Monday, May 5, 2008

Winners vs. Classics

Award season has started. Nominations have closed, short lists are being announced, and excitement and anticipation are building.

Every year, looking at the various lists of winners, I find myself with mixed feelings. The American Library Association's GLBT awards, now known as the Stonewall Book Award and Barbara Gittings Literature Award are the earliest GLBT book awards, dating back to 1971. The Lambda Literary Awards and Publishing Triangle Awards both began in 1988; while the Golden Crown Literary Society is still the new kid on the block founded in 2004. I am proud
that in my lifetime, organizations have been founded to honor books that reflect and validate the lesbian experience. However, invariably there are titles that I would have liked to have seen honored that weren't short listed, let alone granted an award.

This year,
that thought prompted me to consider books that never won an award but have the publishing version of "living well is the best revenge." The titles listed below are now considered classics. All pre-date most such awards. However, as part of that "classic" characteristic, they are still in print, or so frequently so as to be readily available in the secondary market, and they have touched untold lives since their first appearance.

The Price of Salt, Claire Morgan (aka Patricia Highsmith) 1951. Originally produced in hardcover, The Price of Salt appeared shortly after Highsmith’s success, Strangers on a Train. Yet due to the controversial, not to mention illegal subject matter, it was released under a pseudonym. The Price of Salt was the first novel in English (I don’t know about other languages) that ended with the two female leads surviving to love each other. No murder. No suicide. No jail time. No one married the Y-type ... or more correctly, Carol got divorced and went after the girl. Wow.

Spring Fire, Vin Packer (aka Marijane Meaker) 1952. Now credited with launching the lesbian themed pulp genre, Spring Fire was the first of some 20 titles written by Ms. Meaker before Stonewall. As Ann Aldrich, she wrote a series of non-fiction (and controversial) titles printed in from 1955 to 1972. In 1970, Gene Damon (Barbara Grier, co-founder of Naiad Press) in The Ladder (Daughters of Bilitis newsletter) referred to Ms. Meaker as "the evil genius" for her excellent writing about unpleasant and unsatisfactory lesbian themes. Ms. Meaker has written award winning teen novels under the name, M.E. Kerr and in 2003 released a memoir of her two year relationship with Highsmith. Spring Fire has been re-released by Cleis Press in 2004 and is now available in ebook formats.

Odd Girl Out, Ann Bannon, 1957. The first of five novels in the "Beebo Brinker Chronicles" was Odd Girl Out and while the Beebo books have a certain campy quality of the time; they were a relatively positive depiction of lesbians. They granted women an alternative to heterosexual “Susie Homemaker” in the years before Stonewall. Ms. Bannon has said that Vin Packer's novels were an inspiration to her.

Desert of the Heart, Jane Rule, 1964. Perhaps better known for being the inspiration behind the movie, Desert Hearts, Jane Rule's work was groundbreaking in the matter of fact quality of the lesbian relationship. After several rejections as not negative enough toward lesbianism, it was originally released in hardcover. The relationship is touching and thoughtful, but it's not the focus of the novel which has much to say about gambling and capitalism as well as loneliness.

Ruby Fruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown, 1973. Ms. Brown is better known today for her anthropomorphizing mysteries, the Mrs. Murphy series and Master of the Hunt Sister Jane series. However, Ruby Fruit Jungle is arguably the best selling lesbian novel. First released by Daughters Inc (a now defunct feminist press), it went through numerous editions before Ruby Fruit Jungle was sold to Bantam. With her humor and outrageous adventures Molly Bolt has seen unknown thousands of women out of the closet with a new defiant joy and affection. Reading Ms. Brown’s bio on her website is rather fun.

Annie on My Mind, Nancy Garden, 1982. One of the most banned books in America, Garden dared to te
ll the charming, confusing, touching story of two high school girls falling in love and coming out. Garden has written dozens of books for children and teens and others since Annie have dealt with lesbian and gay themes, most notably The Year They Burned the Books, 1999 and Endgame, 2006. The former was inspired by the controversy around Annie while the latter deals with the violent response of youth to repeatedly hostile bullying. My personal favorite of Garden's lesbian themed books is Good Moon Rising, 1996. However, Annie and Liza’s story (which has even been adapted into a play) still reigns for its groundbreaking.

Curious Wine, Katherine V. Forrest, 1983. Forrest didn't just raise the bar for lesbian romance with Curious Wine, she built a whole new jump course. The story of Lane and Diana is romantic, erotic and quintessentially female and feminist in ways that nothing had been before it. Further, Amateur City (1984) was the first mystery to feature a detective who was a lesbian, Kate Delafield. Ms. Forrest is now the Supervising Editor of Spinsters Ink.

Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley, 1983. MZB re-set the standard in how women might look at our cultural mythos, giving a new life to the divine female. Under the name Miriam Gardner, she wrote lesbian themed pulp novels and contributed to The Ladder. None of MZB's Darkover novels were honored by GLBT awards, nor was The Catch Trap, 1979, which featured two men who starred in the flying trapeze in the circus world and struggled with their love during the 1940s and 1950s.

Toothpick House, Lee Lynch, 1983. This was the first title of a dozen that Ms. Lynch has written, including Dusty's Queen of Hearts Diner, the first of the Morton River Valley trilogy. There is a review for her most recent title, Sweet Creek here. She is perhaps best known for her for her column the Amazon Trail, which appears
in GLBT periodicals across the country. In the 1960s, Ms. Lynch also wrote for The Ladder.

Other Women, Lisa Alther, 1984. Some folks might rather Kinflicks which was released in 1976 or Original Sins, 1981, but I have a soft spot for Other Women, as it were, which focused more on lesbians, in my opinion. And therapy, a favorite pasttime for lesbians. All three books were best sellers and book club selections, which resulted in putting stories about lesbians in the hands of lots of closeted women who might not have found them otherwise.

Yes, many of these authors have been honored with other accolades and successes and obviously, they could not be honored by organizations that didn't yet exist at the time these
titles were originally released. Indeed the existence of these titles without a doubt served to prompt the creation of various GLBT literature award programs. This list is by no means complete and I welcome additional suggestions via comments. Nevertheless, it reminds one that books might not win awards, and can still win the hearts and minds of readers.

-MJ Lowe


Anonymous said...

What an informative list! I really like the old cover art. My Rubyfruit isn't that old.

What about Oranges aren't the Only Fruit?

MJ Lowe said...

Hi! Thank you for asking! Oranges are not the Only Fruit won a Whitbread Award for a First Novel. True, not a GLBT award but given that it was UK (none of the other titles are originally UK) and received a National award, I felt it didn't exactly fit my list. The same is true of Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller (which was originally released as A Place for Us, 1971) won the first ALA GLB round table award.