Friday, June 8, 2012

The gentrification of lesbian fiction

The Los Angles Review of Books has an interesting piece by Emily Douglas on Sarah Schulman's latest, The Gentrification of the Mind.

I can't speak to the book overall because I haven't read it. But this struck me:
As Schulman provocatively argues, the seemingly astounding success of the gay rights movement over the past five years is itself a symptom of a gentrification of gay politics. It is gayness, she says, that has assimilated to the values embedded in dominant culture — like monogamy and the nuclear family — not straight culture that has integrated the hopes and insights of gay individuals. In so doing, writes Schulman, "...homosexuality loses its transformative potential and strives instead to be banal." "If you ask most people what the most pressing issue for queers is in America today, they will say 'marriage,'" says Schulman. In this, she's proven more right every day, as politicians like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo use support for marriage equality to bolster their liberal bona fides while slashing the budget for public services. But the single-issue focus obscures a host of ways in which gay people continue to struggle for rights and representation. Of the focus on marriage, Schulman asserts:
Inherent in this is the assumption that everything else is great for gay people, and only marriage remains. Yet there is no nationwide antidiscrimination law, and marginalization in publicly funded institutions like schools and the New York City Saint Patrick's Day parade is firmly in place. There is no integration of lesbians of all races or gay men of color's perspectives into the mainstream arts entertainment. Familial homophobia is the status quo. We are not integrated into education curriculum or services. Being out is professionally detrimental in most fields. Most heterosexuals still think of themselves as superior and most gay people submit to this out of necessity or lack of awareness. Basically, in relation to where we should be — we are nowhere. 
Schulman is rightly critical of anyone who identifies marriage as the only issue of importance to queer people. We are in a dizzying state of affairs, where eight states sanction same-sex marriages and straightforward acceptance of the same is ever more de rigueur in polite company, and yet some 90 percent of LGBT teens suffer physical or verbal harassment, and queer-bashing in general is still commonplace. "Today if you are a lesbian and want to get married in Iowa, you are in luck," Schulman writes. "But if you are a human being who would like to read novels with lesbian protagonists with openly lesbian authors, close your eyes and think of England" — where lesbian novelists Sarah Waters and Jeanette Winterson are celebrated.
This perspective seems...not wrong, exactly, but simplistic.

First of all, as someone who is both foreign to the US and a cripple, the notion of same-sex marriage is vital: I want access to my partner's social security benefits, and twenty years ago, being able to marry would have made all the difference in the world to my immigration prospects. These are both issues that are as important to me as being bullied is to queer kids. (Yes, I understand that for some children this is a life or death issue. But so is access to health care. And so, sometimes, is immigration.) And here's the thing: putting same-sex marriage on the books will lead to less overt discrimination in the wider culture. This is basic social science: change the law, and eventually change minds. It's not a simple correlation, because humans being are complex beasties, but it really is clear. I can't think of one federal law that has advanced human rights that has lead to more discrimination long-term.

Secondly, Schulman's thesis--that lesbian novels only get published in the UK--is something she's been saying for at least four years. This is from a 2008 piece in Publishers Weekly:
If you are a lesbian and you want to get married in California, you’re in luck. But if you are a human being who would like to read novels with lesbian protagonists by openly lesbian authors, you’d better move to England. In the U.K., openly lesbian novelists with lesbian content like Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Waters are treated like people, and their books are treated like books. They are published by the most mainstream publishers, represented by high-rolling agents, reviewed in regular newspapers by real critics, contextualized with other British intellectuals, given mainstream awards, broadcast on television as movies... and as a result of all this respect and consideration, they are read by a broad constituency in England and the rest of the world. For those of us writing here in the United States, England seems like the Promised Land.
This repetition doesn't make it less valid, of course, but her analysis has always struck me as...less complicated than the reality. Waters' and Winterson's books have done so well because they're about being lesbian, i.e. about the trials and tribulations of life as same. Not about lesbians just living their lives. Whereas my novels, in which lesbian protagonists are simply human, have been published in the US quite easily--and all are still in print--but UK publishers wouldn't touch them. "Oh, we already have one of those this year," said one, about the Aud books. In other words, they were already publishing one 'lesbian crime novel' and didn't see any reason to publish another; they'd hit their quota.

Lots of other lesbian writers get published in the UK, but their queer characters are often either protagonists celebrated for their difference (i.e. witty--or tragic--outliers) or minor characters acceptable because the real story is about someone else. This is, of course, also mostly true in the US. But here, at least, the market is great enough that small lesbian presses can thrive supplying genre works to hungry readers.

Meanwhile, here in the US I continue to make deals for my novels, all with lesbian protagonists (except Hild, who is...well, you'll just have to wait and see), though not focused on lesbian issues. Perhaps this makes me a gentrified writer. Only readers can be the judge.

But Hild won't be out for a while and, meanwhile, I suspect publishing on both sides of the Atlantic is on the cusp of change with regard to queer . But I'm not sure they'll change in the same direction. I await developments with interest.
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