What Is Lesbian Literature?


Hi! My name is Danika, and today, as always, I want to talk about lesbian literature. You might already know that I run a queer women book blog called the Lesbrary and a tumblr called Fuck Yeah Lesbian Literature, which is kind of its counterpart. I have a Patreon for these, and it has recently reached its hundred dollar goal, which is very exciting, because it means that I get to start my Lesbian Literature 101 series. I’ve been wanting to do this project for such a long time, because basically I want to do a self-directed master’s degree on this topic. I want to do tons of research: I want to read all of the lesbian literary criticism that I can get my hands on, I want to read tons of queer women classic books, and then I want to distill all of that information into posts, into blogs, into lists and videos, and make it really accessible. I want to create a giant timeline of all the queer woman lit that we know about (at least, before the 90s). The problem is that I’ve never had the time to do it. I mean, I do have a day job; I work four to five days a week. And then I spend most of my free time doing Lesbian Link Round Ups, blogs, lists, reviews, trying to catch up with emails… All kinds of miscellaneous online minutiae. But Patreon has meant that I can carve out a little bit of time for this passion project. I have a really great, flexible day job, which means that I can cut back a little bit there and spend some more time on research. I am very, very excited to get started, and I am also totally overwhelmed. This is a huge subject, and I want to do it justice. I want queer woman to be able to see this thread that stretches through history, this proof that we’ve always existed! But before officially starting the Lesbian Literature 101 series, I wanted to address some of the difficulties and technicalities of dealing with this subject. I talked about this in my “What Was the First Lesbian Book?” video, which I’ll the link below. The big question I have to address first is: what is lesbian literature? Lesbian is a term that’s changed throughout time, and it’s a label that’s pretty recent. Even the concept of a sexual orientation is fairly new. In Victorian England there was this concept of the “invert,” which basically just collapsed gender identity and sexual identity: if a woman slept with a woman, it meant that she was “acting as a man” that her gender was “inverted.” There was no differentiation between trans people and gay people—they were all just lumped under this same medical label. And before that, men who slept with men, or women who fell in love with women, or anyone who defined* (*DEFIED) gender roles wasn’t really discreetly categorized. They would be condemned for those actions, but they were /actions/, unconnected to any inherent state of being. So not only is the word lesbian new, but so is the concept. That’s part of what makes it so hard to talk about queer people in the past. Which can lead some people to erasing queer history, and other people to forcing historical figures into modern identity boxes. I think Emma Donoghue said it best in a footnote to her Inseparable: Desire Between Women In Literature. She said, “In the ongoing controversy known as essentialism vs social constructionism, both extremes seem to me to verge on silliness. ‘Joan of Arc was a dyke’ versus ‘Lesbianism was invented in the 19th century’.” My priority is making the history of queer women lit more accessible, so basically the rule I’ve been using is that I will broaden my definition of lesbian literature as we reach further back in time and then narrow it for the modern era. I think it’s important to talk about queer subtext in Shakespeare, because it allows us access to those time periods that queer people have been written out of. It opens doors that we assumed were barred to us. It’s completely different from gay subtext that’s written in the 21st century, which just isn’t significant when compared to canon work that exists at the same time. Which isn’t to say that queering pop culture doesn’t have its place, it’s just not something I want to tackle it in this Lesbian Literature 101 series. So I’ll talk about homophobic depictions of lesbians in 1950s pulp, because I think that’s an important part of history, and I’ll talk about monstrous depictions of bisexual women, and pornographic stories about queer women that existed centuries before a Radclyffe Hall picked up a pen. Even if they’re awful, they’re part of this ongoing story. And what’s more, it’s amazing what kind of meaning that queer women have found even in these scraps of representation. Queer women have drawn power from the story of a lesbian vampire and found her sympathetic as well. Queer women created networks of support around lesbian pulp despite the homophobia in it. I think there’s value in the very flawed—and even hateful—depictions of queer women throughout time, because queer women have often not been shown as existing at all historically. So that’s what I’ve settled on as a guiding principle in the Lesbian Literature 101 series. I’m sort of adopting Emma Donoghue’s definition of passion between women in literature, and I’m casting that net as widely as possible when it comes to historical writing, and making it a little more narrow and more modernly defined as we get closer to the current time period. I’ll be doing the same thing with my definition of “literature”: I’ll include diaries and letters when we’re talking about historical queer women, but I will probably just focus on published works when I’m talking about more modern ones. I’m also using the word “lesbian” for “lesbian literature” because it’s the easiest and most common word to use. It’s much easier to research than, say, “women- loving-women books” or “sapphic books,” but I will be including all women who are sexually and/or romantically attracted to women. After all it’s hard enough to dig up depictions of women loving women in history without then trying to subdivide them. Especially when you’re talking about figures that we know very little about, like Sappho, or fictional characters. Let me know in the comments below what your thoughts are about the definition of lesbian literature and about uncovering queer history, and thank you for watching! hi

7 thoughts on “What Is Lesbian Literature?

  1. I really wish I could support the lesbian lit 101 project with money 😞 but I can't so I'll support it as much as I can otherwise. It sounds awesome! I'm really new to lesbian literature and I am so excited to learn more 💕

  2. Yay I am so glad you are finally able to start on this project! I know so many people (including me!) are going to love following you along and learning about all the research you are doing.

  3. omg this is exactly what i do at home! i write my own essays and reports on it and find it fascinating to read all these books and the vast array of texts that actually exist. i will warn you that i find it very difficult to actually find out if the text counts sometimes (such as tove janssons moominland midwinter as it alludes to toves love for her gf). i also totally agree with the text/political figures being put in boxes (such as queen christina in movies). have you read "surpassing the love of men"? i found it really helpful for finding text, aswell as "the Cambridge companionship to lesbian literature" which is more modern in its definitions of lesbianism. good luck! i will definitely be watching! ❤

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