Creating an LGBTQQAI+ literary culture

originally posted June 19, 2021
no text revisions to date

With his lastest post for the Los Angeles Review of Books, writer Michael Nava concludes a three-part exploration into gay and lesbian* writing—as well as reading and publishing—with a look into a time when materials have become more widely available, when readers are growing more particular and more segmented, and when the tone of information seems to be changing directions and intensities. Nava begins,

In the first installment of this series, I explored . . . literature available to gay and lesbian readers between 1940 and 1980, a period when homosexuality was still deemed a mental disease and [a] criminal behavior.  In the second installment, I looked at the explosion of gay and lesbian books between 1980 and 1995, a boom that reflected the emergence of a . . . gay and lesbian community that perceived its struggle[s rooted in] civil rights . . . and . . . the AIDS epidemic.

Now, to set part of the scene for continuing his exploration, in Nava’s words,

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.

Indeed, Nava says, “In terms of actual numbers of queer books published by the [so-called] Big Five, we are closer to the trickle of the 1950s than the flood of the 1990s.” Still, with all the rapid developments in making self-publication, digital publishing, and physical and electronic distribution so much easier to access and use over recent decades—as well as an “emergence of new small queer presses, and a renewed if tokenistic interest in queer writers by the . . . big publishers”—he believes “it’s probably safe to say there are more LGBTQ books . . . 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”—as well as fantasy and science fiction, I might add, along with horror, action and adventure, graphic novels, even historical fiction, maybe more, and any of the nonfiction genres.

While the quantity of materials available may be on the increase, Nava discusses how the tone of that material has changed. Whether this change is due to broader acceptance, or the assimilation of gay culture into the mainstream—“at least some of them, at least in some quarters”—or to the fact that younger individuals, in general, are not giving books “the urgent importance that they held for older gays and lesbians,” the differences are noticeable. But, then, “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 [interact with them on] social media” and, as Nava’s article points out later, even on the go with cell phone apps for dating and communication. Given these trends, might books and magazines be heading for the fate of bookstores and bars as dying pieces of gay and lesbian culture?

One more possible explanation for a change in tone, Nava suggests, involves the proliferation of MFA creative writing programs. He, and many others, worry that “these programs promote, if not a uniform style, a certain ethos as to what constitutes ‘serious’ and worthy literature.” If used as a “pipeline” to New York’s Big Five, he also forsees creation of “a class divide among aspiring writers” and a pool of writers who will create essentially “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.”

Fortunately, he says, “Smaller presses continue to pick up the slack. . . . 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.” In support, he mentions two newer presses in particular. “One that is quite personal to me because I am its managing editor (incidentally, I am not paid for this work, I do it as a volunteer)” is Amble Press. “In 2019, I was approached by Bywater Books, a respected lesbian press founded in 2004, about taking over a new imprint it had started . . . to expand beyond lesbian writers and publish, as they put it, ‘writers across the queer spectrum.’”

The other he references is ReQueered Tales, founded in 2016, whose mission is to “recover LGBTQ literary heritage by bringing back to life books and writers who have gone out of print.” Both examples

are . . . 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.

Nava still contributes to our expanding LGBTQQAI+ culture, with his Henry Rios legal mysteries—The Burning Plain (1998), Rag and Bone (2000), Lay Your Sleeping Head (2016), and Carved in Bone (2019)—as well as the nonfiction volume, Created Equal: Why Gay Rights Matter to America (St. Martin’s Press, 2002), which he coauthored with Robert Dawidoff. He has also crafted a number of essays, short stories, and poems focused on being gay and Latinx. “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.” In analyzing that question, the author-editor-publisher delves deeper:

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.

As with parts I and II, I encourage you to read Part III, the conclusion of Nava’s series for the Los Angeles Review of Books, if only because I could not possibly relay the information, perspective, and reflection—or pose the questions—that he does about gay and lesbian* publishing. Nava’s original post appeared on June 18, 2021.

*In the words of author Nava: “The emphasis on gay and lesbian writers reflects the fact that the period under examination mostly preceded the emergence of transgender, bisexual, and nonbinary communities as distinct and recognizable literary communities and publishing cohorts; it in no way devalues them. . . . This is only part of the story, the part of the story I lived through and participated in: a trail of breadcrumbs for future readers, writers, and scholars to follow to uncover one of the most important literary movements of the last century.”

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image information: Featured image, via AuthorAllsorts, where it was used as artwork for a post, “Windows and Doors to Our Worlds: Writing LGBTQIA Literature” in which guest blogger author Laura Lam mentioned a We Need Diverse Books, DiverseBooks.org, program at the 2015 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference in San Francisco.  


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