What does the “lesbian” in “lesbian fiction” mean to you? Something saccharine sweet with a happy ending? You aren’t alone, but still: we need to talk.
A while back I wrote for this blog about why I don’t think that there should be a dedicated section in bookstores exclusively for queer, lesbian, or gay fiction. Like the troublesome ethnic fiction collection that gets put out in American bookstores every February for Black History Month, genre fiction is ghettoised. While the so-called ethnic collections seem to be integrating more and more into broader literature sections of bookstores, queer, lesbian and gay fiction stubbornly continues to be placed outside of that space. There are exceptions to this, of course, but most of the time queer books are shelved out of the way in the queer section.
The First Rule of Lesbian Fiction: You Must Only Write Happy Stories
As Ylva Publisher Astrid Ohletz wrote in her excellent discussion on the subject, there is more to lesbian fiction than erotica.
Queer women like to write about queer women. This is especially evident within the lesfic community. In a day an age when queer women’s representation in media is still limited or associated with negative tropes and tragedy, most readers of queer women’s stories want to read positive representations of themselves. A lot of lesfic readers and reviewers even go so far as to say that they prefer happily ever after endings.
This is troublesome, as it places enormous pressure on writers within the genre. They feel they have to not only to produce content that fits the desired mould, but also to give the readers what they want. This internal pressure on writers produces an expectation among readers that stories will go a certain way. Writers whose stories don’t go that specific way have broken the first rule of lesbian fiction, and have to face the disappointment from readers when they don’t get what they expect.
Breaking free of cookie-cutter stories
Here’s the thing: Writing genre fiction should not be about wish fulfilment, or happy endings, or erotica. It should be about the chance authors have to represent themselves and their experiences to others. Writers should not have to be constrained into the cookie-cutter shape of one-queer-lady-story-fits-all. Life is messy, queerness is an added layer of nuance that can further complicate our already messy lives. Our stories should reflect the messiness of our lives without our writers feeling forced to clamp down on their wish to talk about the harder things for fear of negative reception of their work.
Different, messy, unlikable
Recently, my novel, A Heist Story was published by Ylva. The story did well in draft form, earning an award on Wattpad in 2015. It’s not a happy story, but it ended on a hopeful note. I worked with a dear friend to get the tone and noir-esque elements of the plot down. I wanted the story to be dizzying and leave people guessing. I did not make the main characters likable. I wanted their lives to be as messy as my own was at the time. I wanted to do something different. I was bored with the same old stories and tropes, and Ylva took a chance on the story. A Heist Story’s label is that of a suspense novel with queer characters, but naturally, the word “lesbian” (as at least two of the main characters are lesbians) is included in both the description and novel metatags which help search engines find it.
The double-edged sword of the lesbian label
A conscious choice to tag it as a “lesbian” story produced reviewers who expected more of the traditional genre fiction fare—complete with happy endings and a romance main plot. This resulted in a general dislike of the book by reviewers who came to it expecting a romance. Not because it was poorly written, but because the characters were unlikable and there was little romance.
Basically, two things are going on here: the first is that there’s a need to signal to queer women that this is a book for them. So you tag it lesbian. Makes sense, right? We know what we like. The only problem with this is that, as discussed above, there are a lot of expectations coming from within the community around story content.
However, this brings us to the second thing: in tagging the story as lesbian, Ylva is also trying to make sure that the book is seen by people who maybe don’t have a community to tell them about Ylva’s cool new book. They’re trying to make sure that Goodreads and Amazon know what the book is about too. Put another way: The intersection here is fascinating, between the internal politics of the lesbian genre, and the external politics of attempting to be seen on websites like Goodreads and Amazon; both of which inform Ylva’s continued business decisions.
With Ylva’s choice to tag a story “lesbian,” readers arrived with expectations produced by that same label. In other words, in choosing to tag a story in a way that was most likely to get the story seen by potential readers, Ylva generated readers with certain expectations about the genre as a whole.
Lesbian means romance and happy endings, it means stories about lesbians at the expense of bi- and pansexuality. It ignores the asexual and transgender experiences of queer women, it sexualises a label that is simply a state of being. And it does so through the near-constant pressure placed upon genre writers to produce stories that fit within that same mould.
Caught in this feedback loop, queer genre fiction authors, readers and publishers need to look at this tension. Change should come from within, as the reality of meta tagging for search engines is inescapable.
Change should come from the publishers and writers who dare to create stories that do not fit the assumptions of what it means to tell a “lesbian” story – a story about queer women.
We need to challenge the notions in our readers’ minds that say stories in this genre can only be this way. We need to push past the understanding of the lesbian novel as a singular experience, where there is only one cookie-cutter story that’s told over and over again.
Readers need to not reject a story because the lead happens to be bi or pansexual, rather than a lesbian. Readers need to not expect steamy sex scenes just because the story is labelled “lesbian.”
Authors need to not be afraid to tell stories that break the rules of the genre. Our voices are unique and strong, and it is only if we decide to challenge this notion together that we can change the realities of the genre.
Copyright picture above: pixabay/mohamed hassan
Ellen Simpson, author of The Light of the World and A Heist Story is also story editor and social media writer for the popular web series, Carmilla. Connect with Ellen on Twitter.
April 2018 is “Celebrate Lesbian Fiction” theme month at Ylva Publishing. And we’re inviting readers to share the party, too. That’s why our eight top best sellers for 2017 are on sale now: www.ylva-publishing.com/
My understanding is that lesbian doesn’t mean a happy ending, but romance does. If it’s not presented as a romance there shouldn’t be any expectation of a happy ending. And as a person who really wants to read lesbian fiction, I want the tag. But I also want other tags with it. I want variety, I just don’t want surprise penises. lol Considering how well Jae adds variety to her romance books, I don’t think it’s an automatic. Perhaps it’s up to other writers and publishers (since Ylva already makes this effort) to create more variety. Readers will usually go along with it when done well. 🙂
I do understand the need to have non-queer people reading queer lit, and I don’t know how to balance that in a physical bookstore. But, in the time of electronic bookstores, it should be easier to have crossover categories. Perhaps there is a way to make it more affordable to promote in other categories? Then again, it seems it’s the straight people who are resisting reading queer lit. Straight women stick to gay stories, but don’t want to read lesbian stories. It’s interesting and odd to me. But, then again, I don’t read stories with gay men as the main characters either.
I don’t know the solution, clearly. 🙂
Ohhh holy shit. This is excellent. I agree with everything u said. I had the same issue with my last book. I’ve been thinking of getting T-shirts with its not a romance written on them. We write fiction, we write romance, mysteries, and sci-fi and so on. So, just let us write.
Very thought provoking article with so many excellent points! Lesbian Fiction. It just has to do so much because it represents so much and it means so much. Its job is never done but its job can’t always be done the same way.
Sometimes the writing process and/or the writing market can seem like a catch-22 for writers. Readers ask for refreshing & new stories but then sometimes outcry when things are too different & too new. Writers want to push the envelop on genre conventions, but then feel like omitting or pushing the boundary on too many genre elements will sour the endeavor of writing a story or lead to sales slumps. So, we see a lot of established trope presentation in fiction overall, which is not inherently bad, or even bad period—unless written poorly or bad tropes are used—because you can always do something different or refreshing with the good tropes, like Friends-To-Lovers. Sometimes the best thing to do is write the book that’s inside of your head, do so with honesty and commitment to your characters and the stories they inhabit, and do that with respect to a reader’s intelligence while writing with the overall goal of making sure things are not boring, and then hope for the best and market your novel! Tall order, that there.
As a avid reader, here are my little thoughts and opinions on the excellent points you’ve made… and, I am so sorry this is essay length. I blame it on the combination of you writing a great, sorely needed article and me liking the sounds that the keys on my new keyboard make when I type out comments, lol.
Point: The First Rule of Lesbian Fiction… You Must Only Write Happy Stories
Personally, I think this should apply only to Romance, regardless if it’s lesbian romance or not. The RWA defines the two key components of a Romance novel as: 1) a Love Story Is Central to the novel, so folks falling in love and facing the issues that crop up when folks fall in love, and 2) the story has a HEA (happily ever after) or a HFN (happy for now) ending, otherwise known as an optimistic ending. Having those two things is just the easiest, most effective way to satisfy a romance reader when it comes to the content and ending of your romance book. So, Romance… those two conditions met in whatever way you want to meet them. Wish fulfillment is one reason some people read books. It just is. Should it be? Yes, but not the only reason. But, really, that is for the reader to decide once a book is published. Authors may write a book for a reason, readers may read that book for a different reason.
Could an author not have one of those happy endings in a Romance novel and still call it a Romance? Sure, it’s the author’s novel. Just realize that’s not how some romance readers will view the novel, if it’s listed as only a romance. If there are still romantic elements in the book but no optimistic ending (lets face it, most romance readers view optimistic as having a HEA/HFN ending) and the author lists the book as only Lesbian Romance, then she’s stacking a whole lotta bricks in a haphazard, Jenga-like way against positive reviews and sales, and one can bet the farm that some dedicated but disgruntled romance readers will pull out the most precariously stacked bricks, sending efforts crashing down on Goodreads, Amazon, and BookTube (YouTube reviewers) by posting bad reviews/engaging in bad word of mouth, affecting sales or buzz. Because the optimistic ending has been the industry standard (read: reader expectation) for ages when it comes to Romance. It’s a pigeonholing reality, but negative/highly critical reviews abound and money is lost when that genre expectation isn’t touched upon or met in some way. Is that fair? Well, if things were fair, then lesbian fiction wouldn’t be a ‘niche market’ but part and parcel to the mainstream market. The unfortunate (and sometimes fortunate) part of writing is that readers expect things that writers can or can’t deliver, for whatever reason.
In an ideal world, readers would realize that Lesbian Fiction encompasses more than just Romance fiction—and for sure isn’t always erotica—and that happy, romantic endings need not be the end-all to every single lesbian story ever told. Happy endings don’t even need to be about the romance! Heck, the happy ending could be one where the all-female space crew finally reaches a planet that can sustain life after years spent searching for one and barely escaping a murderous, tyrannical empire in the process. For a SciFi novel, that is definitely a (satisfying) happy ending, even when your two lesbian lady leads end up not staying together after doing the do and declaring their love for each other. I for sure would not label that book only a romance on Amazon. I’d do so at the peril of alienating romance readers. But, even though there are romantic elements, I’d still consider it Lesbian SciFi. But, that’s me.
Another reader might think the “lesbian” part means happy ever after romance and the ‘SciFi’ part is just how the ladies get together (read: in Space instead of in Provincetown). Some people’s minds simply won’t change no matter how definitively you spell out your categories. Because, yeah, you’re right: “Lesbian” is loaded with expectations. So, a writer could either stick with her guns and just label it Lesbian SciFi or add that Romance tag too and have a lesbian couple in the novel. Not the main ladies but lesbian ladies in the crew who get substantial “screen time” and who have a HFN or HEA. And, the writer would also write as enthralling a SciFi story as can be written by her so that the main ladies not staying together is not a death note (read: those SciFi elements are where the writer aimed to ‘wow’ the reader and the love stuff is secondary but important). I mean, why can mainstream genre fiction do that but not Lesbian fiction? Star Wars is not about Leia and Han getting together. Not one bit. It just happens that they do. And that it leads to Keylo Ren.
Again ideally, readers would realize that, like every other category of fiction, Lesbian fiction comes in different flavors: Romance, Thriller, Fantasy, SciFi, Mystery, Horror and more… and within those categories you have variation such as a SciFi Lesbian novel that has huge or not-so-huge Mystery or Romantic threads but not a super happy ending. Or with a super happy ending. Your have the Romantic Thriller were the thriller aspects dominate, and your lead lady detective can romance a woman who leaves her at the end due to some sort of incompatibility (work, ideals, whatever), but you are left with some indication that your detective is better for having loved and has grown and is trying to get her love life sorted and then there’s the perfect lady for her in the sequel.
Lesbian Fiction, as a giant umbrella category, absolutely does not need to have typical happy endings. In fact, if the happy ending isn’t organic to the story, something like a non paranormal Lesbian Horror novel where the love interest turns out to be at fault for the horrific murders, then a forced happy ending where this murderous lady is the ‘ideal’ woman for your bakery-owning sweet lady lead will stick out as hot garbage nonsense. Endings should be organic to the story.
Point: Breaking Free of Cookie Cutter Stories
Yes. Yes. Yes. And more yes. Writers should write the stories they want to write and have the type of representation in their stories that they’ve dreamed of having and even ones that readers say are not being offered to them (such as POC or asexual leads). For certain. Yes, yes, yes, please. The world needs more stories that tell All The Truths. That have characters living All. The. Truths. That tell more than one type of lesbian story. That tell coming out stories and already being out stories. That show the mess of life and the effort to clean what can be cleaned up and that show what can’t be neatly wrapped up or cleaned up at all. That show someone not having it all together and someone trying to get to there. Real life. Yes. But also beyond it.
A writer is not just writing for an audience of one, herself. Well, yes you are when you’re writing the novel. A writer is the first reader. You are writing the novel you think the world needs and that you for sure need to write. But, you’re not the only reader when you release the novel to the world AND want it to see it sell. Ideally, stories resonate with others. And, for sure if you write real stories and real representation and interesting stories and fantastical stories and funny stories and sad stories, they will resonate with the readers who are eager to see such stories on the page. Markets evolve either by supply or demand push-and-pulls, but usually when that supply and demand reaches a sweet spot is when you hit that bestseller list or that coveted 4 star and above average on Goodreads and Amazon. Writers push the boundaries or not, but readers embrace the pushing or not.
But, you are absolutely right that writers should not be constrained to the same ole same ole. Oh, G-d, how this is so true. It’s the 2010’s and we’re just now getting Young Adult Fantasy novels where the little kid with magic who’s fighting demons is a Latinx girl (the novel “Shadowshaper”) or the superheroine fighting the bad guys is a Black lesbian (the show “Black Lightening” and the novel “Shattered”). Writers made that happen. Readers out there wanted to read it. Write, write, write!
Still, here’s that catch-22 thing rearing its ugly head, there are expectations to a book read. Genre conventions that are expected, in the loosest sense, like: a mystery novel gotta have a mystery to solve and that mystery betta be solved by the end of the novel. I think, as long as you hit expected beats that move the plot in terms of making the story flow in a non-boring manner, like “a murder happens in a murder mystery,” you have room to change up elements so things are not so formulaic, “this time the murderer is a well-liked classmate.” So, if you’re writing a fantasy with witches, I expect to see witches. I’d say that I’d even expect to see spells, and I’d expect to see your witches doing something interesting because of something that happened to them or something they made happen. And, their spells or someone else’s spells are involved—because hundreds of years of witch stories have conditioned that expectation when it comes to witch stories, but… your magic system doesn’t have to be built around casting spells with wands! They manipulate elements like in Avatar! I get my witch story, but I also get YOUR witch story.
Thing is, I’d argue that stories really, in their bare essence, just need a Beginning, Middle and End that flow from each other in a cause-and-effect manner so that things aren’t episodic and unrelated and boring. I think, you don’t need to break the mold with overall structure or even some genre conventions to make a great story, you just need to not be boring and to bring some different elements to your novel. The easiest way to do this is to create three dimensional characters who have understandable motivations. Did JK Rowling invent the boy wizard who went to wizard school and who had to beat the bad wizard guy? Nope. But she did invent HARRY POTTER who went to HOGWARTS and who had to beat VOLDEMORT.
Catch-22 thing again, readers expect certain tropes with certain genres. Writers writing to SELL should expect that readers look for tropes/certain story beats explored in ‘new’ ways. Most importantly, explored in not boring ways. (Doesn’t even need to be ‘new,’ just not boring, lol. Boring is the worst you can give a reader no matter why or how you wrote the book). But, don’t give the tropes to them in exactly the way that is expected or that has been seen in your genre since time immemorial. Look at the recent crop of Fake Relationship trope books that have been released in the Lesbian Romance category this year alone. Same ole trope, a dozen different ways it was explored. Some were hard hitters and others rom-com. The cookie cutter mold is not the biggest problem, per se, it’s turning out cookies that never have tasty ingredients or that don’t even come out the oven baked to any degree.
A book is basically a promise to the reader, which I think is: this book won’t be boring.
But, most genre readers see that promise as meaning you’ll give them the same thing but different within that genre. James Patterson definitely has thriller fans who expect thriller books with thriller genre endings (read: somebody, usually the bad guy, loses big; like they die). Nora Roberts and her romances, bet for sure they have happy endings (yes… yes they do). Not saying those two writers are the be-all-end-all to their respective genres, or that anyone wishing to be successful must follow anyone else. Just saying they both have over 200 novels under their belts (grade the quality how you will) and still top best sellers list today (co-writers included), so writing TO genre is not inherently bad unless you bore the reader.
I personally think this is where Lesbian Fiction shines, because the top writers in Lesbian Fiction take those cookie cutter molds and bake the hell out of a good book that gives us WOMEN who DO more. WOMEN who ARE more. Books that are MORE.
Point: Different, Messy, Unlikable
Releasing a novel to the world is a huge gamble. Because, readers.
So, writers should write the best stores that they can write and stories that only they can write. They absolutely should.
Believe it or not, someone needs a differently told story that might even touch upon the familiar. They absolutely do.
We have “Lord of the Rings” and “A Game of Thrones” as continuous international best sellers that are enmeshed in mainstream culture consciousness. One ring or throne to rule them all.
We have “Just For Show” and “Casting Lacey” in the top 50 Lesbian Fiction on Amazon. Fake Relationship, anyone?
And, for sure good marketing helps readers find books. And supportive publishing houses help readers find books. And the right categories help readers find books. And reviews. And awards. And book tours. And giveaways. And podcasts. A vlogs. And blogs. And conventions. And newsletters. And all the things that can bring your book to life by being in someone else’s hands.
And, yes, this means sometimes you do that with books that have characters who are not oodles and oodles of Pollyanna sweetness. Does anyone think Thomas Harris intended for Hannibal Lector to be some standard of an ideal man in society? But, gosh, oh gosh, is Hannibal Lector one scary interesting character, and therefore his character is in the mainstream consciousness. With many imitators.
Your unlikable leads should be interesting. Not even always redeemable. Interesting. As in they do things. They affect the plot. They have motivations. They want things. They go after things. They throw giant roadblocks up everywhere. They break down walls. They may even think they’re right and everyone else is wrong. And they’re wrong. But they’re kinetic.
And, if they are unlikable leads that you want us to identify with, then, yes, they should have some believably redeemable quality or be super competent at something not horrible and possibly change somehow but not in a cartoonish 180 degree turn. Say, your leading lady drops F-bombs galore on her colleagues when they get on her nerves and she throw pens at walls when she’s mad but she loves her pet hamster Coco and she can solve complex math equations that bring the heroes and her best lady friend’s spaceship back to the planet J78-Prime-Beehive-8 without them burning up on re-entry into that planet’s atmosphere. That lady there… yeah, she’s KINETIC. She’s affecting things. She’s moving the plot along. She’s highly competent. She may even find love with her best lady friend. Whose life she saved. And still keep throwing pens at walls even after she finds love. With some f-bombs for good measure. A character that jumps off the page even though she’s done a lot of that by raking nails down chalkboards. Kinetic.
So, I guess what I’m saying here is simply another take on that famous “Field of Dreams” line: “Build it (not boring) and they (the readers) will come.”
Point: The Double-Edged Sword of the Lesbian Label
Yeah, geez… this is the motherloade of all Catch-22s, ain’t it!
You need the Lesbian label to have a book with lesbians in it be found. But the Lesbian label carries certain expectations with it. And it even contains exclusions of other queer characters and their stories. Remember the debate still rages on about whether or not a “bisexual lady-loving-a-lesbian lady” story that mentions or shows how the bisexual lady loved a man is Lesbian Fiction or not. Sadly, that bi-erasure has to be on the page for some readers of lesbian fiction to view the relationship as lesbian. So, bi rep gets buried under that label and the stories of bi women who fall in love with lesbians become points of debate through the confines and genre expectations of a label that is the most readily available and most highly visible one for garnering attention for stories where a lesbian falls in love. Or even the debate about whether or not WLW or “LGBT+” is the ‘proper’ label for such stories. And the problem with wlw as a label since it’s not the way Amazon or Goodreads categorizes stories. So much to unpack from or pack into a label!
I still say, write a non-boring book. Give it to the world. You know, the best version that had all the beta reader love and all the editor edit love, and hope for the readers and try to reach them thru things like newsletters. You absolutely can’t please everyone. You shouldn’t even try because, oh gosh, that will be a mess of a book filled with all the tropes ever and still will not make everyone happy but possibly a ton of people mad.
I mean, Harry Potter made JK Rowling the only billionaire alive who made her billions from writing a book property (that branched off into many things). So, yeah, many millions of folks loved her books and the things based on them and not even she escaped people banning Harry Potter books from places and protests over the books and negative reviews for the books. It’s just not possible to be all things to all people.
I’m not even going to pretend to have a fix for the double-sided sword issue.
But, yeah… just try to write non-boring books and hope for the best (and market it and things of that ilk).
And, most importantly, don’t stop writing. Don’t settle for letting your voices and your stories go unheard.
Definitely not a cure. But, ways to fight.
Point: Changing Expectations
I think the only side of the equation that writers and publishers control to a degree is the output of books. Ultimately, readers will read what they want to read. Yes, readers need not automatically reject the books labeled Lesbian that have bi and pan characters, but they still might do so. Authors and publishers have no control over that, but at the end of the day, they should not stop trying to gain more readers or tell more stories. Readers need writers to write those bi and pan and POC and people with disability queer stories and more. Because those stories need to be told. Because there are readers who want those stories and readers who may discover down the line that they want those stories. Who now demand or will come to demand those stories. Humankind is made richer by those stories.
So, yes, by releasing the stories that you want to tell as authors and as publishing houses, those stories will reach the vocal & loyal reader base and hopefully much beyond that usual reader base too. Just don’t stop writing. Authors don’t need readers permission to write (see: All of fanfiction). So, write. Write. Write. But readers need authors for stories/books. So, write. Write. Write.
Sorry if what I wrote above makes anyone’s eyeballs hurt. And, I certainly never mean to offend.
It’s like 3K+ words of my mind vomits. Sheesh, lol.
I just enjoy Ylva’s blog, and the latest crop of articles have all been thought-provoking and inspirational and important. Don’t mean to preach or act like I know everything. I just love to read, and these were just my opinions, sparked by a great article.
[…] few weeks ago, Ellen Simpson wrote a brilliant piece about our preconceptions of lesbian fiction—what it is we expect, and what it is we want from […]
I totally agree with this article! I’ve written novels that have other important characters and may do a chapter on the other characters and develop them within the primary story. In one novel about WWII I needed to develop the training team for my heroine and have a subplot that includes the transition of the men around her as they’re challenged by stereotypes of women in the 1930’s-40’s. Eventually she does have encounters with women, and reunites with an old love – but she’s supported by the cast of characters who are also interesting. Two of my Beta’s love them and say the novels are different from the same ole lesbian books – girl meets girl, falls in love.
However, it seems publishers want the books totally focused on the women. Our lesbian experience isn’t just about romance and does include others in our lives.
Thanks for the article – possibly it will change!
I see where you’re coming from but some parts i disagree with. As a lesbian/queer author myself, I do like to have queer sections in the bookstores. In my opinion, blending in means not just getting recognized but also losing space. For example, if you don’t have gay bars anymore, all bars become straight bars. I believe there is merit to labeling books as queer. That way queer people find them. That’s why I think it’s good that bookstores tell me where to find the books that I want to read. But I do see this is a double edged sword as you wrote.
In did see some of what you said about happy ending expectations after my first book. There were alot of expectations from the community. But in a broader sense I think there are vastly more sad and unhappy stories about the lgbt community than happy ones.
“Lesbian means romance and happy endings, it means stories about lesbians at the expense of bi- and pansexuality. It ignores the asexual and transgender experiences of queer women.” This i really don’t get. Why do lesbian stories mean pan and bi erasure? If I tell a story about lesbians, why does it mean the erasure of other sexualities? If I was to insult or misrepresent bi or pan people then I would get it but simply writing about lesbians does not mean the erasure of anything in my opinion.
That is a huge burden you put on a lesbian story: that it should represent bi, pan and asexual people aswell to be okay. I don’t believe it should.
People should write about different queer experiences, good or bad, authentically. I think that is the most important thing.
[…] a romance. Although labeling a book “lesbian” or “sapphic” often comes with certain expectations, sapphic fiction can be any […]