Posted Friday, Nov. 11, 2011, at 5:14 PM
Barbara Grier died on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011, at the age of 78. That the vast majority of people reading this will not recognize that name is a sad reflection of the isolation of lesbian literature from the cultural mainstream. As Victoria Brownworth put it in a lovely remembrance at Lambda Literary, “Grier built the lesbian book industry.”
Although she was never active in the Daughters of Bilitis, America’s first lesbian rights organization, Grier wrote about books for the DOB’s monthly publication, the Ladder, for 15 years, starting in 1957. Her capsule reviews (written under the pseudonym Gene Damon) wouldn’t win any literary prizes, but their existence changed the world. At a time long before gay and lesbian culture went mainstream, Grier performed a hugely valuable service by telling the Ladder’s readers that their lives were reflected in books. She became editor of the Ladder in September 1968, and increased its coverage of feminist news—a controversial move, since some DOB members wanted the focus to remain exclusively lesbian. Grier’s ambition ultimately led to the organization’s demise (though it should be said that it was already out of step with the post-Stonewall times), when, in the summer of 1970, she urged a co-conspirator to seize the addressograph plates that made up the magazine’s top-secret mailing list out of the organization’s San Francisco offices. Many DOB activists regarded this move as theft, but as Grier told Marcia M. Gallo, author of Different Daughters (a history of the Daughters of Bilitis), she felt it was necessary for the magazine’s continued existence: “DOB was falling apart—we wanted The Ladder to survive.”
Grier continued to publish the Ladder for two more years, until it went broke. But in 1973 she and her partner, Donna McBride, founded Naiad Press, which was one of the first and most successful lesbian publishing houses of the 20th century. Although mostly known for light fiction—there was a template for Naiad books: conflict, romance, and a happy ending—the press also published works by Gertrude Stein and Renee Vivien, as well as occasional nonfiction, notably its most high-profile and successful book, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence. (Grier caused outrage when she sold excerpts from that book to Penthouse Forum, but this was another example of her wanting to get the word out to as many potential readers as possible.) Grier and McBride sold Naiad in 2003.
I worked in feminist publishing in the 1980s, as a bookseller, distributor, and later as an editor at the original Seal Press, so I often saw Grier at feminist book fairs and at the annual American Booksellers Association gathering (now BookExpo America). I’m a little embarrassed by my condescending attitude to this pioneer of feminist publishing. In some ways, it was the product of plain old ageism—she was three decades my senior, and the age gap was more obvious with her than with some of the other feminist publishers I was keen to get to know. She wasn’t terribly friendly—she once told Brownworth, who interviewed her many times, “I get things done. You can’t always be nice if you want to do that”—and she was the very opposite of hip. I foolishly allowed such superficial considerations, along with snobbishness about the kinds of books she published, to blind me to the contribution she and McBride made to feminist publishing. It was common for women to come into feminist bookstores every single weekend to stock up on Naiad books—they would buy them by the armful. It was only years later that I realized the extent to which those sales kept stores like the one I worked at in business.