There's an anecdote that has been floating around gay publishing circles for the past couple of decades. The source of it is much disputed, but it was a story told to me when I first started in publishing way back in Nineteen-mumblety-mumble. Apparently, at some point in the '70s, maybe the '80s, there was some sort of panel discussion about the “impact of gay sensibility on the arts.” On the panel were several prominent figures in the arts, one of whom stated, “There is no such thing as 'gay sensibility'... and its impact has been enormous.”

So, let me first tip my hat to this disputed source and then, in response to the current topic at hand—i.e., “What is the state of GLBT publishing?”—say that the state of gay publishing is deathly ill and quite possibly terminal, but that the literature itself is as vibrant, compelling and, arguably, groundbreaking as at any other point in its history. [If that sounds contentious on both points, read on; in the pages that follow, other voices for and against will be heard.]

In my view, it is clear that today there is less and less visible publishing of gay and lesbian books. Carroll & Graf, Alyson and Harrington Park Press—in recent years the most energetic publishers of gay/lesbian fiction and nonfiction—have all either failed, drastically reduced their list of GLBT titles, or have been undergoing serial management/ownership changes. As for what most folks would consider the mainstream publishing houses, they are publishing far less of what could credibly be labeled 'gay or lesbian books' than they were 10 years ago. But what I find more distressing is that even those books that they do publish are packaged and promoted in such a way as to downplay or ignore the gay or lesbian aspect of the book. It's akin to publishing Everything Is Illuminated and trying to hide the fact that the novel has any connection to Jewish experience. As for mainstream review attention—well, it's enough to drive one to heavy drink, and explains why publishers might want to downplay the gay themes and characters in a book (see The Hours), in fear that to do otherwise might be the kiss of death when it comes to getting review attention.

I've heard dozens of speculative reasons for this state of affairs. The most common of which goes something like this—that 'gay' has become 'mainstream' so there isn't the need for a specifically gay and lesbian literature any more. After NBC's Will & Grace, who needs Larry Kramer's Faggots?

That's really just the verdict on publishing side of the equation—not good. The literature itself, though, is in a very different state. The writing—fiction, poetry, drama and nonfiction—is robust. In the past two months we've seen new novels from Joseph Olshan, Nina Revoyr, Christopher Rice and Scott Heim. Last year there was the fascinating Like Son by Felicia Luna Lemus, Peter Cameron's Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, which just won a Best Novel award at the April 28 Publishing Triangle awards (see p. 33), Michael Tolliver Lives by Armistead Maupin, and a personal favorite, the luminous Call Me by Your Name by Andre Aciman. Martin Duberman published a major work on Lincoln Kirstein, Felice Picano brought out a new book on the gay arts scene in the early '70s and Eileen Myles published a new collection of poetry. There are full-blooded, intelligent YA novels of the like rarely seen in decades past, such as Brian Sloan's Tale of Two Summers or Brian Malloy's forthcoming Twelve Long Months, to name just a couple. There have also been some great entertainments—crime novels, romance, fantasy and erotica, among others, too numerous to list individually. So while the publishing situation is far from ideal—okay, it's perhaps best described as a dismal, chaotic mess—the art itself has proven amazingly resilient. And isn't that what really matters?

Where Are We Now?
Keith Kahla's view that the gay and lesbian publishing sector is anemic but that the literature itself is thriving is not for everyone. We asked three major players for their sense of the state of the genre today, and got three quite different POVs.

“The ghettoization of gay literature continues, entrenched, robbing the main stream of literature of many unique voices, segregated. Books that come out from self-identified gay presses do not get reviewed, other than in gay publications. And Barnes & Noble, despite protests from authors, continues to shelve books by known gay writers, no matter what the subject, in its back-store 'gay lit' sections. If that isn't enough segregation, the price tab on the book identifies it further as 'gay.' And in another twist, gay writers are often among the harshest critics of books by gay writers that manage to get attention in the mainstream press. I would say that getting a gay-oriented book published by one of the big commercial houses has become more difficult than ever.” —John Rechy, author of the 1963 gay classic, City of Night, and the recent memoir, About My Life and the Kept Woman (Grove)

“It's crucial that good gay books no longer get ghettoized but get accepted on their own terms, as literature or memoir, instead of as a marginalized genre. In terms of titles I look for good writing first. I think there is a strong future for gay travel writing and for gay memoirs that don't just tell a gay story but resonate on a universal level or at least with a secondary market—Rigoberto Gonzalez's Butterfly Boy, which had as large a Latino market as gay market is a good example, as is Tim Miller's work, which appeals to a large market; Steve Greenberg's Wrestling with God and Men, which drew a large Jewish market; Lucy Bledsoe's The Ice Cave, which appealed to a large women's market; etc. I also am interested in fiction, and memoirs that explore gay romance. I think the assumption that gay lit is always going to be some erotic grind is tiresome and one of the ways the straight publications still ghettoize gay writing.” —Raphael Kadushin, senior acquisitions editor, Univ. of Wisconsin Press

“With several leading publishers of LGBT books either closing or being reconfigured under new ownership over the past year, it's plain to see that we're in a transition moment unlike any other. No one knows this better than I do, having lost my job in the process. While it would be easy to simply lament these changes, I think it's more constructive to look at them instead as presenting new opportunities. In some profound sense, all the recent transitions may have broken the traditional mold at last, allowing much-needed change to occur. Although it's too early to predict the outcome, I find myself excited by the challenge.” —Don Weise, freelance editor and former senior editor at Carroll & Graf

Series Business
Last June, Boston's Beacon Press launched a new series, Queer Action/Queer Ideas, whose first two titles, Come Out and Win: Organizing Yourself, Your Communityand Your World by Sue Hyde, and Out Law: What LGBT Youth Should Know About Their Legal Rights by Lisa Keen, are designed, in the publisher's words, to “educate readers on the intertwined histories of the gay community, sexual orientation and LGBT activism.” According to series editor and noted gay author/activist Michael Bronski, the series “understands that there must be a direct connection between how we think about LGBT issues and what we do with those thoughts in the actual world.” The third book, just out, is Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families Under the Law by Nancy D. Polikoff, who teaches at American University's Washington College of Law. “Sales have been strong,” notes Bronski, and “speak to the fact that, in our current climate, there is a growing market for provocative books of original political thought.“ Slated next is a book on LGBT people and the U.S. criminal justice system as well as a book by Bronski titled The Word Turned Upside Down: The Queer Subversiveness of Children's Literature.

In October, the University of Wisconsin adds a new title to its Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiography series—Sex Talks to Girls: A Memoir is by Lambda Award—winning poet Maureen Seaton. The series, which began in 1997, is still, says senior acquisitions editor Raphael Kadushin, “the only series in the country devoted to gay and lesbian autobiography.” Its purpose, says the publisher, is “to express the full range of gay experience, recognizing that the autobiography is an essential gay form—a crucial way of reclaiming invisible lives, responding to silence, and encoding the collective gay experience.” A 2007 series entry, Tim Miller's 1001 Beds: Performances, Essays, and Travels won last year's Lambda Literary Award for best Theater/Performance Art book, and in 2002, the series won the Publishers' Service Award from the Lambda Literary Foundation.

A series of a different stripe is emerging from Johnsonville, N.Y.—based indie press Bold Strokes Books, which is bringing back into print the first four books in John Morgan Wilson's award-winning mystery series featuring gay reporter Benjamin Justice. “In the last year, we've been transitioning from a lesbian press to an LGBT press,” says president Len Barot. “John is the first gay male author writing for gay male readers that we've signed up to publish.” The first book in the series, Simple Justice, which won the 1997 Edgar award for Best Debut Mystery, will be published in August, to be followed in successive months by the next three reissues—leading up, says Barot, to his new hardcover, Spider Season, coming in December from St. Martin's.

—Dick Donahue