“The big houses are still doing really smart gay books,” says Carroll & Graf senior editor Don Weise, singling out Knopf, Norton and St. Martin’s in particular. But it’s the university presses, he says, that are doing the heavy lifting, publishing books that are “intellectually rigorous.”
As home to some of the more challenging books, university presses increasingly fill an important niche within the gay and lesbian market. “I’d like to see more publishers looking at quality of writing before the size of the audience. As a university press, we can still afford to think that way,” says Raphael Kadushin, senior acquisitions editor at the University of Wisconsin Press, one of the few university presses with an extensive list of gay and lesbian titles. While this audience has more mass media choices than ever before, Kadushin says books still offer the most diversity. “A large part of the gay and lesbian market still doesn’t see their lives reflected anywhere else.”
Weise agrees. “The gay readership is dramatically underestimated. We need to be discovering new voices—publishers and editors must grow this audience.”
Here are some of the season’s most notable books tackling the complexities faced by members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) community.
The Enemy by Rafael Campo (Duke Univ., Apr.)
The fifth poetry collection from acclaimed writer and physician Rafael Campo considers an America at war with its own conscience. “I wrote most of the poems in the several years since 9/11, trying to formulate a healing response not only to those events but also to the many other challenges to empathy and compassion we face today,” says Campo, who remembers watching the images of 9/11 on the television in the waiting room of his clinic at Harvard.
Exploring what it means to be an “enemy” in today’s world, Campo takes on some of the most controversial elements of the “culture wars”—feminism, gay marriage, the AIDS pandemic, immigration—while attempting to offer genuine hope for redemption. As the Latino son of immigrants growing up in New Jersey, Campo says he learned early on about poetry as a “wonderfully powerful and musical mode of expression.”
Campo says the lives of his patients embody the true breadth of the gay experience in America, but that their stories still go largely untold. “I personally would like to see more literary work by gay, lesbian and transgender writers get published, and perhaps fewer books with half-naked white men on their covers. We are already too defined by our sexuality in the eyes of the nongay world.”
The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag: And Other Intimate Literary Portraits of the Bohemian Era by Edward Field (Univ. of Wisconsin, Apr.)
When the editors of the University of Wisconsin Press’s gay memoir series approached award-winning poet Field, he immediately knew his radical days in post-WWII, avant-garde literary bohemia would fill a book. “I had a half dozen essays about Alfred Chester and his fierce rivalry with Susan Sontag, and his later conflict with Paul Bowles, and I reshaped the book with that central drama.”
The memoir offers a closeup look at life and literary culture in the bohemian outposts of Greenwich Village, Paris’s Left Bank and Tangier, where it was possible to be openly gay long before Stonewall. Field infused the book with his own “education as a poet,” and readers will find out extremely intimate details about poet Frank O’Hara in the chapter about their affair.
Field believes that gay and lesbian figures are often marginalized by a lack of honesty from writers dealing with historical events. “The important thing for me is that writers don’t censor themselves, but say what’s been left out before. In a sense, we are still being left out or cut out of history and we still have to fight for our existence.” He also thinks there will never be too many memoirs for the category to support. “Gay and lesbian memoirs and fiction abound, but we have endless curiosity about each other, and can never get enough intimate details—as if the truth is always out of reach.”
Ask & Tell: Gay & Lesbian Veterans Speak Out by Steve Estes (Univ. of North Carolina, May)
Steve Estes spent five years gathering the stories of gay and lesbian veterans from World War II to the Iraq War. “I got into this as an activist, wanting to use my skills as a historian and interviewer to support what I saw as a civil rights issue. I found that the vets were really excited to tell their stories.”
While several notable books have considered the experiences of gay and lesbian veterans in WWII and Vietnam, Ask & Tell offers the most comprehensive range of stories to date and provides a forum for veterans to discuss the legacy of the military’s infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. “Gay and lesbian troops do not damage morale or unit cohesion. They are already in the military and pose no threat to the privacy of straight service personnel,” Estes says. “Above all, I hope this book reminds readers that the history of gay and lesbian military service is long and valorous, and that it is really just the story of patriotic Americans doing their duty and serving their country.”
Estes believes that the prospects for publishing serious work in the field continue to improve. “There wasn’t exactly a flood of pink ink in the 1990s, but academic publishers have finally begun to recognize the value of community studies and gay history in general.”
Waiting for the Call: From Preacher’s Daughter to Lesbian Mom by Jacqueline Taylor (Univ. of Michigan, Apr.)
Jacqueline Taylor decided to write a memoir because she didn’t see her own experience as a lesbian and a Southerner from a religious background reflected in what was being published. “My story is not the one people automatically expect. It’s not about leaving one thing to get to another. This is a book about faith and family,” says Taylor. “We need more books about faith without being from the far right.”
Although she has left behind the conservative Southern Baptist congregation of her childhood, Taylor’s Christianity is still an important part of her life. Her memoir chronicles her devout childhood, getting married and divorced, coming out and, finally, the adoption of two Peruvian infants with her partner. “I want to show that my family now is not unrelated or disconnected from the family I grew up in.”
Taylor knows there are a lot of people out there with backgrounds like hers, because they approach her after readings. “There are a huge number of people who grew up in this very religious environment. Where are our stories?”
Taylor thinks that while there is a wider variety of gay and lesbian narratives being told today, Southern voices are still underrepresented. “If it wasn’t for a university press, I don’t know what would have happened to my book. The big presses want you to be famous or have gone to hell and back in a melodramatic way. I’m just a Southern gay mom trying to tell my story in a way that’s not slash and burn.”
What Becomes You by Aaron Raz Link and Hilda Raz (Univ. of Nebraska, Apr.)
One of the hottest memoirs in the category this year is the unusual, shared story of a mother and her child’s transformation from female to male. A well-known feminist writer and women’s studies professor, Hilda Raz had a background uniquely suited to supporting her daughter Sarah’s decision to start her life anew as a gay man—Aaron Raz Link—at age 29.
What Becomes You tells the tandem story of the “astonished” parent, Raz, watching her child reinvent himself, and of Link’s own complete identity change from woman to man, teaching scientist to theater performer. “Gay, straight, male, female, Jew, Christian, Muslim—we’ve all been taught to shut up. I fell through the cracks,” says Link. “I’m a man who can speak to these social and scientific issues with the authority of a personal voice.”
Raz says they knew there was a need for a story like Link’s to be told. “We need many more books in which sex change is background as well as subject, books that can be taught in literature classes as well as biology, sociology, anthropology, history, books that are well written.”
Ten years ago, Raz and Link agree, their story might not have been published. They see the university press as a thriving home for LGBT stories. “Life is interesting,” says Link. “Writing should be interesting.”
Hear Us Out! Lesbian and Gay Stories of Struggle, Progress, and Hope, 1950 to the Present and Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, June)
An icon in the field of gay and lesbian writing, Nancy Garden returns this year with two books—one old and one new—aimed at the teen audience. And they come from a house that has published its share of iconic gay authors, from Michael Cunningham to Susan Sontag.
The 25th anniversary reissue of her landmark 1982 novel, Annie on My Mind, about teenage girls who fall in love and their struggle, brings this classic of the genre to a whole new generation of readers. “It says that love is essentially the same regardless of the genders of the lovers, and that gay and lesbian people feel the same emotions as straight people when they’re in love.”
Her new book—Hear Us Out!—aims to educate those same teenagers on just how much things have changed since the 1950s. The book mixes essays with short stories about teenagers coming to terms with their LGBT and “Q,” or questioning, identities. “I hope that when kids know something about the progress we’ve already made and the battles we’ve already won, they’ll be encouraged—as many of them already are—to continue the fight. More than that, I hope they’ll see that there’s not much reason why they can’t live happy, healthy, productive lives in the 21st century.”
Garden believes that gay adolescents and teenagers will only have more access to stories about kids like themselves, despite challenges to books with such content. “Today’s queer kids can read around 200 novels and story collections featuring kids like themselves. There is also a growing amount of good nonfiction about LGBT people and issues.”
Now Voyagers, Some Divisions of the Saga of Mawrdew Czgowchwz, Oltrano, Authenticated by Persons Represented Therein, Book One: The Night Sea Journey by James McCourt (Turtle Point, Oct.)
Published in 1975, James McCourt’s Mawrdew Czgowchwz (pronounced “Mardu Gorgeous”) was a comic, flamboyantly original sendup of the opera world that quickly became a cult classic. Now he returns with an equally avant-garde sequel that begins in 2004 and furthers the tale of an outrageous opera diva turned psychoanalyst.
The sequel has been in the works for nearly three decades, says McCourt. “I started the book 28 years ago. My editor at Knopf, Victoria Wilson, gave me a lot of help over the years, while we worked together on other things. It ended up being far too large for a commercial publisher, but I wouldn’t have been able to continue without her support.”
The New York Review of Books reprint series brought Mawrdew Czgowchwz back into print in 2002, but bookstore placement can be a concern for literary work like McCourt’s. “The problem in the gay community is that gay bookstores favor popular fiction,” he says. “Gay bookstores are mostly a mix of serious nonfiction and light, entertaining fiction. Books like mine are on a little shelf called Literature or Classics.”
Despite those challenges, Now Voyagers will be the first of four books continuing the series. “I was getting used to the idea these books would not be published. Turtle Point has really given this work a second life,” says McCourt. “Books are still very important to the gay community. We’ve made real progress just by writing.”
Readers browsing the selection of gay and lesbian titles in bookstores will find no shortage of lifestyle, erotica and genre books to cart to the beach. You can learn how to dress in Liberace’s outré style, discover where to find love online and fantasize in tales of lesbian erotica.
But those looking for more literary books may find the pickings slimmer. Charles Flowers, executive director of the Lambda Literary Foundation, says, “New York houses do one or two gay or lesbian books, but it’s not a list except for publishers like Carroll & Graf and Kensington. But serious literary books are thriving at a certain level.” That “certain level,” at least in the spring of 2007, is (with some exceptions) the university presses.