BY KELLY COGSWELL | Early in July, I had a conversation with Sarah Schulman, writer, queer activist, historian, and co-founder of the Lesbian Avengers. We talked about what contributed to that group’s successful launch, including the vibrancy of the lesbian subculture in 1970s and ‘80s. We also discussed why it’s so hard for lesbian writers to break into the mainstream. Spoiler alert: homophobia and niche marketing.
Here’s are edited excerpts from the the podcast linked below:.
SARAH SCHULMAN: When I wrote “The Sophie Horowitz Story,” in 1984, it was the third lesbian detective novel on the face of the earth. It was a brand new concept. And quickly became a reactionary idea. But for a very brief time, it was a progressive idea. Because the idea was that you could take a popular cultural form and put in lesbian content was something that hadn’t happened before. Because my generation was the first generation that was out in popular culture. Prior to us, there was only underground lesbian culture and then there was popular culture. So, the reason that “The Sophie Horowitz Story” was so successful, even if it was still underground or whatever, was because people were excited at being inserted into the world.
But it started much earlier. The first WOW festival was in 1979 and I was involved in that. But that was a reflection of something that was already ongoing. There were things like Women News, which had existed before then, and the St. Mark's Lesbian Health Collective, and Ana Simo's project, Medusa's Revenge Theater. So that's the '70s. And that's still underground culture. But there is a way that it's commenting on the world.
KELLY COGSWELL: I also remember reading the David Wojnarowicz book, and it was also a dialogue with the larger world.
SS: But that's many years later. I also don't think that's the same. Because that's more an extension of underground culture. There's a split aesthetically. I come out of underground culture and I understand what it was. But I was also part of the move towards the insertion of the lesbian subject into The World. And this desire to be seen on your own terms in a public way. And there's always been a tension around that. I mean, it still exists. Today, you can be out as a lesbian writer, but if you have a lesbian protagonist, you can't have a successful book. You have to have a secondary character. And this has been true for decades, now. And it's still true.
KC: Who do you think is still trying to do that? Insert lesbians on their own terms? Into the world. Because it seems like that project has been abandoned.
SS: People are trying. I run writing groups in my apartment for women who have queer content. People are also constantly sending me their manuscripts. I see that there are plays being written. I see that there are films being made. I see that there are books being written, but they never get out there. Or if they get out there and they’re buried. But like this year, I chaired the Lammys lesbian fiction panel. And we read 60 books. And it was hard to find 10 nominees. The best writers are abandoning the lesbian protagonist because they want to have real careers. And the ones who stick with it are either in the very early stages of their development and don’t have a lot of craft or can’t get published.
But it doesn't mean that the impulse isn't there. People are still doing it. They have a need to express. They just can't get into the marketplace.
KC: Do you think it’s harder now than it was? I noticed that “After Delores” was published on a mainstream press.
SS:: Yeah, but you have to understand how that happened. First of all, I only got paid $5,000 for that book. Just so you understand that. So, a lesbian of my generation –– that is to say someone who has always been out –– got a job at Dutton as an editor. Right out of Smith College. And she already knew my work because I was known, and especially “Girls, Visions and Everything” was known. And a friend of hers stopped me at the health food store and said that this woman Carol had gotten this job and that I should send her my next book. So I brought it over to the office. And then she called me a few days later and said she wanted to publish it.
Now this was before niche marketing. Right? Niche marketing starts in 1992. This is before that. So, when that book was published. It got a mainstream review in the New York Times by a man. Today, it would be reviewed by a lesbian. Because of niche marketing. Because of the containment. The containment was not in place yet.
KC: Do you see any way out? Do you see any way to go outside niche marketing?
SS: In one of my books, I can’t remember which, maybe as early as “My American History,” I wrote out like a whole plan. Of how to turn around the problem of lesbian fiction. I had proposed a subway ad campaign with the prominent straight writers of the day. Like Amy Tan and Terry McMillan, these people, saying, “We read lesbian books.” Or companies sending lesbian writers out on tour with their famous straight writers. Or things like that. I mean, there’s ways to do it. You just have to give people permission to read these books. But they don’t want to. Because the homophobia is stronger than the desire for money.
It’s true. I mean, people are trying to exploit every single underground impulse that exists, any little fucking thing that a person does you see it in an ad the next day. My last book, or second to last, “Gentrification of the Mind,” has turned into some kind of cult classic. I get letters all the time, but the people who are willing to exploit everything in the world, don’t want to exploit that. It is ideological. It’s a problem of ideology.
I've talked to all of these organizations like Publishing Triangle, I've met with them, I've sent proposals. I'm like, what if you spoke to the publishing industry? What if you had meetings with people and said, "Look. You are repressing this literature." What if agents kept presenting the material over and over again? Until the point when editors were used to it and saw that it was coming? But they won't. They won't do anything that would actually produce a positive outcome.
The other thing is lesbians in publishing will not do anything. The last time I had a round of discussion with young lesbian editors, I found they had no sense that their ability to be out on their job is a product of anybody else’s labor. And they don’t feel like they owe you anything. I mean, in one of my books I say that there was a time when any gay girl could call any other gay girl in America and she would call her back. Right? But forget it now.
Many of my peers have been driven out by this. There were maybe 15 or so people who were publishing lesbian fiction during the time I was at Dutton –– and none of those people are publishing adult fiction today. Except me. And those were all very interesting writers. Because it was a system of attrition. I just happened to be very, very, very — you know –– committed. I will spend a decade getting a book published. But other people are not willing to do that.
Listen to the full podcast:
Kelly Cogswell is the author of “Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger,” published earlier this year by the University of Minnesota Press.