“Covering” Contemporary Queer Fiction

Currently, the walls that have isolated bisexual and lesbian stories from the rest of the literary world are breaking down. Straight authors are beginning to tell stories about lesbian and bisexual characters in books like Julia Alvarez’s In the Name of Salome or Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart.

At the same time, more novelists are creating characters whose queerness is only one facet of their complicated lives. Novels like Nina Revoyr’s Southland and Achy Obejas’ Days of Awe are primarily about family legacies of race and identity; the omission of the main characters’ girlfriends from their back covers is disingenuous but not dishonest.

The bisexual narrator of Lê Thi Diem Thúy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For focuses so tightly on her Vietnamese parents that mentioning her sexuality in the book’s marketing would be misleading. And revealing the queer content in a book like Jackie Kay’s Trumpet would give away too much of the plot.

In other words, some novels may be covered because they can be.

Both Daughters of the North and The Painter From Shanghai explore themes of identity and love in the face of external repression apart from their main characters’ affairs with women. Those experiences are important thematically and to the characters, but it is possible to describe the story arcs without mentioning them.

Is covering necessarily a bad thing? Omitting any reference to the characters’ sexuality might make straight readers more likely to pick them up, and encounter bisexual and lesbian characters with whom they can identify. Marketing like this might change minds, or at least advance the incremental process by which the straight majority becomes comfortable with LGBT people, fictional or not.

On the other hand, images of lesbians and bisexual women are still scarce enough that readers cherish finding reflections of themselves, and there’s clearly a double standard at work when you consider how book marketing presents straight relationships. (When has a book jacket aimed at female readers avoided using the word “husband”?)

As Yoshino argues, as long as the demand to cover exists — if straight people have to be fooled into picking up a novel with an LGBT character — then whatever tolerance we have won is at best provisional.

Moreover, covered marketing seems more pronounced with novels by or about lesbian or bisexual women of color.

Publishers probably think these books already have a barrier in finding a mainstream (in other words, white and straight) audience, and opt to tone down other signs of difference. Bisexual characters are also especially prone to being erased in their marketing. The problem, then, is that covering renders further invisible the people who are most often left out of what visibility the LGBT community has attained.

Finally, many of us are looking for stories like these, in which characters struggling with other challenges just happen to be lesbian or bisexual, and marketing like this makes them harder to find.

So what’s reader to do? There are ways to find books like these despite their marketing. Read on for tips on uncovering novels.

Nine Tips for Finding Covered Literature

1) Read Reviews. Far and away the best way to find the books in the library closet is to read book reviews, which provide fuller character and plot descriptions, as well as judgments on quality. While traditional sources of book reviews have cut their coverage dramatically in recent years, literary blogs have started to pick up some of the slack, and some (like the UK-based Eve’s Alexandria) regularly include books of lesbian and bisexual interest in their mix.

Websites like this one, and the subscription e-newsletter Books to Watch Out For: The Lesbian Edition also feature books whose lesbian or bisexual characters might otherwise slip under the radar.

2) Read the Blurbs (also known as Spot the Lesbian). Probably the number-one way publishers signal lesbian and bisexual content is by getting out authors to provide a brief promotional paragraph, or blurb, for the back cover or jacket. Dorothy Allison, Sarah Waters, Ali Smith and Octavia Butler may all be tip-offs; so are comparisons of the author to writers like these.

Extra points if the blurb references a book or film with lots of queer content, as in “Jewelle Gomez, author of The Gilda Stories,” or “Passing for Black is Kissing Jessica Stein meets Good Hair.”

3) Use Word of Mouth. Good books are like good friends you can return to, but good friends can lead you to good books. Talk to your bookworm friends or join a like-minded book club, and above all, return the favor by passing on your own recommendations.

4) Know Your Authors. If you’ve read Canadian poet and novelist Helen Humphreys’ Afterimage, which treats the attraction between a pioneering female photographer and her housemaid and muse, the sexual tension between women in her other novels won’t surprise you. One of the best ways to find queer content is to follow the careers of authors, out or otherwise, who reguarly write it. The American flap copy for Sarah Waters’ most recent book, The Night Watch, doesn’t mention that three of her four main characters are queer, but anyone who’s read her previous books could bet on it.

5) Crack the Code. Like the famous “hanky code” used by gay and bisexual men in the pre-Stonewall era, covered literature has its own set of private signals. Look for code phrases like “bold eroticism and unflinching honesty” (Pearl Luke’s Burning Ground), “explosive new passion” (Passing for Black), or “shocking” (all the rest). Does the jacket avoid using pronouns to describe lovers? You’ve got a fifty-fifty chance they’re a same-sex couple.