(Originally aired 2022/01/02 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for January 2022.
I hope all of you listening have at least one thing from 2021 that you can look back on and take joy in, and at least one thing in 2022 that you’re looking forward to in hopeful expectation. The change of the calendar is an arbitrary line, but without arbitrary points for reflection, time all runs together, doesn’t it? History derives meaning from the arbitrary lines we draw to split it up into chunks that we can understand in isolation. Lives are often the same.
I don’t usually do New Year’s Resolutions. Sometimes I do what I call “irresolutions” which are mostly just brainstorming rather than commitment. But one irresolution I’d like to make for the podcast is to get back to doing author interviews. I had a number of contacts for potential interviews, and then somehow back in May I got what I call “calendar claustrophobia” where it feels like I have too many pending commitments and something has to give. And doing the work of scheduling interviews was what gave. The actual work of editing the interviews is no big deal, but the process of actually getting the interviewee and me onto the same zoom call to talk trips over several of my personal disfunctions. Don’t get me wrong. I love doing interviews! And I love that it gives me a chance to interact with other authors in this very lonely profession. But it’s substantial emotional work for me—more than it might be for someone with a different personality—and that’s why I let it slip when I was feeling overwhelmed. So I’m going to try to get back on that horse and take the jumps again, because I think the interviews add a lot of value to this show.
Given that it’s January, it also means that submissions are open for the 2022 fiction series. I hope that if you’re written something—or are still thinking about writing something—that meets our criteria, that you’ll send it in for consideration. As the saying goes: don’t self-reject. Every year I hope that the submissions will be more numerous and more gripping. My goal is for the decision process to get harder and harder every year. Please help make my dream come true! At the beginning of submissions month I’m usually terrified that I won’t receive any stories. That terror has lessened over the years. And this year I feel like I’ve leveled-up a bit as a fiction market, because I’ve started receiving the equivalent of spam submissions: stories that completely ignore all the requirements, including timing, format, and content. I have arrived! I can join the other editors in their secret invitation-only gripe sessions! Just kidding. I’m so proud of the material I was able to publish in the last year and have confidence that I’ll be able to present you with the same high quality in 2022. If you’ve loved the stories we were able to share with you, I hope you reached out to let the authors know on social media.
Publications on the Blog
The Lesbian Historic Motif Project Blog has finally finished the coverage of Sandra Boehringer’s Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. I don’t usually spend quite so much time on a single book—I think the only book I’ve covered in quite so much detail was Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men. One reason I took the time to do so was that I’m a methodology nerd. I love books that go so deeply into the questions of how to study history and how to understand cultures of the past in their own terms and not in terms of their relationship to contemporary ideas. Another more selfish reason for reading the book so closely is that I have a book project set during the 1st century in the Roman Empire that has been languishing for a couple decades waiting for me to feel up to doing the complete rewrite it requires. I feel like I just might be in a place where I could tackle that again, as well as working on the chapter on classical Greece and Rome for my super-secret project that I mention on occasion. But the third reason I think Boehringer’s book is worth the time is that a study of gender and sexuality in classical cultures may be the most accessible way for those of us rooted in Western history to grasp a radically different cultural approach to those concepts. More recent cultures can be too superficially similar to our own to be able to have the necessary distance. And Westerners sometimes need a bit of practice in stretching our understanding into unfamiliar shapes before we can approach non-Western concepts of gender and sexuality on their own terms.
I haven’t picked a topic for the blog to tackle next. I feel like I need something a bit less intense, time-wise. I think I have a couple collections of articles that might fit the bill.
No new acquisitions for the blog this month. I did pick up some historical reference books, but related to things like clothing. And the one book I thought was going to come in had its publication date rescheduled. That one will be fun because it’s an academic study of lesbian historical fiction and I hope to have an interview with the author on the show.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
But we can talk about new and recent fiction, though the listings are a bit thin this month: one December book that I was saving until I’d had a chance to learn more about it, and three January releases. I’ve decided to go back to my old practice of reading the cover copy, rather than trying to summarize the book in my own words. It can be a bit hard to guess what’s going on when I haven’t actually read the book, and at least the author’s own words provide what they want you to know about it.
The December book is The Many Woes of Dolly Danbridge, self-published by Lauren Thorn. The book is tagged with keywords for lesbian fiction, so I’m relying on that, although the cover copy is rather vague.
Dolly Danbridge is poor, awkward, and plain. She is also completely spoiled. At 16 years old, she has spent her whole life dreaming of wealth and high society. These dreams are dashed when she is uprooted from her home in Boston and placed in the humble town of Gaylord, Ohio. Here, she will struggle to hold onto her high-status ambitions— and decide if they are really worth pursuing after all. Set in 1830’s America, this novel wittily dissects the social norms of times past and presents an alternative to the typical Victorian love story.
The first January book is The Raven and the Banshee by Carolyn Elizabeth from Bella Books. There was a short story set in the same world released a couple months ago, in case you want a sample before committing to the novel. I continue to be amused that “lesbian pirates of the Caribbean” is its very own sub-genre, and some day I really will do a special episode on the topic.
Early eighteenth-century Charlestown, South Carolina, finds sixteen-year-old Julia Farrow, spirited daughter of a wealthy owner of a shipping company, living and loving on her own terms. With her sharp mind and sharper tongue, she constantly defies family and society expectations without regard for the consequences. Branna Kelly, the only child of an Irish immigrant sailor, is hopelessly in love with her employer’s daughter, imagining their life together as captains of their own fate. Broken-hearted after Julia’s shockingly cruel rejection, she embarks with her family to chart a new shipping route to the Caribbean. Before Julia has a chance to make things right, tragedy strikes and the Kelly’s ship is overrun by merciless pirates. All hands are presumed lost. Fifteen years later, Julia is now running Farrow Company and sailing with the crew on her newest ship. An ill-fated encounter with those same pirates leaves Julia the lone survivor, left alive to be rescued by the infamous Raven, hard-hearted captain of the mercenary ship, Banshee. What follows is a passionate tale of vengeance, forgiveness, second chance love and redemption in a rollicking, swashbuckling adventure on the high seas.
Wildflower Words by Sam Ledel from Bold Strokes Books looks like something of a slice-of-life story set in the American frontier.
Hazel Thompson prides herself on being a beacon of earnest goodwill in Cedar Springs, Utah, where she works alongside her mother as a cook in a raucous restaurant and dance hall. But lately, Hazel wonders if she hasn’t clipped her own wings by always putting her family and neighbors first, leaving no time for her own wants. Lida Jones, the daughter of roving Eastern European immigrants, treks West with her father in search of a better life on the rapidly developing American frontier. To help make money, Lida takes a job in the Pack Horse Library and gets to know the rowdy, tough residents of Cedar Springs. Getting close to anyone is a waste of time, though. She won’t be here long. Hazel and Lida can’t help but get to know one another as Lida travels through on her route. When Lida’s father begins to struggle at work, Lida fears she’ll have to leave Cedar Springs―and Hazel―behind. But how can she when, finally, she’s found a place, and a person, to call home?
Just as a side-bar: Ledel isn’t the only author who has been inspired by the real-life Pack Horse Library women of the 1930s, which began as a Works Progress Administration project during the Great Depression. If the topic inspires you, you might also check out Sarah Gailey’s Upright Women Wanted which re-imagines the program in a near-future dystopia. And for a contemporary real-life version of a woman combining horses and books to spread literacy, take a look at the work of Caitlin Gooch who tweets as @theblackcowgirl and runs a non-profit program called “Saddle Up and Read” to spread the love of both books and horses to children in North Carolina. I don’t usually go off on tangents like this based on the new book listings, but sometimes I just get inspired to share the fantastic web of connections in our world.
The final January book is All of You Every Single One by Beatrice Hitchman from The Overlook Press. This is a literary novel set across several decades of the early 20th century in Vienna.
Julia Lindqvist, a woman unhappily married to a famous Swedish playwright, leaves her husband to begin a passionate affair with a female tailor named Eve. The pair run away together and settle in the more liberal haven of Vienna, where they fall in love, navigate the challenges of their newfound independence, and find community in the city’s Jewish quarter. But Julia’s yearning for a child throws their fragile happiness into chaos and threatens to destroy her life and the lives of those closest to her. Ada Bauer’s wealthy industrialist family have sent her to Dr. Freud in the hope that he can cure her mutism—and do so without a scandal. But help will soon come for Ada from an unexpected place, changing many lives irrevocably. Through the lives of her queer characters, and against the changing backdrop of one of the greatest cities of the age, Hitchman asks what it’s like to live through oppression, how personal decisions become political, and how far one will go to protect the ones they love. Moving across Europe and through decades, Hitchman’s sophomore novel is an intensely poignant portrait of life and love on the fringes of history.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been reading in the last month? Being on vacation for three weeks gave me time to finish the year with several more titles under my belt. I listened to the audiobook of Darcie Littlebadger’s contemporary fantasy Elatsoe, a Young Adult novel with a Lipan Apache protagonist who can talk to ghosts. At Worldcon I was on a panel with the author about writing asexual characters, so I decided to read something from a fellow panelist.
A few months ago I really enjoyed the holiday novella Meg Mardol put out last year, so I prioritized her new holiday offering A Highland Hogmanay which is a delightful romance of mistaken identity and found family.
And I’ve been continuing my belated tour through KJ Charles’ back catalog of gay male historical romance, with a short piece from the Society of Gentlemen series and two books from the Charm of Magpies series: The Magpie Lord and Jackdaw, which I seem to have read out of order by accident.
I’ve once more started a sapphic Regency romance that doesn’t seem to be hitting the spot for me. Erica Ridley’s The Perks of Loving a Wallflower is full of madcap adventure and banter between the cast of characters that forms the continuing thread of the Wild Wynchesters series. (I think this is the only title in the series with a female couple.) But the writing style doesn’t really capture the historic setting in a way that hits my sweet spot and I’m struggling a bit to get invested in the characters. Is it possible that I’m more picky about subgenres that I really really love? I’m not sure. I know there are lesbian Regencies that I’ve enjoyed so I keep trying them to find more.
The Annual State of the Field Report
As has become my custom—and because I’m the sort of person who likes to geek out over numbers and trends—I’ve taken a look at the state of the field of sapphic historical fiction in 2021, through the lens of the books included in the new releases listings in this podcast. As usual, my list isn’t likely to be an exhaustive data set. And much depends on exactly how one defines the parameters. But to the extent that I’m being consistent in what I include and how I identify the data, this analysis should be useful for comparison purposes.
The total number of books remains remarkably consistent. I included 107 publications from 2021, which keeps the annual numbers consistently with 100 titles, plus/minus 7. This means that if you can read a story every 3 days, you have hopes of being able to read all the sapphic historical fiction that comes out in the year.
The proportion of books that are published under a named imprint has also been remarkably consistent, around 75%. (Demonstrating that the lower proportion for 2019 seems to have been an outlier.) Keep in mind that “named imprint” includes self-published books where the author has created an imprint name for their output. It would take a lot of work to determine which imprint names are single-author houses so I haven’t tried to sort that out at this time.
In 2021, there were 59 named imprints represented in the data, 31 of which haven’t appeared before. That’s roughly half of the total. The total number of publishers represented each year has also remained remarkably consistent, falling somewhere in the 50s. But there’s a lot of churn. In the 4 years I’ve been tracking this data, only 5 publishers had at least one book in every year: 4 small queer presses - Bella Books, Bold Strokes Books, Sapphire Books, Supposed Crimes; and the SFF online imprint Tor-dot-com.
Out of the 59 imprints in 2021, 48 of them only released a single title that meets my criteria. That’s about 80%, and that also has been remarkably consistent across the years. Imprints releasing only 2 titles, and those releasing 3 or more also have similar numbers to last year, continuing the slight increase in the multi-title presses at the expense of the 2-title presses. The 5 publishers that put out 3 or more sapphic historicals in 2021 are: Bold Strokes Books, which continues in the lead with 7 titles; Kalikoi, a brand new press that shot into second place with 4 titles, though several of them are quite short; and with 3 titles each, Bywater Books, Sapphire Books, and Past and Prologue Press (which is a single-author imprint).
Some publishers that have had significant contributions in the past but were thin on the ground this year include Bella Books with only one title (and I’m being a bit generous on that one because the historic connection involves modern historic re-enactment), and the mainstream publishers Little Brown, and Harper Collins, neither of which put out any sapphic historicals that I was able to identify this year. The number of identifiable mainstream presses in the data continues to increase gradually. While I can’t always guarantee that I recognize all the minor imprints of mainstream publishers, I found 8 different imprints in this year’s data, compared to 7 last year and 6 each the two previous years. Only Tor-dot-com has been present all 4 years, but 2 others (Harper Collins and William Morrow) have had titles in 3 of the 4 years.
Looking back over recent years, there are also some shifts in the more prominent queer publishers with regard to historicals. Eleven queer presses have published relevant books in at least 3 of the last 10 years. Only 2 presses show up every year: Bold Strokes Books and Bella Books. Three continue to be steady producers, though not every year: Bywater Books, Sapphire Books, and Supposed Crimes. Five of the publishers have had regular output in the past, but nothing in the last 2 years or more. That would be Affinity Rainbow Publishing, Bedazzled Ink, Regal Crest Enterprises, Shadoe Publishing, and Ylva. If it were only a matter of 2020 and 2021, we might chalk that up to the world being on fire, but a few seem to have simply lost interest in historicals. In contrast, publishers with a fairly recent but promisingly strong presence include NineStar Press and I’ll add in Kalikoi (who made an amazing showing for only entering the field in the past year).
Overall, the shape of the publishing field seems remarkably stable, even if the specific players move on and off stage regularly.
Times and Places
But let’s move on to the fun part of the analysis: where and when the stories are set. I group the settings by time period, using longer periods in earlier eras and splitting them more finely in the 19th and 20th centuries. Overall the distribution between pre-19th century and more recent settings has been relatively consistent with about a fifth of the stories set before the 19th century (though 2020 was an outlier with about 30% in the earlier set). Within the pre-19th century group, there’s some shifting of numbers. In 2021, the 17th century was almost overlooked, while the 16th century was stronger than usual. But there’s some representation in each of the categories I measure.
In the last 2 centuries, the relative distribution has been consistent over all four years, with increasing representation in more recent eras. (This doesn’t apply to the later 20th century, in part because it can be hard to decide whether to classify a fairly recent setting as “historical”.) As usual, stories set in the first half of the 19th century are mostly classifiable as “Regency romances” set in England, while American settings increase significantly in the latter half of the century, and in the first half of the 20th century American settings predominate. One interesting shift is that we seem to see fewer war-time stories, rather than having many titles cluster around the American Civil War and the two World Wars. And of the early 20th century stories, there are a larger number focused on the period between the two World Wars, with Jazz Age settings.
In terms of geography, we once again see consistency across the last 4 years. The top two locations for settings are North America (which mostly means the USA) and the British Isles (mostly England, but with Scotland and Ireland regularly appearing). In general, the two groups are roughly equal in frequency, representing a little over a third of the total each. This year, the British Isles took the lead slightly, but not enough to suggest a trend. Continental European settings are the next biggest regional group, together representing one-fifth of the total. The specific countries represented are highly variable, but this year France is the leader as usual, followed by Greece (which, as usual, shows up primarily with classical or mythic stories). Settings in Asia have been gradually increasing, particularly in China, but still represent only 5% of the total this year. The rest of the world covers the final 5%. The only consistently appearing setting in this miscellaneous category is the Caribbean, due to the popularity of pirate stories.
For the US-set stories, 12 different states are represented (based on the cover copy), only 4 of which appear more than once. New York remains the runaway most popular state, and this may be the first year when Chicago doesn’t appear at all.
In terms of genre, we once again see consistency across the years, with fantastic elements appearing in about a third of the titles (though this is affected by my judgment calls about which fantasy books count as historical). Books that have romance as the primary or a significant component made up 2/3 of the total this year, based on my best estimation from the cover copy. This has probably been fairly consistent, but my confidence in doing the evaluation has been variable. I didn’t have the time this year to try to tag books for tropes and themes, so I won’t try to do an assessment of that angle. Anecdotally, there may have been fewer stories that clustered around iconic events, such as World War II, or the French Revolution, but we still see certain cultures being viewed through fixed settings, such as mythic Greece or Viking-era Scandinavia or the Caribbean of the age of Piracy.
What’s my take-away from this year’s survey? It’s the phrase that keeps popping up in this summary: consistency. There’s a certain overall shape to the field of sapphic historicals, for good or ill. The market is neither growing nor shrinking. Self-published titles are neither taking over nor disappearing. The field continues to be highly distributed across a large number of imprints, with no publisher specializing in the genre. The distribution of stories in time and space are uneven, but consistently so, with the centers of gravity being Anglophone cultures and recent centuries. We have yet to see whether the writing and publishing disruptions of the pandemic have affected the field in measurable ways. Only time will tell.
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