Pride Flag in the wind

The Country of Lesbian Fiction

Karin Kallmaker Business of Books, Readers and Libraries

Pride Flag in the wind

Today’s reader has more choice than ever in the history of lesbian literature. This range of choice creates a challenge for the writers, and a journey of many surprises, because just as there are many readers who are not or have not been aware of various publishers, writers, and other genres/sub-genres in lesfic, many writers aren’t aware of the existence of those readers or haven’t been aware until recently.

The Tribes Make Themselves Heard

Like a variety of tribes living in their own valley, both readers and writers sometimes don’t make the climb to look around. The reader, upon finding a gold mine in one valley often stays put until the vein runs out. The writer already tends to work in a cave — at least I do. New settlements are created that existing tribes know nothing about and vice versa. True to human nature, when different tribes encounter each other, the first reaction isn’t necessarily to run out, arms open, and embrace each other. [Insert pun on Xen’a’phobia here.] The Golden Crown Literary Society (GCLS), for example, creates opportunities for cross-exploration that allow many readers and writers to visit outside their preferred villages, and that can create some tensions, especially around concepts of better and successful and popular.

These terms are all subjective and can’t even begin to be useful without answering to whom. As I look around the Country of Lesbian Fiction, I can see that there is far too much choice for any one novel, writer, or publisher to please everybody. Someone will always be disappointed with something. Having come of age when any book by a lesbian was hunted down and captured, I could probably argue that the ability to pick and choose is a hallmark of success of one kind. As a writer, I would love to be adored universally. I would like to think I could create a novel that everyone bought, talked about and found to be the Best Thing Ever. However, I accept that it’s a pipe dream, an impossibility. What one reader finds charming and real-to-life another will find flat and predictable. One tribe can find a novel full of relevance and meaning while another tribe feels that nothing happens in the story.

One Woman’s Feminist Fantasy is Another Woman’s FemSlash

Fiction Tribes (I’m liking the analogy, so I’ve decided to run with it) bring their own expectations to everything they read. I understand that many readers have a paradigm (a.k.a. genre expectations) into which they press most of the novels they read, and it does cause the occasional moments of wry consternation when a work gets mislabeled. When someone declares a novel of mine to be fan fiction I wonder why, as I don’t knowingly write fanfic. When they add that it’s not even very good fanfic I’m not sure how to take it. It’s rather like saying an apple is a bad orange.

Most readers already lean toward given content in their lesbian fiction—they are guided by the general marketing labels publishers and booksellers use to get the right book into the right hands. Not everyone likes them, but their universality is generally helpful.

Open Quote Mark featuring Starry NightFor example, if the book is called a mystery, the reader expects a dead body somewhere along the way. However, the Internet allows for a plethora of highly specific labels, which sometimes are then misapplied by one type of reader or misunderstood by another. Chainslash J/7 crossover alt, anyone? It’s got a hot BSO. Do you want your XWP classic, bard and/or gen? It’s by a BNF.

Labels are indeed useful things, but they are double-edged. I can certainly see how a reader who knew a writer had published online X&G (Xena: Warrior Princess) fanfic would look for that model in the writer’s published novel, but how is the writer supposed to put “this is different” on her book?

When I decided to heighten the erotic content in specific recent novels, I spent considerable energy trying to figure out how to say, “If you don’t like sex toys, don’t read this.” [I never, ever want a reader to misunderstand the content or feel she was tricked into buying one of my books. That impression can take years to mend.] Marketing, after all, should be about what the book is, not what it isn’t.What I’ve learned since getting out of my own tribe and mingling with others (and meeting a lot of wonderful women along the way), is that discussion of the Country of Lesbian Fiction requires consistent, evolving cartography if we’re going to have meaningful discussions of better and successful and popular without labels seeming pejorative. I know that some people mean it pejoratively when they say uber or fanfic, just as some mean it pejoratively when they say romance. I’d like to go on record that if I use those terms I’m only trying to clarify the landscape in question, not create unbreachable boundaries or imply tribal hierarchies.

We Are a Country of Diversity

There are some people who see their tribe as the whole country and like it that way. There are people who travel to a couple of different tribes and like the variety to read. There are others who have a lifetime’s detailed map of most of the surrounding lands, while still others see that the world is bigger than even the Country of Lesbian Fiction.

I’m not so well-traveled, but I’ve seen enough to know there are good bits and worse bits everywhere, starting with my own work. I think I know a few other writers well enough to guess they would readily agree they have their better and worse moments as well. We all have better and worse execution regardless of what inspired us to write that particular story, be it a TV show, a song, a beautiful sunrise, the meaning of love or the nature of existence. Regardless, in writing, everyone is dealing with something they love and feel passionate about. With passion comes vulnerability. Therefore, when judgments are made about content or presentation, feelings can get hurt. Statements that were meant to address a specific book that’s designed to please one tribe are taken to blanket the tastes of all tribes, and the persistent belief exists that one tribe thinks they are compared to another. This is human nature, and lesbians are human—and thank goodness, or I’d have no fodder at all for much of my work!

Frustration with Labels

One of the things I often hear from both writers and readers regarding fanfic and lesfic is a frustration that those labels get misapplied based on the publisher, previous work, or the descriptions of the main characters. Every lesbian novel with a dark-haired powerful woman courting a blonde who talks a lot is not X&G fanfic, just as every novel where two women fall in love is not a romance. My point is that the writer feels like she can’t “win” when equally strong voices are saying “want more” and “want less” about the very same elements of the very same book. Precisely because of the Internet (and I agree that it has contributed to the changing vitality of lesfic like nothing else), writers hear more persistently and personally from readers than ever before. When someone gets in your face for good or bad, it’s hard to ignore and even harder (some of us being women who were conditioned to please others first) to stick to your own vision, especially when compromise is the only apparent path to getting published or benefiting from word-of-mouth.

So, To Whom Should We Try To Appeal?

I know a number of writers who ask themselves if they want/ought to appeal more strongly to this tribe or that. There are some who fear not appealing strongly to any particular one means no one notices their work even exists. And I think nearly all writers would like to have better and successful and popular as words applied to their books. But just as readers are served by having the right expectations for any book they choose to read, writers are served by having reasonable expectations for what impact, response, and feedback they are likely to get, and from whom. Some tribes are very vocal, others very quiet.

Open Quote Mark featuring Starry NightWhile I would never write off any particular tribe as one not worth representing or writing about/to in my work, what I’m saying in all of this is that the writers who feel tossed about in competing and conflicting criticisms should give themselves a break from pleasing the entire Country of Lesbian Fiction.

Every writer has to draw the lines for herself, and decide which, if any, tribe she might want to appeal to the most. If those choices are made with conscious thought, good craft and set purpose, then any writer ought to be able to stand by her work no matter why/how/when/who/where it came into print.

I remind myself that I’m contributing to the choices that are out there; I am just one part of the great Country of Lesbian Fiction. Anything and everything that spreads the word about our books is good for all of us, which makes me proud to wave the GCLS flag whenever I can and invite people up to the mountaintop just to look around once in a while. I’ve always known it, but I think my experience with the GCLS and getting to know other writers and publishers has certainly underscored the point: We may be tribal, but this is not Survivor. We all need each other too much.

© 2007 Karin Kallmaker
Appeared at www.justaboutwrite.com September, 2007. Copyrighted material.