In 2012, the literary critic Suzi Feay lamented the lack of new lesbian voices in UK publishing. Describing what she saw as “a shortage of lesbian writers in Britain today”, she wondered who would follow in the footsteps of established authors like Ali Smith, Sarah Waters and Jeanette Winterson. Writing in The Guardian, Feay asked “where are all the new lesbian writers?”
Where indeed? Feay was writing as one of the judges of The Polari First Book Prize, which I founded in 2011. I shared her frustration. The prize is dedicated to British LGBTQ debut authors in all their diversity. Yet for the first few years, the number of submissions from male authors vastly outnumbered those from women – and there were very few books from writers who weren’t white or middle-class.
What a difference a decade makes. As the prize celebrates its tenth year, the range of LGBTQ books published in the UK is richer and ever more diverse. In the past year alone we’ve seen debuts like Queer Intentions by Amelia Abraham, Life As A Unicorn by Amrou Al-Khadi, Surge by Jay Bernard, A Love Story for Bewildered Girls by Emma Morgan and The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney by Okechukwu Nzelu. Even 2019 joint Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo features a non-binary character in her award-winning Girl, Woman, Other – the title of which speaks of gender diversity and inclusion. (It’s worth remembering that one of Evaristo’s earlier novels was Mr Loverman, about an elderly black British man with a secret gay love life.)
One of the most talked about debut novels of 2020 is Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez, while praises have poured in for No Modernism Without Lesbians by the celebrated historian Diana Souhami – proof, if it were needed, that the L-word is no longer seen as commercial suicide.
So what happened? Over the past decade, changing attitudes towards self publishing and the growth of crowdfunding projects like Unbound have offered alternative opportunities for emerging authors deemed “too niche” for the mainstream publishing market. Ours is one of the few book prizes open to self-published work. Indeed, our first ever winner was a self-published memoir – Autofellatio by James Maker, described as “a glam-rock Naked Civil Servant in court shoes”.
The role of independent publishers is equally important. Often, smaller presses will go where bigger publishers fear to tread. Companies like Myriad, Orenda, Salt, Team Angelica and Tollington regularly publish books with LGBTQ themes and characters. Some have even produced past Polari prize winners.
Meanwhile, bigger publishers are demonstrating a greater commitment to diversity, whether it’s Penguin’s Pride initiative or LittleBrown’s imprint Dialogue Books – which published our 2019 prize winner XX by Angela Chadwick. It’s no exaggeration to say that Dialogue is doing for LGBTQ and BAME writers what the same company’s Virago does for women.
Over the past ten years we’ve seen the number of prize submissions grow year on year – with more books from mainstream publishers and far more women writers to the fore. A year after Suzi Feay’s article was published, we had our first female Polari First Book Prize winner – Mari Hannah with her debut crime novel The Murder Wall, published by Pan Macmillan. In 2018, our winner was Elmet by Fiona Mozley, published by John Murray. And in 2019, we added another prize for non-debut books, which was won by Andrew McMillan for his second poetry collection Playtime, published by Jonathan cape.
Two years ago, Alan Hollinghurst caused a stir when he declared that “the gay novel has had its day”. I think it depends on which gay novels you’re talking about. Certainly there’s less demand for a singular gay literary tradition – male, white, usually middle class, often a coming out story. But what about women’s voices, working class voices or those of trans people and writers from black and minority ethnic backgrounds? In the last few years alone, we’ve seen prize-winning books about growing up gay during the Troubles in Northern Ireland (The Good Son by Paul McVeigh), life as a queer Somalian refugee in the UK (Fairytales for Lost Children by Diriye Osman) and the struggles faced by gay men in the Arab world (Guapa by Saleem Haddad).
Of course, there’s still room for improvement. It’s worth noting that these last three books were all published by smaller independents. And with many such publishers currently fighting for survival due to the impact of coronavirus, the future looks uncertain.
But for now at least, there’s cause for celebration. As our judges reveal this year’s long list today, the message to publishers of LGBTQ books in the UK is loud and clear – you’ve come a long way, baby.
The tenth annual Polari First Book Prize long list will be announced on Twitter as a digital ceremony between 5:00pm- 5:30pm today. The handle is @PolariPrize.
Paul Burston is the founder of The Polari Prize and the author of six novels including The Closer I Get (Orenda Books).