QUEERING THE GENRE
For all her bold exploration of gender in her science fiction LeGuin in Left Hand of Darkness is surprisingly phobic about the possibilities of same sex attraction, or even something more biologically complicated that her fictional Gethenians represent. Yet as we have seen the interwar period provided a fertile ground for women writers like Hall, Woolf, Barnes and Larsen to play with gender and with female sexuality, worrying the ideological and aesthetic lines of a heteronormative culture. With the exception of The Well of Loneliness however, these fictions highlighted women to women desire to a greater or lesser degree without making it the raison d’etre of their narratives. A gradual lifting of censorship permitted the flowering of mass market erotica which included soft core lesbian ‘pulp’ fiction — cheap paperbacks with suggestive covers and enticing titles such as The Third Sex, Women s Barracks and Spring Fire whose ‘golden age’ was the mid-fifties to midsixties. This subgenre, sometimes written by men as well as women, was aimed primarily at men, and was hardly designed to encourage a positive view of lesbianism as a gendered or civic identity, yet it had, as many readers have testified, a wide lesbian audience. How might we see such soft-porn genre fiction, often implicitly as well as explicitly homophobic, as either sexually progressive or, in any sense, queer? If these novels were, at one level, part of a long tradition of using lesbian sexual encounters as titillation for the heterosexual imagination, the fact that many pulps were written by women, and women readers formed a significant market share of the audience suggested a way forward for lesbian feminist writers in the seventies and eighties to develop their own successful strands within genre fiction — romance, historical fiction, gothic, sci-fi, detective fiction explicitly directed at women readers. Writing in popular genre forms didn’t immediately secure mainstream publishers however. The groundbreaking Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller (a pseudonym for Alma Routsong) was first published in 1969 as A Place for Us, before it found a commercial outlet. Miller tries out the lesbian novel as historical fiction, drawing on the life of the painter Mary Ann Willson and her companion Miss Brundage in early nineteenth – century America for her tale of star-crossed women lovers. The cross-dressing working class Sarah and the more feminine middle – class Patience end up together at last farming in rural upstate New York, out of the way of angry families and more general social censure.
But the city as a setting, and the gritty present with its sexual danger and its utopian possibilities, was even more of a lure for lesbian novelists in the seventies and eighties. Detective fiction with lesbian detectives and, often, a lesbian milieu, proved particularly popular, perhaps because it offered an opportunity to rewrite not the genteel fictional female tecs of the Queens of Crime, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple or Dorothy Sayers’s Harriet Vane but rather the hardboiled tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett, authors whose careers also depended, at least initially, on the pulp paperback market. Hardboiled American detective fiction presented both a temptation and a challenge because it was a genre so freighted with misogyny and rife with homophobic images that to allow the positive figure of the lesbian detective to replace the lone male private eye in its imaginative world was, in effect, to ‘queer’ it, putting in question hardboiled fiction’s assumptions about gender, sexuality, agency and justice. Most lesbian and feminist crime fiction borrows largely from the conventions of realism established in the interwar period — taking sexual politics to the cosmopolitan, sexually louche worlds of mean streets, and giving them a progressive, libertarian twist. Structurally, lesbian crime fiction — as with feminist crime fiction more generally — tries to follows the hardboiled tradition of making the detective a loner but never a celibate. Barbara Wilson’s Pam Nilson novels, Murder in the Collective (1984) and Sisters of the Road (1986) follow this convention, but although Pam styles herself stereotypically — short hair and overalls — and in pursuing the murderer of a young prostitute becomes acquainted with the underside of American cities, her middle-class tastes and liberal reformist impulses are also crucial to her image. It is a sign of Pam’s, and the genre’s, own aspirations when she gives Trish, a vulnerable street kid whose indiscriminate literary tastes run to Shogun and trashy family sagas, as well as the more acceptable but macho Steinbeck, the iconic feminist novel, Jane Eyre, as a start to her literary-political education: ‘She might as well begin at the beginning’ (Wilson, 1986, 29). In Wilson’s detective fiction murderers and rapists are handed over to the law, however alternative and left wing Pam’s lifestyle and politics appears. Wilson is careful to challenge the sexual politics but not, ultimately, the justice system of a rule governed state. As with Patience and Sarah, Wilson’s Sisters of the Road was initially published by her own independent and feminist Seal Press, in Seattle and in Britain by the Women’s Press. Success in the mainstream for lesbian fiction is ruthlessly market driven: the much raunchier, less high-minded After Dolores (1988) Sarah Shulman’s now classic contribution to the genre, was taken up by Penguin’s US imprint, Plume. Its unnamed, unwashed, alcoholic and occasionally violent heroine works in a seedy Lower East Side diner and is in angry mourning for her ex-lover Dolores. Her only and favourite book is a volume of Patti Smith’s lyrics. As a kind of distraction from the pain of abandonment Schulman’s heroine pursues the mysterious death of a young ‘Punkette’ from New Jersey who she fancies. Masquerade is a leading trope in After Dolores; one of the heroine’s lovers dresses up as Priscilla Presley, another central character, Charlotte, is an actress who has a magical if sinister ability to change roles. The true identities, sexual preferences and romantic object choices of After Dolores’s characters are as elusive as the justice the protagonist, with her borrowed and unregistered pearl-handled gun, metes out to Marianne/ Punkette’s male killer. Sexuality and gender are presented as performative in Schulman, in both the common sense and Butlerian use of the term, where it is the repeated iteration of the self that forms identity. In After Dolores, these reiterated selves seem both fragile and mutable, so that they — like the heroine’s romances — as often as not fail. In much lesbian fiction after The Well of Loneliness what is at stake is not the deviation from normative femininity and object choice but the drama of love and betrayal. For Shulman’s sad, hungover, scruffy heroine what persists as the ‘core’ of herself, is her loss of Delores, for which the intense if casual encounters with other women in the novel, cannot compensate. In contrast, Pam Nilson, if also lovelorn, has a more recognizably humanist self to lose. ‘Whatever I knew or had known about myself was being crushed’ she says, when she is raped by the villain, Wayne, at the climax of the novel, yet Pam recovers her lost agency through further physical risk: she takes up sky-diving (Wilson 1986: 194). Women in the urban lesbian subculture of the novel can be, and often are, downright nasty — and if their sadism falls short of physical murder, it can induce the death of the heart. Of these two examples After Delores is the more radical text, its emphasis on surface, its shape-shifting cast, its appropriation of the hardboiled — not quite pastiche but veering towards it — classically postmodern. At the end of the book the heroine has rid the world of a killer and herself gone unpunished, but she has given up none of her bad habits, nor has she stopped missing Delores.
The niche market that second wave feminism and the gay and lesbian movement created for lesbian fiction offered many other opportunities for literary experimentation. Rita Mae Brown’s scandalous Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) is one of the first coming of age, coming out novels of this period, and its comic exuberance sets the tone of the postwar lesbian bildungsroman which works hard to avoid the melodrama and histrionics of Radclyffe Hall’s classic without playing down the risks that young lesbians take in a homophobic world. Lesbian bildungsroman quickly became a favourite sub-genre, developing its own inventive way with the form; for example blurring the boundary between fiction, memoir and autobiography, as in the black lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde’s self-styled ‘biomythography’, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982) which explores the highs and lows of growing up and coming out in New York City, and includes both lyrical evocations of love affairs, and a sharp critique of the racism within lesbian subcultures of the period. Eighteenth-century picaresque, from Moll Flanders to Tom Jones proved another appropriative model for movement inspired fiction and autobiography. An early, and bold example is Kate Millet’s picaresque stream-of – consciousness Flying (1974): autobiography that reads like a novel and might well fit Lorde’s later neologism, in which sexual, literary and political experimentation are brought together.
These novels of the 1970s and early 1980s largely celebrate women’s newfound cosmopolitan and sexually ambidextrous agency. In many movement novels, such as Lisa Alther’s comic Kinflicks (1976) or Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1976) lesbianism is thematized as one viable option for women; the possibility of trying out same sex relationships in these years was a choice that feminism in the first instance enhanced, and that the gay and lesbian movement widened further. A few years later Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) charts some of the same territory, borrowing this time from the eighteenth-century epistolary novel. Walker’s magically extended time frame maps black life in the American south in the twentieth century, but that journey is informed by the sequential and intersecting social movements of the postwar period. Nevertheless it caused a critical sensation because Walker allows Celie, her abused heroine, to fall in love with and find sexual and emotional happiness, if not monogamy, with the bisexual singer Shug.
Femininity and sexual transgression are of course issues in these novels, but although many of the protagonists follow the dress codes associated with butch lesbians — short hair, trousers—as often as not the effect of such fictions is to refuse rather than reinforce the fixed alterities of masculinity and femininity, and to reject directly or by implication Hall’s adaptation of contemporary sexology in her evocation of a ‘third sex.’ In or out of pants, most of these female protagonists exhibit traditionally ‘feminine’ emotions — they are classically nurturant as well as brave and adventurous, for example. If the butch/femme cliche of lesbian attraction is still in play in many of these stories, lesbian fiction and its related forms in this period also highlights the fluidity of female sexual desire, and makes the norms of masculinity — if not its threat or its power — a kind of irrelevance, and in so doing offers femininity a much wider spectrum of human attributes.
Beginning in the 1970s and extending through the 1990s the proliferation of small feminist, sometimes exclusively lesbian feminist presses, and feminist, gay and lesbian bookstores supported a niche market for lesbian genre fiction — with its ever expanding categories from historical romance through science fiction — as well as autobiography and novels with more avant – garde or simply mainstream aspirations. Transgressive femininity as a narrative of same-sex love and desire did well in the marketplace, we might say, as long as it knew its place, or, as in the case of a novel like The Color Purple, it was subordinate to other contemporary social movement issues such as race. Yet these notable successes highlight the fact that it has been noticeably harder for novels with strongly marked lesbian themes — and their authors — to receive more general critical acclaim. Jane Rule’s early bittersweet romance between two women, Desert of the Heart (1964) was made into a very successful film Desert Hearts in the mid 1980s, its notoriety making her stand out for a time, as if she ‘were the only lesbian in Canada’. This attitude did change: Rule, a prolific and successful novelist, received state accolades from both British Columbia and the Canadian state in the years before her death in 2007. Later generations of writers have done better: two notable exceptions to a still general if now rarely voiced prejudice, have been the writers Jeannette Winterson and Sarah Waters, both British.
Winterson made her name with Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1985) which won the Whitbread First Novel prize and was translated to television with great success a few years later. Its heroine is a quasi-fictional character, Jeanette and the novel is hung on key facts of Winterson’s own history: her adoption by working Pentecostal parents, her childhood and youth in Accrington in the north of England, and the teenage romance with another girl which forced her to leave home. The prohibition and superstitions of the Pentecostal household and the Church, which dominates Jeanette’s childhood and which interprets her emerging sexuality as a form of possession structure the novel, are divided up into biblical segments from ‘Genesis’ through ‘Ruth’. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is, as Winterson says in a 1991 preface to the Vintage edition, an ‘experimental novel: its interests are not linear’ but ‘spiral’. Winterson suggests that the novel is both ‘threatening’ and ‘comforting’, threatening in its exposure of the ‘sham’ of family life and its revelation that ‘what the church calls love is actually psychosis’ and that ‘what makes life difficult for homosexuals is not their perversity but other people’s.’ It is threatening also, Winterson adds, because its ‘humour and lightness’ draws even the unwilling reader to it. Its ‘comfort’ lies in its willingness to tackle ‘difficult questions.’ (Winterson 1991: xiii—xiv) Interspersed with Jeanette’s story are blocks of fairytale, a fragment of Arthurian myth, meditations on history as well as Jeanette’s adult reflections on her childhood and youth. And while the quest element of the novel takes Jeanette to the city and the pleasures and uncertainties of new women lovers, the last chapter, true to Winterson’s description of the novel’s ‘spiral’ form, is an account of a visit home, where she discovers that in spite of scandals affecting the Pentecostal church, modern technology is helping the sect: her mother has traded her piano for an electronic keyboard, and is putting out the evangelical message worldwide on Citizens’ Band radio. In the town only a few people seem to remember her scandalous adolescence and her demonization; even her mother doesn’t mention it. Indeed Jeanette tells us that even earlier, two scant years after her departure, her ex-lover Melanie, now ‘pushing a pram’, ‘seemed to have forgotten everything.’ (166 ) Challenging the linear narrative of the bildungsroman as coming out story, Jeanette muses that ‘history is a string full of knots, the best you can do is admire it, and maybe knot it up a bit more. History is a hammock for swinging and a game for playing. A cat’s cradle.’ (166) The same mix of scepticism and creative appropriation applies to Winterson’s attitude towards gender, sexuality and genre — she dislikes the fixed categories and hierarchies of all three — as she is quoted in a profile by Maya Jaggi, ‘I hated historical novels with fluttering cloaks’ (Jaggi 2004). Like Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf, acknowledged influences, she wants to do something else with both the language and narrative structure of genre fiction. The Passion, set in the Napoleonic era, with its web-footed, cross-dressing bisexual Venetian heroine owes a good deal to Orlando without feeling either dutiful or derivative. Winterson’s compelling literary voice develops a set of stories about love and its discontents which acknowledges without reifying the difference gender makes. In her fiction feminism and femininity are always immanent, but caught, like her characters in the convoluted web — the cat’s cradle as she says — of history.
If Winterson’s ambitious postmodern inventions are one high-end trajectory for the lesbian novel, a nomenclature that she herself refuses, then Sarah Waters’s trilogy of historical novels set in Victorian and Edwardian Britain are another. Waters has a rather different relationship to genre writing, embracing it without the reservations and qualifications that mark Winterson’s approach. Although she regretted it later, she was happy to call her first novel Tipping the Velvet (1998), a ‘lesbian romp’, its picaresque adventures taking her heroine from a Whitstable oyster bar through music-hall, mean streets, lesbian salons and, in a final scene, to a podium at a Hyde Park demonstration. Tippingthe Velvet has its dark moments but of the two novels that followed, the bleak Affinity (1999), whose mis-en-scene is the prison and the medium’s parlour and Fingersmith (2002), in part a remake of Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White, set in a Dickensian thieves’ den, a pornographer’s country house and an asylum, use sensation fiction and Victorian melodrama as their historical referents. The period and settings allow Waters to explore the differences and inequalities of class between women as well as their heterodox sexuality. Waters has a light touch with historical pastiche, with her feminist subtext and with her lesbian themes. She is able to evoke both the atmosphere and language of the period without making her reader long for the originals — to reimagine the nineteenth century novel as including narratives of same-sex love and betrayal. As with Winterson, feminism is the ground of Waters’s rethinking of the novel, but it is a feminism with a strong streak of the libertarian in its assumptions, a feminism that has taken in and literalized the harsh though thoroughly libertarian vision found in texts like Angela Carter’s provocative 1979 study The Sadeian Woman. In making one of Fingersmiths two female protagonists, the educated girl of low origins, Maud Lily, voluntarily become a commercial pornographer at the end,
Waters deliberately breaks with a more puritanical vision of women’s sexual imaginary as well as with a simply utopian vision of their ability to transcend or remake the social. A theme that runs through lesbian fiction — women’s troubling capacity for violence and cruelty as well as nurturance to other women, however its causes are ascribed — surfaces in Waters’s work also. This propensity as regards the wild card of the sexual imagination in particular is the subject of angry and agonistic debate among lesbian theorists in the 1980s, and is a topic too for feminist psychoanalytic accounts of the female imagination. Yet in the world of Waters fiction, women’s cruelty to each other is not raised primarily as questions of sameness or difference, or of femininity or masculinity, or of natural versus social, but are rather a proof of their fully human if ethically vulnerable being. For all its leitmotifs of imprisonment, Waters’s fiction is essentially optimistic, for the future of the lesbian themed novel as much, if not more, than for her characters and their imagined fates, and ours. In their very different ways both Winterson and Waters are part of a new celebration of the power of ‘story’, perhaps in their case of the literary in its widest sense, to reinvent gender and sexuality.