Then and Now: The Golden Era of Lesbian Fiction

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I’ve read a number of online conversations on listservs and Facebook pages about how the current era of lesbian fiction, or lesfic, is a vast improvement over what was published back in the 1970s and 1980s.  When I read these assertions I shake my head in confusion.  Is this really true? And isn’t this the same kind of debate we would have about music or movies?  Wasn’t the 1960s the Golden Era of rock n roll?  I mean, c’mon, the Beatles, the Stones, Motown, the British Invasion, the Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkle, Aretha, the Girl Groups.  Oh, but then, what about the 1970s?  James, Taylor, Carol King’s Tapestry, Fleetwood Mac, Donna Summers.  Or the 1980s?  Cindy Lauper, Madonna, Elvis Costello, Punk, early rap.  You see what I mean? Of course I could easily name several examples of cringeworthy crappy music from each of those decades (remember The Archies, anyone?).

That’s the point.  There were some great lesfic books published in the 1950s pulp era (and even before), some terrific books that came out in the early years of feminism’s Second Wave, and some amazing stuff we’re seeing now (just from the small publishers and the indies; I’m not even including fantastic lesbian novelists who’ve cracked the mainstream, like Sarah Waters and Stacy D’Erasmo).   And in every era there was stuff you read and then said to yourself, “well there’s several hours I’ll never get back.”

So I thought I might take us on a tour of my bookshelves and point out the books I have truly loved.  I have an obsessively organized collection of lesbian books (and some gay ones) that are weighted toward the Second Wave era, mostly the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.  Among them are a few I would call collector’s items (the original Daughters Ink publication of Rubyfruit Jungle and an original hardcover version of the 1930s book, Diana A Strange Autobiography).  Off topic, I would also add I have the original first edition publication of Our Bodies Ourselves. I don’t own these books because I was some kind of savvy collector.  I own them simply because I came out (as a lesbian and as a feminist) in the early 1970s when I went away to college and these were the books you bought way back then.  If you’d been there, you’d own them too, and hopefully have been smart enough to hold onto them.

My books are organized by genre and alphabetized by author’s last name.  The first and largest collection is that of the lesbian novels, followed by anthologies and short fiction, poetry and non-fiction.  Then the gay men come next.  Kind of like the early Pride Marches I attended in Boston–lesbians in the front. Image So beginning with this first group, A through B, you can see the collection of Sarah Aldridge (Anyda Marchant) books and the Ann Bannon pulps (not the originals, sadly, the reissued versions).   In those two collections, I would lift up Aldridge’s All True Lovers, a novel about two young women growing up in 1930s Washington DC who fall in love.  It’s a classic story of bridging class differences, but it is told in the sweetest manner and it’s one of my favorite books of that era.  While it is difficult to choose from among the Ann Bannon books, I stick with my theme of liking stories about younger women and mention the first book in the series, Odd Girl Out, the story of Laura and Beth’s relationship in college, complete with obligatory 1950s sad ending.  But before you get to the sad stuff, it’s a beautiful love story.  Also on this shelf are some murder mysteries by Denver-based author, Kate Allen.  Why I started reading these, I don’t know since I’m not usually into cop books.  But Allen’s best in my view was Takes One to Know One, which is about a murder on lesbian land.  Her send up of the “womyn’s community” is hysterical and found nowhere else in lesbian fiction.  It’s a must read.  And yes, I would be horribly remiss if I didn’t point out the two Dorothy Allison novels on this shelf.  You can’t get much better than Bastard Out of Carolina. IMG_0034Now we’re looking at B through C and you can see Rita Mae Brown’s early novels (including that first edition Rubyfruit Jungle) and the reissued Paula Christian pulps.  There’s also Jan Clausen’s Sinking Stealing about a non-biological lesbian parent who has to run away with her child when the deceased bio mom’s family won’t recognize her parental status.  Still sadly a problem in some parts of the country. ??? Here’s D through G.  There’s quite a bit in this group that’s worth pointing out.  First, early Katherine V. Forrest, including so many people’s all-time favorite, Curious Wine, the mother of the modern lesfic romance genre.  I don’t re-read many books, because, really, who has the time when there’s so many I haven’t yet read.  But Curious Wine is a book I’ve read at least four times.  Next is the rare hardcover book called Diana A Strange Autobiography by Diana Frederics, a pseudonym of course.  Published in 1939, it is a surprisingly positive portrayal, which was reissued in paperback by NYU Press.  My copy was permanently borrowed from my college library, and that’s all I’ll say about that.  At the end of the shelf is my collection of books by the mysterious author, Camarin Grae, who I was convinced was either somebody really famous or a person whose name was actually an anagram of C-a-m-a-r-i-n-G-r-a-e.  Sadly, unless you know who she is and you tell me, I’ll never know.  But I loved all of her suspenseful books that border on the paranormal, solidly grounded in lesbian communities.  My favorite of these (I believe it was Paz) involved the creation of an alternative women’s community that was supposed to be a perfect society and the decision by one of the main characters, a butch attorney, to stay in the current world in order to live with difficulty and imperfection.  In an era when lesbians were leaving the mainstream to create these alternative communities, writing about a character’s decision not to separate was a brave and profound choice for a writer.  Finally, is British author Ellen Galford’s hysterical Jewish fable, The Dyke and the Dybbuk, a magical realism romp that spans centuries and pre-dates Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi, a similar romp, by many years.

H-Z coming up next time.

For those who think young

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Image

So Why Am I Writing About Girls in College?

I’ve asked myself this question a lot as I worked on my first novel, tentatively titled, Everything From You.  I mean, it’s been a while since I dragged a book bag down a long, academic corridor or paid attention to a schedule measured in 50-minute increments (not counting therapy of course).  In fact it’s been over 35 years.

If I’m going to be completely honest, then I have to admit that it’s not just the novel.  I’ve always adored teen movies of the John Hughes variety.  You know, all those films with Molly Ringwald.  And recently, my partner Jenny and I watched one of our all time favorites of this genre–Valley Girl–with a very young Nicholas Cage and an actress named Deborah Foreman, who has been long forgotten.  It has a killer soundtrack with songs like “I’ll Stop the World and Melt With You.”  Great film.  Oh, and the photo at the top of this entry.  That’s Emily and Paige from Pretty Little Liars, a show I just started watching on Netflix to help me get through the 40-minute stationary bike ride I take almost every day.  Emily is the lesbian character on the show and Paige is her girlfriend.

Is my interest in high school and college age characters more acceptable because it’s focused on lesbian characters?  Or does that just make it worse?

Valley Girl (film)

Valley Girl (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I guess it’s fair game to ask if I have a thing for younger women, especially since  Jenny is 17 years younger than me.  But she’s 40, not 20.  And believe me, I wouldn’t want to get involved with someone who’s in the midst of all that growing up drama.  I’m happy at home, with me and Jenny on opposite ends of the living room on our computers or sitting at the dining room table playing Scrabble as we split a bottle of mid-priced champagne on our anniversary.

So why write about three young lesbians in college?

I’ve always been drawn to the kind of interior changes a person undergoes  in their formative years, and how those changes can be set into motion when they are captivated by someone who, on the surface, seems like their polar opposite.  This is in essence the plot of Valley Girl.  The pretty, popular Valley Girl falls for the rough-edged, punky boy from the other side of the tracks (well, actually, Hollywood), and after the requisite rounds of push-pull, like any romance novel, they live happily ever after.  Because, you see, underneath their stereotyped exteriors, there is a similar, truer essence.  The things that really matter to each of them are the same things.  The thing that makes one roll on the floor laughing that they think no one else would find funny, well, the other one also finds funny.  It’s the unexpected connection.  The one nobody could have predicted least of all the two people involved.

While it’s true that this can happen at any age, there’s something about the quality of self-discovery involved when it occurs in young adulthood.  This is a time when you think you’ve got it all figured out when, in reality,  you know next to nothing and cover up that fact with lots of bravado.  The unexpected romance cuts through all of that and forces you to take stock of yourself and what and who you truly want in life.  That’s the coming of age arc that draws me in as a reader, a watcher and now as a writer.

The blurb for my novel is an attempt to provide a peek into this theme.  Here it is:

Stifled by her suburban Long Island home town, Robin Greene, a young lesbian, regularly escapes to the city to hang out with a group of homeless gay youth whose easy interchange of sex and friendship influences her as a developing writer.

By contrast, in Durham, North Carolina, Tracy Patterson has successfully managed her teenage life in the closet. With a fake boyfriend and perfect feminine appearance, she flies under the radar while seducing a series of older women, including her mother’s best friend.

As the summer after high school comes to a close, Robin and Tracy find themselves in the last place either wants to be–at college right outside of Boston, a new and strange environment where each is sure she will never meet anyone like herself.

As these young lesbians navigate their college years, it becomes clear that Robin and Tracy share much more than their outward differences would suggest and that each has a lot to teach the other about becoming the person she was meant to be.  Can they overcome their outer differences and find happiness together?  Or will their natural inclination to run away from love and commitment win out?

I’ll write later about where I am in the process of moving forward with the book, but I wanted the first entry on this blog to explore why I decided to look back at an age when so much can happen that can veer you off the track on which you’ve been set and onto the one where you know you need to be.

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