This isn’t so much a review of the book as a discussion of my reaction to it. For what that’s worth. I picked up Romancing the Beat because it was recommended on a podcast for authors who want to analyze what does or doesn’t work in their romance plots. And while I’m content to write books where the romance doesn’t follow a conventional structure, I’m also rather analytical and figured it would be useful to understand what people meant when they talked about “the standard romance novel structure.” I can see how Hayes clearly lays out one of the popular structures for romance novels. And if you want to write that specific type of romance, I think this is a good primer for how to do it.
The problem I have is the author’s insistence that this is the One True Romance Plot. Because it doesn’t work for me as a reader. In fact, in parallel with reading Romancing the Beat, I happened by chance to be reading a historic romance that followed this exact structure. And the points where it most closely followed the prescription were the points where I felt the strongest urge to throw the book across the room. And I love romance, I just don’t love some of the specific story-beats that Hayes treats as a sine-qua-non.
And yet … when I was sorting through the outline of a project that’s moving from random notes and character sketches to actually in-process, I decided to match my plot against the structure Hayes describes, and then see how much tweaking it would take to follow it. I think I got about an 80% match, and I think the story is better for it. (I just left out the parts that drive me crazy, like the bit about how the characters must be completely romantically broken at the start, and how it must be clear that only this particular match can “heal” them, and the specific number of minor crises one must endure before the end.)
So, although I spent most of my read through this book shouting angrily at the author, and I remain in deep disagreement with her premise that this is the One True Way to write romance, I can’t say that I didn’t find the book useful or thought-provoking.
It isn’t necessary to be as much of a language geek as I am to love this book. McCulloch does an excellent job of applying linguistic analysis and principles to the ways the internet has used and changed language, and then explaining it all in an engaging and understandable way for the lay person. If you have ever had a “kids these days!” moment about online language, this book will explain to you why the things you’re complaining about are actually fascinating examples of larger trends in language change that have always been present. She talks about how different “generations” of online experience have different internet “dialects”, and how some of those baffling conventions and understandings arose. Whether you want to be entertained or informed, I recommend Because Internet to everyone. (P.S., Gretchen is also half of the podcast LIngthusiasm which is also great.)
A relatively short Regency novella, with a f/f match that’s a spin-off from an existing m/f series. It’s lovely to see more entries into the f/f Regency field. (Pro tip: there are other ways to make your Regency heroine stand out as non-conforming than to give her scientific interests. I mean, I’m all about the geek girls but it feels like it’s being treated as obligatory.) The story is well-written with engaging characters, though either it was relying on the reader being familiar with the prior books, or it was trying to stuff too many side characters into too few words, because I felt like we were getting the synopsis of several novels’ worth of plot. If, like me, you’re pining for more f/f romances in traditionally popular historic settings, this will be a treat.
(I have a vague recollection of having other, more detailed thoughts about this book, but that's the problem with writing reviews long after finishing.)
Considering what it takes for a book to make it from my TBR list to actually being read, it’s fairly rare for me to choose not to finish a book. Here are two that I closed unfinished.
Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir got a lot of hype as “lesbian necromancers in space” (or maybe that’s “in spaaaaaaace”). Evidently that wasn’t enough for me. I got up to chapter 12 and stopped. I found it impossible to care about any of the characters. Gideon was simply annoying and whiny. And the “in space” setting made no sense whatsoever in terms of physical logistics. The story structure would have made much more sense as a secondary world on a single planet, maybe doing the physical isolation via islands? Instead it was “in spaaaaaaace” and didn’t work at all for me. And, although this isn’t the author’s fault at all, I’m utterly bewildered by the publishing dynamics of which books are promoted as overtly queer and which are left to languish in hints and implications. Gideon gets it, but lots of other books with more central and more implicit queer content don’t. Some day I will give away my gorgeous first-edition, black-deckle-edged hardcover copy of Gideon the Ninth to someone who loved the book and will appreciate it properly.
Merchants of Milan by Edale Lane has a delightful premise: a young woman in early 16th century Italy, using da Vinci-style technology, becomes a masked vigilante seeking revenge for her father’s murder, and along the way finds romance with an aristocratic widow. Unfortunately, both the narrative style and the historic underpinnings failed for me. I wouldn’t have been bothered by the tendency to describe everything in twice as much detail as necessary (we know the exact shade of every character’s eye color) if the focus had felt more aligned with the era of the setting. But that was where I was pushed out of the story. The thoughts, concerns, assumptions, and preoccupations of the characters simply felt too modern to me. In particular, for a sapphic romance, the attitudes of the characters toward sexuality felt out of tune with the cultural setting. For me, one of the joys of reading historical romance is seeing how people negotiate and carve out a happy ending within the specific concerns and constraints of the setting. When both the roadblocks and the solutions rely on 20th century attitudes, I don’t get that joy. Merchants of Milan is the first book in a trilogy, so if you think you might have a more positive reading experience than I did, there’s a lot of story available.
Certain cycles of thought around gender and sexuality seem to recur across history, and different themes sometimes recur in conjunction. Binhammer's study of early feminist thought of the 1790s -- the era of Wolstonecraft's A VIndication of the Rights of Women among other texts -- addressed the question of women's sexuality, and how it seemed to parallel some of the feminist "sex wars" of the later 20th century in fascinating ways. But the most fascinating conclusion (at least, as I synthesize it) is that the main thrust of these radical English proto-feminists boils down to "women can only achieve equality if we can erase gender from human interactions, but the gender we need to erase is 'female'." Much like attitudes toward masculine and feminine under the earlier "one sex" approach to gender, these 18th century feminists coded undesirable traits as feminine and desirable ones as masculine. Thus for a woman to be self-actualized and admirable, she must "become a man" in everything but her sexuality.
It would be easy to deride such views as unenlightened. To note that true gender equality comes from ceasing to assign essential gender to specific personality traits or behaviors. And yet, it's a trap that feminism has fallen into again and again. Another trap we se recurring across centuries of feminist movements is a capitulation to respectability politics. The 1790s feminists dove into the rising tide of bourgeois domestic respectability, either oblivious or indifferent to the fact that "domestic respectability" was the enemy of gender equality. (Nor did embracing domestic virtue as a beacon save them from being derided as sexually undesirable or sexually deviant, even as they joined the mobs attacking non-normative sexuality.)
How does this engage with lesbian history? For one, it's part of the creation of the myth of "sexless" romantic friendship. It points out that there are multiple "lesbian histories" at work in parallel, being assigned to different streams of society and shifting in how they are judged. When creating historic characters, one shouldn't assume that a woman who rejects feminine norms and restrictions will inherently embrace homoerotic desire. At the same time, the character who "isn't like other girls," who rejects traditional femininity as a sign of her rebellion against social norms, and who adopts performative masculinity as a path to personal achivement is very much a part of the fabric of history, even though she sometimes feels anti-feminist to a modern reader. (I'm suddenly getting a character sketch in my head of a wild-eyed radical 1790s feminist being chided by an older woman, "It sounds like you don't actually like women very much, my dear!")
Binhammer, Katherine. 2002. "Thinking Gender with Sexuality in 1790s' Feminist Thought" in Feminist Studies vol 28, no 3. pp. 667-690
Using the springboard of theoretical discourse around feminism and sexuality around the 1980s, Binhammer uses proto-feminist literature of the later 18th century as a lens for how theories of feminism and theories of sexuality intersect and come into conflict. The focus of 1980s feminist rhetoric narrowly on (heterosexual) sexual dynamics as a source of oppression, contributed to the rise of queer theory as the more dynamic field for examining theories of sexuality. But that pendulum-swing in turn led to queer theory discounting the importance of gender within theories of sexuality, and the relevance of how gendered bodies affect sexuality.
Having used more recent debates as a springing-off point, Binhammer turns to the ways gender and sexuality were handled in 1790s feminist literature by authors such as Wollstonecraft, Hays, Macaulay, Robinson, and Wakefield. A key theme of these writers was that “the mind has no gender” and that the supposed differences between the sexes were purely (or at least primarily) social custom and not rooted in biological fact. But the ways in which these principles were argued betrayed underlying assumptions about gender and sexuality that the authors were not equipped to recognize or challenge, especially given the socio-political context in which they arose.
[Note: I’m going to toss in a spoiler at this point, to make sure I don’t forget the thought. Binhammer’s conclusions—though she doesn’t phrase it in these words—is that “the mind has no gender, but the gender that it doesn’t have is ‘female’,.” And although these feminists argued for the right of women to embrace their sexuality, the sexuality they were supposed to embrace was heterosexual procreation within marriage. Equality of the sexes meant the right and responsibility for both men and women to be ‘masculine’ as understood at the time. Undesirable mental and moral traits were labeled “feminine” with no apparent self-awareness of how this undermined the feminist program.]
There were two key social factors that shaped this particular approach to feminism. During the 18th century, there had been a conceptual shift from viewing male and female as relative positions on a sliding scale (the “one sex” model) to viewing male and female as distinct and complementary (the “two sex” model). This raised the question “what did it mean to be a woman, now that she wasn’t simply a ‘lesser man’?” That is, having concluded that women were a “separate species” it was necessary to define what the characteristics of that species were. Having experienced a period of defining “women’s nature,” the 1790s feminists were now challenging the premises and conclusions of that definition.
The second factor was a disillusionment among the intellectual middle class (which was also the class rising in political importance) with the libertine sexuality of the aristocracy. Here Binhammer points out some significant parallels with 1980s feminism. The 18th century feminists are often critiqued, in retrospect, for having conservative anti-sex attitudes that led to the sexual repression attributed to the Victorian era. (Cf., the “sex wars” of later 20th century feminism.)
But Wollstonecraft and her contemporaries were not simplistically “anti-sex.” They were trying to re-envision an empowered feminist sexuality that challenged the embedded misogyny of their times. But they did so in ways that could not escape being strongly gendered. Criticism of 1790s feminists as being “hostile to the desiring female body” overlooks the extensive body of literature they wrote (and lives they lived) in which sympathetic women who embraced sexual desire (and especially sexual desire outside conventional marriage) were unjustly punished, ostracized, or doomed by the unequal status of women under the law, and the unequal judgement of society.
From this arose a critique of both gender and sexuality founded on the following premises. Male sexual appetite (portrayed almost exclusively as aristocratic) was a form of tyranny that had as a goal keeping women in a state of ignorance and helplessness. So long as libertine male sexual appetite is the ruling force in social relations, women’s survival depends on the skills of seduction and attractiveness, rather than cultivation of the mind and spirit. This not only makes women weak with respect to their own lives, but makes them ill-suited to be competent mothers and wives, contributing to the degradation of society in general.
Class politics were as much a force as gender politics in this rhetoric, and to some extent the 1790s feminists were piggy-backing on the revolutionary, anti-aristocratic political movements of the time. By assigning sexual tyranny specifically to aristocratic men [note: and dodging the reality that their revolutionary brothers-in-arms were equally at fault] they argued for the moral superiority of women, and specifically of bourgeois women.
This is one point where the philosophical structure becomes contradictory. “the mind has no gender” and yet women were considered innately more modest than men, by which they meant not that they were devoid of sexual desire, but that women were inherently more able to manage and control their sexual desires. And that this difference arose out of innate differences in the personalities of men and women. As Robinson wrote, “the passions of men originate in sensuality those of women, in sentiment: man loves corporeally, women mentally.” While it’s easy to see how this could be read by modern theorists as being “anti-sex”, the dynamic it arose from is more complicated and has to do with what 1790s feminists meant by “de-sexing” or “un-sexing” women.
By “de-sexing” they mean removing those elements traditionally assigned as “feminine” from the definition of womanhood. Removing the burden of sexual servitude to men and the focus on being sexually attractive, rather than allowing women to exist as rational beings equal to men. When the contemporary critics of thee feminists called them “unsexed,” they meant a variety of things, including “over-sexed, devoted to excessive (heterosexual) desire.” For critics like Richard Polwhele, educated women were to be derided for excess sexuality, not for the prudery they were later accused of.
For Wollstonecraft, in contrast, “unsexed” meant the absence of specific gendered qualities, but only in the context of the mind, not the body. The 1790s feminists did not envision a lack of physical distinction between men and women, nor did they reject the idea that woman’s appropriate goal was motherhood. Indeed, they embraced the idea that the ideal mother would be an “unsexed” woman whose education and virtue, being equal to men, made her better equipped to raise educated and virtuous children. Strip away the expectation for women to exist for the sexual convenience of men and they will naturally live chaste, monogamous lives.
Thus, the arguments these feminists made for women’s intellectual equality revolved around the goal of domestic virtue within marriage, rather than the goal of individual self-realization and independence for women. (“Independence” for women was associated with libertinism or prostitution and thus was suspect.) Once men and women were intellectual equals, sexuality would be governed solely by reason, not by sensuality. And reason, in their minds, dictated that the purpose of sexuality was reproduction. Nature had designed humans to take enjoyment in sex, but only for that eventual purpose.
Non-reproductive sexuality, they reasoned, resulted in a weakened body as well as weak morals. This necessarily denied the acceptability of a wide range of non-reproductive sexual practices that had previously been part of social strategies for family planning that did not require the denial of sexual desire. Those were now recategorized as inherently perverse. Within this philosophy, celibacy held a questionable place, in part motivated by anti-Catholic sentiment.
In dealing with the question of the appropriate relationship to sexuality, the 1790s feminists re-gendered the mind. Male sexuality was the deprecated libertine sensuality, female sexuality was the rational pursuit of healthy reproduction. But this was not the only way in which minds were re-gendered via the consequences of feminist philosophy. This is apparent in how differently the concepts of “masculine women” and “feminine men” were treated.
To the 1790s feminists, a “masculine” woman was not the perversely mannish sexual deviant who shows up in such fictions as Sir Charles Grandison or Belinda. She was the woman who, as Hays writes, “emulates those virtues and accomplishments, which as common to human nature, are common to both sexes.” [Note: Or, to paraphrase a more contemporary comment about feminism, “when they act like human beings, they’re defined as being men.”] Certain male-coded behaviors in women, such as a fondness for hunting and sport, were considered symptoms of deviant sexuality—an association that had developed gradually during the 18th century and supplanted an earlier less sexualized and more tolerant attitude toward “mannish” women.
For a woman “being feminine” should be a temporary, situational state, only engaged in for licit sexual purposes. The rest of the time, she should be masculine in the virtuous sense. “Being a woman” was a procreative function, not a stable identity.
The association of femininity with undesirable uncontrolled sexuality could then be turned around and assigned to men engaged in libertine, non-reproductive sexual promiscuity, even those who engaged in it only with women, but especially those men who engaged in sex with men. Having sex with men did not make a man effeminate, rather it was an inherent (undesirable) femininity that caused him to desire sex with men (among other things).
This alignment of how attributes are gendered male or female creates the apparently contradictory picture of “feminists” who argued for the rights of women but considered femaleness inherently bad and maleness inherently good. Women were to be liberated from gendered oppression by “becoming men,” not by removing any of the social stigma associated with being women.
Binhammer concludes by returning to the question of the consequences of a theory of feminism that does not include sexuality, and a theory of sexuality that does not critique gender. In focusing purely on liberating women from gender constraints, the 1790s feminists imposed equally oppressive constraints on sexuality. Not an entire rejection of sexuality, but one that served a highly specific bourgeois social ideology that itself remained hostile to women’s equality.
(I'm going to try to get caught up on reviews, which means the reviews may be briefer than I usually prefer to do.)
This is a coming-of-age story set in 1950s San Francisco that intersects the experiences of a second-generation Chinese-American woman, balancing the expectations of her family and culture with a geeky love of science fiction and math, in the midst of exploring her sexuality in the lesbian nightclubs of North Beach at the side of a new friend who shares all the interests that are drawing her away from the path laid out for a "good Chinese daughter." The story is a bildungsroman rather than a romance, though there is the promise of a happy ending for all the various threads. And the protagonist's discovery of her sexuality is only one of several central themes. In particular, Lo creates a vivid picture of the Chinese community in mid-century San Francisco, in all its complexity and contradictions.
Vicinus points out (or at least implies) a contrast that I hadn't thought much about before: the contrast between a teleological lesbian history that works to explain "how did we get to where we are now?" and a more descriptive history that asks, "what are the ways in which female same-sex desire was expressed in the past?" Any number of publications have made me twitch when they viewed "the modern lesbian" as some sort of holy grail that women in the past must surely have been ignorantly groping toward. But I hadn't thought specifically about all the other consequences of a teleological worldview. Such as: if the modern Western (white) lesbian is the apotheosis of female homoeroticism, there is an inherent judgment placed on all other experiences of f/f desire that they are lacking, imperfect, or not fully developed.
I hope it's easy to see how problematic this implication is! Some of the strands of the development of the field of lesbian history are strongly parallel with the problems of "white feminism," where one subgroup projects their own culturally-specific experiences, needs, and desires onto a broader spectrum of people who may not share the same priorities. The women who loved women in the past aren't around to protest having their lives and solutions judged as lacking, but there are plenty of examples today of how the (white) Western paradigm of homosexual identity is viewed or imposed as a universal ideal. For that matter, the shaping of gender/sexuality discourse in the '70s and '80s within a cis-gender monosexual framework has many of the same deficiencies.
So, in addition to what other value these older articles contribute to the field, examining the shifts in assumptions and defaults between their writing and our reading can help shake loose our remaining preconceptions. And we all still do have unexamined preconceptions about gender and sexuality. I know I do, and I'm quite certain you do as well.
Vicinus, Martha. 1992. "'They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong': The Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity" in Feminist Studies vol. 18, no. 3 467-497.
Reading the development of the field of lesbian or queer history asynchronously results in doing a lot of talking back to the articles and books as I read them. Berating the authors, "How is it that you aren't considering these things that will be published several years later? Why aren't you examining these questions through a lens that won't be developed for another decade?" It helps to remember that I went through that same chronology in my own, much more amateur, pursuit of lesbian history. I was still vainly searching for resources at the time when articles like this one were being written and published. And if authors like Vicinus had better access to the available materials at the time, those available materials--or at least, knowledge of them--were still scanty back then.
So if an article like this seems to take a simplistic approach, if it doesn't consider some of the nuances, if it doesn't engage fully with insersectional questions, a certain amount of understanding is called for. But conversely, this article is still reasonably good as a high-level overview of the shifting attitudes and identities around women loving women in the 17th through 20th centuries. True, it doesn't probe deeply into the consequences of those attitudes and identities, or the significant overlap of the various motifs. And in delving into the topics of gender presentation, it bypasses questions of trans identity. But with that understood, I can recommend this as a useful overview.
The idea of “modern lesbian identity” and when it can first be identified is a question that has preoccupied many historians in the field. In this article, Vicinus tackles the question. Keep in mind that this article was written in 1992, so it was still rather early in terms of current lesbian history scholarship.
The article’s title comes from a letter by French lesbian painter Rosa Bonheur in 1884 when, dressed in her working clothes of smock and trousers, she overheard people speculating on how to categorize her. The gender imperative of clothing was so strong that one speculation was that she was an elderly castrato singer, rather than embrace the idea of a woman in pants.
Bonheur shared her life with a woman and habitually wore male-coded clothing, but she didn’t identify the latter as part of a sexual identity, rather embracing the freedom from gender roles that it represented. She engaged in an “intense and passionate friendship” with another woman, but spoke of the “purity” of the relationship. Did she identify as a lesbian? And if not, should she be categorized as one?
[Note: As I read these questions of categorization, I keep thinking of the asymmetry in how men and women in homoerotic relationships are treated by historians. Do historians look for reasons to doubt classifying men in similar relationships as homosexual?]
At the time Vicinus wrote this article, she noted that lesbian history was only just beginning to break away from medicalized psychological models. Yet the creation of a history of lesbianism was centered strongly on the history of contemporary identities, on the history of the “modern lesbian” rather than on the history of women’s same-sex behavior in general. This focus on modern Western lesbian identity, she notes, also ignored and erased relationships in non-Western cultures, or in contexts where individual sexual identity may not be the most important cultural experience.
Lesbian desire may be omnipresent, but at the same time is undefinable. The diversity of individual experiences is enormous. Modern sexual identities may be understood as a product of a highly specific social context, while still recognizing that same-sex attraction appears throughout history and across cultures.
Two themes have always been in competition for understanding same-sex desire: social conditioning versus innate orientation. Both have been embraced within and without the lesbian community, but among academics there has been a general correlation between the privileging of butch-femme relationships and the concept of innate desire, and those privileging romantic friendships and the concept of a continuum of socially-constructed behaviors. These models align with different relationship “scripts” which will be the focus of the article.
The historic suppression of female desire means that in order to study lesbianism one must first identify the ways female desire in general is coded, and then identify same-sex desire within that code. The range of behaviors that contribute to this understanding include schoolgirl crushes, romantic friendships, Boston marriages, theatrical cross-dressing, passing women, butch/femme, and other modes. Vicinus spends some time discussing the difficulties inherent in the fragmentary nature of the available evidence. Another problem in the field is those who pit the butch/femme model and the romantic friendship model in competition with each other for the “true” heart of lesbian identity. Excess focus on either distorts the field. An emphasis on sexual activity as the key definition risks excluding all women in eras for which solid evidence of sex is not available. But a definition that encompasses a diffuse “woman-centered woman” concept risks erasing the specificity of experience that comes with sexual desire.
Various preconditions for modern lesbian identity have been offered up, such as economic independence, a focus on individualism, and the existence of women’s communities. Yet historic individuals can be identified who lacked each of these and yet lived undeniably lesbian lives. Further, the social developments that led to increased individualism, increased economic opportunities for women, and the development of woman-focused communities, whether religious or secular, cannot be demonstrated to align clearly with the rise of modern lesbian identity.
The article then reviews some of the high-level shifts in cultural models around same-sex desire. The late 17th century is identified as a period when prior understandings of social order were changing to more individualism and egalitarianism. During this period, lesbian desire was understood in four paradigms, correlated with social class. Class associations may have functioned to defuse the disruptive potential. The cross-dressed or transvestite woman was a common trope. Generally this model was associated with working-class and peasant women seeking the greater economic opportunities available to men. Although “passing” created opportunities for same-sex encounters, these were not viewed as inherently threatening to society, and passing women were often assigned heterosexual motivations for the disguise (e.g., following a male lover). This type doesn’t correspond well with the modern “butch” figure (though Vicinus’s rationale for this judgement has flaws).
Cross-dressing was also featured through the theatrical model, i.e., actresses who played “breeches roles” on the stage. Although they might play up the titillating dynamics of a woman given sartorial license to flirt with women, most such actresses were, in Vicinus’s words, “notoriously heterosexual”. [Note: This may be an exaggeration, given that we’re in the era of casually bisexual desire.] However some, such as Charlotte Charke, indulged in the erotic possibilities of gender play beyond mere stage-acting.
Another category would be women who overtly dressed in “mannish” ways, or who persisted in cross-dressing outside of an economic role that required it. Vicinus cites Dekker & van de Pol’s argument that women who desired women may have used this context due to being unable to conceive of love outside a heterosexual paradigm. But she notes that this can be little more than speculation given how scanty the information is of these people’s interior lives. [Note: As is rather common for scholarship from the 1990s, we don’t get commentary on possible transgender understandings of the same data.]
[Note: Vicinus discusses the 17th century case of Greta von Mösskirch as an example of a “mannish” woman, which is rather confusing since the primary source material clearly indicates that Greta was not “masculine” either in dress, behavior, or anatomy. It's true that Greta's contemporaries were concerned about making sure she was correctly categorized as to gender, but that was due to her expression of same-sex desire, not due to any other gender-related performance.]
I’m not sure where Vicinus marks the line between her categories one and two among the preceding.
The third category offered is labeled the “free woman” who is depicted as being sexually interested in both women and men. [Note: I’m bemused that the word “bisexual” appears nowhere in this discussion, although “lesbian” does consistently.] These women were often seen as politically dangerous, not only for their sexual influence over the powerful (both men and women) but as representing moral decadence.
The fourth category is romantic friendship, evolving in parallel with shifts in the concept of “friend”. This category is often associated with bonds formed over a shared love of learning. [Note: I feel that Vicinus overlooks the ways in which class-driven differences in evidence and self-depiction affect this perception. The romantic friendship model is best documented among the educated middle and upper class, which makes a shared interest in scholarship and literature an unsurprising motif.] This group is sometimes associated with age-differentiated mentorships which may be temporary. The participants tend to emphasize romantic and spiritual bonds as contrasted with sexual acts.
Though distinctly different in the behavior of the participants, these four models are related through men’s reactions to them, especially in how they were perceived as marginal to society.
Vicinus discusses the vocabulary used for women with same-sex desires, but as she is still relying heavily on the inaccurate chronology offered by the Oxford English Dictionary, this adds little insight.
Whether a relationship was viewed with amused tolerance or persecuted was largely based on whether it directly challenged male privileges, as with “female husbands”. But even then, such relationships might be viewed neutrally if the participants did not otherwise challenge social mores. Vicinus contrasts the sympathetic attitudes toward Mary East / James How and toward the Ladies of Llangollen in England with the trial and execution of Catharina Margaretha Linck in Germany. But it’s unclear whether she is giving consideration to the differences in legal status, as well as differences in cultural attitudes, as opposed to considering the different reactions to be driven purely by the behavior of the women involved.
In the early 19th century, there were two changes in same-sex relations. Public commentary on women’s same-sex relations became more common, but shifted from a focus on the aristocracy to women in “artistic” circles. Sexual license became available to women outside those in sex work, although it still threatened their respectability. At the same time, it became more common for middle-class women to wear “mannish” clothing either for practicality or personal style, often in the context of entering professions or endeavors previously considered male-only, such as medicine, literature, art, or travel. There continued to be a contrast between women who maintained “respectable” lives and framed their same-sex relationships in romantic and emotional terms, and those who embraced bohemian lives and expressed a more overt sexuality. Vicinus offers George Sand as an example of the latter and Rosa Bonheur as an example of the former.
In the early 19th century, we see the development of the “masculine” woman (i.e., one who dresses in masculine styles to varying degrees) whose primary emotional attachments are to other women, and which attachments might extend to sexual relationships. Their perceived masculinity was not (or no longer) theatrical performance, but was taken up as an expression of identity. From this we see the development of the “female invert” of the sexologists. This openly “mannish lesbian” type existed side by side with passing women and with romantic friendships of the “Boston marriage” type well into the 20th century. But with the official shift in focus to the “mannish invert” as the central model of the lesbian, a secondary category of “feminine lesbian” was rendered increasingly both present and invisible.
Vicinus discusses several iconic early examples of the “mannish lesbian” type, including Anne Lister and George Sand. She also notes that the “romantic friendship” type was not immune from suspicion, particularly when the sentiments between the two were considered excessive (as with the example of Emily Faithful).
While the 19th century sexologists may have focused over-narrowly on the “mannish lesbian” type in their attempt to categorize sexual behavior, they did not invent the characteristics and behavior assigned to this model but rather pieced it together out of the rising urban lesbian culture they had access to. But almost as much, their theories were influenced by differences in their own preoccupations. French sexologists were closely interested in female homosexuality, while the most prominent German sexologists, such as Magnus Hirschfeld, more or less ignored female homosexuality except as it could be shoehorned into their theories about men.
By the late 19th century, a pattern of urban migration among women with same-sex desires had become established. Urban bohemian subcultures embraced (or at least tolerated) lesbian communities, not only in European centers such as Paris and Berlin, but in early 20th century Harlem as well. These early 20th century lesbian communities self-consciously developed their own language and culture. [Note: some of Vicinus’s observations on the evolution of lesbian culture in the 20th century seems to ignore major shifts and crises in the overall culture, such as the effects of WWI.] The article concludes with a somewhat rushed summing up of the mid-century up through the cultural revolutions of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
I've read all the submissions, I've made my selections, and now it's time to announce the 2021 podcast fiction line-up! (Well, technically, it's "the rest of 2021 and the first story of 2022" because once again, one of the stories I bought this year will have to wait until next January to air.)
Selecting stories is a complex process. Is the story well written? Is the prose solid and competent and good at communicating the author's ideas? Does the story fit with the theme of the program? You might think that would be a given, but there's a lot of room for interpretation and differences of opinion. Does the story grab me and keep me reading? Does it start and end at the right places and is the chunk of story the right size for the word-count? And finally, does the language of the story sing to me? I'm a sucker for just plain beautiful writing. And by that I don't necessarily mean "pretty" writing, but the ability to use words not just to explain what's going on, but in the way that an artist uses brush strokes. This one can be very much a matter of personal taste, and very often it's the feature that helps me make that difficult choice between two excellent stories. And finally, how does the story fit into the overall program? Do I have a balance of settings and themes? Have I made the series as diverse as possible, given the available materials?
So: here are the stories that sang to me from this year's crop.
This was the first year that I commissioned one of the stories. Catherine Lundoff has been such a consistent standout among the submissions I receive, and such a staunch supporter of the podcast, that I decided it only made sense to spare us both the suspense and simply contract for whatever she wanted to write for me. I wish that I could afford to publish more stories, so that I could commission more pieces from favorite authors without compromising from my commitment to encourage more authors through open submissions. Spread the word about the podcast and support our Patreon, and maybe someday I will be able to add more stories!
(Originally aired 2021/02/06 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for February 2021.
When this airs, the submissions period for the 2021 fiction series will have closed, the stories will have been read, and contract offers will have gone out but probably not yet been finalized. Isn’t it fun to write in the future perfect tense? If you don’t want to wait another month to find out what this year’s offerings will be, keep an eye on the blog where I’ll post as soon as everything’s finalized. (See the link in the show notes.)
Every year the submissions are a slightly different experience. As I’m writing this now on the 24th of January, we’re way above the submission numbers for previous years at this point. And if a pile of submissions come in during the last few days of the month like usual, we’ll definitely have a new overall record. There are some interesting shifts in what’s being submitted and by whom as well, but maybe more on that later when I have the whole picture. Even if my only goal were to encourage people to write more short sapphic historical fiction, I’m already winning!
It's amazing to think that this is the fourth year for the fiction series. Every year there’s been at least one moment where I thought, “You know, maybe this is where to close. It was a good run.” And so far, every year, there’s been a point where I think, “This is great! Where can we go from here?” I don’t really have ambitions beyond the current model. I know my own limitations too well. But I’m confidently looking forward to the 2022 fiction series. Five years sounds like an accomplishment to be proud of. And if the submission numbers this year follow the pattern of past years, I think that next year I’ll have to bring in a couple of other readers to help make the selections. Because more submissions means more great stories, which means much harder choices!
Publications on the Blog
So what publications have I been covering on the blog? January was full of articles from the collection Homosexuality in French History and Culture edited by Jeffrey Merrick and Michael Sibalis. We see a variety of forms female intimacy can take in the 17th and 18th centuries, from Leonard Hinds’ study of the theme of female friendship as the foundation of ideal love in the works of Madeleine de Scudéry, to David Michael Robinson’s interpretation of the memoirs of Madame de Murat in the context of police records about her tempestuous affairs with women and wild behavior, to Olivier Blanc’s discussion of the differential treatment of the privileged known to indulge in “the Italian taste” as homosexuality was called, to Susan Lanser’s argument that sapphic themes in the 18th century developed from libertinism to a politically-tinged separatist philosophy.
The article on Madame de Murat convinced me to make her the topic of this month’s essay podcast, so stay tuned for French aristocrats gone wild!
In February I’ll be finishing up the last article in this collection and then looking for a few more shorter articles to get my momentum back before tackling entire books again.
I’d be doing the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog for my own purposes even if nobody else read it, but it’s great when I overhear people recommending it as a resource, or when I get tagged in on questions about research for particular topics. In January, a random twitter question led to putting together a list of my 25 favorite books from the blog to recommend for those who want to start their own dive into lesbian history. Check it out!
I’ve been turning up some intriguing leads on publications from the bibliographies of works I’ve been blogging recently. Bibliographies are my most common source for titles to track down, followed by mining the tables of contents of journals in JSTOR, and browsing through the publisher’s displays at conferences. But my most recent acquisition is a brand new 2021 book: Sapphic Crossings: Cross-Dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature by Ula Lukszo Klein. And I think I ran across this one online, though I don’t recall if someone mentioned it on twitter or if it was in a book catalog email from the publisher.
I’ve accumulated several books that address the fuzzy intersection of gender and sexuality that is the phenomenon of assigned-female persons living lives that are read as male, and that examine the topic both in terms of trans identity and of gender disguise.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
It’s new and recent books time! Just five titles this month, two from previous months. And I’m holding back one title for next month because it’s an Audible original and they don’t do pre-orders so the link isn’t up yet.
We have a historical fantasy from December: Beloved Daughter, self-published by Ellis Brightwell. Set in the 6th century in the English kingdom of Kent, a young woman with eerie powers is accused of the death of a wealthy nobleman. But when she is seized by the king’s men, she and the king’s daughter find themselves helplessly drawn to each other. It’s a bit hard to tell whether this is a romance or a supernatural thriller.
A January book with a relatively early setting is Brother Mary Michael, self-published by Henry Bennett. Set in Tudor England, a young woman escapes the consequences of murder and an accusation of witchcraft by cross-dressing to enter a monastery. I wasn’t sure what to make of this book so I peeked at the preview. Content note for graphic violence and sexual assault, though the framing story indicates a happy romantic ending.
February books start off with this month’s author guest, Anne Shade, talking about her new release Masquerade from Bold Strokes Books. In the exciting atmosphere of the Harlem Renaissance in prohibition-era New York, Celine is introduced to the world of drag balls and nightclubs and tumbles into a chance to explore feelings she’s always kept hidden. But her heart is pulled in two directions: the lure of comfortable happiness and the seductive excitement of a gangster.
Next month, our author guest will be Aliette de Bodard, and her novella, Fireheart Tiger, is released this month from Tor-dot-com. In a historic fantasy set in a version of pre-colonial Vietnam, a princess is sent to a neighboring kingdom as a hostage and makes the mistake of falling in love there before returning home in failure. Now her beloved arrives on her doorstep but she is the diplomat who must confront her in negotiations.
And this month’s books conclude with a 1950s dream of Broadway in Melanie Crowder’s Mazie from Philomel Books. Mazie has the chance of a lifetime to leave Nebraska for a chance to audition in New York. But big city dreams aren’t that easy to realize. The lesbian representation is from secondary characters, not the protagonist.
The Annual State of the Field Report
The past two years, I’ve done an episode summing up the year’s sapphic historical fiction in terms of trends and themes. With the new podcast format, this review doesn’t get its own episode, and I suspect most of the detailed statistics are of limited interest. So the full summary and comparison to previous years is on the blog, but here’s an overview with the high points.
The number of books I can find that fit my parameters seems to have stabilized around 100 titles, though all of my conclusions here must be taken with a grain of salt as they rely on how successful I’ve been at finding the books. The proportion of self-published books seems to be fairly constant as well. I can’t give a precise percentage for self-published books because that would mean figuring out which authors have set up their own named imprint, but the proportion of books that don’t list a publisher name is still running around a quarter of the total.
It continues to be the case that a slight majority of titles from named publishers are the only lesbian historical put out by that press during the year. But the surprise is that when you look at the most consistent producers – the publishers who have put out two or more books each of the last three years, half of them are mainstream publishers. The mainstream press presence jumped significantly in 2020, but rather than adding to the overall numbers of books published, it was offset by a decrease in numbers by the small queer presses.
In terms of story settings, we’re seeing a very similar distribution to previous years, though there’s a slight increase in pre-19th century settings, and also an increase in locations outside the English-speaking world. Both of these are good trends, if they hold up, especially as many of the non-Western settings are being written by authors with roots in those cultures. But there’s a strong tendency for certain settings to be stereotyped and associated with specific events.
About half the books are clearly identifiable as romances (keeping in mind that I’m mostly working from the cover copy), with maybe 20% definitely not being romances, and the rest undetermined. About a third of the titles have some sort of fantasy elements, but keep in mind that I have strong connections to the fantasy book community so this may be partly my bias. I’m not as systematic about tagging tropes and motifs, but plots involving either gender disguise or cross-gender presentation or identity are popular, as are stories occurring during iconic historic events such as various wars and revolutions.
I’m still working on the efficiency of my searches to identify relevant books. It would be lovely if authors and publishers sent me announcements, but given the uncentralized nature of the field, that’s unlikely! Of the titles I include, I managed to identify a slight majority prior to their publication date. The ones I don’t come across until after they’re published are mostly self-published books that may not have had an online presence before publication. For those authors out there thinking about book promotion, think about some of the consequences of that model. When I’m scheduling guests for the podcast, my first priority is being able to coordinate with a book release. If I don’t even know a book exists until it’s already out, I probably have my guests scheduled for the next couple of months and there’s less impetus to try to fit it in. I love supporting small press and indie authors, but I have to know about your books to do so.
And speaking of guests, this month we’re happy to welcome Anne Shade to the show.
[Interview is not yet transcribed.]
Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Anne Shade Online
This is the third year that I’ve taking a statistical look at the state of the sapphic historical publishing, based on the new book listings included in the podcast, as well as my database of earlier publications. (See previous summaries for 2018 and 2019.) As always, there’s a bit of squishiness in the data, not only because it depends on which books I know about, but due to the fuzzy edges of the categories I include. This especially affects just how “alternate” a historical fantasy can get and still feel like it belongs within my remit. The other significant fuzzy boundary has to do with gender identity, where I tend to be generous about including books my audience might find relevant even when the characters don’t easily fit in the category of “female”. But if I started second-guessing titles when I come to do the statistics, it would make this task too hard. So I take the database as a given. The comparative data for 2018 and 2019 has been updated somewhat with titles identified later, so the numbers may not always match with what I gave in previous years.
With three years of data where I’ve done a fairly thorough month-by-month search for titles, I have some hope of being able to identify actual trends and not just anecdotal snapshots. So let’s plunge into the geeking out. A much more abbreviated version of this analysis will be summarized in the podcast.
The basic data is:
So let’s look at that to start.
One striking thing is that, within a very rough ballpark assessment, the numbers are strikingly consistent. It will be interesting to see if the self-pubbed percentage simply fluctuates a lot or whether 2019 was an outlier. But the overall number of titles is consistent enough across these three years that it makes it easy to compare other factors without having to normalize to the total.
Who is Publishing?
With the number of named publishers in the 50s each year, does this mean that the same set of publishers are putting out books regularly? Definitely not. There are only 7 publishers who have put out at least one sapphic historical title during each of the last 3 years. Four of them are queer-focused publishers: Bella Books, Bold Strokes Books, Sapphire Books, and Supposed Crimes. Two are imprints of major publishers: Harper Collins and Tor.com. The last is Lake Union Publishing which is an Amazon imprint for literary fiction. Not technically self-publishing but not entirely a mainstream publishing model either. The offerings from Harper Collins have been speculative fiction, romance, and literary fiction, while Tor.com is specifically a speculative fiction imprint. As for the queer publishers, for all intents and purposes, the relevant books from Supposed Crimes are all by Geonn Cannon, mostly his steampunk historical fantasy series. Sapphire Books is primarily putting out US-set romances with no fantastic elements. The titles from Bella Books are balanced between realistic and fantasy-tinged settings and are primarily set in anglophone cultures. Bold Strokes Books is more focused on realistic settings with only a few fantasy elements, maybe half are romances, and slightly more variety in geography though still dominated by US and British settings. I’ll get into those aspects later for the whole dataset, but in general these most consistent publishers reflect the trends for the whole.
But consistency doesn’t tell the whole story. As noted above, 11 named publishers put out 2 or more titles in 2020. Four of them are on the 3-out-of-3 list above. The other 7 illustrate some of the other dynamics. Little, Brown and Company (including Little Brown Books) published 4 titles, coming in second only to Bold Strokes, which is noteworthy for a mainstream press. They have a lot of diversity of setting in a small list: 16th to 20th century, and set in four different countries (though limited to Europe and the USA). Only one of the four looks to have a romance plot. Past and Prologue Press put out three titles, all in the same series (the press is a one-author imprint), which may be an isolated event. Bywater Books put out 2 titles and just barely missed being on the 3 out of 3 years list. (They’ve published historic titles in 4 of the last 5 years.) Ninestar Press is a relative newcomer to the field but looks like they’re going to have regular historic offerings. Inkyard Press looks like it focuses on 20th century settings for the most part, with a more literary bent rather than genre-historicals. Persephone Press may be another single-author imprint, it’s hard to track down information on them online due to search interference from an earlier unrelated publisher with the same name, which also focused on women’s and lesbian fiction. Entangled Publishing contributes 2 titles set in earlier eras than the usual.
Overall, books from publishers that put out at least 2 titles have been making up a quarter to a third of the overall total. But as a proportion of the titles from named publishers, the rate is an even more consistent 41-44%. Three of the most consistent recent publishers only had a single title in 2020: Bella Books, Supposed Crimes, and Lake Union Publishing.
So what does this say overall about the state of publishing? There’s a large and dynamic pool of publishers who are putting out the occasional sapphic historical, but a very small number who do so consistently. And—needless to say—none who focus specifically on that genre.
There’s an interesting increase in titles from mainstream publishers (which I’m defining as “do I easily recognize the imprint as being part of one of the big houses”, with the acknowledgment that the big houses include a lot of minor imprints that I’m not likely to recognize). The 10 and 11 titles put out by mainstream publishers in 2018 and 2019 have nearly doubled to 18 titles in 2020. But given that overall numbers are relatively flat, this implies that those stats are balanced by fewer titles from other sources. Applying the same subjective “do I recognize this name” to identify the major queer press titles, it appears that’s where the difference is coming from, with a noticeable dip in 2020. I’m not saying that specific books have been sold to mainstream presses rather than queer presses. Anecdotally, it’s unlikely that most of the books published by mainstream presses would have been submitted to queer presses instead. But it raises the question of whether mainstream embrace of queer historical stories will add to the diversity of the market or simply shift it.
But let’s move on to content. Due to the complexity of the analysis, the comparative material for 2018 and 2019 is only my original analysis, not updated for any later additions. Books are grouped by general era, with more distinctions made during the more popular settings.
Overall percentage set before the 19th century:
In general, the distribution in time is fairly consistent. There’s been a slight increase in representation for pre-19th century settings, mostly in the Early Modern era (16-18th century), but no obvious eras that are losing popularity. And there’s still significant over-representation of the 19th and 20th centuries.
It’s hard to parse out the intersection of time and place to track specific settings. But it can be interesting to track some that can be easily identified. The following are some themes that stand out from the overall dataset, viewed for the last three years. Pirates are down, Civil War is up (though it has been more popular in earlier years), the Regency holds fairly steady, and the French Revolution, though never highly popular, holds steady. I don’t track this sort of this systematically enough to be able to say anything really meaningful, though.
Analyzing geographic settings gets a little fuzzier, since a story may have multiple settings. Even when a very common setting (e.g., England or USA) is the primary setting, I want to note a secondary setting if it is otherwise unrepresented. So more than usual, don’t expect the numbers to add up to 100% here. Locations are identified by the modern political name for the region (with rare exceptions where the historic label is the one available, e.g., Yugoslavia).
At the highest level, let’s compare on a continent/region basis. I’ve split out “UK and Ireland” into a separate region from “Europe” due to the disproportionate representation of the former. And I’ve bundled together North and Central America due to the small numbers of the latter. Regions are listed in descending order of popularity in 2020. The three most popular regions will be split out below, but for the others, I’ve listed the 2020 settings, and then in parentheses, other settings appearing in previous years.
It is inevitable, I suppose, that the fact that my survey draws almost exclusively on English language literature means that the popular settings will reflect the interests and defaults of Anglophone writers. In 2020, US settings and UK+Ireland settings each made up about a third of the total, while “other Europe” accounted for a fourth of the total. That leaves about 10% for the entire rest of the world. But this is actually an improvement over the previous two years. US settings are down from 40% in each of the two previous years. UK+Ireland has varied more but is down from 40% in 2019. Continental Europe is higher in 2020 than the two previous years, and that “rest of the world” statistic has functionally doubled over the average for the previous two years. One somewhat-mixed positive aspect of this is that the stories set in non-US/non-European locations are primarily being written by authors with roots in those regions (though not always in the specific culture being depicted). So while I’d love to see more geographic diversity, I’m happy that what we’re getting isn’t all coming from cultural outsiders. (I confess I’m less concerned about cross-cultural writing within the Anglophone sphere, though I know how annoying some British people find the American fetishization of certain aspects of British history.)
Drilling down a bit into those three most popular categories, I tagged books with US settings by specific state or region, but this is usually based on the information in the cover copy, so there are a lot of gaps that might be filled in by someone more familiar with the books. In terms of general region, over the last three years, the Midwest gets the least love (and is dominated by Chicago stories). But the Northeast, South, and West trade off who gets to be the most popular. No specific trends otherwise.
When specific states are identified in the cover copy, there have been 34 different states mentioned over the last 3 years, with the number for any given year ranging from 11-18. Most of these are singletons in any given year. Generally in a given year only4-6 states make repeat appearances. Of these, the consistently popular states (making the grade each year) are New York, Massachusetts, and Illinois.
The UK & Ireland group has included books set in Ireland and in Scotland each of the three years, but in very small numbers. While we’re talking about who gets what sort of representation, Ireland seems to exist primarily during WWI, while Scotland is either medieval or Victorian.
Doing a similar analysis of continental Europe as I did for the US states, there have been 14 different countries (or identifiable regions) used as settings over the last 3 years, with the number for any given year ranging from 7-9. In any given year, a minority of the mentioned countries appear only once, which implies that we get random clustering. One year we’ll get a couple stories in Yugoslavia with none in other years, another year we’ll get a couple in the Netherlands with none in other years. The most consistent locations, with at least one story set there in each of the three years, are France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and non-specific Scandinavia. France is popular during WWII and the French Revolution (each accounting for a quarter of the French titles) but doesn’t seem to exist at all during the 19th century. (Where are the stories of decadent-era Paris?) With the exception of a duology with a medieval setting, Germany exists only in the context the two World Wars. Greece exists only in classical or mythic eras (and mostly mythic). While it’s not entirely surprising that the “non-specific Scandinavia” settings are mostly early medieval (since more recent settings use more specific country names), it also exists almost exclusively as a fantasy/mythic location. Italy, too, is confined to specific tropes: imperial Rome and the Renaissance.
As with the dearth of stories set outside Europe and the USA, these patterns are to some extent a consequence of the Anglo-centric interests of the authors. Continental Europe exists to provide a limited set of stock set-pieces. While some of these stories are being written by cultural insiders, I suspect the growing awareness about cultural appropriation has less influence when Anglo writers use continental settings, than it might have elsewhere. Or I might be overthinking things based on an admittedly limited data set.
Tropes and Content
When we get to my analysis of themes, tropes, and sub-genres, I am most at the mercy of my limited knowledge about the content of specific books. Eventually I hope to be able to crowd-source more data on these topics (when I figure out a safe way to make my spreadsheet generally available). In the mean time, I make a stab at coding each book for whether it has a romance plot, whether it has fantasy elements, specifically whether it has a cross-time plot (which doesn’t necessarily mean fantasy, see my discussion of what I mean by “cross-time” here). I also try to keep track of whether a story has sexual content, and what type, but this can rarely be determined from cover copy. The majority of titles have a big question mark in this field in my database.
But with those big caveats, it seems consistent that, when it’s possible to make a solid guess without reading the book, about half of the titles have a strong romance plot (though not all of those are capital-R-Romances), with maybe 20% definitely being Not Romance, and the rest unclear.
It’s a bit easier to make a good guess on whether a book has fantasy elements, and so far about a third of the titles each year fall in this category. Of course, this depends very largely on how I’m classifying whether a fantasy is “historic enough” to be included in my project. But I think it does speak to the extent to which people like adding “something else” into the mix when they write f/f historicals. (I know I do. I’m not going to criticize!)
Since I don’t even have a vague guess about the sexual content in most of the books in my list, there’s not much point in discussing that data.
And finally, when I have the time, I try to add a list of keywords and tropes to help find books for specific interests. This is very spotty, since I don’t manage to do it for all books in the database. (It’s a very daunting task to try to tackle for the 700+ books I have logged! I haven’t even managed to fill in the publication and setting data for many of them.) But just for fun, I dumped the tags into a text file and sorted out to identify the most frequent ones.
Tags relating to gender identity and gender presentation head the list (though largely because I’ve combined several different items). We seem to be fascinated by characters who cross gender lines, whether for practical reasons or as an expression of gender identity. Another item that pops up regularly are plots involving conflicts around social class, or where there is a servant-employer relationship between the characters. Witches and magic show up regularly, and specific events that I’ve included in the topic tags include Regency, WWI, WWII, US Civil War, and French Revolution. Sub-genres that I’ve noted on multiple occasions include horror, mystery, suspense, detective stories, and westerns.
One piece of data that may be of interest to nobody but myself has to do with my ability to identify books for the new book listings ahead of their publication date. I generally do my final exhaustive search for new titles about 2 weeks before the On The Shelf episode goes live. My ability to identify relevant books depends on multiple factors. Has there been advance buzz? Has the book been included in other people’s lists of upcoming books? (Since no one else is specifically looking for the intersections I’m interested in, this always involves sifting through titles with only one or two of the characteristics I’m looking for.) Is the book coming out from one of the publishers who do enough historic titles to be worth checking, and who have a forthcoming books page on their website? (And how talented are their cover designers at signalling that a book is historical, since I don't always have time to click through and read all the blurbs?)
The last line of defense is: can the book be identified on Amazon via combinations of the keywords “historic” with “lesbian”, “sapphic”, or “f/f”. (Which has led me to a deep understanding of quite how dysfunctional and broken the Amazon keyword system is. How dysfunctional? Some months I have to specifically exclude keywords like “Dickens” and “Shakespeare” because for some reason someone has tagged a bunch of works by those authors with the word “lesbian”.)
The books I most often miss in my advance searches are self-published works where the author didn’t create an Amazon entry until actual publication. The books I most often miss until I’ve passed the window for mentioning the book on the podcast are books from mainstream presses where the sapphic content is so carefully scrubbed out of the cover copy that it leaves no trace for my searches to find.
In general, I identify a slight majority of titles prior to publication. Pulling the data for the Jan 2020 to Jan 2021 podcasts, 58 out of 101 were announced the month they came out. Of those, only 2 titles were published either through Amazon digital or with no named publisher. 35 out of 101 were included the month after publication, of which 20 were self-published (using my Amazon/no-name proxy). The remaining 8 titles were included 2 or 3 months after publication. These are a mixture, maybe half self-published, and the rest simply slipped past my notice for a while. I generally don’t mention books in the podcast more than 2 months past, though everything goes into the database, of course. Comparing the database to the podcast-content spreadsheet, it looks like there are only two 2020 titles that I found out about too late to include in the show.
So what are my overall conclusions? I don’t have many of significance. Based on the last 3 years of data, the field of sapphic historical fiction feels relatively stable and consistent. Overall publication numbers don’t seem to be changing much. The fluctuation in self-publication numbers is hard to interpret and may not be meaningful since many of the “named publishers” are self-publication operations. There’s a small and shifting group of established publishers, both large and small, contributing to the genre, but none that specializes in it, and none where sapphic historicals make up a large enough proportion to be a focus. There has been an increase in books from major mainstream publishers, but that is offset by a decrease in books from the established queer presses.
Books set in the 19th and 20th centuries are still the vast majority (ca. 70%) though this may be decreasing. Books set in either the USA or UK+Ireland are still the vast majority (ca. 66%) though, again, this may be shifting. Although some really interesting work is being done with settings outside of Anglophone countries by authors with personal connections to those regions, the types of stories told about many non-Anglophone countries reflect stereotyping and a reliance on stock historic mythologies rather than reflecting a diversity of storytelling. On the positive side, this means there’s a lot of conceptual space available for those who want to write new, refreshing stories that don’t fall in those stock categories. We just have to convince the readers to appreciate them as much as they appreciate yet one more WWII wartime romance or one more cross-dressing western adventure!