Tuesday, August 19, 2008

From the Ban to the Booker

Over at the BBC best-selling author Val McDermid examines the development of the lesbian novel and its transition from the margins to the mainstream.

She looks at the furore surrounding Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, the subject of an obscenity trial in 1928 and banned because of its lesbian content. Virginia Woolf's Orlando was published in the same year but escaped the censor. The programme includes a rare BBC recording of Vita Sackville-West, the inspiration behind Woolf's modernist masterpiece.

Contributors include Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Waters and Ali Smith.

(Thanks, Evecho.)

I've listened to the first segment (it's about 35 minutes) and it's fascinating. I'm hoping the second part might offer a clue as to why lesbian books (written by or about lesbians) in this country (the US) have cooties while those from the UK no longer do. (Sarah Schulman let off steam on this issue a while ago.)...

...though of course I have theories--which I'm making up as I go along but, okay, here goes. Basically, size matters.

In a big country (like the US), there's room for burly fiction niches. The sheer number of, for example, SF readers or quiltbag (LGBTQuIA) readers are enough to keep specialised imprints, and publishers, and booksellers, afloat. In a small country (like the UK), they're not. So in a small country, communities are forced to intermingle. The genre DNA stays mixed. The subspecies (queer books, SF books) don't diverge too far from the main branch--or perhaps they pull the main branch along with them. Then once societal stigma is lifted (in the UK dykes can get married, adopt children, serve in the armed forces) lesbian literature is quickly reintegrated. Here, lesbian literature is ghettoised. Here, good novels that happen to be written by lesbians and feature lesbian protagonists are doubly shunned: once by mainstream society and then once by the queer literati who want the novel to be about, y'know, The Struggle.

Then there's class. In the UK the production of literature is historically an upper class pursuit. Eccentricities like, say, fascination with girls or weird science are forgivable if you have enough money, education, and lead in your cut-glass accent to quash objections. In the US, though, writers have been fairly aggressive in fighting for the Man of the People mantle. (All crap, of course, but it's the legend; all the upper class eccentrics fled to Paris.)

I think Sarah Waters is absolutely right: you can tell when the writer of ostensibly straight fiction is a dyke. There are weird resonances. Ever since I read Daphne du Maurier's short fiction I knew, as surely as I know this keyboard on which I'm typing exists, that Daphne liked girls. I had no idea if she'd done anything about it, but I knew with vast certainty that she had Those Feelings. One day someone will come up with the same kind of programme to spot textual queerness that the people over at The Gender Genie use to rate text in terms of masculine or feminine (thanks Elisabeth). Then we'll all have some fun.

Anyway, go listen and let me know what you think.

*** EDIT: Part one has now been taken down, but part 2 is available here for the next five or six days. It's worth listening to. ***

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