Friday, May 31, 1996

there is no such thing as a lesbian book

*Note* - following question adapted from a Usenet post with the express consent of the author.

But since we seem to be discussing it here, what, exactly *IS* Lesbian Fiction? Is it written by lesbians? Is it about lesbians? Are lesbians the (sole?) intended audience? If you have a lesbian couple in your story is it automatically Lesbian Fiction? What about a same-sex kiss? A hug? An innuendo?

I recently read (well, tried to read) Ammonite, a novel by Nicola Griffith. Aside from its slow pacing, the plot was a little interesting and the characters were pretentious and boring, but reasonable given the plot. Is that Lesbian SF? Or is it just a mediocre SF novel with lesbians in it?

There is no such thing as a lesbian or gay book. Novels are not sexed at birth by some strange gowned and masked obstetrician at the publishing house: "Yup, this one has a womb (or two X-chromosomes, or no penis, or a sweet smile). Toss it on the women's pile. And make sure it doesn't rub up against any of those other female volumes. Could be a lesbian book."

There are no lesbian novels. There are only stories. Stories of our lives; our hopes and dreams; our loves and losses and daily victories over that callous and indifferent thing called the world. We write to tell our truth, so that someone ten miles away--a hundred, a thousand--can pick up a book and read it and think, "Oh, yes, I see. Of course. How true."

Stories are for connecting people, one to another: lesbian to straight, old to young, me to you. But it takes two to make a story. A novel is merely the beginning, a sketch. Like a blue-print of a house, the writer may have penciled in where the walls ought to go, and the doors; made a note about the size of the windows; but it is the reader who takes that sketch and makes a home. The reader decides which room will be the living room and which the family room; fills the corners with things she has collected over the years; and makes it her own. Moral of the story: if you don't like the look of the blueprint, don't bother trying to build the house. No one can write a book that will please everyone.

It's my personal belief that both gender and genre are creations of the insecure. I've already said most of this in my essay, "Divide and Conquer: Gender and Genre," but I'll say it again: People who are confident of themselves and their place in the world see people first, gender second. Those who have no worries about their own taste, discrimination, or fashion sense see fiction first, genre second. It's the insecure, those who need to feel superior ("Someone--at last--who is less hip than I am!"), who sneer at, say, women or Jews or science fiction, at gays or romance novels or people in wheelchairs. "Not us," they say, "not worthy, not real."

Those who love fiction--who love the discovery of fine writing, characters who will suck you into their world with their dilemmas and attempts to solve them--approach the work without artificially constructed preconceptions.

You wouldn't believe the number of people who pick up Ammonite or Slow River and say, "Well, science fiction is rubbish, but I liked this..." What they really mean, of course, is: "Science fiction is pulp rubbish, so I don't read it. But I read this book, and it's good, so it's not really science fiction, is it?" It doesn't matter that what they enjoyed so much is set in the future; if they liked it, it can't be science fiction.

These are the kind of people who have probably never read anything by Mary Renault because it's historical fiction. Nothing by Audre Lorde because it's black fiction. Nothing by Willa Cather--after all, she only wrote about the prairie.... Perhaps they have never realized that Shelley's Frankenstein (which admittedly isn't a brilliant book) is science fiction. As is Aldous Huxley's work, and that of Geoff Ryman, Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin. So, for that matter is The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood, and her The Handmaid's Tale. Then there are the fantasists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Golding and Toni Morrison....

Ah, but critics and reviewers and academics who actually like this fiction set outside reality call it Magic Realism, or Social Commentary, or Dystopia...anything, in fact, but fantasy or science fiction. What, I wonder, are they afraid of?

Having said all that, of course, I'm editing a series of anthologies called Bending The Landscape: three volumes (fantasy, sf, horror) of all-original stories with lesbian/gay characters and /or themes. What is a lesbian? What is a gay theme? Gee, I haven't a clue, not really. There are lesbians out there who sleep with men, and "political lesbians" who have never had sex with a woman. I'll leave everyone to make up their own minds.

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Written on the Body, The Awakening

From: anonymous

Do you see anything romantic about Written on the Body? What do you think of Chopin's The Awakening? Do you see romantic motifs there? How would you compare the two novels together? I'm looking forward to reading some of your books. Thanks in advance for your expertise!

Written On The Body, by Jeannette Winterson, is, in my opinion, a romance. It is also sentimental and manipulative. As for the Chopin, it's been so long since I read it I wouldn't begin to dream of doing a compare-and-contrast. It sounds to me as though you like me to write some kind of essay or term paper for you. That's not what this Ask Nicola section is for. (Next time you could at least have the grace to pretend you've read something I've written...)

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