In examining today's LGBT publishing scene from a variety of perspectives, we've asked four industry players—publisher, editor, agent, and advocate—to give us their outlook on this ever-evolving landscape. In the wake of a noted LGBT bookstore's recent closing, we've surveyed retailers whose LGBT stores are going strong; and we take a look at the LGBT publishing scene's 25-year-old awards program.
Don Weise, Publisher, Magnus Books
With the recent announcement that San Francisco's Different Light Bookstore in San Francisco—one of the best shops of its kind—is closing, the Bay Citizen recalled a conversation it had last year with store owner Bill Barker. In describing the difficulties he faced as a gay bookseller, Barker reportedly said, "I think that you can only tell the gay and lesbian story so many times." I asked myself, "What is the gay and lesbian story?" and "Are the same books really being published over and over?"
When I consider new and forthcoming releases, I'm reminded that our stories are not only innumerable but many of us still have not had our stories told. Consider these four notable novels—each quite different from one another, and each breaking new ground in gay fiction.
Leche by R. Zamora Linmark (Coffee House Press, Apr.) follows the return of a young Philippines-born gay man to the motherland for the first time in 13 years. PW's starred review called the novel "a unique, colorful portrait of cross-cultural experience and a view into the complexities of the modern-day Philippines through the prism of an ex-pat's self-discovery and quasi-homecoming." For me, Linmark's perceptive, often humorous work refreshingly stands multiculturalism (not to mention a lot of gay fiction) on its head.
Wayne Hoffman's Sweet Like Sugar (Kensington, Sept.) centers on a young man wrestling with his faith and a man of faith wrestling with his youth. It recounts the tense relationship between an elderly, Orthodox rabbi who's antigay and a young, antireligious gay Jew, and how their unlikely friendship changes them both.
Also coming in September is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's We the Animals, a debut that offers a new take on the all-too-familiar coming-out story. In it the son of a Puerto Rican father and a white mother living in Brooklyn has his world fall apart when his parents discover he's gay. Author Justin Torres was one of Lambda Literary's 2010 Five New Queer Voices to Watch Out For; author Michael Cunningham calls the novel—selected for the BEABuzz Panel—"heartbreaking" and extolled Torres's "brilliant, ferocious new voice."
Lastly is The Two Krishnas by Ghalib Shiraz-Dhalla (Magnus Books, Sept.), a work praised by author Lisa See as "a beautiful, sometimes joyful, yet heartbreaking exploration of love in all its manifestations," which looks at the closet from the perspective of a married Indian businessman whose affair with a fellow immigrant forces him—and his wife—to confront a life of lies.
It's worth noting that each book takes place within a culturally specific minority setting, something we still don't see enough of. Perhaps the overwhelming whiteness of gay literature would lead anyone to conclude that we've heard it all before. But, clearly, we haven't. In highlighting these titles, I've named only fiction and just works by men because that's the majority of what's sent to me as a new publisher and what I'm seeing in the marketplace. However, if you counted nonfiction along with titles by lesbians, transsexuals, bisexuals, and queer people generally speaking, you'd have a breathtaking cross section of what might broadly be called the LGBT experience. Not necessarily the experience, but one among many.
Raphael Kadushin, Senior Acquisitions Editor, University of Wisconsin Press
In my opinion, the state of today's LGBT market isn't good, at least according to the conventional wisdom. That's because the conventional wisdom is still based on a dated perception of anything identified as a gay work, or anyone identified as a gay author, or that even has any gay nuance. Books in general are being more and more tightly categorized, and it's getting much harder for gay-identified writers, unless they have a proven track record, to get signed because publishers see the gay market as something that's shrinking and marginalized. And because too many publishers are only pitching gay-identified books to a gay market, things look even worse. Because there is the growing perception that gay literature isn't even particularly crucial or interesting, even to a gay market, now that other media represent gay images and gay culture, and gay readership is shrinking.
But that perception is flawed, for two reasons: (1) there is still a large market of committed gay readers; and (2) the best gay-identified books are important precisely because they have a universal resonance, and if they are pitched to a larger market they can often find a readership. It's insulting to assume, as too many people do, that gay writers only have something to say to a gay audience.
That relates directly to our list in the sense that I always look for books that go beyond simple identity politics or a single market. In terms of our gay fiction, that means I'm looking for the same thing I'm looking for in all the fiction we do, and that's the quality of the writing first. And in the gay memoirs and nonfiction, we tend to have success with gay books that have multiple markets.
Holly Bemiss, Literary Agent, Susan Rabiner Agency
Though industry statistics are always disputable, for the sake of argument let's agree with R.R. Bowker that there are about 175,000 books published annually. Not many of them are gay, and of those that are, very few are published by large publishers that offer sizable advances (or any at all).
With my background as manager of A Different Light Bookstore and as publicist for the very successful Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, countless aspiring LGBT writers seek me out and hope, sometimes beyond hope, that I can help them strike a lucky deal, preferably with a big press and for a huge advance.
In my three years as an agent, I'm happy to say that I've successfully sold books for a few LGBT authors (and I've failed a few, too), but more often than not, I choose not to represent these books in the first place. No matter how much I'd like to champion them, as the old agenting joke goes, 15% of nothing is still nothing. And, sadly, oftentimes publishers just don't feel that the numbers add up for these books. I know. I've read the rejections.
Of course, gay writers get published all the time. In fact, they probably make up a very large percentage of published authors. The publishing industry is also filled with gay editors and agents, but that doesn't always translate to the page. The sole focus today ("the sky is falling," in case you haven't heard) is on sales, and publishers want to buy only books with massive audiences. There aren't enough gay readers, they argue, so there just isn't a market for gay books. Therefore, any book with LGBT content must be held to a higher standard: the story must be "universal."
However, consider this: nine million Americans identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans. To put that in perspective, a comparable (and astounding, really) 8.4 million viewers watch Jersey Shore every week. Yet Snooki, bless her poof, earns a lucrative advance while authors of LGBT stories must fight to survive. Why? If I had the answer to that, I'd likely only tell my soon-to-be-wealthy clients and wouldn't share it with you. But I will say that perhaps there is something missing here in the way we all think about "niche" publishing. One man's Fire Island is another man's Jersey Shore, and there are good stories to be found everywhere.
Tony Valenzuela, Executive Director, Lambda Literary Foundation
On May 26, the Lambda Literary Foundation will host the 23rd Annual Lambda Literary Awards in New York City to honor the best LGBT books published in 2010 (www
.lambdaliterary.org/awards/). For nearly a quarter-century, the "Lammys" have set out to recognize excellent writing in a range of genres that explore the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Past winners have included some of our community's most celebrated writers, such as Dorothy Allison, Mark Doty, Emma Donoghue, and Alan Hollinghurst.
Despite numerous dramatic advances in gay rights, relatively few LGBT writers and books, regardless of merit, are recognized by mainstream awards. The Lammys fill that role by shining a light on queer stories with LGBT protagonists that may otherwise be marginalized in mainstream publishing and culture.
Lambda Literary sits at an intersection of literature and LGBT community, of mainstream publishing and the do-it-yourself spirit championed by many LGBT writers today. Over the past two years authors and publishers have nominated a record number of titles for Lammy Awards consideration (over 520 in 2010).
From my perch within the foundation, LGBT self-published books and publish-on-demand LGBT presses are clearly a part of this swell, as are an increased number of gay-themed books coming from independent and mainstream publishers. Add to this the continued burgeoning of LGBT YA books, gay m/m romances, and books with transgender characters, and it feels like we're in the midst of a dynamic era in LGBT literature.
As a literary nonprofit with advocacy in its mission, the work of the foundation, like that of similar organizations such as the Publishing Triangle and the Saints and Sinners Festival in New Orleans (sasfest.org), helps to advance a publishing industry in which LGBT writers can launch and sustain careers, cultivate emerging voices, and promote their work within institutions with a vested interest in preserving LGBT literature. We do this because we have to, because our stories still need to be told.
One consistent aspect of LGBT publishing is the diversity of books from publishers large and small. In pub date order, here are a baker's dozen of new titles sure to attract readers of all rainbow-colored stripes.
The newest publisher on our list is Chicago's InGroup Press, which launched in 2009 and has just released its third book, Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight by Loren A. Olsen, M.D. With six more titles planned for this year, publisher Anthony DiFiore tells PW that he's focusing on mainstream books with LGBT elements—especially popular YA, he says, "so that future Twilights and Harry Potters won't be ‘so straight.' "
Syndicated columnist and author Dan Savage (The Kid) together with his partner, Terry Miller, have been instrumental in the worldwide campaign to support today's teens, largely through their It Gets Better Project, which has created its own YouTube channel. The pair's March book, It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living (Dutton) is yet another step in this inspiring cause.
Published by Abrams in March, Erin McHugh's The L Life: Extraordinary Lesbians Making a Difference profiles in interviews and photographs such noted women as Dr. Susan Love, authors Alison Bechdel and Ann Bannon, entertainers (Jane Lynch, Kate Clinton), Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, and many more.
A childhood both recognizably ordinary and unusually cruel is the focus of an April memoir, The Jack Bank (St. Martin's, Apr.), about which PW's review said, "Glen Retief has written a potent, evocative chronicle of his youth, coming-of-age at the end of apartheid in the 1980s."
Real Simple magazine executive Sarah Ellis and Kristen Henderson (of the all-female rock band Antigone Rising) reveal the human side of the gay marriage controversy and the changing face of modern families in their just-published memoir, Times Two: Two Women in Love and the Happy Family They Made (Free Press).
Christopher Reed's Art and Homosexuality (Oxford Univ. Press, May) discusses many of modernism's canonical figures—Picasso and Pollock, Whitman and Stein—and issues, and shows that many of the core ideas that define modernism are nearly indecipherable without an understanding of the paired identities of artist and homosexual.
Wit, wisdom, and insight are the province of Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners for Every Occasion: The Definitive Guide to LGBT Life (Workman, June), which covers topics one might expect (sex and dating, relationships, starting a family, coming out in the workplace) and answers such unusual queries as "What do the mothers of two brides wear to a lesbian wedding?"
"As beautifully written as it is riveting," says Cleis Press publisher Frédérique Delacoste about Paul Russell's The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov, an August novel that's a fictional retelling of true events—the book's cast includes Picasso, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Cocteau, and many more. The author's 2000 novel, The Coming Storm, won the Publishing Triangle's Ferro-Grumley Award (see p. 20).
Happy Accidents by Jane Lynch (Voice, Sept.) needs but two words of introduction: Sue Sylvester. That's right—the creator of Glee's megapushy athletic coach who gives new meaning to "outspoken" has written a comic, inspirational memoir of her rise to stardom, her first long-term acting gig, and her first long-term relationship.
Bob Smith's wry Remembrance of Things I Forgot (Univ. of Wisconsin, Sept.) follows the funnyman's 2007 novel, Selfish & Perverse. According to editor Rafael Kadushin, "Bob's Remembrance was signed not so much because it's a gay novel but because it's a great example of a political satire and a lively blend of comedy and sci-fi, buoyed by a distinctive voice and sensibility."
Coming in October from Knopf is The Stranger's Child, the first novel in seven years from Allan Hollinghurst, the Man Booker Prize–winning author of The Line of Beauty. This century-spanning saga, says the publisher, "spawns a myth—and a family mystery—across generations."
And more on lesbians—sort of. Elena Azzoni was perfectly content dating women until she found herself attracted to a male yoga teacher—a dizzying turn of events she chronicles in A Year Straight: Confessions of a Boy-Crazy Lesbian Beauty Queen (Seal Press, Oct.).
A fitting close to this roster is Gay in America (Welcome Books, Oct.), in which photographer Scott Pasfield, following a two-year trek covering 52,000 miles across all 50 states, documents the lives of 150 out and proud gay men from all walks of life—men who have chosen not to disguise the truth. Said Michael Musto of the Village Voice, "Sprawling, moving, and lively, Pasfield's [work] shows what being a gay male looks, sounds, and feels like in today's U.S.A. An inspiring cross section."
Publishing Triangle Awards
Nearly 25 years ago, a small group of LGBT publishing professionals met in the conference room of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Gay and lesbian publishing was just coming into its own, and slowly being recognized by the major houses as a viable category. The question on everyone's mind that day: how to encourage more?
Thus was born the Publishing Triangle, an organization that will dispense its annual awards on April 28 at the Tishman Auditorium of New York City's New School (www.publishingtriangle.org).
"Even though titles for the LGBT community are now ubiquitous," says Carol Rosenfeld, current Publishing Triangle chair, "we need to guard against complacency. There's a whole new group of young people out there hungry to read about other people like themselves—and we want to make sure that plenty of books and articles are published for them."
The Triangle Awards themselves offer a virtual history of the last quarter-century of LGBT publishing. Each award is named after a writer or editor who has made a significant contribution to the category.
This year's Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement, named in honor of a legendary editor of the 1970s and '80s, will be presented to Alan Hollinghurst, who himself broke ground with the publication of his first novel, The Swimming Pool Library, in 1988.
Other awards honor the American writer, cultural theorist and activist Judy Grahn; Randy Shilts, the journalist whose groundbreaking work on the AIDS epidemic for the San Francisco Chronicle made him a hero to many in the community; Audre Lorde, the American poet, essayist, librarian, and teacher; Thom Gunn, the San Francisco–based British poet; and the esteemed novelist and man of letters, Edmund White.
Each year, the Triangle Awards are presented in conjunction with the Ferro-Grumley Awards, honoring the memory of authors Robert Ferro and Michael Grumley, life partners who died of AIDS in 1988 within weeks of each other.