When I started my internship at the Sexual Minorities Archives this year, one of the first tasks that I had to take over was cataloguing books that had been recently donated and had yet to be shelved.
As I looked at the pile of around 100 pieces of literature that sat on the gleaming “dining room” table at the house-turned-archive, I was intimidated by the task ahead of me but mostly just excited to learn about what these volumes might contain. “Just know,” the curator and executive director of the archive, Ben Power, warned, “there’s a lot of lesbian fiction in this pile. Like, a lot.”
In the moment, I was not especially struck by this comment, as there were many books on the table and I simply assumed that there was a slight majority of lesbian fiction books. I was mistaken, I soon learned, after getting through an initial 15 or so and finding that the remainder were all, in fact, lesbian fiction.
When I say lesbian fiction, I don’t mean just fiction books that happen to feature a lesbian character. Lesbian fiction is a category of its own, and the 85 novels in front of me were only representative of the tip of the iceberg of the archive’s holdings, something that I found out when I opened the catalogue and was met with 98 whole pages listing only lesbian fiction books.
What struck me most about these books was not the sheer volume of them, but the content I was able to glean from reading their back covers. When trying to explain these books to friends, I found myself opening the story with saying “I can’t believe lesbians have taken it upon themselves to write thousands of the worst books imaginable.” I don’t think that literature can or should be quantified as “good” or “bad” per se, this was mostly just a glib way of describing the extremely specific niche that these lesbian novels take up. They all have the word “season” (or another ambiguous and fluffy word) in the title, often follow a sultry yet busty detective with a troubled past, and all contain salacious sex scenes that are previewed on the inside cover. They are, for lack of a better term, deliciously trashy. And abundant.
As I catalogued them, I noticed that these books were all published by the same few presses, namely Naiad Press and Bella Books, both located in Tallahassee, FL. This got me interested in what these presses generally published – were they strictly lesbian presses? How long have they been in operation? I did some research and found that they have been around much longer than I had anticipated, with Naiad Press opening in 1973 and Bella Books opening in 1999, both as institutions that were dedicated to publishing lesbian literature.
Both primarily existed as mail-order services, as many bookstores refused to stock their books, but were clearly successful based on the sheer number of books that they published. From looking at the catalogue for the lesbian fiction section at the archive, it seems as though authors writing these novels would sign contracts with the presses and write a new novel every year or so for them to publish. This was sustainable because, in the wise words of Ben Power, “lesbians love to read.” Not only do lesbians love to read, lesbians love to read literature that reflects and discusses their own experiences in some way, even if they aren’t a shy but sassy redheaded horse jockey with a secret. While, in my opinion, these books are a little silly, I think that they serve a real purpose in providing media to a community that is often either underrepresented or misrepresented in popular culture. They may not be the most accurate or glamorous representation of our community, but these books were written by lesbians, with lesbians in mind, and I think that warrants celebration.