Val McDermid: The British Lesbian Phenomenon
July 15, 2009
Eighty years ago a well-respected British publisher brought out a new novel from a best-selling award-winning author. Within weeks, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness had been banned for obscenity by England’s Chief Magistrate and a national newspaper editor had claimed he would rather give a young person cyanide than this pernicious novel.
Hall’s crime was not that she wrote about lesbian love (albeit in some of the most tame, glum and dull prose ever composed in the service of sapphism) but that her fiction was accessible to a mass audience who would no more sit down with Virginia Woolf’s Orlando or Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood than fly through the air. It was, apparently, safe for intellectuals to be exposed to what Hall called ‘congenital sexual inverts’, but not for the common reader.
The Establishment had their way with The Well of Loneliness. But none of those politicians, journalists or churchmen could have imagined for a moment that British lesbian writers would end up taking as big a share of sales and kudos as we currently do. There’s no doubt about it – British lesbian writers are currently punching far above their weight in the literary boxing ring.
The roll call of awards alone is remarkable: Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, winner of the Whitbread Prize; Sarah Waters’ Affinity, winner of the Somerset Maugham and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, Tipping the Velvet, winner of the Betty Trask Award and Fingersmith, winner of the Crime Writers’ Assocation Historical Dagger; Ali Smith’s The Accidental, winner of the Whitbread for best novel; Jackie Kay’s Trumpet, winner of the Guardian Fiction Award; Charlotte Mendelson’s Daughters of Jerusalem, winner of the Somerset Maugham and the John Llewellyn Rhys prizes; Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience, winner of the Orange Prize for New Writers; Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room, winner of the John Creasey Memorial Dagger; and my own swag bag that includes the Gold Dagger, the LA Times Book Award, the Portico Prize for Fiction and the Grand Prix des Romans d’Aventure.
But this is a success story that goes beyond critical acclaim. It’s matched by sales. Sarah Waters, Manda Scott and I are regular fixtures in the bestseller lists, and our colleagues have sales figures the envy of most writers. Even if every lesbian in the UK was buying a copy of each of these books once a month, it still wouldn’t account for the numbers. The only explanation is that the wider reading public has learned to love lesbian writing to a degree that would have been beyond belief eighty years ago.
It’s an explanation that begs its own questions. Why? What is it about our fictions that speak to a wider world than our own community? After all, while it’s true that not all of our books contain unequivocal girl on girl action, I believe there is a lesbian sensibility that informs what we write. As Ali Smith says, “We can’t avoid our biographies. I can’t avoid where I come from and who I am and those things are going to accompany me in anything I do all the way through my life.”
It’s not necessarily what we’re thinking about when we sit down to write, but our lesbian identity does affect the way we look at the world. Sarah Waters once told me she thinks she can rely on her gaydar to alert her to lesbian writing, however heavily encoded it might be. “You’re not quite sure what it is, but there’s something…” she said.
Which is of course fascinating, but doesn’t answer the question of why we’ve burst into the mainstream with all the gusto of a boatload of whitewater rafters. Sarah Waters thinks it has something to do with a general loosening up within UK society. “I think there’s been a shift in people’s perceptions of what constitutes British literature in the past few years, so it’s not only lesbian and gay voices that have been welcomed into the mainstream, it’s a range of ethnic voices too. Our books have gone into the mainstream at the same time as novels like Brick Lane and White Teeth. I think there’s been an opening up of British culture and a relaxing of British society. Our novels have done well at the same time as we’ve made legal gains; civil partnerships have come along. There’s been a bit of sea change that would have been unimaginable even ten years ago.”
I think there’s some truth in what Sarah says. But there’s more to it than that. What has drawn the general reading public, Virginia Woolf’s common reader, to books that refuse to apologise for their characters’ choices? It can’t simply be that the books are better written than they were in the past. Writers of the caliber of Maureen Duffy and Patricia Highsmith give the lie to that.
Me, I think it’s got something to do with critical mass. Not just that there is good lesbian writing out there, but that there is so much of it, it’s impossible to ignore. Back in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher’s Tories passed oppressive legislation in a bid to shut us up. But it had the opposite effect. They wanted to take gay issues off the UK political agenda, but we’d come too far to let that happen to us. Just as happened in the US post-Stonewall, gay people were mobilized, a whole generation politicized. History shows that our determination to be heard overcame their refusal to listen. So all these terrific books started to appear and the curious readers began to pick them up. And the world of mouth started to spread.
At the same time, gay began to become cool. Queer as Folk became a surprise hit for Channel 4. Openly gay TV presenters like Julian Clary and Jean-Paul Gauthier won a straight following. And a significant tranche of the population stopped being scared of us.
It didn’t hurt that we’d begun to write fiction that’s hugely enjoyable to read. And maybe that’s part of the answer. Maybe our present success also has something to do with escaping from the weight of misery that was at the heart of The Well of Loneliness: The tradition Radclyffe Hall established of writing about crippled and damaged lives. We’ve left that behind us now. We’ve walked out into the sun and found a way to communicate our wider experience. We lesbian writers are much less obsessed with and defined by our sexuality than the straight world might think. Anyone who’s human can enjoy our work. If you’re a woman, there are aspects of our novels that may speak more clearly and deeply to you. And if you’re a lesbian – well, that’s just a bonus, really.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Since the publication of this essay in the fall of 2008, poet Carol Ann Duffy was chosen as the first woman and first lesbian Poet Laureate of England.