The year 1985 was a momentous one, and not just because of lesser events like the launch of Windows 1.0, the first broadcast of the Discovery Channel, the discovery of the Titanic, and the attempt to dupe everyone into drinking New Coke. Far more significant that all that, 1985 was the year I landed my first job in a bookstore, and several months later it became the year I kissed my first girl. She was my manager at the bookstore, but I still maintain I went for the job because of the books, not the girl. Still, I wasn’t complaining about the girl.
Those mad, mad, beautiful days of whirlwind reading and whirlwind romance came back to me in a fond rush recently when I was reading fellow contributor Lauren Baratz-Logsted’s recent column “Straight Reading Gay (On a Bench).” It is a lament, of sorts, for the tendency of bookstores to shelve books with gay themes in “Gay and Lesbian” sections, thereby making it difficult for someone like her to find them. “. . . all I could see it as was book segregation” she comments, after a frustrating search for two novels finally, finally drives her to ask a store clerk, who points her first towards the African American section, and then towards the Gay/Lesbian section in the store.
I’ve heard this complaint before—that having separate sections for books of African American interest, or Gay interest, or any other “interest” that can be devised, in effect marginalizes them. It implies that the book is more about being gay than being a good story. That it is only of interest to a certain group of people and somehow doesn’t belong over with the rest of the “real” fiction. I know authors often feel they miss potential new readers by having their books shelved in special sections. BiblioBuffet’s own Lev Raphael, a well-established author who writes across several genres (mystery, fiction, nonfiction, short stories) and several identities (gay, Jewish, child of Holocaust survivors, passionate devotee of Edith Wharton) has told me he feels unhappy about finding his books relegated to special sections if they can’t also be found in more obvious places—his mystery series actually in the mystery section, for example.
I get this, I do. But I would be very sorry to see Gay sections disappear from bookstores, or see authors whose books might be found there cease to identify with or support them. It’s a purely personal response on my part, one that goes back to that first kiss.
If you were going to come out of the closet in 1985, and you didn’t happen to live in San Francisco, then Boston was a pretty good second choice. Gay culture was vibrant and active and, more to the point, visible. There were several gay bars and at least two that catered to women. There was a gay weekly circular, and the freebie entertainment paper included gay-oriented events, articles, and classifieds (oh, those classifieds!) as a matter of course. It had been a long, hard, and very painful fight by the previous generation of gay men and lesbians to be recognized, but it meant that when I pulled away, gasping, from that first kiss—my fingers tangled in the short curls of her dark hair, her strong hands gripping hard around my waist—I stepped into a culture that was established and acknowledged, and even teetering towards being accepted.
This was true of book culture too. In the city where I was delightedly discovering how to make out with girls there were two gay bookstores and one very well-known feminist bookstore called New Words that was naturally very gay-friendly. Most bookstores in the city—and Boston had more bookstores per capita than it had take out Chinese restaurants—had “Gay/Lesbian” sections and “Women’s Studies” sections, along with the usual plethora of other identities—Native American, African American, Asian American . . . if there was a politically correct way to say it, there was a section for it in the store. Even the used bookstores in the city had shelves and sometimes whole cases marked with wavering hand-written signs in colored markers on whatever topic seemed to be politically significant at the time (the signs marking the Gay section were usually rainbow-colored and bracketed by smiley-faced double male/female symbols). There were also a growing number of publishers who specialized in gay themes; Alyson Books, which brought us Heather Has Two Mommies, Crossing Press, Firebrand Books, which would publish Dorothy Allison’s first story collection, Trash.
Within a few years, gay culture would be recognized as a serious (and lucrative) market by mainstream publishers, who started to create gay-oriented imprints with pink triangles on their spines and names like “Stonewall Editions.” By 1992—about halfway between the moment I kissed my first girl and the moment Lauren Baratz-Logsted went looking for a gay novel in a bookstore and couldn’t find it shelved in fiction—Dorothy Allison was standing in front of a crowd at a Penguin-orchestrated event at the big annual booksellers convention in Washington, DC to celebrate the publication of her novel Bastard Out of Carolina. Behind her stretched a long row of publisher exhibits people were calling “Rainbow Alley.” (And somewhere on the exhibit floor, a sales rep for St. Martin’s Press was talking excitedly to booksellers about the new story collection Dancing on Tisha B’Av, by up-and-coming gay author Lev Raphael). “We are here,” said Allison to the crowd, “We’ve arrived.”
I was standing in that crowd, and it certainly felt like it.
I’ve never quite lost that sense of exhilaration—that shining feeling of “we are here!” that I came into when I came out in Boston all those years ago. And Gay sections in bookstores have always been a part of that feeling. I, who lives my life in books, who sees the sections and divisions in the library and bookstore as a mirror of the world before me, will always want a special place for gay lives, stories, and experiences. Far from feeling marginalized, I can’t help but see the sign that says “Gay/Lesbian” over a case in a bookstore as a statement of legitimacy, even defiance. We are here.
There were, of course, other more prosaic issues at work in 2003 when Lauren went looking for a book and couldn’t find it until she checked the Gay section. She points out in her essay that this wouldn’t have happened in a library. That in a library, books are shelved sensibly and alphabetically by author. If they are novels, they are in fiction. If they aren’t, they are somewhere else. Bookstores, she seems to imply, make it hard to find books when they put them in other places “. . . so that people looking only for a certain kind of reading experience could find them.”
But a bookstore is not a library. Its purpose is not to make all books available to all people, but to sell as many books as it possibly can. And while I have no doubt that when a bookstore creates a Gay and Lesbian section on the sales floor it is in some sense a political statement, it is also a pragmatic and logistical one. They are trying to make it as easy as possible for the people most likely to buy the book to find it. And by that thinking, a novel about gay men is best put on the shelf in the Gay section, because that’s where gay men are likely to go first.
It’s a frustratingly reductive approach, but not without evidence to support it. Teenage girls buy books about teenage girls. Grade school boys buy books about wizards and superheroes. Middle-aged women buy books featuring middle-aged women dealing with the things middle-aged women deal with. Young women buy chick lit. Vampires apparently buy books about teenage girls. And the people most likely to buy gay books, presumably, are gay people. It’s all very predictable and no matter how much we might as individuals rail against being so pigeon-holed, the truth is that to publishers and bookstores and most of the industry, we all fall into some kind of “market.” So Lauren, searching for her friend’s new novel The Year of Ice, might be looking in fiction, but the bookseller, seeing that the story is about a young man falling in love with another young man, thinks “I’m going to put this wherever we’ve put Andrew Holleran and Maupin’s Tales of the City books.”
“[it] says to me that the underlying belief is that only a certain kind of person would be interested in those books and that they are not books the general public are expected to care about,” notes Lauren in her essay. If you take out the word “only,” she’s almost right. It’s a trade off. The book could have been left in fiction, where it would have to hold its own against what is traditionally the largest and most competitive section of the store. But the bookstore, by shelving her friend’s novel in the Gay section instead of general fiction, at once gives it a better chance at being noticed and all but ensures that only gay people will be doing the noticing. In Lauren’s words, they “don’t expect the general public to care” about a new gay novel. “Put the book where the people most likely to buy it will most easily find it.”—that it is the over-riding philosophy of any bookstore. (And that is why bookstores don’t usually have “Gay Young Adult” sections. Not, as Lauren suggests, because there is a spirit of egalitarianism among today’s young adults—although one can hope—but simply because a shelf labeled “Gay Young Adult” would draw more controversy and ire and angry parents than sales. Every bookseller I know carries in their head a list of favorite gay-themed titles to recommend for teens, and every one of them knows that discretion is more likely than audacity to get those books into the teenager’s hands.)
Still, there is nothing stopping the straight reader from wandering over to the Gay section to see what’s new, is there? But straight people won’t. They could, but they won’t. That’s the flip side, the darker side, to the complaint that gay sections “marginalize” their authors. Straight people will drift on by the Gay section (or the African American section) because they assume it has nothing to do with them. How much of that assumption is obliviousness and how much a lingering unease is hard to say. But they will never deliberately walk over to the Gay section of the store unless, like my friend Lauren, they are looking for something specific and have been told that is where it can be found. If you want me to read it, they seem to say, bring it on over to my side of the store.
In 2003, if Lauren had come looking for her friend’s book in the bookstore I was managing, she would have found it shelved in fiction because my store didn’t have a Gay/Lesbian section. Which was a little ironic, since I was openly gay, and so was the assistant manager, and one other part time employee, and the most popular television show at the time was about a gang of gay guys who invaded people’s homes and forcibly redecorated their living rooms. But it was a tiny store in coastal North Carolina, and we deemed that space would be better used for sections like “Southern Fiction” and “Beach Books.” I assuaged my feelings by creating periodic displays of gay literature and writing little “shelf talker” cards recommending the books on them. I also—and I think Lauren would like this—would “sneak” gay-themed titles onto the table we reserved for books being read by book clubs, on the theory that the books would at least make for a great discussion. In this way I sold many more copies of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit than one might have expected from a tiny bookstore in the buckle of the Bible Belt. And of course, many, many copies of Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.
But as gratifying as it was to hear perfectly respectable church-going elderly ladies sing out “Tawanda!” to me when they walked in the door, it never really matched those breathless happy days when my first-ever girlfriend and I would hold hands while we combed through the shelves of the women’s bookstore, looking for feminist poetry and lesbian romances to read to each other.
Lauren says that “[B]ooks written by or about gay people—it’s not a separate genre, not in the way that Science Fiction is or Romance is, where the books follow distinct genre constraints. They’re just books about human experience.” I suppose in this day and age, when things like gay marriage and being openly gay in the military are more questions of when than if, one can almost accept that. We can look back to Dorothy Allison and say, yes, we are here. But I hope that “here” will always have space for Gay sections in bookstores. They have been an indelible part of my literary landscape, my “portrait in books,” and I know—I know—that even now I am not the only one for whom this is so.
Books mentioned in this column:
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities early when as a young child she asked her parents if she could exchange the jewelry a well-meaning relative had given her for Christmas for a dictionary instead. She supported her college career with a part-time job in a bookstore, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her college career and attending scholarships and financial aid loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. She has been in the book business for over twenty years. Currently she works for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. Nicki has been a book reviewer for several magazines, her local public radio station and local television stations. She was one of the founders of The Cape Fear Crime Festival, currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers Network, and as Managing Editor of BiblioBuffet. Plus, she blogs at Will Read for Food. She manages all this by the grace of a very patient partner and the loving support of varying numbers of dogs and cats. Contact Nicki.