“Covering” Contemporary Queer Fiction

At first glance, Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North — a gripping tale of women fighting a repressive government in dystopian near-future Britain — and Jennifer Cody Epstein’s The Painter From Shanghai — a debut novel about Chinese post-Impressionist painter Pan Yuliang — have little in common beyond their authors’ skill.

Look again: both have bisexual heroines, and include same-sex love affairs in their plots.

But you can’t tell that from reading the backs of the books. In fact, if you stumbled on either one in your local library or an online bookstore, you might have no idea they have any queer content.

Lesbian and bisexual readers are used to their lives being invisible in pop culture. But the tremendous surge in visibility of the last two decades has not bypassed bookshelves, and many books with LGBT subjects have had out-and-proud jackets.

Felicia Luna Lemus’ novels of Latina gender-queer life, for instance, pull no punches about their protagonists’ transgender identities, and it’s rare to find a young adult title with lesbian or bisexual content that tries to hide it.

You’d think that the same would be true for adult literature – that it’d be old hat by now to mention a same-sex love affair on a book jacket – but both Daughters of the North and The Painter from Shanghai were published in April 2008 in the U.S. (Daughters was first published in the UK in 2007 under the title The Carhullan Army.) Yet, as with many similar titles, their jacket and flap copy, blurbs and even many reviews omit any mention of their same-sex romances.

This type of marketing is an example of what gay legal expert Kenji Yoshino (Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights) describes as “covering,” the toning down of a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream.

Kenji Yoshino

Author photo credit: Beth Kelly

Apparently it’s become acceptable to publish books with bisexual or lesbian characters, but not to call attention to the fact.

Book marketing is all about calling attention to the book, in the hopes that prospective readers will buy it. Publishers want the largest possible audience for the largest possible sales, and may think revealing too much about a book’s contents will scare off straight readers.

At the same time, however, they need to send subtle clues to LGBT readers.

Linda Villarosa’s Passing for Black is a great example. The book description refers to sexual liberation (“a chance meeting leaves Angela consumed with desire for an intriguing stranger”) and transformation in terms most lesbian or bisexual readers would pick up on, but avoids any mention of coming out. It’s the blurb-writers (including E. Lynn Harris and Staceyann Chin) who make the plot explicit, and their words are literally covered — located inside the book.

Author Linda Villarosa

But is such marketing really necessary in 2008? Is it a backlash to recent victories for the rights of same-sex couples, or just another step sideways in the shaky progress of visibility?

Covered books might, in fact, be an inevitable step in the mainstreaming process.