Trends in lesbian publishing have shifted dramatically over the last century. As well as bookshops dedicated to our stories, you can now find lesbian novels in any chain of bookstores. And online, lesbian books are only ever a click away; delivered next day or downloaded to your Kindle in seconds. But there hasn’t always been a wide range of easily accessible lesbian stories.
The Well of Loneliness, the first English language lesbian book to be published, is now considered a classic work of literature. But in 1928, after a homophobic campaign by a right-wing newspaper, it was banned for obscenity. Although the most explicit act Radclyffe Hall depicted between her characters was a kiss, the courts objected to her sympathetic framing of “unnatural practices between women.” To add insult to injury, the judge made Hall pay to have copies of her own novel destroyed.
This extreme backlash discouraged writers and publishers both from releasing lesbian books. It wasn’t until the mid-1930s, with the advent of pulp fiction, that lesbian novels were recognised as commercially viable. Pity for Women, The Women’s Barracks series, Spring Fire – these books were immensely popular, and hundreds of lesbian pulps were published from 1940 to 1969. Owing to this commercial success, they were widely available, sold in drug stores and newsagents. The only drawback was that, decades before online shopping, readers were essentially forced to come out to the cashier if she wanted to buy these titles – many of which had scantily clad women emblazoned across the cover.
Although pulp fiction was a game-changer for lesbian fiction, its legacy was not entirely positive. For starters, many of the most popular works of lesbian pulp fiction were written by men – often with a male audience in mind. The male gaze distorted perceptions of what lesbian lives actually look like, perpetuating harmful stereotypes. On top of that, the vast majority of pulp fiction books gave lesbian characters unhappy fates to get around government censorship. Lesbian characters were not allowed happy endings. To survive, a woman repented of her sapphic ways and partnered with a man. Otherwise, her story would end in death or insanity.
These tragic story arcs sent readers an unfortunate message: being lesbian is something you’ll be punished for. This pattern didn’t change until Patricia Highsmith wrote The Price of Salt, which came out in 1952.
Although Carol has become something of a cult classic, celebrated by a new generation of lesbians when made into a film starring Cate Blanchett, its success was never guaranteed. Highsmith even published The Price of Salt under a pseudonym – Claire Morgan – to avoid tarnishing her stellar reputation as the author of thrillers. She didn’t want to carry the stigma of being known as “a lesbian-book writer.” Yet Therese and Carol’s happily ever after opened the door for positive lesbian representation. A couple of years later, Ann Bannon began the Beebo Brinker Chronicles – a series of six novels in which lesbian characters model healthy relationships and go on to have happy endings.
The next big lesbian book was Desert of the Heart, by Jane Rule. In 1964 it was rare for any lesbian novels to be published in hardback. Although authoring a lesbian book jeopardised her academic position, Rule’s status as a scholar undeniably helped Desert of the Heart be picked up by Macmillan – one of the ‘big five’ English language publishers.
As the women’s liberation movement kicked off, so too did a shift towards positive lesbian representation. The second wave of feminism was a true golden age of lesbian fiction. During the 1970s and 80s, more lesbian books were published in the western world than any previous era. Women were actively questioning what Adrienne Rich termed “compulsory heterosexuality,” the idea that we are all socialized to assume our own straightness from birth. And in resistance to patriarchal power structures women set up independent publishing houses: The Feminist Press, Calyx, Kitchen Table, Sheba, Virago, The Women’s Press.
Having publishing houses run by and for women gave lesbians greater agency in the way our stories were told. It also allowed for a plurality in lesbian stories that, in Radclyffe Hall’s day, would have been unthinkable. Rubyfruit Jungle, The Color Purple, Patience and Sarah, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – all of these stories were nurtured by the second wave.
Unfortunately, few women’s publishing houses survived the backlash against second wave feminism. And when they went, so did many of the best avenues for lesbian storytelling. By comparison very few lesbian books were published in the ‘90s and ‘00s. This period gave us two lesbian icons. Emma Donoghue brought to life Ireland’s lesbian community with Stir Fry and Hood. And Sarah Waters broke boundaries in lesbian historical fiction with the publication of Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, and Fingersmith. But it was otherwise a bleak time for lesbian representation in books. Publishing houses no longer considered sapphic stories commercially viable.
Things changed for the better as the internet revolutionized our lives. Lesbians found new ways of sending their stories out into the world: small independent presses, and self-publishing. The same DIY ethos that made the second wave such a great time for lesbian books manifested online. Writers like Radclyffe, Gerri Hill, and Karin Kallmaker pioneered the lesfic genre, bringing contemporary romance to eager lesbian readers around the world. Their success inspired a new generation of lesfic authors: Harper Bliss, Clare Lydon, TB Markinson. And the lesfic genre continues to thrive.
Having seen the success of these lesbian stories, mainstream publishing houses are now beginning to realise they underestimated readers’ appetite for lesbian books. In the last couple of years, a number of lesbian romcoms have been published – from In at the Deep End by Kate Davies, to The Split by Laura Kay. These upbeat, uplifting stories are a world away from the shame inspired by last century’s pulp fiction. Let’s hope the next century brings just as much progress.
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