Taking pride in Penguin Pride

I greeted the news that Penguin Random House UK has launched Penguin Pride with pleasure and some disbelief nobody had thought of it sooner. Depressingly, we must call ourselves fortunate in Britain to have the freedom for campaigns like Penguin Pride to be possible. In Russia, laws prohibiting gay 'propaganda' have been stretched to include even books with the broad theme of tolerance and the editor of Bangladesh’s only LGBT magazine was hacked to death with an axe. The efforts of conservative regimes to forbid LGBT visibility in the arts show how much it matters.

Visibility and rediscovery are doubly important for women, who have been discouraged and even vilified for writing at all for much of history. A male writer can feel he is engaging with literary ancestors from Pindar to Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde. Being able to identify with a tradition is an important act of self-legitimisation, especially if society at large has tried to delegitimise you as a human and a writer. Although life for gay men has not been easy and still isn’t, historically they haven’t faced as many barriers to publication, if their writing was sufficiently euphemistic.

It has taken far longer for lesbian authors to make it into the canon, given that for centuries it was scandalous for women to publish at all and their work was deemed inferior when they did. Radclyffe Hall faced obscenity trials for The Well of Loneliness on both sides of the Atlantic. Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood is still only secondary reading on Modernism courses, where A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce is mandatory.

Access to such classics would have meant an awful lot to me as a teenager, growing up in the long, dark shadow of Section 28, the piece of Thatcherite legislation that forbade discussion of LGBT issues in schools. The legacy of various obscenity trials and Section 28 has been that commissioning LGBT fiction has been viewed as bad business and likely to backfire. I was horrified but unsurprised to read Joanne Harris quoting an anonymous publisher who remarked that a manuscript was "quite good, but we can’t publish two lesbian authors in one year". The pervasive idea that only minorities are interested in reading minority fiction has likely impacted lesbian writers worse than gay ones, since gay men tend to have more financial clout. The gender pay gap means that a male-male couple will probably have a greater combined income than a female-female one. That we often read books to enrich our understanding and imagine lives different from our own somehow gets ignored.

The lesbian writers who do make it into print often do much better than naysayers expect. Ali Smith's How to be Both won the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction and the Costa prize. She will be one of the authors spearheading Penguin Pride. Sarah Waters was recently named Writer of the Decade by Stonewall and Jeanette Winterson's debut Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit has been adapted for television and radio. The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson’s book about living with a gender-nonconforming partner has become a bestseller this year. Eileen Myles, a cult lesbian author who almost nobody straight had heard of, has just had her novel Chelsea Girls reissued by Serpent's Tail. Her recently published collected works are rather pointedly titled I Must Be Living Twice.

A big marketing push behind a novel by a queer BAME woman is still long overdue. Publishing is very white, in terms of both personnel and content. There have been some brilliant initiatives set up to challenge this like Spread the Word’s Flight 1000 Anthologies and Out-Spoken Press. Anthony Anaxogorou, founder of Out-Spoken, says: "A culture that is arguably monolithic and monochromatic is dismissing the voices of many people, particularly BAME writers whose stories and poems aren’t given equal platform as their white British contemporaries."

But smaller presses shouldn’t have to do this alone, it's important for large houses to get involved too. The Black and LGBT communities are very active on Twitter and Tumblr and happy to participate in outreach for projects they believe in. Young people are hungry for events that aren't centred around drinking, for instance LGBT salon Polari and poetry nights at inclusive venues like Rich Mix. Publisher support for bookshops is more vital than ever, and this includes specialty ones like Gay's The Word.

If initiatives like Penguin Pride succeed, they will prove that diverse commissioning decisions and thinking outside the box can be profitable as well as worthwhile.

Leonora Craig Cohen is currently an intern at Profile Books and was a contributor to the 2016 Enders Analysis 'Novel Disruption' report