The Invisible Lesbian
Challenging the myth of merit-based publishing.
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In 1999, I completed a novel called The Child. I had published seven novels and two nonfiction books between 1984 and 1998 with excited, positive reviews, translations, awards, and all the signs of success. But suddenly I could not get anyone to take this book. In fact, it did not appear until this past June, when it was published by Carroll & Graf. Why was this book suddenly so unacceptable?
There are people who believe that we live in a merit-based publishing environment. According to them, the reason I could not find a publisher was because The Child is less deserving than every novel that has been published in the last eight years, and, therefore, it objectively deserved to remain unavailable to readers.
I, however, have always believed that individual experience is dynamic with its social context.
The Child is about a romantic, sexual relationship between 15-year-old Stew and 40-year-old David. Many editors' letters explicitly pointed to this relationship as the reason for rejection. What troubled the editors was my point of view. I did not come out "against" the relationship. Instead, I was, as one blurber ultimately put it, "objective."
I feel that the individual discomfort of particular editors about this sexual content was dynamic with a national narrowing of the range of ideas that can be expressed in public. The two Bush presidencies were met by a dumbing-down of discourse in the mainstream media. There were many times when I felt that I could not hear truthful or complex ideas in public. I could hear them only in private. Economic realities like the mergers of independent publishing venues into conglomerates resonate negatively with the trend toward fewer ideas.
The relationship between Stew and David was intertwined with the story of a lesbian lawyer, her lover, and her legal partner. I have written widely about the ways and reasons that lesbian literature is disrespected in America, and I do not have the opportunity to fully replicate that information here. However, I do think it is fair to say that modern lesbian literature made cultural inroads as a consequence of the feminist and lesbian movements of the 1970s and '80s. The cultural conservatism of the 1990s, and one of its expressions, niche marketing, was a containing reaction to that expansive trend.
In this environment, many of America's best and most respected editors have never published a lesbian novel. The most successful lesbian writers are either closeted or don't write about lesbian lives. As a writing teacher, I encounter many young women who are deliberately not writing lesbian content because of the chilling effect of the industry's indifference and neglect. MFA faculties are often not equipped to offer lesbian writers the same kinds ofknowledgeable support that straight or gay male work can receive. Writers developing outside of an institutional framework, as I did, no longer have community-based events like Outwrite or lesbian writers conferences to help them develop.
Niche marketing continues to keep lesbian literature from being considered an integrated part of American letters. Today, the best-selling lesbian writers in America are British imports, such as Sarah Waters and Jeanette Winterson, who are treated as regular writers by their home media and rewards apparatus. In the 1980s, there were large numbers of novels with primary lesbian content being published by mainstream presses. Today, there are only one or two a year. An examination of gay-book-award nomination lists reveals that the best presses in this country have shown a frightening, dramatic decline in their publication of lesbian novels over the last 15 years.
What makes the fragility of lesbian content dynamic with the narrowing of public discourse is that publishing lesbian literature means representing points of view that are unknown to the broader society and unarticulated to the subculture, which depends on mainstream media for much of its representation. In a conservative time, most books, films, and TV shows re-create perspectives that are already known. The familiarity itself becomes the sign of "quality." In an expansive era, the introduction of new ways of thinking is what is praised as "good."
In our day, the "new" is so rare and unsettling that many people think it is "wrong." And point of view, not story, is the most politically charged issue in American arts. How a moment is perceived and experienced by the character, her right to be the authorial center of her own universe, is what is at question.
I believe that these are the reasons that the publication of this book was so obstructed.
What has been interesting about the reception, now that The Child has been published, is that I have not received a single bad review. In fact, most of the reviews are ecstatic, the kind of appreciation that makes one blush. But not a single mainstream magazine or newspaper has reviewed the novel. Only the gay press and gay people writing for alternative media like the LA Weekly have acknowledged the existence of the book, and they have done so rhapsodically.
It's quite strange to live as two such different people at the same time every day. On one hand, I am someone who is creating literature that is needed, wanted, praised, and often adored by people whose representation is usually stopped by the kinds of obstacles I managed to overcome through sheer will. On the other hand, I don't exist.
This is frustrating, because I know that my books have a great deal to offer that is just as valuable, or more so, than work that can access the machinery of support. I just have to hope that this horrible moment is a cyclical one, and with the forthcoming change of administration, there will also be an emotional/psychological change on the part of the gatekeepers of the culture, who will open the doors just a little bit wider, so that we can at least get back to where we were 15 years ago. And finally move forward from there.
Sarah Schulman is a playwright and novelist. Her most recent book is The Child: A Novel.