Finding a New Definition for Crossover in Gay and Lesbian Publishing at BEA

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Gay and lesbian publishing has come a long way in recent years. Now, more then ever, referring to a title as a gay and/or lesbian book is often an inadequate description, just as someone’s gay or lesbian identity doesn’t fully define who he or she is. Consider what Dan Cullinane, marketing manager of Alyson Publications, had to say at this year’s BookExpo America at the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York City: "What we’re aiming for are books that have gay and lesbian content, but aren’t limited in any way, shape, or form to that market. That’s what crossover truly means to us, and I think that’s the difference [in recent books]. Having gay and lesbian content isn’t enough anymore. It’s much more about ‘this is what people really want to read.’"

A major title on Alyson’s spring list is The End of Innocence: A Memoir by Chastity Bono, the lesbian daughter of Sonny and Cher. It’s a strong example of a book that falls into the gay/lesbian category, as it deals with Bono’s early coming-out years. "She was traumatically outed by the tabloids at a time when she was struggling, trying to get a music career off the ground, and dealing with the death of her first lover. It’s very personal and deeply moving," said Cullinane. And it doesn’t just appeal to gays and lesbians, he stressed.

For many readers, the same will be true of Alyson’s Screening Party by Dennis Hensley, due in September. "It’s part novel and part film guide," Cullinane said. "Hensley gets together with a bunch of friends, and they watch movies and talk about them like it’s Mystery Science Theater 3000, yet with non-science fiction films and a gay sensibility." And while many fans of director John Waters know he’s gay, many don’t, or don’t even care. Filthy Waters is about Water’s "cultural significance," the marketing manager continued. "It deals with how his films came into being. It has interviews with his really wacked-out, obsessive fans, the craziest fans known to man, and with stars he’s worked with."

The way Cleis Press, which concentrates in lesbian publishing, operates also proves that the genre has been broadening -- as well as fine-tuning -- its scope. "The first thing that comes to my mind is that lesbian readers have gotten quite sophisticated," said Publisher Felice Newman. "It’s not enough that there’s a character in a book who’s lesbian, or is coming out, or what have you. Cleis’s readers are more interested in complexity than waving a banner; so our literature has gotten more complex, and more interesting."

This reality is exemplified by Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual African American Fiction, due in June. "If there was a Norton Anthology of black gay lit, this would be it," Newman said. Another key Cleis title that’s bound to reach a broad readership is Melymbrosia, Virginia Woolf’s long-lost first novel. "The editor, Louise DeSalvo, spent seven years piecing together manuscripts to come up with this finished one," Newman explained, while clutching the book proudly.

In recent years, the number of presses devoted to gay and lesbian publishing has dwindled. It’s a reality that mirrors the fact that gay and lesbian bookstores, which often serve as community centers, are diminishing in number as well. Still, plenty of publishers -- many of them indies focusing on literary, feminist, and social-issue books -- are helping to keep the genre alive and kicking. Graywolf Press is certainly one of them. Two major titles from Graywolf are Avoidance by Michael Lowenthal, which is set between a boys’ summer camp in Vermont and the Amish communities of Pennsylvania, and Famous Builder, in which author Paul Lisicky talks about growing up in southern New Jersey. "It’s humorous, charming, and smart," said Graywolf Marketing Director Janna Rademacher.

Over at the City Lights Publishers booth, Associate Publisher Elaine Katzenberger spoke about Insurgent Muse: Life and Art at the Woman’s Building by Terry Wolverton, slated for August. "It has a lot to do with lesbian art aesthetics," Katzenberger noted. "It deals with a time when women were first actually identifying openly as lesbians, but when it was still dicey to do it. They were trying to desexualize an idea of lesbianism because up until then, what had been promolgated was this sort of evil, hypersexed image -- that lesbians were some sort of aberrant beings. So, the art they made had more to do with political issues and also basic feminine ones. They weren’t emphasizing sexuality, although they were openly declaring themselves as lesbian artists, not just with visual art but with writing and film too."

The Feminist Press, another house known for its exceptional lesbian-related titles, was showcasing its revised and expanded edition of I Dwell in Possibility: A Memoir by Toni McNaron, due in November. The book, first published in 1992, depicts the author’s encounters with racism alongside her struggles with gender identity and sexuality. "She grew up in the South and witnessed ‘Bull’ Connor’s enforcement of Jim Crow laws. And she was one of the first lesbian academics [a professor at the University of Minnesota] to come out," said Marketing and Publicity Associate Heather McMaster.

Another press, Spinster’s Ink, also had a classic reissue on hand: Wanderground: Stories of Hill Women by Sally Miller Gearhart. "It’s the quintessential lesbian science fiction/fantasy book of all-time," Spinster’s Editor Sharon Silvas declared. "We also publish her Earthkeep series. She’s an icon of lesbian literature." Other key titles for Spinster’s are the novel The Elegant Gathering of White Snows by Kris Radish and Night Diving by Michelene Esposito, a coming-out, coming-of-age story due in the fall.

These days, mainstream presses also champion gay and lesbian publishing, of course, and one of them is independently owned Kensington Publishing. To give you an idea of how important this category is for Kensington, check out a recent catalog, which bills the press as "today’s leader in gay and lesbian publishing." At the show, Editorial Director John Scognamiglio recounted how the house’s gay and lesbian program was initiated. "A gay mystery was submitted to me, I liked it, I brought it up at an editorial meeting, and I got the green light to buy it," he said. "Then, a couple months later, I was having lunch with an agent -- this was when The Rules was really hot -- and she said, ‘I have a proposal for a gay version of The Rules, called The Principles: The Gay Man’s Guide to Getting (And Keeping) Mr. Right.’ I liked the proposal, and I got the green light to buy it."

While working with The Principles’ author, Orland Outland, Scognamiglio asked Outland if he wanted to write a novel. "I loved commercial fiction, escape reading, that’s what I wanted to publish," he said. That novel, Every Man for Himself, is "a fun, playful package. The book did very well, and I started telling agents ‘I’m looking for gay and lesbian fiction.’ The books and manuscripts started coming in."

Much of the success of Kensington’s gay and lesbian program is due to Publisher Laurie Parkin. "She used to work at Penguin, and she knew that gay and lesbian books sold very well, and, when she came over to us in 1999, she said, ‘You can buy as much as you want for this. We just don’t have to publish these books in June.’ Because when we started the program, we would do a book every month for Gay Pride month [in June]. Laurie said that ‘gays and lesbians buy books all year round.’" Many booksellers Scognamiglio has met at trade shows appreciate the escape factor inherent in Kensington titles. "But every so often, we’ll do something a little more literary, like World of Normal Boys [a backlist title], which I pitched as The Ice Storm meets Ordinary People with a gay twist."

At BEA, a number of distributors were just as happy as their publisher clients to discuss titles. At Distributed Art Publishers (D.A.P.), Publicity Director Alexander Galan was very optimistic about the prospects for Some of Us Have to Get Up in the Morning: Stories by Daniel Scott. "It’s almost post-gay," he revealed. "He doesn’t write his stories as gay stories, yet it appeals to a gay audience. You buy this book if you like good writing." -- Jeff Perlah