Whenever I use the label ‘lesbian literature’, I always put it in scare quotes, to indicate that it is a term I feel ambivalent about, which needs to be defined and problematised. It is a label that has the potential to be both positive and negative, which is why I try to use it with some caution. On the one hand, labelling representations of cultural minorities, such as lesbians, can have a positive effect since it brings greater visibility to a field of literature that is often overlooked, or of which readers may be unaware. It effectively creates a genre of literature, a speciality genre, asserting its presence, carving out a niche in mainsteam literature. This is positive, political cultural action, which shines a light on important texts that may have been forgotten. Moreover, many personal testimonies by gays and lesbians, especially older generations, state that before the advent of the internet, they spent time desperately looking around for some cultural representation, for some figures with whom they could identify, that would open up alternatives to the dominant heterosexual norms. It is therefore a bit of a victory to find a gay and lesbian shelf in a local bookshop, or a gay and lesbian category on a website. On the other hand, the label ‘lesbian literature’ can have a ghettoising effect. It can be interpreted as meaning that the label lesbian only applies to these specific books on this one shelf, or on a particular list, and it can lead to assumptions that the authors must necessarily be lesbians. Both these consequences are problematic in my view, since they implicitly exclude representations of bisexuality, or sexual fluidity, and the notion of who or what a ‘lesbian’ is becomes rigid and exclusive. Separation of these books in a different part of a bookshop, for example, also implies that they would only have a specialist readership and wouldn’t be of interest to the average reader browsing around, who might be less likely to seek out this specific genre. The mistaken notion that only lesbians can or do write about lesbians is also something that needs to be questioned. What I am trying to do in my research is to find as many cultural representations of desire between women, and of lesbian-identified characters, written both by men and by women, by out lesbians and by authors whose sexuality is undisclosed. My goal is to analyse the texts, not to hypothesize about the sexuality of the authors. That said, however, cultural festivals such as the York Lesbian Arts Festival (http://www.myspace.com/ylafuk) and similar festivals in Italy (Soggettiva Lesbian Arts Festival, Bologna), are wonderful, rich events that emphasize the diversity of cultural representations of lesbians, and desire between women, and which create politically vital, inspiring moments and spaces. And part of the strength of these events and the texts and performances that constitute them, is the fact that so many of the artists and festival goers are self-identified lesbians. So I continue to have ambivalent feelings about the label ‘lesbian literature’; I will continue to use it, and interrogate it, and keep putting it in scare quotes.
I have written about this in a chapter that I co-authored with Professor Derek Duncan, called ‘Reading Allowed: Contemporary Lesbian and Gay Fiction in Italy’, which is chapter 5 in the collection off essay edited by Gillian Ania and Ann Hallamore Caesar: Trends in Contemporary Italian Narrative 1980-2007 (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2007).
This is available online here: http://usir.salford.ac.uk/1746/1/TRENDS_Italian_Narrative_complete.pdf
If you are interested, I also say more about this issue in the Shout talk, which you can download in PDF from another post.