Death of the dyke writer?
Where are all the new lesbian authors?
When I wrote a recent piece for Mslexia magazine about a perceived lack of debut lesbian authors, I wasn't quite prepared for the response. The article, which was prompted by the mysterious absence of novels by lesbians submitted for The Polari First Book Prize, led to my being invited to blog for the Guardian on the subject. This in turn led to an invitation to go on 'Woman's Hour'. The whole issue seemed to cause a bit of a stir.
Some Guardian readers took the blog to mean that I desire nothing more than to read their unpublished lesbian fiction. (Not necessarily, but do consider self-publishing and entering the prize next year.) The most self-indulgent approach was the novel sent with an email which read in its entirety, 'here you go' (sic). Honestly, if you can't be bothered sending a proper covering message thanking me for my time, or even using an initial cap and a full stop, why on earth should I bother reading your book?
My prime motivation in writing the original piece was to stimulate debate, and raise the awareness of the Polari prize in the lesbian community. To clarify, the prize (founded by Time Out's Gay & Lesbian editor, Paul Burston) is for LGBT-themed debut writing, whether poetry, memoir, fiction or general non-fiction. Although it's to be expected that the best writing on LGBT themes will probably come from LGBT authors,a brilliant book by a straight writer would still be eligible.
Yes, there are a lot of lesbian authors writing today. But if you refine your enquiries to the category 'lesbian author + lesbian content' the field thins out rapidly; and new writers just don't seem to be getting the breaks.
Most people reading and commenting on the Guardian blog had not read the original, more in-depth article, where some of their objections were anticipated. Several people made the point that the term 'lesbian author' is a bit reductive (Jeanette Winterson had some typically forthright things to say about that in the piece). A few people also directed me to the lesbian bestseller list on Amazon, which I was aware of, but whose existence does not answer my initial question: why aren't these authors submitting their work for the Polari prize?
In the piece I spoke to several lesbian authors, both on and off the record, both published and not, and it was enough to detect the hint of a bias against lesbian fiction in the industry; some agents, it seems, are actually warning authors to steer clear of lesbian themes.
The brilliant comic novelist VG Lee reported some discouraging remarks she's had from agents in the past. I've since had several very interesting responses that reveal that debut writers are being asked things like, 'Does the heroine have to be lesbian?' And, of a central lesbian relationship, 'Can't you just make them best friends?' No wonder that, as one publisher told me, 'Right now I don't even know where the manuscripts are. It's like lesbian writers don't think they can submit their work or something.'
What other factors might be in play? The demise or shrinkage of the feminist presses over the last two decades has definitely had an impact. Performance poet and novelist Sophia Blackwell wondered in addition whether books might be perceived as uncool these days. She pointed to endless media knocking stories ('Is this the end of the book?') that might discourage young writers from penning novels.
Whatever way you look at it - and it may well be because gay women suffer from double-discrimination - it does seem that lesbians are less keen to make their voices heard than their GBT peers. However, when I discussed the issue with a lesbian friend, she commented, 'I think lesbians live in their own little world, really.'
This might explain why the lesbian magazine Diva refused my request for a brief interview for the piece; the dearth of new lesbian novelists being something they either haven't noticed or are not interested in. Or maybe as an 'outsider' working for the non-gay press, I wasn't worth engaging with.
Still, one positive result of all this is that I've been introduced to a whole bunch of funny, sparky, ambitious writers, who I hope will enter the prize in years to come. I knew they were out there somewhere: the girls who grew up reading Winterson, Waters, Donoghue, Smith and Duffy, and, like them, are ready to break the rules.
The longlist for The Polari First Book Prize will be announced on Wed July 11 at the Royal Festival Hall.