Coming up on June 4, the Lambda Literary Awards marks the 24th year that the Lambda Literary Foundation has passed out accolades for achievement in LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) writing. The 119 finalists in 24 categories on the slate for the 2011 “Lammys” were selected from a record number of titles that exceeded 600 books (compared to last year’s record 520), which were published by 250 presses, up from 230 last year. With the number of submissions for PW’s call for information on LGBT books down from recent years, we decided to survey a number of publishers and authors on the current state of LGBT publishing and how the Lammys reflect that state—or don’t.
Certain tried and true categories are not being published into as robustly as in past years,” says Brenda Knight, associate publisher of Cleis Press, referring to the request for nominations in the gay and lesbian print erotica and romance categories this year; possibly this is due to more authors and publishers going digital-only in these categories.
But Knight also notes an increase in honored titles that deal with specifically transgender issues, both in fiction and nonfiction. And Cleis is making its own contributions to this growing subcategory, with last October’s Take Me There: Trans and Genderqueer Erotica, edited by Tristan Taormino, and May’s Transitions of the Heart: Stories of Love, Struggle and Acceptance by Mothers of Transgender and Gender Variant Children, edited by Rachel Pepper.
The bottom line on the Lammys, according to Knight, is that “[p]eople notice. It’s been our experience that readers buy more copies after the awards are given out.”
Longtime publicist Scott Manning, head of the independent PR firm Scott Manning and Associates, represents the Publishing Triangle Awards, also in their 24th year. Given by the Publishing Triangle, an association for lesbians and gay men in publishing, the awards highlight the best LGBT fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and include the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Manning sees commonalities in both sets of awards. “I was struck by the number of small, independent presses among the finalists,” he says. While this indicates less activity at the major houses, Manning’s overall take is optimistic. “Despite the changes in publishing, the Publishing Triangle and the Lammys are still going strong. They are very competitive and vibrant.”
The Good Old Days
Some people, however, view the current climate as more of a mixed bag. The shift toward the small and independent press has also been combined with less-than-welcome factors felt throughout the publishing world, like the midlist squeeze and smaller advances. Those conditions can still sting, even though most everyone agrees there is a broadening cultural openness to LGBT-focused work.
For instance, acclaimed author and historian William Mann, known both for his novels focusing on the lives of gay men in America (e.g., 1997’s The Men from the Boys) and his nonfiction works, such as Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, believes things are harder for gay writers starting out these days. When he first began publishing in the late ’90s, he says, “The economy was good, publishers were taking chances—it really was the good old days. There was a feeling that there was some room to play with new ideas. It was an important time.”
But despite some negative changes, Mann says there are promising signs of experimentation within the e-book world and in the evolving interests of the younger LGBT demographic.
Mann’s historical work has often come with a hook into LGBT culture, though aimed at a wider audience. His latest book, Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Nov.), looks at the early years of Streisand’s career. “Very quickly gay men decided she was wonderful, and the rest of the world followed a few years later—as often happens,” says Mann.
In fact, several people mentioned works that shed light on pieces of gay history—personal or otherwise—as an area that is doing well at the moment. When LGBT publishing veteran Don Weise launched the first list at his new Magnus Books last fall, it included Alan Shayne and Norman Sunshine’s Double Life: A Love Story from Broadway to Hollywood, a dual memoir by a gay power couple who’ve been together for more than 50 years.
“There have been a handful of recent memoirs about gay history that have gotten mainstream coverage unusual for gay books,” says Weise. “It’s heartening that books like these have broken out of the gay press and done well.”
In addition to Double Life, Weise cites the enthusiastic reception for Scotty Bowers’s Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars (Grove, Feb.), about the author’s postwar migration to California in the late 1940s, and Christopher Bram’s Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America (Twelve, Feb.), looking at successive generations of important gay literary figures in America from Truman Capote to Tony Kushner. All three works have received reviews or attention from a wide variety of media outlets, including the New York Times.
For his part, Bram is guardedly optimistic about what the enthusiastic media reception for Eminent Outlaws means. “I want to think it also means there’s a wider audience for LGBT books than we thought, but I’m waiting to see the sales figures,” he says. “I’m more confident that it means there are more openly gay people in the mainstream media than there were 10 or 20 years ago, and more straight editors and producers who are genuinely curious about gay life.”
But Weise is hopeful that there’s a significant market for more works on gay history. The publisher’s lead fall 2012 title is Hilary Holladay’s American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke, the Times Square Hustler Who Inspired the Beat Movement (Oct.), profiling an influential but little-known figure.
University of Wisconsin Press senior acquisitions editor Raphael Kadushin concurs that historical topics are on the upswing, and says that the decline in some previously popular categories such as romance and erotica has taken place because people can more easily find those stories in other types of media. “Twenty years ago the only place gays could find gay characters or stories were in books. Books aren’t revolutionary in the same way now. They must do more,” says Kadushin. “There’s still the need to recover gay history or lives that would get lost.”
To that end, he points to the press’s forthcoming titles like Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago Before Stonewall by St. Sukie de la Croix (June), which uncovers the little-known and vibrant Chicago scene of the late 1800s through the 1920s, and the anthology Who’s Yer Daddy? Gay Writers Confront Their Forerunners, edited by Jim Elledge and David Groff (Nov.), which offers essays from 39 leading gay authors on the earlier generations of artists and writers that inspired them. And while fiction is often noted as being in shorter supply, the publisher also has two novels on the way. Michael Lowenthal’s The Paternity Test (Sept.) explores the experience of gay men having a child through a surrogate, and Trebor Healey’s A Horse Named Sorrow (Oct.) conjures 1980s and ’90s San Francisco through the eyes of a young man named Seamus Blake, who loses his first lover to an AIDS-related illness.
Kadushin says, “More and more, a gay author or protagonist should not limit the audience. It’s a dated idea—the gay world and the larger world.”
Edmund White, one of the pre-eminent gay authors since he began publishing in the 1970s, agrees that there’s been some improvement on this front. This past January saw two releases from White—an essay collection, Sacred Monsters (Magnus), and his latest novel, Jack Holmes and His Friend (Bloomsbury). The novel has received glowing reviews from the New Yorker, NPR’s All Things Considered, and Entertainment Weekly, to name a few. But White still feels it can be tough to get serious attention for fiction featuring gay characters.
“Fiction is one of the hardest things for the media to talk about, but if there’s an angle—like here, a straight man and a gay man being friends—then it becomes easier for people to understand,” he says.
Moving into the Mainstream
Perhaps the truth of what’s going on in LGBT publishing is—just like the rest of the industry—hard to forecast in such a rapidly changing marketplace. The closest thing to a consensus is that while there have been some changes for the worse (the closing of gay bookstores, for example), there are also signs of improvement in terms of wider acceptance.
Justin Torres, author of We the Animals, one of last year’s most buzzed-about debuts (and being reprinted in June by Mariner Books), says that there are still plenty of books that don’t break out of the LGBT niche, particularly “if they’re explicitly about queer lives.” But he also says, “It’s sad that gay bookstores have closed, but the reason that’s happening is that queer literature is everywhere. Many books are now part of the mainstream.”
And, of course, as issues related to gay marriage, equal rights, and benefits have become a part of the national debate—not to mention reality in an increasing number of places—that opens up the way for more books to potentially cross over as well.
Seal Press began in 1976 as a small, DIY house, and though now part of the Perseus Book Group, remains committed to publishing women writers and works on feminist issues. Fittingly then, one of its biggest titles of the year is Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage by Audrey Bilger and Michele Kort, which was released last month. The press is also excited about its October food memoir from Candace Walsh, Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity, about coming out in her late 30s after a heterosexual marriage and two kids.
Publisher Krista Lyons says that Seal has lately found itself competing against larger houses more often, when even two years ago it might have been the lone interested party. She says, “While that can be frustrating—larger houses have more money to spend—it’s also so great for the category and great for the audience.”
Known primarily for its romance offerings, Bella Books has noticed some of the same market trends cited by others, with a rise in smaller presses and self-published breakout titles, and explosive growth in e-books. On the romance front, publisher Linda Hill says, “Lesbian romances have certainly grown and matured over the years. Every book is no longer about the angst of coming out.” Coming this summer are titles from two of Bella’s most popular authors—Rhapsody by KG MacGregor (June) and Keepers of the Cave by Gerri Hill (July). The publisher is also excited about first-time author Rachel Gold’s young adult novel dealing with transgender issues, Being Emily (June).
Young adult fiction was mentioned by several publishers as a hot growth area for the category. Malinda Lo, a current Lammy nominee in the YA category for Huntress, her Chinese- and Japanese-influenced fantasy featuring a love story between two girls, says that although there are more works aimed at young audiences with LGBT characters these days, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. “We’ll be continuing to fight to have these representations out there for a long time,” says Lo. “There is no shortage of stories that have not been told.”
This sentiment was echoed by many about the entire field of LGBT publishing, including Chris Bram. “Some people like to claim that gay writers succeeded too well and we don’t need gay books or plays now that we have gay marriage and gay public figures. Which is silly,” Bram says. “We still need our stories.”
Regardless of upheaval in the business, it seems clear that the category has plenty of publishers and authors that feel passionate about the continued importance of telling those stories.
In addition to the titles mentioned in our feature, we’ve chosen a baker’s dozen of forthcoming works—in pub date order—that typify the variety of today’s LGBT publishing.
Dale Carpenter’s Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas (Norton, Mar.) recounts John Lawrence and Tyron Garner’s 1998 bedroom arrest and subsequent charge of sodomy, which led to a landmark Supreme Court decision that expanded the legal rights of millions of gay and lesbian Americans.
Left-Handed: Poems (Knopf, Mar.). PW’s review found the work of FSG president and publisher Jonathan Galassi “first and foremost vulnerable, and many will find this book, which reads not unlike a novel, startling.”
Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders by Joy Ladin (Univ. of Wisconsin, Mar.). In this poignant memoir, the Yeshiva University professor recounts his sexual transition from Jay to Joy, creating a new self in the process.
James Alexander Lanteaux’s provocative Gay Conversations with God: Straight Talk on Fanatics, Fags, and the God Who Loves Us All (Findhorn Press, Apr.) presents a reversal of thought and action, contending that God loves homosexuals without attempting to refute scripture references.
Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Apr.). What do Gloria Steinem and Jonathan Safran Foer have in common? They’ve both raved over the new graphic memoir from Alison Bechdel, who’s the subject of today’s PW Interview.
In Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples (Beacon Press, May), cultural historian Rodger Streitmatter spans 100+ years and profiles couples who made major contributions in an impressive range of fields—from music and education to journalism and modern art.
Victory: the Triumphant Gay Revolution (Harper, June). In PW’s April 9 q&a with author Linda Hirshman, the former labor leader and current political columnist calls the history of gay liberation “the most successful progressive social movement of the last 40 years.”
God Believes in Love: Straight Talk About Gay Marriage by Gene Robinson (Knopf, Sept.). Author Gene Robinson, the bishop of the diocese of New Hampshire in the Episcopal Church, is the first openly gay person elected (in 2003) to the historic episcopate and the world’s leading religious spokesperson for gay rights and gay marriage.
Our Time: Breaking the Silence of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Penguin Press, Oct.) by Air Force officer Josh Seefried reveals an intimate portrait of military life, giving voice to the LGBT men and women after more than a decade of silence.
Coming from Sellers Publishing in October is The Gay Couples Guide to Wedding Planning: Everything Gay Men Need to Know to Create a Fun, Romantic and Memorable Ceremony by David Toussaint.
May the Foreskin Be with You: Why Circumcision Doesn’t Make Sense and What You Can Do About It (Magnus Books, Oct.). From his Broadway debut in Cabaret to his respectable lawyer drag on TV’s The Good Wife, author Alan Cumming can be counted on to dish up wit, irreverence—and practicality.
Part memoir, part voyeur’s look into a marriage, Sex Changes (St. Martin’s, Nov.) is Christine Benvenuto’s story of her husband’s decision to become a woman—and how she had to save her family and shelter her children.
The queer American Jewish activist Sarah Schulman describes her dawning consciousness of the Palestinian liberation struggle in Israel/Palestine and the Queer International (Duke Univ. Press, Nov.)
— Dick Donahue