“Covering” Contemporary Queer Fiction

The flap copy on The Night Watch, for instance, describes that book as “a novel of relationships” filled with “sexual adventure.” (“Sexual adventure” is a triple-bonus code word. It’s like the bat signal for bisexual women and lesbians.)

6) Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. You can’t tell from the flap copy of Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads that its main characters include two slave women in love on an 18th-century Haitian plantation and a bisexual black courtesan in 19th-century Paris. Hopkinson’s previous works (with the exception of one very sexy short story) are pretty straight. But when a book wins the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Novel, it’s a big fat clue.

The Lamdba Literary Award is the best-known queer literary prize, but the Stonewall Book Award, the Golden Crown Award and the Gaylactic Spectrum Award (for the best LGBT representation in sci-fi, fantasy or horror) also bring queer books to wider attention. The James Tiptree, Jr. Award (for the best work of speculative fiction that expands or explores ideas of gender) often goes to books with lesbian (Ammonite), bisexual (Daughters of the North) or transgender (China Mountain Zhang) protagonists and significant queer content.

Note that if the prize is too obviously queer (as with Hopkinson’s), the book’s cover and other marketing may not mention it. Daughters of the North’s cover mentions the mainstream John Rhys Llewellyn Prize, but not the Tiptree. It’s more reliable to check the prize websites directly for both winners and runners-up.

Tiptree Award winners

7) Analyze the Author. The skills we use to find allies in daily life also work on authors. Does the author description refer openly to a same-sex partner? Does the book’s dedication seem Sapphic? Or do the author’s previous works include titles like Passions Between Women and the Mammoth Book of Lesbian Short Stories? Hmm …

8) Look for all-female settings. While in real life, lesbians and bisexual women are everywhere, on the shelves they tend to congregate in brothels, prisons, convents, boarding schools and women’s colleges. The nameless narrator of Daughters of the North joins a rural feminist co-op; The Painter From Shanghai’s Pan Yuliang has an affair with a fellow prostitute; Gail Tsukiyama’s Women of the Silk includes a relationship between two women in an all-female silk factory.

9) Crack the Spine. When all else fails, open the book and see what you find, and whether it’s enough to make you want to keep reading.