If anyone’s told you lately that the novel is dead, they haven’t been taking the pulse of LGBTQ fiction, which is not only alive but keeping some of the most isolated members of the community alive by offering them a connection. It brings them the news.
The cost of isolation is painfully visible in Patrick Gale’s novel Mother’s Boy, about the poet Charles Causley, who was born in 1917 and lived most of his life in Launceston, Cornwall. It isn’t helpful to talk about whether Causeley was or wasn’t gay, Gale has said. The category wasn’t available to him. As Gale presents him, he sees himself an outsider, fully at home nowhere – a man without community.
When my partner first came out, in those isolating years before Stonewall, the novels she found were pulp fiction, with seedy covers, seedy titles, and for the most part seedy writing. Ask Lord Google about them and he’ll lead you to the likes of Women in the Shadows, Women’s Barracks, Strange Sisters… Oh, hell, I could go on, and it’s hard not to make fun of them, but the news they carried was hard to find back then and it mattered. Not many other channels carried it, and I owe them some respect, even if it’s not unmixed.
I came out after Stonewall and the first lesbian novel I read was Isabel Miller’s Patience and Sarah. Even though by then an entire lesbian community was within easy reach, it still brought me the news that I wasn’t alone. It’s true that I already knew that, but it was news all the same. It spoke directly to my (overcharged and still isolated) emotions. It’s the only book I ever remember hugging.
In Terry Wolverton’s introduction to Hers3, her 1999 anthology of lesbian fiction, she writes about asking a friend, ‘What do you want to hear about the state of lesbian fiction today?’
‘Just that people are still writing it,’ her friend answers.
They still are – we still are – and these days readers can find a range that stretches from literary novels to genre fiction, from stories that keep a tight focus on relationships to those that take a wide-angle look at how we live in the world. It’s that wide-angle look that draws me most strongly.
Emma Donoghue’s riveting The Pull of the Stars, for example, turns to same-sex attraction only in the final pages, and with the lightest touch, closing a circle that by then is crying out to be closed. But her characters engage with the full range of their world – the flu epidemic, the stifling hand of the Church in Ireland, the demands of nursing at a time when medicine had so little to offer.
Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience takes us into the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, where people who are attracted to the wrong sex hide the knowledge from themselves as best they can and where the question How are we to live? is answered by rule and law and tradition, not by individual desire and choice.
In both books, attraction is powerful but it doesn’t drive the story. The characters; lives are made up of multiple layers, and their stories speak to the LGBTQ community but also to the rest of the world. These are our stories, and we need them, but they are also your stories, whoever you are. We are all human.