I’ve been musing over the labels we give books, especially labels in sales lists: ‘Gay Books’, ‘Lesbian Books’, ‘GLBT Books’. I’ve been wondering if everyone has the same understanding of these labels, exactly, and whether they are an entirely good, helpful thing, or have the potential to be negative in some way. I’d like to know what people think.
I’ve been scanning several ‘genre lists’ and in one alphabetical list ‘Gay and Lesbian’ found its place between ‘Dark Fantasy’ and ‘General Fiction’. So, I thought, when does a book become ‘Gay and Lesbian’ as opposed to ‘Dark Fantasy’? What if a ‘Dark Fantasy’ book has gay central characters? What if the story is quite general, but has a lesbian character in it? What if a bookseller decides it only just pops up when someone searches for ‘Gay’ or ‘Lesbian’ books?
I scanned the same genre list for ‘Heterosexual’ – it wasn’t there, of course. So this list could lead some to think that 31 of the 32 genres (from Action & Adventure to Young Adult) do not include gay or lesbian central characters. To be honest, if I was just starting out as a gay teen reader, I’d feel a bit fed up about that. My greedy eye would scan ‘Horror’ and ‘Erotica’ and I’d think: those look exciting, why aren’t they for me? Authors might also feel a bit fed up too – if a fair-minded writer has a strong gay character in a Dark Fantasy book, I think they’d worry if it was slotted exclusively under ‘Gay’ or ‘Fantasy’.
So, a genre list is an example of how labels can make people feel sidelined or excluded – even labels that set out to empower and guide vulnerable groups. Of course, it is essential for people to be able to locate books with GLBT characters because there are sadly so few – but do the books have to carry such an exclusive label on sales lists?
I completely agreed with Sarah Diemer’s post that more straight people should read books that contain gay characters. But will they, if we put the ‘Gay and Lesbian’ stamp on them? Let’s be honest: how many non-LGBTQ people would buy a book like Fifty Gay Lesbian Books Everybody Must Read. I hope masses do. But I’m not sure that, in reality . . .
Politically, of course, it’s important to fly the GLBTQ flag but wouldn’t it be wonderful if GLBTQ characters and themes ran powerfully through the blood of all genres. That way, everyone would get to read them and no one would feel excluded by labels. Wouldn’t it be great if the quality of masses of stories with non-heterosexual characters were so strong that ‘Heterosexual’ replaced ‘Gay and Lesbian’ on that genre list.
Perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps we need to encourage more authors to write quality literature from the perspective of a greater variety of characters – and to not worry about what genre box it will be squeezed into – so their work filters out naturally into the hands of all kinds of readers. I did attempt something along these lines when commissioning ‘Truth & Dare’ (an anthology of short stories). I wanted to gather stories with a wide variety of real-life characters, and not sideline quality or inclusivity for the sake of genre. I don’t know what genre the anthology will fall under other than YA. In fact, I challenge anyone to ‘genre’ it more specifically.
Lots of bloggers gather together lists of books of specific ‘genres’. I’ll finish with a quotation from a blogger’s own ‘gay’ booklist, called ‘The Gay Fiction Booklist That Doesn’t Suck’.
‘The sad thing about gay fiction is that there isn’t enough of it for a reader to be discerning. No matter how shoddy it is, it will end up on gay booklists just to fill up space. And if you try to leave something off because it sucks, people will assume you haven’t read it. As a result, a lot of crap ends up getting recommended on gay booklists.’
Food for thought, eh?
Liz Miles is the editor of the inclusive anthology Truth and Dare. Truth and Dare will be released tomorrow in the UK and is already available in the US.