Beyond The Segregated Book Ghetto

Last week, I wrote a post at Silverstring Media about the risk of ghettoizing stories for certain demographics, the risk of (for example) labeling a story within a transmedia property as the gay story, and thus ensuring no one else will ever experience it, and that the driving platform (the mainstream storyline) will not feature the gay character very much.

This ghettoizing of demographics certainly occurs beyond transmedia; it’s a constant scene in bookstores. When I walk into a bookstore  I begin looking for certain things.

I check out the teen fiction section as research for my career. I look for what books are front and centre, how big the section is (it seems to be growing, but the selection isn’t always there), etc. I usually check out the mythology section (if they have one) to see if there are any more obscure mythologies I’d be interested in (or just more Greco-Roman). And I look for an LGBT section.

I honestly have somewhat mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I’ve talked before about the arbitrary and elitist labeling of genres in bookstores.

For example, why is Oryx and Crake in “Fiction” or (worse) “Literature”, and not in “Science Fiction”? Is it because Margaret Atwood wrote it? Is she somehow superior, or different, to Heinlein and Asimov and Gibson?

There is this sense of ghettoizing specific to LGBT books — if they’re not put with the rest of non-LGBT fiction, no one will find or read them unless they’re specifically looking for them. I don’t think most LGBT books would be particularly less appealing to straight readers. I read about straight characters all the time.

However, by restricting those books to their own little shelf, you ghettoize them, removing them from the bulk “mainstream” fiction, keeping them out of sight for those who don’t look for them, as if they’d make people uncomfortable.

On the other hand, I find myself judging bookstores harshly if they don’t have an LGBT section (or, as it’s widely called, a “gay and lesbian” section — because clearly those are the only queer demographics out there…).

If I walk into a store and I want to find books about my life, my demographic, I’d like them all to be in one section for easy discovery. Otherwise I might not know that a book has a gay main character or theme, and that’s what I’m looking for.

But then, “gay and lesbian” sections tend to be mostly romance or erotica. Nothing wrong with those, but it comes across like that’s all we’d read. And why aren’t those books shelved in the general Romance or Erotica sections?

The ideal, in my mind, would be to have an LGBT table that collects all books with LGBT characters and themes regardless of genre, but then also to shelve those books in with their respective genres (fiction, romance, sci-fi) to serve both purposes.

I know shelf space is hard to get, and it would require multiple copies of each book, so I could see that that’s probably not an option for most bookstores.

So, what do we do? Ultimately, it’ll be up to someone smarter than me figure out a solution. What I can do is make sure we’re at least talking about this.

Is there a solution? Can LGBT books find their home on the shelves of the mainstream or do our books belong in a section that is easy to find and browse, but is often ghettoized, possibly even stigmatized?
——
Read Johnson’s post: “Broadening story threads” @ silverstringmedia.com



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11 Responses to “Rethinking The LGBT Book Shelf”

  1. PatriotPaul 28 January 2011 at 9:04 AM #

    Definitely a thought-provoking article, Lucas. Our community kind of went through the same thing regarding gay bars. As we became more mainstream gay bars starting closing (as well as from other influences) but more “straight” bars became accommodating to gays and lesbians. I think there will always be a place on the table for lbgt sections as there will always be books in print as well as the soon to be more dominant electronic book. Chad Allen’s “Donald Strachey Mysteries” is another example of being hard to categorize. A need is served by both identification and assimilation.

    Paul Harris
    Author, “Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina”


    • Antonio Gonzalez Cerna 28 January 2011 at 5:29 PM #

      Thanks for your response Paul. I agree this is an important issue, one that requires a very complicated answer.

      I think the answer is to have a small LGBT table that is curated by publishers who have LGBT titles they’d like to promote. This could be something that the big retailers can offer LGBT publishers and mainstream publishers alike. At a cost of course.

      Publishers pay for every one of those tables at B&N or Borders. This is why major book contracts are so important — because the top six have the clout (and financial means) to put their books out in front and center.

      If you self-publish, good luck even getting one of the buyers at the big chains look at your work let alone place you on the LGBT shelf or on a table

      Smaller, independent, and LGBT publishers are often left out in these situations because they can’t afford table displays. In their case the LGBT shelf actually gives them free publicity.

      Maybe if the smaller houses were to create agreements with each other — a network of LGBT publishers — perhaps they could share in the cost of table displays at the major chains. Pending approval from the bigwigs at those respective chains — though frankly those chains aren’t doing very well either. Borders, I’ve read, is suffering.

      But the average LGBT-relevant book should probably be shelved in its respective category: nonfiction, history, fiction, mystery, speculative, biography, etc.

      When you get to the romance and erotica genres, things get complicated. In these cases, the current system works just fine — in fact, it probably helps boost sales for other authors entering that market. In this scenario authors WANT their books shelved next to a bestselling author like Radclyffe.

      However, if these are the only books in the LGBT section, then readers can have a warped view of what an LGBT book is or isn’t – which leads us back full circle to our conundrum: to shelve or not to shelve.

      Frankly, it’s all a waste of time for us, because in my experience, authors who are published by major houses (Random House, Harper Collins, Penguin, Macmillan) aren’t marketed as LGBT title.

      Look at any catalog from any of the top six catalogs and you won’t find the words: gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans. This is done on purpose, because these authors DON’T want to share the stigma of the LGBT bookshelf. This also limits an author who is likely wanting to sell books to the largest audience possible.

      Sarah Waters, Emma Dongohue, Patricia Cornwell, and Michael Cunningham– who are all out and proud, and who often include LGBT characters in their work– are all marketed as mainstream — and to be honest, it’s in the authors’ best interest, because more people will read their books.

      If you’re an author who is writing about LGBT teen issues, you want to be in the Young Adult section, not LGBT.

      If you’re a literary novelist who happens to have a major gay or trans character in your latest book, you want to be shelved under fiction, not LGBT.

      I could go on.

      In the future we probably won’t need the LGBT shelf, because our work will be seen and accepted and equal to mainstream books. But by then, we’ll all be reading e-books.


  2. Andy 28 January 2011 at 10:22 PM #

    This is a topic I’ve pondered as well, Lucas, with the same mixed feelings: I don’t want LGBT books ghettoized, but I want to be able to find them as well. One, sort-of solution is the web-based warehouses like Amazon and B&N.com where you can search for books based on keywords. Tens of thousands of books come up with a simple “gay” search keyword, but the top returns–pages and pages–are all erotica. You can refine your search by adding “fiction,” “mystery,” “young adult,” etc., with a little better results, but I often wonder if some mainstream books are left out. For example, an Amazon search of “gay young adult” returns 770 titles, still mainly in a romance/erotica genre.

    Another issue is the decline (near extinction) of LGBT bookstores. Even the few that are left, stores or on-line ventures, have a limited selection (LGBT genre fiction being particularly hard to find in my experience) and can’t compete price-wise with the big chains.


  3. Marshall Thornton 30 January 2011 at 10:56 AM #

    It seems to me that the bigger problem is that these chains are simply not stocking GLBT books period. I live in Long Beach, CA which has a very large GLBT population and neither the Borders or the Barnes and Noble has what I’d call a decent GLBT section, nor do they really stock GLBT books elsewhere in the store. I’d be happy to find them anywhere.

    Marshall Thornton
    Author of The Perils of Praline


    • Antonio Gonzalez Cerna 30 January 2011 at 10:48 PM #

      Great to hear from you Marshall.

      I think Andy has a point, perhaps we should create better resources online for curating or selecting or offering better quality (or any!) LGBT-relevant literature.

      Amazon is one thing, but the filters they create aren’t very thorough. I wonder if Amazon or B&N.com would consider publishing the Lambda Literary Award winners as lists on their respective sites?

      Or better, perhaps we should link our entire archive of winners/finalists to all the online retailers. That’s a start right?

      A Question: When you go into a bookstore do you look for LGBT table/shelf first or do you browse the bestsellers first? I’m just curious. I do both.


  4. Sally 31 January 2011 at 1:21 PM #

    I think this is where online bookstores come very handy. Without the limitations of shelf space and the costs of duplicating stock, books can be shelved under a proper genre (Fantasy, Romance, etc.) and under their appropriate LGBT umbrella.

    Personally, without the LGBT bookshelves in stores, I would have missed out on some great reads growing up. I still remember the first time I found a dedicated shelf while browsing stores in Toronto and feeling like I’d just won the lottery. Yeah, it was mostly romance and erotica, but these were characters I identified with and wanted to read about.

    Maybe the solution is a combination of online reference and in-store shopping. Have the physical bookstores shelve books under the genre they belong, without worrying about the gender identity or sexuality of the characters (giving those books maximum exposure). Provide an online search or catalogue (I find Chapters and Borders both do this), though, that allows you to search those all-important LGBT keywords.

    Maybe not an idea solution for smaller stores (especially used book stores), but if they offer free wi-fi so you can search those keywords on your smartphone, before browsing the physical shelves, they can probably recoup the cost in increased sales.


  5. Lucas J.W. Johnson 31 January 2011 at 5:19 PM #

    Thanks for all the comments! It’s a good discussion to be having, whatever the solution might be.

    While lists online and search filters like Amazon’s (or rather, what Amazon’s should be) can be extremely useful, I always enjoy just browsing at a bookstore, and without a LGBT section (further subdivided by genre?) that becomes hard to do if I want to find books with gay characters or themes. That’s of course the benefit of an LGBT bookstore, but as Andy pointed out, they’re disappearing fast.

    A table in a bookstore to collect the best of LGBT books would be ideal, I think, but of course expensive. I’d love to see a collection of publishers get together and do this cooperatively.

    Having the Lambda Literary Award winner lists available on Amazon and the like would be a fantastic start as well.

    And an app is simply a brilliant idea.


    • Antonio Gonzalez Cerna 1 February 2011 at 11:08 AM #

      Perhaps Lambda can help do this as well. We’re about to start a new booklists feature.

      – Books about DADT
      – Books that feature trans characters (written by both allies and LGBT authors)
      – Books by Booker Prize winners that would appeal to LGBT audiences
      – Homo love Stories by LGBT authors and LGBT-allies
      – Books about coming out
      – Bisexual Characters in literature (A Top 20 list)
      – Books that depict the Queer Latino/Afam/Asian Experience
      – The Worst Depictions of LGBT people in Literature

      …and so on and so forth…I hope this will help readers.


  6. […] b) published an article on lambdaliterary.org (http://www.lambdaliterary.org/features/01/27/rethinking-the-lgbt-book-shelf/), and c) sold a short story to a YA anthology for helping LGBT teens overcome homo-/bi-/and […]



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