After the arduous process of submitting our mid-term review packets (including entire manuscript, log line, synopsis, chapter-by-chapter outline, and goals for completion), we are in the home stretch of the Mark. In other words, the end is near. Also on the horizon is our advisor meeting with writer extraordinaire, Samantha Dunn. This means we are going to be crafting our query letters, researching agents and publishers, etc. Inevitably, this part of the process begs the question, “Who will read your novel?” Not to be confused with, “Who(m) do you want to read your novel?”
Although my novel has a lesbian protagonist, I have not considered it a lesbian novel in the way a publisher, editor, or agent would. Yes, I wanted to write a novel reflecting the history of people such as myself (lesbian), but also a novel reflecting of my best efforts at telling a story. It just so happens that the main character is a lesbian. And, yes, I want it to be a “literary” novel because that is my style, my aesthetic, or whatever you want to call it, as a writer. Naively, and as a form of self-protection while writing this novel, I thought my intention to write in a literary way would ensure that it would be received that way. I know this is not true, and it became more evident to me when I read Meg Wolitzer’s fantastic essay in The New York Times, “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women.”
Wolitzer makes a good point for the sexism that exists among writers, critics, and readers of literary fiction: women writers are only read by women readers, while male writers are read by everyone and should be read by everyone. Despite the critical and economic success of many female literary fiction writers, a tacit prejudice surrounds the work once it leaves the writer's hands. Factor in being a lesbian, or any minority for that matter, and the disparity in reception widens. Because I am not a man, my audience has already been reduced, and as a lesbian the audience will be even smaller.
I try not to think about this. I write because I have to and I wrote this novel because it’s the one that had to be written. When I asked the two men involved in the Mark, Al Watt and Carl Peel, if they would pick up my novel in a bookstore and look at it, they replied that they would. I couldn’t help but feel that they said this because answering "no" would have been uncomfortable, and nobody wants bring on an air of discomfort, especially when speaking to someone else’s creative effort.
I struggle with the reality of my novel's fate if it does get published. I like to think it will attract people who like literary fiction. I realize that perhaps the problem in writing a lesbian novel isn’t simply that no one other than lesbians will read it, but that it is not the right social or political moment. As Wolitzer states:
“…some of the most acclaimed female novelists have written unapologetically and authoritatively about women. And the environment needs to be receptive to that authority, recognizing and celebrating it in order for it to catch. It seems no coincidence that some of the most esteemed women writing today — Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Marilynne Robinson — came to prominence at an unusual moment in time when the women’s movement could be felt everywhere.”
I am not comparing myself to these writers, but speaking to the dilemma faced by women writers. It would be wonderful to wake up tomorrow and think that all I have to do is write the best novel I can and the literary gods will usher it on to its glorious destiny. But this would be foolish and ignorant of the fact that my novel faces prejudice not due to its quality but because of who I am and what I choose to write about. Are lesbians the only people that are going to read this novel? Perhaps, but the only thing I can do is to write the truth, whether people are ready to read it or not.