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Sarah Van Arsdale: I Was A Lesbian Writer

June 30, 2014

What happens when a nice, middle-aged, straight woman writer writes lesbian lit.

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Image from Flickr via See-ming Lee

by Sarah Van Arsdale

In graduate school, in the late 1980s, one teacher commented on how impressive it was that I’d found my “important subject.”

Which one, I thought, looking over the poems I’d handed in. Oh, being a lesbian. I found this disappointing. There were a few other things I wanted to write about.

It was a different world then. We’d certainly moved forward from the days when the only lesbian novels available were Radclyff Hall’s The Well Of Loneliness (excellent reading for a rainy evening with a bottle of Scotch and a pack of cigarettes) and The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith (but published in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, because what lesbian in her right mind would want her own name on a lesbian book). By the 1960s we had much more encouraging books, such as the Beebo Brinker Chronicles, a series by Ann Bannon, but still much of lesbian literature portrayed “the life” as ultimately lonely, alienating and marked by frustrated longing for unavailable women.

By 1986, when I was studying for my MFA in creative writing, several lesbian presses had sprung up from the leafmeal of the publishing forest floor, and they were printing lesbian novels as fast as their meager funds would allow. These books had to be directly about lesbians’ lives, and often were coming out stories, because the readers, newly out in the brave new world of gay liberation, wanted desperately to see their lives reflected on the page, something that couldn’t be found in any books—other than lesbian pulp—published by the mainstream press. (With a few notable exceptions, such as Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, published in 1980 by Bantam Books.)

There were so many lesbian murder mysteries you began to think the streets were regularly patrolled by dyke Sherlock Holmeses, and began to wonder at the real reason Miss Marple had never married.

Naiad Press, Spinsters Ink, Seal Press, and Firebrand Books, among others, came out with unabashedly lesbian titles by Katherine V. Forrest, Jane Rule, Susan Stinson, Lesléa Newman, and many other lesbian authors who at last were able to publish their books about lesbians, under their own names, and without the characters’ previously–requisite hand-wringing over their sexual identity. We soon had an array of fictional role models in an array of physical types, personalities, historical periods, and proclivities. There were lesbians falling in love, lesbians who were ill and lesbians who were athletes. There was even some fiction about lesbians who were not white. There were so many lesbian murder mysteries you began to think the streets were regularly patrolled by dyke Sherlock Holmeses, and began to wonder at the real reason Miss Marple had never married.

And so it was that in 1986, there was a thriving lesbian publishing scene. The other side of the publishing world continued to grind out a steady parade of heterosexual writers, however; there was no question that only a lesbian press would publish Alison Bechdel’s first collected Dykes to Watch Out For comics. Until the 1990s, it was almost exclusively lesbian presses that bore the burden and risk of publishing lesbian books, and with a title like that, there was no passing it off as straight. There was simply no choice for an author like Bechdel but to publish with a lesbian press; Nancy Bereano of Firebrand Books continued to publish all of Bechdel’s collected strips until Bereano retired in 1994, when other gay and lesbian presses took over Bechdel’s list. That is, until Bechdel hit it big in 2007 with her graphic memoir, Fun Home, and her new publisher—Houghton Mifflin—also took on a retrospective of her Dykes To Watch Out For strips, having learned the great social and cultural value of lesbian literature, or at least having seen that some lesbian books could indeed generate a lot of cash.

In those early days, the world was changing: queer people in America were coming out of the closet, marching in the streets, demanding equality in housing, jobs, civil life. And among them were the brave souls working in publishing, daring not only to come out in a very hetero-normative world, but also daring to push for gay and lesbian titles in their mainstream houses, convincing their higher-ups (and the crucial marketing departments) that they could sell work by such writers as Sandra Scoppetone, Jacqueline Woodson, Nancy Garden, and Sarah Shulman—most of whom were promptly pigeon-holed as “lesbian writers.” (Of note, Jackie Woodson has transcended being pigeon-holed as either African American or lesbian, and really is thought of first as a young adult author. We’ll have to ask her how she did that.)

This shift was so dramatic that the big controversy of the early 1990s among lesbian writers was whether one would try for a mainstream publisher. Would you “cross over”? Would your novel be able to cross over, or was it too lesbian (with, for example, the word “dykes” in the title)? If you did cross over, were you selling out? But shouldn’t you try to get your work more widely read, not mention to get some real money for your book, money the lesbian presses simply didn’t have? And what if your novel wasn’t lesbian enough for a lesbian press?

That was the fray into which I threw my first novel, Toward Amnesia. I made a conscious decision to try to get it published by a mainstream press, because I wanted it to be as widely read as it could be. It wasn’t particularly lesbian: it was about a woman whose heart is broken, and that’s universal. I landed a (straight) agent, and then a contract with a mainstream press, a tiny new imprint of Ballantine called Riverhead Books. My book was published, thanks to a remarkable editor there, Mary South, who was, yes, a lesbian, but who worked on a wide variety of types of books.

It was all more than a little terrifying. Mary South called me to say she’d seen the cover, and it was beautiful. “You’ll love it,” she said. “It’s a woman floating under water, and she’s kind of naked, and you can’t see her head.” Terrific, I thought, picturing a bikini babe and an embossed lavender title. But as the cover creaked through the fax machine (this was long before anyone could email a PDF), I gasped in wonder: it was black and white. And it was beautiful. My book would have a marvelous mainstream life.

Toward Amnesia has extinct ducks, deep sea diving, the mythical catamount, and really no sex whatsoever.

The jacket copy proved challenging. “In this poetic and arresting first novel,” it begins, “the protagonist, a marine biologist, is left by her lover and best friend of five years.” (That poetic and arresting jacket copy was written, you should know, by the author). The publisher originally added “lesbian” as a modifier for “lover,” which I insisted on removing, not because I didn’t want anyone to know the book had a lesbian protagonist but because I didn’t want a straight reader to pick up the book, read the jacket copy, and put it down again thinking they couldn’t relate to it. I didn’t want Toward Amnesia to languish in the ghetto of “lesbian fiction” in the bookstores. I wanted the whole world to read my book.

So Toward Amnesia went on to live its life, with me happily thinking I’d escaped the lesbian lit ghetto. And then it was a finalist in two contests: the Stonewall Literary Awards from the American Library Association, and the Lambda Literary Awards for Lesbian Fiction.

Before the first review was out, I had both my Doc Martens firmly planted in the world of gay and lesbian writing. The year Toward Amnesia debuted, I was asked to sit on a panel at the San Francisco Book Festival. Was the panel on novels with themes of memory? Was the panel on novels with breathtakingly beautiful covers? No, the panel was on gay and lesbian fiction, and included the author of a novel featuring hunky guys engaging in steamy sex in public venues. (Perhaps of note, Toward Amnesia has extinct ducks, deep sea diving, the mythical catamount, and really no sex whatsoever.)

Unsure what I really had in common with some of my fellow gay authors, I was nonetheless happy and relieved to have a niche in the publishing world. I was on a panel at the San Francisco Book Festival! I was asked to judge writing contests! I wrote reviews! That all of it was in the gay publishing world seemed almost irrelevant. When I moved to New York City in 2000, I was glad to attend the annual Publishing Triangle party and the annual awards ceremonies, where at least a few people knew my name, and where I met and befriended some of my heroes of gay publishing; I was glad to be part of this community of people who care deeply not only about writing, but also about equity, liberation, culture, and throwing a great party.

And yet, lesbianism, or lesbian life, is still not my “important subject.” My second book, Blue (University of Tennessee Press, 2003) about a woman who comes out of a fugue state on a bridge in Maine with global amnesia (a condition remarkably rare in life, remarkably common in fiction), doesn’t address the protagonist’s sexual identity except in the most oblique ways; only the closest reader would discern that before her amnesia struck, the protagonist did indeed have a female lover. And my third, Grand Isle (SUNY Press, 2012) is about a collection of middle-aged, (straight) friends and their (straight) teenaged children, with only a nod toward queer identity in the form of one character, a woman who had an affair with another woman. Before the book opens. Briefly. But that character has much bigger emotional fish to fry.

Now, I further muddy the waters because every year, when I co-present the Ferro-Grumley Award in LGBT Fiction, my date for the evening is my partner of ten years, who is a (straight) man. Born a man. And that means that really, I’m now a straight woman, without even the tendril connecting me to queer life and identity I would have if he were a female-to-male transsexual.

That’s the world I like imagining: a world where no one is defined by any single quality, and certainly where whatever sets a writer apart from the norm isn’t her definitive marker.

So, what is my identity? I could use the odious and out-dated term, “bisexual,” with its erroneous connotations of indecision and promiscuity and flightiness, and in a pinch, that’s what I’ll say I am. (“You put the ‘B’ in ‘LGBT’ one friend quipped when I was a contender in the 2013 Lambda Literary Award’s LGBT Mid-Career category; I didn’t win.) But at this point, my sexual identity is never questioned, never a topic, except as regards my publishing life. Everyone who doesn’t know about Toward Amnesia and my place in the queer publishing world just assumes I’m straight—especially when they meet me with my boyfriend. A nice, middle-aged, straight woman writer, with a surprising number of gay and lesbian friends a remarkable knowledge of gay culture, and a ancient t-shirt that says “Out and Proud.”

Being pigeon-holed as a “lesbian writer” has indeed afforded me a certain place in the world of letters that I otherwise wouldn’t have. But I have to wonder, if not for that niche, would I have won other awards? Would I have been asked to sit on a panel on novels about memory, instead of a panel on gay fiction? Would my second and third books have been published by larger houses than the university presses that —thank God!—picked them up?

This whole question of being pigeon-holed as a writer—a lesbian writer, a gay writer, a black writer, a Latino writer, etc.—has its origins in the fact that we see the world as having a standard, and then something other than the standard. Didn’t Simone de Beauvoir have something to say about that? Right, a whole book, Woman as Other, in the introduction to which, in 1949, she says, “A man would never set out to write a book on the peculiar situation of the human male.” Just as, in the early 1990s, no one would set out to write a book about a character making the remarkable discovery of her identity as a heterosexual. Again, from the introduction to Woman as Other: “The category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself…Thus it is that no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself.”

As with all things primordial, this remains true today: in the United States, the One is still male, and it’s still white. The Other is whatever isn’t white, and male—and in a different way, whatever isn’t straight, though white gay men, in some instances, have achieved a measure of privilege unseen by lesbians of any race and by people of color.

Can we imagine a world working toward eliminating the One/Other construct? Can we imagine Bertelsmann (I’m giving up here on naming the individual giant publishing houses—they’re all Bertelsmann to me) one year publishing several titles with protagonists who are lesbian? Can we imagine opening the New York Times Book Review one week and noticing there are only two or three men reviewed? Or none! And it isn’t for a special “Women’s Books” issue! What if Bertelsmann’s list was suddenly 53% women authors?

That’s the world I like imagining: a world where no one is defined by any single quality, and certainly where whatever sets a writer apart from the norm isn’t her definitive marker. A world where a new generation of writers won’t face the assumptions about what their “important subject” is until they decide it for themselves— and the African American writer is writing lyric essays on the virtues of transcendental meditation and the writer in the wheelchair is writing about growing up Italian on New York’s Lower East Side and the lesbian writer is writing about a straight botanist, and we’re all getting published based solely on the merit of the writing.

Now, that’s an important subject.

Sarah Van Arsdale is a writer based in New York City whose works include Grand Isle, published in 2012, Toward Amnesia and Blue. Blue was the 2002 winner of the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, and was published by the University of Tennessee Press in 2003. Additionally, Sarah teaches in the MFA program at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and at NYU. She also serves on the board of the Ferro-Grumley Awards in Fiction and has received fellowships at the Playa, Ragdale Foundation, The Djerassi Center for the Arts, and the Jentel Center for the Arts.

Read the rest of the Pigeonhole or Portal series here:

Aisha Sabatini Sloan: Pigeonhole or Portal?

Matthew Shenoda: “Christopher Columbus Was A Damn Blasted Liar”*: The Narrative of Discovery in Global Literature

Xu Xi 許素細: Pigeonholes and Portals and Third-Culture Peeps

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