of the good stories, thanks for that!) but if you are writing a fairy tale where you mention kingdoms, medieval armor, magic spells, living in forests, etc, then you are writing in the past, and you need to use old vocabulary. Or, at the very least, you need to avoid using words and phrases that are specific to the modern sleaze culture of the last four decades. If you are writing about old-fashioned situations and then all of a sudden you start throwing in words like “pussy,” “asscheek,” “panties,” and “clit,” then you are using incorrect vocabulary for the piece you’re writing. It’s jarring for the reader to think they’re reading about the year 1600 and then suddenly realize that no, it’s actually 2017. It also lowers your work to the level of amateur fan fiction when you make this sort of mistake.

I checked out who the writers of these stories were, and many of them were bloggers, and not all of them were lesbians. A small number of writers said they were lesbian. Some of them didn’t mention their sexual orientation at all in their bio. Some of them called themselves by unspecific labels that I inferred to mean bisexual. One of them was a man.

If I were editing an anthology of lesbian erotica, one of the very first things I would do is weed out any non-lesbian authors, and then after that I’d choose the best submissions from the lesbian authors. If men submitted stories to my anthology, I would either not answer their emails at all, or I’d tell them to fuck right off, depending on my mood that day.

I conclude that this is an anthology of writing with female-female pairings that may or may not relate to lesbians and that is intended for anyone with an interest in “queer” fairy tales. I have enjoyed reading it because I love this genre, but if you are a lesbian who isn’t particularly interested in fairy tales and just wants good erotica, then I don’t recommend it.

As a side note, if you are a lesbian looking for good erotic writing by a real lesbian, check out the novel Bishop’s Run by B.D. Gates, which has absolutely spectacular sex scenes.

I am happy to report that I am more resolved than ever to keep working on my own fiction. I have six chapters written so far of my novel—just give me about another year or so and I’ll try and get the thing published.

Book Review: ‘Bishop’s Run’ by B.D. Gates

I didn’t realize how hungry I was for a good lesbian novel until I read Bishop’s Run by B.D. Gates. Reading this novel made me realize how unsatisfying other novels I’ve read have been. I have to admit I haven’t spent much time looking for lesbian novels, and there may be good novels out there already that I just haven’t read yet. (Don’t worry, I will get to reading them eventually!) Mostly what I’ve read before is works of literature with “queer” themes by professional fiction writers. Although they are technically great pieces of writing, they aren’t as satisfying to my lesbian heart as a novel written by an ordinary lesbian for the entertainment of a purely lesbian audience.

Bishop’s Run is the story of Bishop, a woman who wakes up after a near-death experience and finds herself being nursed back to health and taken care of by the Witness Protection Program. She has to take on a new identity as a woman named “Lisa Baxter” and start her life all over in a new place. The novel takes us through her journey to recovery, starting a new job, meeting new people, and trying to hide and forget the life she left behind. Her new identity is provided by Witness Protection, and it’s quite different from her real life story, so it’s a process for her to learn to live convincingly as “Lisa Baxter” when her real self keeps threatening to reveal itself.

Bishop, now renamed Baxter, lands in a small town called Tenley in the southern United States. Although she is living in the Bible Belt, the story doesn’t focus on homophobia or intolerance—instead it paints a charming picture of rural life and friendly neighbors. The people of Tenley are very kind to her and make sure she gets everything she needs. The first part of the book is very positive—it’s all about her finding a job she enjoys, making friends, joining a softball team, and finding the other members of her local lesbian “tribe.” There is a long history of novels with lesbian characters who either die, go crazy, end up with a man, or lead a miserable life, and this novel does the opposite. It’s a refreshing story of lesbian success, health and happiness.

That’s not to say that it’s overly or unrealistically positive. It does contain the normal frustrations of lesbian life—like when you get your heart broken, or when you go through rough patches with your friends, or when your softball team isn’t playing well because of the dyke drama occurring among the players! And there is an occasional mention of homophobia, but it’s not the focus of the book.

There is a subtle butch/femme flavor among the characters, and I love the way it’s presented. Gates doesn’t try to categorize anyone using superficial markers or stereotypes. She rarely calls anyone by any label, and only uses the word “butch” once in the whole novel. She just describes their personalities and it comes through. The narrator, Bishop, is a “full-on dyke” and “not the frilly type,” who loves to crack jokes, play cards with the guys, and flirt with women. She is given the name of “Lisa” for her new life, but she finds it too feminine, and prefers to be called by her new last name, “Baxter.” Her butch personality is visible in a whole lot of subtle behaviors, like the way she flirts and carries herself. The women Bishop finds interesting are pretty women who are also strong people who can stand up for themselves, drive fast and shoot a gun. They come across as authentic and endearing lesbian personalities.

This is the first time I’ve read a novel with a happy butch narrator. The only other novel I’ve read starring a butch lesbian is Stone Butch Blues, which, although it’s an excellent book for many reasons, is characterized by almost never-ending misery. Bishop’s Run is the story of a happy butch, who lives her life the way she wants to as an out lesbian, who overcomes her obstacles and thrives in life no matter where she is planted. Although she has experienced some violence, it’s not related to her being a masculine lesbian. Despite having masculine mannerisms and being an obvious dyke, she feels no discomfort with her female body. She is the butch hero that the lesbian community has always needed.

One of the first things I want to know when I pick up a lesbian novel, after “Does anyone die or go crazy?” is whether there is a sex scene and whether it’s good (because sometimes they aren’t!) Let me tell you, there are several, and they are stunning. Gates describes sex between women in full detail in a way that is realistic and exquisitely satisfying both physically and emotionally. They are beautiful to behold and you may have to go back and read them twice.

This novel was refreshing both for its positive portrayal of lesbians and also its exclusive focus on lesbians. It’s not about “queer” people or any kind of special snowflake – it’s about a real lesbian community rather than an alphabet soup that includes the whole world. The way the lesbians in Tenley take care of each other is touching and beautiful. They don’t allow any dykes to go homeless, to be left out or alone, they befriend each other and watch out for each other. Older lesbians serve as role models for the younger ones to look up to. It’s a beautiful portrayal of the community we are longing for.

Here are a few words about the author. She is a butch lesbian living in a small Southern U.S. town. She’s old enough to remember what the lesbian community used to be like but “doesn’t feel any older than 28.” She started writing this novel just for fun but became more determined to publish it as it came along. Here are some words of hers from a short interview:

“When I started writing this around June 2015, I was writing out of boredom, and creating an alternate reality was a great escape. I “went to Tenley” every day and visited with the lesbian characters I’d imagined, I thought about them when I wasn’t writing and, quite suddenly, they were real and they were driving the story, telling me what was happening, what they were thinking, I just had to type fast enough to keep up with them. Then came the “Purge of 2016,” when all the lesbian and bisexual women were killed off on multiple TV shows in a matter of months and it broke my heart. All across my social media platforms, women were just shattered. I didn’t grow up seeing myself reflected on any screen that didn’t end with tragedy or death for any character remotely like me, so you’d think I’d be used to it, but I wasn’t. It hurt like hell. I hadn’t intended to publish “Bishop’s Run,” but when I looked at what I had been writing for myself and realized that damned few people, if any, were writing for real, honest-to-god butches, and that butches deserved our lives represented as much as anyone, I decided that my story wasn’t just for me anymore. So, “Bishop’s Run” is for the butches, and the women who love them.”

I was surprised to hear that she didn’t originally intend to publish it, because I think it’s the Lesbian Novel of the Year. It’s my all-time favorite one. Great things happen when we create our own materials and represent ourselves. This is a fantastic contribution to the lesbian community.

You can purchase the book on Amazon at this link.

Beauty and the Butch—A lesbian fairy tale

Guess what—I wrote a fairy tale!

The reason I wrote this is because I was thinking one day about superheroes and princesses, and how kids are being expected to identify with the characters that are marketed to them based on their sex, and how identifying with characters of the opposite sex is taken as a sign of being transgender. For example, right in the DSM criteria for gender dysphoria, they list identification with opposite-sex characters in stories as a sign of gender dysphoria!

Both kids and adults can identify with any characters they want, and all it means is that the character resonated with them in some way. It doesn’t mean they have a medical problem that requires treatment. It’s quite normal for girls to identify with male characters, since male characters are fully-developed characters who are often heroes and who get to go on fun adventures, while female characters are two-dimensional pretty things for the male characters to win. It’s also normal for lesbians to identify with male characters, since we also want to be the one to “get the girl.” Maybe we’d identify with lesbian characters if there were any!

As a woman, who was once a girl, I am expected to identify with princess characters, at least according to what the marketers think. However, I don’t usually identify with princesses, and if I had to buy a product that had either a superhero or a princess on it, I’d choose a superhero. There is only one princess I identify with, and that is Belle. Belle is a girl who doesn’t do what girls are expected to—she likes to read and she’s more interested in learning and having adventures than swooning over boys. When a young man does try to woo her, she has no interest and rejects him. What I identify with the most about Belle from the Disney film is when she sings “I want much more than this provincial life.” I love that she doesn’t want the regular life that’s expected of her and instead wants “adventure” and “so much more than they’ve got planned.” For many years now, I’ve thought of Belle as a lesbian, and I know in the real story she ends up with a guy, but hear me out. She rejects an offer of marriage from a man who, although he’s obnoxious, would make a good provider, and who all the village girls are swooning over. Then she falls in love with someone she never expected to fall in love with, and when the villagers find out, they don’t understand and try to kill her lover. This sounds like a lesbian narrative, if you leave out the part where the beast is actually a human male.

I was thinking about how Belle could be a lesbian if you just rewrote the story a little bit, and then I thought about how rewriting fairy tales to give them a modern/feminist/queer twist is an actual genre, and then I remembered that I’m a writer and I could totally write that myself! So I did!

Here is the PDF file for my lesbian fairy tale, Beauty and the Butch.

I’m going to continue to discuss it here, but warning: spoilers to follow! If you prefer to read it before hearing about what happens, then stop reading this post now and click on the PDF.

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