Why I Don’t Want to Be a Queer Book Detective Anymore (Although I Do Still Want to Be Harriet the Spy)

I’m a queer woman.  Also, a feminist and a white woman with some hippie tendencies who grew up on a small island on the coast of British Columbia.  Someone who can’t decide whether she likes the city or the country better.  I’m a lot of things: a lover of rich food like olives and cheese and chocolate, the kind of person who names her bicycle, and a sometimes too enthusiastic appreciator of melancholy music.  But most of all, I’m a voracious reader. And when I read, I want to read about women and I want to read about LGBTQ folks.  I especially want to hear from voices in my community who we haven’t heard enough from (I’ve mostly lost interest in cis white gay men’s stories, for example).

ivan large

I want to see more queers like Ivan reading in diners and coffeeshops (preferrably, also reading things written by Ivan).

It’s really important to me that anyone who needs to can find our stories and read them.  I’ve been feeling frustrated for a while now about the kind of detective work that I have to do to track down new queer books and to determine whether certain books—especially those that aren’t written by queer-identified authors—have LGBTQ content.  I’m someone who focused on queer and feminist literature throughout the seven years I was an undergrad and grad student; as you know since you’re reading this here, I have a lesbian book blog.  If I have to do considerable work to find and ascertain the queer dispositions of these books, I can’t imagine the experiences of a young queer person or someone of any age just beginning to explore the queer literary world.

books

How to tell the queer books from the others?

What am I talking about?  I mean closely reading the synopsis of an unfamiliar book for such choice euphemistic phrases as “forbidden desire,” “love in an unexpected place,” “unusually close friendship,” “taboo love,” “boundary crossing,” or “illicit passion”—to name only a few—and trying to figure out if what they really mean is queer, or trans, or lesbian, or bisexual.  The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar, which was nominated in the lesbian fiction category for this year’s Lambda awards, was a recent reminder of this problem.  In the quite lengthy description of this novel on Goodreads, do you know what the single indicator of its lesbian content is?  This: “For Kavita, [the reunion of old friends] is an admission of forbidden passion.”  Two of the other main characters are explicitly described as heterosexual.  It’s no wonder I had no idea this book had a lesbian character until it was nominated for a Lambda.

Another queer book I’ve been reading lately and really enjoying is Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity; the thing is, there is nothing on the front or back cover to indicate the “family” and “identity” in the title have a lot to do with queerness and that a significant amount of the memoir deals with author Candace Walsh’s journey of exploring and discovering her queer sexuality.  In a recent conversation on Goodreads Danika at the Lesbrary mentioned another detective strategy: scanning the authors whose recommendations grace the cover of a yet-to-be-determined-queer book.  Does Sarah Waters give it a thumbs up?  Did Emma Donoghue love it?  Odds are, it’s got some women-loving-women in there somewhere.  Not even this strategy works with Walsh’s memoir, though: no lesbian favourite names there, although two writers compare Walsh’s book to straight writer Nora Ephron’s memoir Heartburn. 

licking_the_spoon

This a great memoir dealing with queer sexual identity and family by a queer author. Too bad you can’t tell by the cover.

I went through my personal collection of queer women’s books and found countless more examples of this.  I actually remember initially not buying Shani Mootoo’s first novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, thinking that although I knew the author was a lesbian, the back cover of the book didn’t make it sounds like there was a lot of queer content. (See my review and how it actually features a diverse multitude of trans and queer characters).  The only hint in the synopsis is that one male character is “vivacious.”  The back of my copy of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café actually calls Ruth Idgie’s “friend.”  Barf.  Young adult novel Hello, Groin by Beth Goobie, which centres around the protagonist’s coming out, mentions her having a boyfriend and a vague “deepest fear” that she is letting “run her life.”  I am by no means blaming the authors of these books; I assume they have little or no control over those kinds of things.  In fact, I am laying full blame on the publishing companies and their marketing.

profile-shani-mootoo-in-colour

It would have been a tragedy indeed to have missed out on Shani Mootoo’s novel Cereus Blooms at Night.

I don’t want the priority reading audience for our books to be non-queers.  I don’t want them to be palatable to straight and cisgendered people.  I don’t want publishers to have their cake and eat it too: slyly de-queer the book to appeal to cis/straight audiences and assume LGBTQ folks will figure it out and buy the book too.  As Imogen Binnie unabashedly proclaimed at a recent reading in Vancouver from her new novel Nevada, which features a trans woman protagonist: “I don’t care if straight people read it.”  I understand that literature is a very powerful activist tool and that non-queers reading about queers is a great thing.  I can see that by not proclaiming their queer content on the cover that some books are going to gain readership they might not otherwise and that this reading experience might be transformative for said non-queer people and could positively impact their interactions with queers in the future.  But that’s not as important to me as a queer person who needs queer literature finding and reading it.

Is some kind of explicit mention of LGBTQ content on the cover of a book just out of the question?  Don’t tell me it would be a “spoiler.”  It’s not a spoiler to give enough information to let the reader know if they want to read the book or not.  In fact, I want a fucking rainbow on the spine of the book.  Is that too much to ask?

About CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and future librarian who holds an MA in English literature and is currently studying for an MLIS in the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (Vancouver, BC). Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, running, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ2IA+ Canadian books, archives of the book advice column Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian, and some other queer, bookish stuff. She also writes for Autostraddle, Book Riot and Inside Vancouver. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian. Some of her old reviews, especially the non-Canadian variety, can be found at the Lesbrary.
This entry was posted in Canadian, Fiction, Ivan E. Coyote, Lesbian, Non-Canadian, Non-Fiction, Queer, Shani Mootoo, Trans, Trans Masculine, Young Adult and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to Why I Don’t Want to Be a Queer Book Detective Anymore (Although I Do Still Want to Be Harriet the Spy)

  1. Yeeesss, I love this post! Man, this and An Informal Guide on Finding More Books to Read (without depending on Amazon or Goodreads) (http://queerbooksplease.blogspot.com/2013/04/an-informal-guide-on-finding-more-books.html) and It’s time to be more discriminating in [lesbian] books (http://piercingfiction.blogspot.com/2013/04/its-time-to-be-more-discriminating-in.html): queer lit bloggers are hitting it out of the park this month!

    Also, I wanted to let you know that I actually talked to Candace Walsh on Goodreads, and she said that she didn’t even notice the cover doesn’t mention queerness until I pointed it out. If you check out the Goodreads blurb, it says ” Through the lens of food, Walsh recounts her life’s journey–from unhappy adolescent to straight-identified wife and mother to divorcee in a same-sex relationship” and it categorized as GLBT > Queer. Iiiinteresting.

    That post on Queer Books Please also discusses detective work in finding queer fiction. I mean, I don’t need queer books to be all about being queer, but man, I do want at least a hint. Also, Imogen Binnie is fantastic and so is her book.

    Overall: thanks for writing this and all of the amazing things you post! You make the internet better! And I’m glad I have someone to discuss this stuff with.

    • Thanks Danika! That “Queer Books Please” blog is new, no? I haven’t had a chance to puruse it yet, but it looks great! Funny that in this day and age checking out your local library or bookstore is a novel way to find new books. Although I think for a lot of folks (especially those just coming out), asking in person for LGBTQ books can be pretty nerve-wracking.

      I am also totally on board with being ‘discriminating’ with my book reviews. I think it’s a real disservice to an author to be dishonest about what your reaction to and criticisms of the book are. It’s a mark of respect for queer writers to hold them to the same quality standards I would any author.

      So interesting about the different blurb on Walsh’s book on the cover and on Goodreads. I think the Goodreads one is a lot more in tune with the memoir. I mean, the blurb on the back cover is quite short, to be fair, but not even any of the recommendations mention sexuality of any kind, let alone queerness. How could Walsh not notice about the cover? That is crazy to me. I mean, I only found out it had queer content from your review on the lesbrary. So thanks for that!

    • Thanks for posting that on tumblr! I’ve gotten a lot of hits from it! I’m really interested in Diemer’s respone, although I don’t think we’re addressing all of the same issues. It’s great to hear an author’s perspective.

      • No problem! It’s true, she’s replying to that quote in isolation, not the post as a whole, but it is interesting that 90% of her readers are straight!

      • Yes, that is fascinating! 90% straight–how does she even know that? I think what she and I are each saying is quite complimentary actually. I’m not asking that straight folks don’t read queer lit, but I’m asking that it’srelatively identifiable for queer folks to find. I think her work is quite out there as lesbian.

  2. Lex says:

    So…..are you gonna do a PhD about this? Bahahahaa.

  3. M-E Girard says:

    I LOVE THIS POST!

    I picked up my first queer (lesbian) YA by accident at 23 years old. It changed my life. Before that, since there wasn’t as much ease of access to internet databases and blogs, I was a teen who didn’t even know there were novels–of all kinds–featuring queer people. I was a young person who loved to read but rarely experienced being swept off my feet by a novel, or feeling I could identify with the main character.

    I read that somewhere in the US, there’s a book store or library (don’t recall which it is) with stickers identifying which books are queer. I’ve always thought ot would be such a simple thing to do, to stick a small rainbow sticker somewhere.

    I’ve become so selective with my reading now that I’ve developed an aversion to boy protags, and a major preference for queer girl protags. So I rely on people like you to enlighten me. I actually went to Glad Day Bookshop a couple weeks ago (after reading a post where you mentioned it) and spent $200 (because I’ve got an addiction), some of which on titles and authors you featured.

    This is something I think about a lot with my first manuscript in the process of trying to find a home with a publisher. I want someone to look at my book and KNOW it’s queer. I want it to be read by lots of people, of course, but I mostly want it to reach out to queer readers as much as they would reach out to it.

    • Ha, I think you may have read about that store on my blog. I was really excited to find that Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon had rainbow stickers on the spines of LGBTQ books in the young adult section. I’m sure they’re not the only bookstore or library to do so, though.

      Also, I am so glad to hear that you checked out Glad Day bookstore and that my recommendations were helpful. If you can afford to buy new books, it is so great to support independent queer bookstores.

      Good luck with the publisher hunting! Of course you want queers and non-queers alike to read your book, and they should–but having the book be able to be legible as queer material should ideally draw both those kinds of readers.

  4. Widdershins says:

    Yes! Rainbows on the spine and a cover art rainbow logo upper right corner on eBooks please

    … I wish I’d had more input when my publisher was designing my art and blurbs … le sigh … there’s nothing but lesbians in the story but who would know from just looking at it … still, we learn from every experience.

    • Yes, I forgot about ebooks. I’m a bit of a luddite when it comes to those.

      It’s too bad authors often don’t have more input on the design/marketing of their work, especially if reaching LGBTQ audiences is important to them. I’m sure experiences with certain publishers would be better, though.

  5. “It’s really important to me that anyone who needs to can find our stories and read them. ”

    Me, too. I often come across readers expressing frustration about how difficult it can be to find lesbian books. Another annoyance is when bookstores lump gay and lesbian fiction together. So…I’m currently looking for input about the possibility of setting up a lesbian fiction books site, where readers could browse for books that are categorized into more granular genres than those available at the stores (and know for sure that the books listed at the site are lesbian fiction). I’m asking readers to fill out a short form to let me know (a) if they’d use such a site, and (b) if yes, what features they’d like to see. You can read more about it and provide input here:

    http://www.lesbianfictionbooks.com

    (It’s good to see another Canadian blog about lesbian books!)

    • Yes, I find the lumping together of gay and lesbian literature often annoying, especially since the gay male titles tend to dominate, as cis gay male issues tend to dominate most LGBTQ cultural arenas. Also, I’m not that particularly interested in gay men’s lit and I’m not even sure they’re that interested in queer women’s fiction.

      I didn’t know there was another Canadian lesbian book blog! How long has your site been around?

      I think your idea for a website is great. A lesbian version of Goodreads! I would definitely use that! What kind of criteria would you use to define books as lesbian?

      • My blog isn’t a book blog. I tend to discuss issues around books, rather than books themselves (exception: I dish background info about my own books). I meant another lesbian book blog in addition to Danika’s and a couple of others I’ve stumbled across on my web travels.

        Criteria for lesbian fiction: The guideline I would offer (since I’d expect the community to add books to the site) would be that the book must have a lesbian main character or theme.

      • Ah, I see. I feel better now knowing I haven’t been missing another Canadian lesbian book blog!

        I think LGBTQ women themselves adding the books is a great formula. I ask because defining what is ‘lesbian’ is quite tricky. What about books with secondary queer women characters? Books by lesbian authors that don’t directy address queerness? What about bisexual or queer-identified women characters/authors? Trans women? What counts as a lesbian ‘theme’? I tend to define anything as queer lit if it’s written by a queer-identified person because otherwise I feel like I’m excluding folks, especially those whose voices aren’t heard enough already.

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  7. By lesbian theme, I mean that the book explores some aspect of lesbian life. The site’s intended audience would be readers who want to read books that meet the criteria I described (lesbian main character and/or theme). The site isn’t meant to be as inclusive as possible; in fact, that would defeat its purpose.

    • I see. To be honest, if a lesbian book site had that strict of criteria I wouldn’t use it. I wouldn’t want to support something that didn’t include bisexual, queer, and trans identified women. I also think it’s a very slippery slope to define what lesbian is, because it means something quite different to different lesbian-identified women. To me, a very key aspect of ‘lesbian life’ is the inclusion of bi, trans, and queer women. Would a book featuring a relationship between two bi women not be considered a lesbian theme?

  8. Thanks for the honest feedback. I agree that the site’s scope will be too narrow for you. I don’t include bisexual, trans, and queer fiction under the lesbian fiction umbrella, and the audience I have in mind won’t, either. It sounds like you’d be more interested in a site that lists lesbian, bisexual, trans, and queer fiction, and I agree that my proposed site won’t be that site.

  9. Woah, now you’ve been linked on Autostraddle and Lambda Literary! Congrats!

  10. Monica Nolan says:

    You make a great point–I didn’t know Carry the One had a lesbian character until a straight friend mentioned it to me. On the other hand, I can understand authors going for the wide appeal–it’s nice to collect a royalty check every once and a while. My book titles and covers make the lesbian content pretty plain, and while I’m happy about that, I do wonder how it affects sales, sometimes.

    • Yes, an author friend of mine also brought up the fact to me that it is harder to get work published as a queer writer, and that is a real shame. What frustrates me ultimately is the homo/transphobic thinking that says a book doesn’t have “wide appeal” (ie, straight people won’t read it) if it is explicit about its LGBTQ content. It’s a homo/transphobc environment that pressures publishers especially, but I think sometimes authors as well, to erase or downplay queer content. It really doesn’t make sense to me actually, because marketing a queer book to readers who are going to have a real problem with LGBTQ themes doesn’t seem like a smart marketing decision to me.

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