Creating a Literary Culture: A Short, Selective, and Incomplete History of LGBT Publishing, Part III
By Michael NavaJune 18, 2021
Picking Up the Pieces: Queer Publishing Now
At the beginning of the 21st century, the big publishers and the literary establishment virtually abandoned books by queer writers after the great outpouring of gay and lesbian literature between 1980 and 1995 failed to deliver bottom-line balloons. This queer equivalent of the Harlem Renaissance owed its existence to a robust network of gay and lesbian media and bookstores as well as the tectonic social and cultural shifts ushered in by the AIDS epidemic, which dramatically brought the gay and lesbian community and its stories of suffering and heroism into public consciousness. By the late 1990s, a new generation of drugs had transformed HIV infection from a death sentence to a chronic, but manageable illness (though not for everyone, of course). Simultaneously, the networks of gay and lesbian media and bookstores began to collapse, displaced by the internet, on the one hand, and by big chain bookstores and Amazon on the other. Many of the most important small presses that had been the backbone of queer publishing also disappeared. The result was that fewer queer books were being published.
That has, as you already know, changed. The advent of easy self-publication and online distribution via platforms like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, the emergence of new small queer presses, and a renewed if tokenistic interest in queer writers by the remaining big publishers has opened the floodgates to a fresh stream of LGBTQ books. But more books means greater competition for the attention of an LGBTQ community that also finds itself increasingly represented across other cultural platforms — TV, movies, and most significantly, social media — that to some extent have displaced literature as the community’s main source of self-validation and self-identification. Then, too, there has been a rather striking change in the tone of much queer literature. Historically, queer literature was the literature of the Outsider, a sphere inherently engaged in the political and social questions distinctly associated with homosexuality. Now, with the apparently greater acceptance of queer people, much of the literature being produced — especially by Big Publishing — tends toward the introspective, apolitical, and non-ideological. It’s here, it’s queer, and it’s already over it, I suppose.
As such, the past decade has been both the best and the worst of times for LGBTQ publishing and writers. Authors can now bypass the gatekeeping publishing apparatus completely by producing and marketing professional-looking print copies or ebooks through the self-publishing options available to them on the internet. Many queer writers have taken this option, even as it comes with a number of significant challenges, not least of which is finding a way to stand out amid a crowded marketplace. Between self-publication, publication by the remaining LGBTQ small presses, and publication by the Big Five publishers, it’s probably safe to say there are more LGBTQ books in print at this moment than at any other time in publishing history. This includes a growing body of transgender fiction that encompasses every genre from speculative fiction, literary novels, romance, erotica, and crime fiction.
The sheer volume of all new titles released every year — hundreds of thousands — and the simultaneous balkanization of the reading public to smaller and smaller niches makes it more difficult for queer writers to preach beyond the choir. Preaching to the choir has its advantages of course; it means there is a market of sympathetic and engaged readers. But most writers like to think that, at whatever corner of human experience they begin, there is some universal aspect to their work. In a world of niche markets and marketing, constantly flooded by new titles clamoring for attention, it is harder and harder to break through the noise and reach those readers outside the ambit of a writer’s specific community.
It may also be true that for younger generations of the queer community, books have lost some of the urgent importance that they held for older gays and lesbians. While still at essentially tokenistic levels, young queers can see other LGBTQ people of all stripes on television and in the movies; they can listen to their music, and follow them on streaming services and social media. And it’s not only white gay men that the community needs to be satisfied with anymore; the past several years have seen a welcome surge in the representation of queers of color, the transgender community, bisexuals, asexuals, and nonbinary folk. There are also, one hastens to add, any number of “dating” apps that help connect queers with one another in the way that bars or bathhouses used to — and often with the same forms of anticipatory, utopian inclusion that meets the reality of harsh exclusion. Additionally, as David Groff observes, “Queer life has become privatized, with fewer institutions like bars, bookstores, and magazines to adhere us; we tend to create and find ourselves via personal, not public communities.”
This inwardness may also be a function of the greater acceptance of LGBTQ people; at least some of them, at least in some quarters of society. One reason that older generations of gay and lesbian people were so exposed to public censure and ridicule was because their behavior had been criminalized and pathologized by sodomy laws and the classification of homosexuality as a mental disease. In that circumstance, a genuinely private life — as opposed to a secret, closeted one — was impossible, since the state actively sought to expose homosexuals. Necessarily, then, the gay and lesbian literature of those times was forced to engage with social condemnation of homosexuality; it was the literature of the oppressed. Now, however, many LGBTQ people have won what Justice Brandeis once called “the most comprehensive of rights,” that is, “the right to let alone.”
In addition to this new privatization of queer life, current literary trends also promote styles and narratives antithetical to traditional queer writing. These trends are reflected in the lists put out by the big publishers and embraced by the literary establishment and their counterparts in the commentariat of reviewers for newspapers and magazines. They are, in part, the result of the stunning growth of MFA programs in creative writing and their dominance over the publishing industry in the more than half a century since the end of World War II. The website of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs lists 999 academic institutions that offer a degree in some field of creative writing; 404 for fiction alone. These programs promote, if not a uniform style, a certain ethos as to what constitutes “serious” and worthy literature.
Anis Shivani, a fiery critic of MFA programs, accuses them of producing fiction that is apolitical and unengaged, filled with “prettified” language that “promotes grief, paralysis and inaction.” Shivani characterizes MFA fiction as a “culture of confession” where “time after time, the hope triumphs that there is something in the muck of memory that might, after all, salvage the writer from his struggles with telling a good, full-blooded story packed with real people and real events.” Harsh, perhaps, but he has a point about the inwardness of much “literary fiction” produced by MFA graduates who are overwhelmingly white, cis, straight, and middle or upper middle class. Such apolitical, non-ideological literature is the antithesis of traditional queer literature that forced authors and readers alike to grapple with the cultural, social, and political powers that sidelined queer people to the margins and sought to keep them there.
For many queer writers who still embrace the traditional oppositional model, the doors of Big Publishing and the Literary Establishment are closed. One writer acquaintance, himself on the faculty of a creative program, remembers how a prominent New York agent responded when the writer told him he was working on a novel that had the AIDS epidemic as a backdrop. “AIDS,” the agent said, “is over.” Certainly, the challenge that many esteemed gay and lesbian writers of the 1980s and 1990s have had in getting published in the new millennium supports the view that Big Publishing has concluded the literature of political engagement is neither marketable nor culturally relevant.
Additionally, like the false trope of a “post-racist society” that followed the election of Barack Obama, the notion that, with marriage equality, we now live in a “post-homophobic” culture has also had a detrimental impact on LGBTQ writers. This is especially true of trans writers and queer writers of color who understand all too well that the claim of victory over bigotry is premature. If polite society, gay and straight, has now concluded that homosexuals are just like everyone else — having babies, shopping at Ikea, getting mortgages, and sizing up their portfolios from startup IPOs — it’s unlikely that Big Publishing will publish queer writers whose work challenges and upsets this charming applecart by reminding the reading public that the suffering of the queer community is real and ongoing, that reminds them that we haven’t yet reached the horizons glimpsed in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s.
Furthermore, the emergence of MFA programs as the pipeline to Big Publishing has created a class divide among aspiring writers: not only queer but also, significantly, writers of color. An article in Inside Higher Ed pegs the average cost of an MFA as between $20,000 and $30,000 while some programs — it cites Columbia University — will cost as much as $120,000. This is, of course, in addition to the costs of an undergraduate degree. Almost inevitably, matriculating into an MFA program requires taking on more student debt. For many working-class and even middle-class students, the costs of obtaining an MFA degree are prohibitive, depriving them of an academic credential that increasingly seems to be a prerequisite for the possibility of being promoted by Big Publishing. Queer literature has always been enriched by writers from the working and lower middle classes — John Rechy, Leslie Feinberg, Dorothy Allison, and Gil Cuadros come immediately to mind — and by writers who worked other careers to support themselves. (I, for example, coming from a working-class Mexican American family, went to law school and practiced law for 30 years.) Would these writers be published today without an MFA degree? How many young queer writers without the means to attend an MFA program will find the already steep climb to publication virtually impossible?
It is true that in recent years, New York publishers, now down to the so-called Big Five, have begun to publish some younger queer writers. One of the most acclaimed, Garth Greenwell, notes that
mainstream publishers are much more open to queer books than even five years ago. And by more diverse writers — Bryan Washington, Akwaeke Emezi, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Carmen Maria Machado, just to name a few. It remains the case that too few trans writers are finding a place at the table, maybe especially trans women.
David Groff agrees that “[mainstream] publishers have recently become more open to certain emerging LGBTQ authors,” but, he cautions,
in the winner-take-all, increasingly consolidated world of mainstream publishing houses, the door to entry is narrower, admitting fewer than before. Books by and about lesbians remain under-published. Many venerated LGBTQ mainstream writers are dogged by modest sales (easily tracked these days, thanks to Bookscan) and have trouble sustaining their careers. Our books still must prove themselves, title after title, as if each is nearly the first of its kind; there is no presumption of success based on the LGBTQ category. One successful book does not open the gate for similar books to pass through.
Tokenism remains an issue. The writers Greenwell mentions, and Greenwell himself, are immensely talented and fully deserving of their success. Still, their books cumulatively represent only a small stream in the deluge of titles annually published by mainstream publishers. As Sarah Schulman argued in her 2018 speech accepting the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement in LGBTQ literature given by the Publishing Triangle: “For, too often, the introduction of some queer person of great gifts into the reward system produces tokenism instead of cultural expansion, because that person’s individual success does not represent a paradigm shift, but actually enhances the gatekeepers’ power.”
The attention lavished on the handful of books by LGBTQ writers published by Big Publishing also obscures the fact that the real number of such books is infinitesimal. In 2019, Penguin Random House, the largest of the Big Five, published 85,000 print and digital books; if we assume conservatively that 10 percent were novels, that would be 8,500 new works of fiction. How many of those were by queer writers? One, five, 10? There is nothing in Big Publishing today like Michael Denneny’s Stonewall Inn Editions at St. Martin’s in the 1990s, a line that was dedicated to publishing gay male authors. In terms of actual numbers of queer books published by the Big Five, we are closer to the trickle of the 1950s than the flood of the 1990s.
Smaller presses continue to pick up the slack. A quick Google search reveals that not only are some of the older small presses still in business, but newer ones continue to pop up. They publish the LGBTQ writers whose work addresses the effects of oppression and the broader issues of social justice that intersect with the concerns of the queer community. They also preserve the literature of the past. I want to mention two new small presses in particular, one that is quite personal to me because I am its managing editor.
In 2019, I was approached by Bywater Books, a respected lesbian press founded in 2004, about taking over a new imprint it had started called Amble Press. The goal of Bywater’s publisher was to expand beyond lesbian writers and publish, as they put it, “writers across the queer spectrum.” I took the job because I knew from my own experience how vital the small press has always been to LGBTQ writers. I also hoped to give other writers the start that Sasha Alyson had given me when his small press, Alyson Publications, accepted my first novel after it had been turned down by 13 other publishers. (Incidentally, I am not paid for this work, I do it as a volunteer.)
In 2021, Amble will publish the first books I have acquired: Amble’s first book, acquired before I started, was the AIDS novel As If Death Summoned by Alan E. Rose, which was published in December 2020 to glowing reviews. Matthew Clark Davison’s debut novel, Doubting Thomas, will be published in June 2021; Joe Okonkwo’s collection of short stories Kiss the Scars on the Back of My Neck is due out in August; and Casey Hamilton’s MENAFTER10 is scheduled for September. Next year, Amble will publish Faux Queen, Monique Jenkinson’s memoir of the San Francisco drag scene in the 1990s, Orlando Ortega-Medina’s novel The Fitful Sleep of Immigrants, a novel about a Latinx immigration lawyer who becomes enmeshed with a client even as his own immigrant partner faces deportation; Knock Off the Hat, a mystery by veteran mystery writer Richard Stevenson set in Philadelphia in 1947 in the midst of police raids on gay bars; Hell-Bent, an unusual coming-out tale by Calista Lynne in which a teenage girl summons a demon to journey into hell in search of her movie star crush; and Army of Lovers, K. M. Soehnlein’s novel about the early days of ACT-UP.
These books illustrate the great range of excellent queer writing by accomplished writers abandoned by the risk-averse culture of Big Publishing. While Hamilton and Jenkinson are debut authors, the others are not. Davison teaches in the creative writing department of San Francisco State University, has published widely in places like Guernica and The Atlantic and anthologies like Empty the Pews, and is the recipient of awards and grants that recognize his talent. But even with this pedigree and a literary agent, he struggled to find a publisher for his first novel, which follows a gay teacher at an elite, private school falsely accused of inappropriately touching one of his students and its aftermath. Okonkwo’s first novel, Jazz Moon, won the Publishing Triangle’s Edmund White Award for outstanding first novel and he too was represented by a distinguished literary agent for his superb collection of short stories about gay Black life. Ortega-Medina has published three previous books, the first — Jerusalem Ablaze — was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize awarded by the United Kingdom’s National Centre for Writing. Both Stevenson and Soehnlein are recipients of a Lambda Literary Award. These awards, given by the LGBTQ community itself, demonstrate that there is an audience for queer books and a still-existing (although diminished) framework to support LGBTQ writers. (The Lambda Literary Foundation does far more than give out awards — it supports emerging queer writers with a two-week writing workshop and mentorship, reviews queer books through its literary review, and brings queer writers into the classroom.) Still, Big Lit continues to largely ignore the LGBTQ literary community.
Each book, in its own way, continues the tradition of an engaged queer literature. These are narratives set against the reality and effects of oppression and marginalization. They are not polemical. Rather, they are subtle and beautifully written, weaving into their stories the sense of Otherness that has always been the hallmark of queer literature. This Otherness is not as simple as a sense of personal alienation and anxiety. The best LGBTQ writers have recognized that Otherness can also be a position of privilege from which one can observe the structures of oppression invisible to the oppressor and the continual hypocrisies and cruelties that sustain that structure and thereby expose it.
At the other end of the small press spectrum is ReQueered Tales, founded in 2016 by Justene Adamec, Alexander Inglis, and Matt Lubbers-Moore — respectively a lawyer, a retired telecommunications executive, and a writer-librarian. Unlike Amble, ReQueered’s mission is not to publish emerging writers, but rather, to recover LGBTQ literary heritage by bringing back to life books and writers who have gone out of print. They include writers of the AIDS era like Stan Leventhal and Jay B. Laws, who died during the plague, and those who are very much alive today, like John Morgan Wilson, author of eight crime novels featuring gay journalist Benjamin Justice, and whose first novel, Simple Justice, won an Edgar Award, and Nikki Baker, who whose protagonist is a Black lesbian working in Chicago’s financial industry. ReQueered’s mission of preserving the LGBTQ literary heritage is every bit as vital as the mission of presses like Amble, to expand that heritage with new work and new writers. Crucially, these presses continue to be mission-driven rather than profit-driven; they exist chiefly to give queer writers a platform for their work whether it is literary fiction or romance; for their publishers, editors, and writers, they are passion projects.
They are also indispensable because a mature literary culture is diverse, inclusive, and deep. It’s a culture that includes works of writerly brilliance and works that speak to the circumstances of their readers’ lives or that exist simply to entertain and provide pleasurable escapism. What difference does it make, one might ask, whether a mystery features a gay protagonist or a straight one if the main purpose of the book is to provide a few hours of relief from “real life”? If you live in a world where the cultural products continue to mostly exclude you, it makes an enormous difference. Queer readers have always sought not just diversion from their literature, but validation, and even now, in this era of greater acceptance of LGBTQ lives, that’s still true. We, as readers, identify with those works that have at least a passing relationship to our own specific human experience, which includes our conceptions of gender and sexual orientation.
The future of queer publishing, whether from the independent presses or the mainstream publishers, is tied in part to the future of books — are we, as is sometimes said, entering a post-literary world? More crucially, however, the future of queer publishing is inextricably tied to the future of queer self-conception itself. Older gays and lesbians experienced themselves as part of an embattled minority, alternately ignored and demonized by society at large; this was no academic argument — they often bore the stripes to prove it, as well. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were so few cultural accounts of our lives that when we stumbled across a book that provided one, even if it was marred by the obligatory tragic ending, queer readers seized upon it like a Holy Grail, proof that they existed and were not alone. Even later, in the 1980s and 1990s, this enormous need for validation drove gay and lesbian publishing: we needed to tell and to hear stories about and by ourselves, particularly during the AIDS epidemic. Books were not mere escapes, they were manifestos, and writing our lives and experiences was an act of political activism, even if your subject was a gay vampire.
Is this still true? Do younger generations of LGBTQ folk experience themselves as threatened and erased and in need of self-validation? And if they do, will they look for themselves and a better future in books? Or will they find it on their smartphone screens? Or some revolutionary, bio-integrated technology yet to be devised? Or in a shift of cultural consciousness in which gender identity and sexual orientation truly become private and morally neutral aspects of personality? Will writers no longer feel the need to write books with the same polemical passion that drove the writers who created the LGBTQ vast literary culture? Whatever the future brings, one thing is certain: the compulsion to tell stories that arise from the deepest sense of ourselves, however those stories may be told, will not disappear, and foremost among those storytellers will be our queer voices.
Michael Nava is the author of a groundbreaking series of novels featuring gay Latino criminal defense lawyer Henry Rios.
Banner image: "LGBT pride section at Powell's Books, Portland, 2016" by Another Believer is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Image has been cropped and darkened.
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Michael Nava walks through the explosion of gay and lesbian publishing from 1980 to 1995, in this second installment of a three-part series for the LA Review of Books....
Michael Nava walks through the history of gay and lesbian publishing, from 1940 to 1980, in this first installment of a three-part series for the L.A. Review of Books....
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