Out of the closet and into bookshops: where are all the queer books?

I came of queer age on a steady diet of lesbian films, purchased covertly at university, and hidden under my bed when back home. Films with brilliant titles such as “The Itty Bitty Titty Committee”, “Watermelon”, “I Can’t Think Straight” and “Better Than Chocolate” (yes, it is what you think) taught me a huge amount about what it meant to be a queer woman. These films weren’t always easy to come by - this was before Netflix, before Sandi Toksvig was on TV, before “Orange Is the New Black” and “Moonlight”. The lesbian and queer pickings were slim, and predominantly featured white characters. I watched everything I could get my hands on - films about each letter of the LGBTQ spectrum - wanting to understand the breadth and depth of the new community I’d joined. But eventually the internet’s well of queer films ran dry. 

So I went looking for the books. I’d soon read James Baldwin, Christopher Isherwood, Brett Easton Ellis and Thomas Mann. But I wanted something that looked like me, something beyond the white gay men or the lesbian film where everyone dies at the end. Starting with Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness nearly had me abandoning the whole thing together. (If you haven’t read it, be warned: it does what it says on the tin...) Praise the lord for Stella Duffy, Sarah Waters, Nella Larson, Carol Ann Duffy, and Jeanette Winterson. I discovered Val McDermid when she came to speak at university, and she fast became my favourite crime writer. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was a gift that came just at the right time - perfect for a queer student simultaneously navigating an English degree and dating. I will keep the exquisite letters that Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West wrote to each other close to me for the rest of my life. Woolf’s Orlando was one of the first (and only) novels I’ve read that even nodded at gender identity, or being trans. So, there are great queer writers, but you’ve got to go looking. 

The last few years have brought us Juliet Jacques’ Trans: A Memoir, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Hanya Yanagihara’s outstanding novel A Little Life. Also some great YA: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson, Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky. There are some great LGBTQ characters in sci-fi and fantasy too, in books by Ursula K LeGuin, Becky Chambers and Charlie Jane Anders.

But if you step out of these genres and into the bestseller lists, queer gets a lot harder to find. Val McDermid’s new crime novel, Out of Bounds, went straight to number one this year in paperback. But McDermid herself has said that she had to write a heterosexual series to get her lesbian detective novels read. Finding lesbian and trans novelists and characters in the bestseller lists is not easy, and as The Bookseller has shown, writers of colour are conspicuously absent too.

After last year’s well-publicised #OscarsSoWhite backlash to the 2016 nominations, who would have thought that we would see “Hidden Figures” and “Fences” shortlisted and “Moonlight” win Best Picture? No one’s holding the Oscars up as the bastion of inclusivity and diversity, but it certainly shows that change is possible, and even in the most mainstream taste-making institutions. And it meant a lot to see “Moonlight” win an Oscar. After years of going to the cinema to watch films aimed at a primarily white, straight audience, mainstream recognition for a beautiful film about a life lived black and gay is long overdue. And certainly commercial: “Moonlight” has now grossed $65 million. Not a bad ROI for a film that cost $1.5 million to make. 

With change comes criticism. The mainstream media reviewers are used to a certain type of film, a certain type of novel. The Times’ self-satisfied review of “Moonlight” called it neither “urgent” nor “relevant”. Reading between the lines of this article, you could tell that the reviewer was used to seeing themselves as the main character, the centre of attention onscreen, and unsure of how to review a film with a different perspective. Welcome. Come join the rest of us at the cinema, most the time, watching films that don't reflect or represent us. But the numbers speak for themselves: there is a huge audience waiting for a film that tells a different story.

After seeing “Moonlight” win the Oscar, I started wondering: where are the books? Where are the big, blockbuster frontlist fiction titles for 2017 telling different stories? Matt Cain, editor of gay magazine Attitude wrote in The Bookseller recently: “When I’ve pitched gay-themed fiction to mainstream publishers, I’ve been told either that the idea isn’t commercial enough or that there’s no market for it.” A recent trip to Waterstones Piccadilly’s LGBTQ section had a lovely display of...backlist titles only. In short: we’re just not publishing enough queer writers or characters, particularly lesbian, trans and POC authors. The received wisdom is that 10% of the population is queer. That’s just a conservative estimate, giving us 6.5 million potential new readers.

What gives me hope is the incredible launch party a few months back for Amy Lamé’s beautiful history of the LGBTQ movement: From Pride to Prejudice (Wayland Books). Amy’s book is aimed at children and teachers to get more LGBTQ history into the hands and the minds of the next generation. Unbelievably, it’s the first LGBTQ history booked aimed at young people to be published in this country. Reading it reminds me of just how many stories our community has to share. Recently the inaugural LGBTQ books event, ‘Invisible Outlaws’, was a joyful night showcasing the incredible diversity of creativity that exists in our community.

And it’s not like the writers aren’t there. They’re on Wattpad, on Instagram and on Tumblr. Doing what queer people do: occupying spaces to make them our own. In this important year: 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality, let’s sign up more LGBTQ stories and authors. And really celebrate the diversity of that spectrum: trans people of colour, invisible bisexuals, genderqueer lesbians –  the gay male experience is important but it’s not a stand-in for everything we have to offer. Out of the closet and into the bookshops: let’s publish more queer voices.

Maisie Lawrence is the fiction editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster UK and a co-founder of Pride in Publishing, the LGBTQ group for people in publishing. For more information on Pride in Publishing, click here.