THE STORY BEGINS LIKE SO MANY OTHERS: I was at a dinner party. As I chatted casually about my lesbian YA novel, Sister Mischief, I was met with an incisive comment on the state of lesbian literature, which I paraphrase here:
"Why is it that all lesbian novels end with one lover either dying or going straight?"
The statement stung me. Almost every lesbian novel I could think of, including my own, seemed to acquiesce to this dichotomy. I knew that there was ample work to be done in expanding the LGBTQ canon, but was it true that all lesbian stories ended tragically, and if so, had we really failed to invent more than two conclusions? I decided to investigate the issue.
Radclyffe Hall's 1928 The Well of Loneliness, called "the most depressing lesbian novel ever written" by critic Lisa Walker, initiated the tragic convention in the lesbian coming-of-age story. While considerable progress has been made in generating more hopeful narratives, the lesbian romantic tradition is nonetheless marked by fear, melodrama, and secrecy. According to literature, the Sapphic love story rarely ends well.
After 1980, the lesbian love story often interweaves with a "coming-out" story, adding what queer theorist Michael Warner calls "the special burden of disclosure" to gay characters' emotional journeys. Unlike straight characters, gay characters are charged with disclaiming their sexual preferences, further particularizing the queer bildungsroman as one moving toward, or moving past, self-disclosure. As a result, a character's self-realization as queer is seldom incidental to a story.
But how true, how frequent, is the "dead or straight" binary to the lesbian novel at large? Six books struck me as fruitful territory upon which to unleash the trope, representing a range of era, class, and cultural settings while maintaining a unity of theme. Annie on My Mind, A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend, and Kissing Kate are classified as young adult fiction, and illustrate a central love story. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, The Well of Loneliness, and Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe are not considered YA, but do depict an erotic coming-of-age narrative. Be warned: As a result of reviewing the books' endings, spoilers abound.
The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall (1928)
No lesbian novel has earned a more contentious critical reception than The Well of Loneliness. Published originally in England to a Howl-scale shitstorm - London's Sunday Express launched a morality campaign against the book that led to an obscenity trial - The Well still ignites controversy. No survey of Sapphic tragedies would be complete without attending to the excellent queer theory that has underpinned their place in the canon, and critic Heather Love's work on The Well astutely emphasizes the novel's reception by lesbian readers: She call...read more