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Lesbian Literature as a Serious Study

Monday, June 6, 2022 - 07:00

I’m taking a different approach with this collection than my usual. Rather than either blogging all the articles or only blogging the relevant ones, I’m going to do a very brief summary of all the “less relevant” material in this book and then blog the four articles of specific historic interest separately. My very brief skim through the articles summarized below means that I’m likely oversimplifying or misrepresenting some of the details. But it seemed like a good compromise.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Medd, Jodie (ed). 2015. The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-107-66343-5

Publication summary: 

A volume designed to provide a theoretical and survey background for the academic study of lesbian literature.

Articles not blogged individually

The collection opens with a select chronology of works that fall within the concept of “lesbian literature” as addressed in this book. About 6 pages cover everything up to the 20th century, then 10 pages cover the 20th and 21st centuries. [Note: The pre-20th century material does not include any works that haven’t been previously noted in some fashion in the Project.]

“Lesbian Literature?: An Introduction” by Jodie Medd

Medd discusses the problems of how to define and categorize the topic of this collection. There is a consideration of the place of reading and literature in the evolution of self-conscious “lesbian identity” and the distinct contributions of the activities of reading, writing, and critiquing.

Part I: In Theory/In Debate: Connections, Comparisons, and Contestations

1. “The Queer Time of Lesbian Literature: History and Temporality” by Carla Freccero

Discusses issues of terminology and the shifting meanings of words associated with lesbianism. Freccero has addressed issues of “temporality” (i.e., the relationship of historic time to queer identities) in the collection The Lesbian Premodern [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/publication/5065], but I think I can repeat my comment on that article: “This article is all about theories about theories and didn’t really have any comprehensible content I could summarize. Sorry.”

2. “Debating Definitions: The Lesbian in Feminist Studies and Queer Studies” by Annamarie Jagose

Talks about the sense of awkward unease that many scholars have around treating the concept of the lesbian either within a feminist or a queer framework. Primarily a discussion of theoretical frameworks and the slipperiness of defining “lesbian” as a category. This article is reminiscent of a number of discussions in The Lesbian Premodern although Jagose did not contribute to that volume. There’s a wide-ranging review of significant theoretical works addressing this topic.

3. “Experience, Difference, and Power” by Sandra K. Soto

Raises questions of marginalization and intersectionality, largely generally within society rather than focused specifically on the study of lesbian literature.

4. “Global Desires, Postcolonial Critique: Queer Women in Nation, Migration, and Diaspora” by Shamira A. Meghani

Discusses issues relating to love between women in non-dominant world cultures, how these themes have been treated both internally and externally (i.e., by dominant cultures), the ways in which western concepts and definitions of lesbianism shape the discourse in other cultures.

Part II: In the Past: Reading the Literary Archive

Note: The four articles in this section are blogged individually.

Part III: On the Page: Modern Genres

9. “Modern Times, Modernist Writing, Modern Sexualities” by Madelyn Detloff

Maps out an understanding of English-language “modernism” in the 20th century up through WWII. Considers the themes of personal independence, outsider/expatriate perspectives, the rise of sexological and psychological frameworks.

10. “Popular Genres and Lesbian (Sub)Cultures: From Pulp to Crime, and Beyond” by Kaye Mitchell

A consideration of several iconic literary genres relevant to lesbian literature in the 20th century, including detective fiction of the 1980s and 1990s, the “pulp novels” of the 1930s to 1950s, and mainstream literary novels moving into the 21st century. [Note: I don’t see any reference to the rise of the lesbian small presses, despite the fact that the discussion of detective fiction largely mentions books published by them.]

11. “Lesbian Autobiography and Memoir” by Monica B. Pearl

Discusses works that—in some cases tangentially—can be understood or at least suspected of expressing the author’s own same-sex desires. The discussion includes poetry (Sappho, Dickenson), private correspondence, and literary memoir (Alice B. Toklans), as well as works in which known same-sex relationships were used as a basis for “autobiography in disguise” where the gender or relationships of the participants may be altered.

12. “Lesbianism-Poetry//Poetry-Lesbianism” by Amy Sara Carroll

A discussion of lesbian themes in poetry, focusing solely on 20th century work.

13. “Contemporary Lesbian Fiction: Into the Twenty-First Century” by Emma Parker

A consideration of lesbian literature in an era when it can be written and published as “mainstream literature.” The discomfort some writers have with categorization and labeling, in some cases particularly with “lesbian” as a label. A perception that self-identified “lesbian literature” has diversity issues and presents a false image of a unified community consciousness. The shift from “coming out” novels to works that take the characters’ identities for granted. Issues of motivation and representation in lesbian historical fiction. [Note: As in other articles in this collection, the author seems to be either unaware of, or disinterested in, historical fiction outside of “literary” works.]

14. “Comics, Graphic Narratives, and Lesbian Lives” by Heike Bauer

A survey of graphic stories (in the “stories told in pictures” sense, not the sexual sense) and the place of graphic stories within literary theory. Includes both classic works by artists like Bechdel and DiMassa as well as queer representation in “superhero” comics.

Appendix: A Guide to Further Reading

Several select reading lists for further exploration, including one page focusing on literature and cultural history before 1850. [Note: There are even 3 titles there that aren’t in my database yet!]

historical