Sunday, March 17, 2013

Lesbian novel? No such thing!

Here's a rant I wrote fifteen or twenty years ago. I'm posting now because I want to link to it tomorrow.
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. 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 people of colour or science fiction, at queers 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 is science fiction. As is Aldous Huxley's work, and that of Geoff Ryman, Joanna Russ, Ursula 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?

* Not everyone agrees with me on this. We'll get into it another time.
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