Last year I co-founded the Green Carnation Prize, a literary award which aims to promote great works of fiction and memoir by LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) authors.
The prize came about after the announcement of last year's Man Booker longlist, when author Paul Magrs tweeted that it was "scandalous" there was no UK prize aimed solely at gay writers. I agreed. Yes, there is Stonewall's Writer of the Year, but nothing with a long and shortlist. My initial role was to spread the word with publishers and get them onside through the contacts I had made with my blog Savidge Reads, and of course read those submissions.
I thought this would be easy. All the publishers needed to do was send five copies of whichever books they wished to submit; there was no money needed, no commitment to advertising, yet there would be publicity both within the LGBT community and outside of it. So imagine my surprise when some of the biggest publishers in the UK, who normally send lots of unsolicited copies my way, suddenly went silent.
This has been highlighted again recently as the Green Carnation team launches its call for submissions for 2011. Those publishers who supported the prize last year have jumped at the chance and we've had some big names submitted—Alan Hollinghurst, Alan Bennett, Val McDermid—along with "unknown" and debut authors.
But sadly yet again some publishers are hushing up. The head of publicity at one of the largest, even exclaimed "LGBT?!" before saying "X is a lesbian, but to be honest, I don't think she'd like to get an award for being one." In that case should all the Orange Prize judges pack up now as they are only awarding a prize to a woman? I think not. That publicist's statement misses the entire point of the prize and highlights there are still sexuality issues in the industry.
The whole point of literature is that it opens our eyes to the lives of others. It seems as if straight authors, such as, for example, Jodi Picoult, whose Sing You Home contains a lesbian love affair, have an LGBT-themed book out then people like me who work in the gay press should be clambering to review them. Indeed we have been told by some publishers that a prize for books with an LGBT theme by any author would be a "more viable book prize". This all seems to miss the point. Does this mean a "safer" prize?
These very attitudes, along with "well, I don't know if we publish any LGBT authors", are the reason behind the Green Carnation Prize. While sexuality isn't the big hoo-ha it once was we are no means at a stage where it doesn't continue to ruffle a few feathers—or pages in this case. Some authors are told not to out themselves; some don't want to and that's their choice.
But where can younger LGBT readers find the books that, while they may not always have an LGBT storyline, still have that sensibility provided by an LGBT author? And why should we not reward LGBT authors—whether they are writing about a "gay subject" or not?
The question is—do we "out" those publishers who still hold this archaic don't ask/don't tell attitude?