Sarah Waters and Emma Donoghue: Lesbian writers successful in the straight world

On the other hand, lesbian author Patricia Grossman has penned five novels and two children’s books and only one of them is gay-themed. Her most recent novel, Radiant Daughter, is an interwoven tale of familial relationships revolving around the daughter, Elise, who is bipolar and draws everyone around her into her web of manic confusion over the course of several decades. So how does her being a lesbian weigh into her work? Probably not so much, and that’s not necessarily a negative thing.

Waters said of The Little Stranger:

It was very interesting writing with a male voice. It was quite liberating in a funny sort of way and made me understand why lesbian writers in the past might have chosen to write in that form, people like Daphne du Maurie.

Lesbian writers not penning books about lesbian characters may be seen by some as a disservice to their community, in part because of the long history lesbians have of disguising their love stories in order to be published. Donoghue noted in Inseperable that authors who did write lesbian-themed stories felt they had to ultimately give their hero a punishment of sorts in order for the general (i.e. straight) public to receive it.

In English fiction, nineteenth century authors did not quite give up on the female bridgegroom, but those few who did write about her felt obliged to provide her with armor against her critics … for instance, the cross-dressed woman must have an altruistic motive for her to disguise, to make her intense romance with another woman acceptable, and at least one of the two must die.

The entire first chapter of Donoghue’s book is dedicated to characters like this and is called “Travesties.” And if the character in question doesn’t fall under the cateogry of “travesty,” it could sometimes qualify for inclusion in another chapter: “Monsters.” With a history of literature including horrible stereotypes of gay women, it’s no wonder we want to champion authors like Waters and Donohue who produce work that is not only well-written but full of positive lesbian characters.

However, out writers of today have less to lose, especially after they’ve produced popular products of lesbian content. Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, for example, have been turned into television mini-series and movies, starring actresses that have gone on to be nominated for Oscars and find roles in other high-profile projects. So it would seem that Waters, Donoghue and other authors like them are not branching out to write straight characters and storylines for any other reason then that is where their creative process takes them. These two authors, specifically, also embrace the label of “lesbian writer” and aren’t afraid to have it preface their work in any capacity. Donoghue writes on her website:

I get asked this question all the time, and I really appreciate the fact that so many readers who like my work want to defend me from nasty labels! But — on principle — I’m not going to object to “lesbian writer” if I don’t object to “Irish writer” or “woman writer,” since these are all equally descriptive of me and where I’m from. And the labels commit me to nothing, of course; my books aren’t and don’t have to be all about Ireland, or women, or lesbians.

This doesn’t mean readers will necessarily like The Little Stranger or Room — even best sellers have readers who disagree with public opinion — but reader who skip out on a book just because it isn’t an author’s usual fare only do themselves a disservice. And at the very least, supporting a lesbian in her craft can only help support future books that are likely to return to the characters she knows best.

Waters said that putting a lesbian character in The Little Stranger “just because” would have been a disservice to herself and the reader.

t would have felt really phony doing something like that, or tokenistic. It would have stood out, leapt out of the book. It would be obvious what I was doing, so I really resisted doing that. It’s not as if it’s like a shining advert for heterosexuality. It’s not an anti-lesbian book. It just wasn’t a lesbian book for me.

In an interview with in 2008, Donohue said that Waters was an inspiration to her as a lesbian writer, one she sees as fearless.

She didn’t think, “I should leave out the gold-plated dildos, and that will help me get published.” She just did her thing. By taking on the most tiny of genres — lesbian historical fiction — and by doing it with great razzmatazz, she’s ended up with this mass-market readership. She’s a model for how to view your career: Just go about your business with enormous passion, and readers will follow.

And we will.