MLR Press Authors' Blog

The Little Lost Lamb(da)s –Some thoughts by Victor J. Banis

by on Sep.26, 2009, under Author Posts

The Little Lost Lamb(da)s

Some thoughts from Victor J. Banis

The recent brouhaha regarding submissions for the Lambda Literary Awards had my computer smoking for a day or so, with posts back and forth, some of them reasoned and some silly, some of them angry and some of them, frankly, downright ugly. Now that the dust has settled a bit, I want to take a further look at the subject and at some of the points that were raised.

First, for those of you who weren’t in on the follies, word got around that the Lambda folks had changed their submission guidelines to exclude submissions from heterosexual authors—a move interpreted by many (I suspect correctly) as an attempt to bar the women writers of today’s M/M fiction. A number of these women announced that henceforth they would not be submitting nor in any other way supporting the foundation.

Fair enough. I certainly wouldn’t expect Laura Baumbach (MLR Press) to continue to support this organization the way she has in the past, which is certainly generously, though I confess to be dismayed to think that she will not be submitting either the I Do anthologies or the soon upcoming The Golden Age of Gay Fiction. In the first case, I think even the Lambda people would have to give it a nod, it’s in such a great cause. In the second instance, that Golden Age doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in a Chinese kitchen, I just think it should go in on general principles. But, maybe the editors can submit these books? I’ll pay the fees, if you do the paperwork, fellas.

Some of the posts I got were funny, if bitterly so. One individual who described himself as “in gay publishing in NYC” and whose name I won’t divulge, was surprised to realize that there was so much ill-feeling abroad toward the Lammies. Uh huh. Welcome to the real world, Mr. When Did I Fall Asleep and Where Did I Wake Up.

And in his innocence lies a problem that afflicts the world of gay publishing muchly. If the New York publishing world is a small town (and it is, very small), the gay publishing establishment is more like a Native American village. These people haven’t a clue what lies beyond their tent poles.

Yes, dear man, people enter the Lammies in the hope of winning, and because an award can mean increased sales. I doubt that very many enter it thinking good thoughts about the Lambda Foundation. Out here in the hinterlands the Lammies are apt to be greeted with the same kind of scorn you like to heap on those of us you consider as “outlanders.” You know, the ones who aren’t members of your little in-clique.

Not so very long ago a group of lesbian authors and publishers, unhappy with the judging at the Lammies, broke off and formed their own awards group, The Golden Crown Awards, which is doing very well, thank you. Does that sound like everything is rosy in La-La-Land, Sugar?

My mail also included lots of discussion of whether the Lammie rules had in fact changed at all. Several persons, including some members of the Lambda Foundation’s Board, pointed out that the submission guidelines had always been worded this way. I was informed that The Lambda’s are “for glbt writERS not glbt writING.” Never mind, as I pointed out, that this attitude would have barred Annie Proulx from winning for her wonderful Brokeback Mountain (Yes, yes, I know it was only a short story, but the point is valid just the same. Great writing isn’t based on gender.)

“But how,” I asked, “Is the committee supposed to know anyway? With writers like Pat Brown, J. P. Bowie, Josh Lanyon, Jordann Castillo Price, to name a handful, who determines which of these are men and which women, let alone who’s hetero and who’s queer?”

“Why, the writers self identify,” was the answer I got. No bed checks, I was assured, to my great relief. If a writer submits as a queer writer, then the Foundation takes him/her at his word and accepts him as queer.

Hmm. Just like the U.S. Military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy. You can be queer and serve in our armed forces so long as you’re willing to pretend to be heterosexual. And, yes, you can be a heterosexual woman and submit to the Lammies, so long as we all understand that you are declaring yourself to be queer. And they wonder why folks don’t hold them in greater respect?

I also got a really vicious letter from a well known gay male writer whose name again I won’t divulge. He said in part:
“…I don’t appreciate a bunch of homophobic straight women who fetishize gay sex for the titillation of other straight women trashing the work of LGBT writers, editors and publishers, or our history. I don’t appreciate those same women pretending that gay fiction did not exist until they started writing it. They have no idea who you are, for example…”

Uh, hello? When Haworth dropped their fiction line and reverted right on my The Man From C.A.M.P., MLR Press grabbed the rights and immediately reissued the book, even though I actually warned Laura that the sales at Haworth had been very slow. MLR has that previously mentioned anthology coming out in October, edited by Wayne Gunn: The Golden Age of Gay Fiction, which celebrates the great tradition of gay fiction from the sixties and seventies, a book that promises to be a major event in the industry.

And as for not knowing who I am (waves to Zam, to Kris, to Wave, to Laura, to all my many friends here) that is a genuine snort. These gals have been interviewing me, reviewing me, chatting about me on their blogs and in Yahoo groups. If there’s anybody left out there in the world of M/M who doesn’t know who Victor J. Banis is, she must have been in a coma for the last several months. It seems to me that, if anyone, it’s the Lambda Foundation who doesn’t know who I am. They have steadfastly refused to acknowledge me in any way over the years (which in my opinion says more about them than it does about me.) I’ve never gotten anything but respect from the M/M writers here and around the internet.

“And I’m sorry,” this writer goes on to say, “I will fight till my dying day to keep homophobes from winning awards from us.”

Oh, Honey, not to be rude, but I’m thinking maybe you need to wake up and smell the dildoes. No doubt you’re reading stuff I haven’t gotten, but I have yet to see anything in the world of M/M that sounded even remotely like homophobia. And believe me, if there’s one thing I know, it’s homophobia. That old devil and I go back a long way together, and I’ve got the scars to prove it.

What’s truly sad, though, is there’s a major downside in this for the entire field of gay oriented fiction (whether you label it gay or M/M or chili con carne) and it goes smack dab back to the gay publishing establishment in NYC (including the Lambda people, who seem to come from the same gene pool), and that individual who was so surprised to realize that not everybody loves them.

I’ve written before on the demise of the gay novel at the hands of today’s gay publishing establishing. Yes, I know, there are many reasons for the decline in readership, but I think a goodly share of the blame rests right smack on their doorsteps. Their world has become so insular, indeed, incestuous, that they have lost all sense of what readers outside of their little set might want to read.

I believe there is still a market for entertaining gay-oriented fiction. People still like to read for pleasure. And the results of those publishers demonstrate the same truth. Books by Maupin and Sedaris – books which people read for sheer enjoyment – sell very well indeed. The books that go nowhere are the ones that no one outside their increasingly shrunken world cares a fig about and which they continue to grind out with mind numbing regularity. The same old queens writing the same old dreck for the same old editors to publish, to be read by the same old queens, who give themselves the same old awards over and over. And periodically they get together over sherry, wring their hands, and wonder why no one buys their books. Must be that there is just no longer an audience for gay fiction, huh? Or, darlings, can anybody say “bo-o-o-ring!”

And the Lambda people, year in and year out, work to validate this miniscule view of the glbt world. Ruth Sims, author of a simply wonderful novel, The Phoenix, commented that she has long noticed an anti-female writer bias with the Lammies, and said wistfully that she knew she’d never get one of their gay fiction awards. I wrote her back that the problem was not her gender, she could put any name on it she liked as a byline, and she still wouldn’t get an award because it is a brilliantly entertaining piece of historical fiction – and the key word there is “entertaining.”

To be sure, the Lammies have their mystery and erotica categories (and Felice Picano’s condescending remarks last spring as he introduced the mystery category said exactly how they regard them) but the major fiction categories are meant to be vedy, vedy serious. They aren’t intended to be enjoyed by the readers. Serious reading isn’t about pleasure, you know (sniff, sniff) it’s meant to be edifying.

And here is the great tragedy. (Be prepared for fainting and smelling salts.) The Lammies and the whole gay publishing industry in NYC, need these M/M writers. Yes, there are some guys writing good books too, damned good books. I tip my hat gladly to Rick and Dorien and William and a whole bunch of others – who also, let it be said, are steadfastly ignored in those rarified circles. I read the reviews, the blogs, the comments from readers. People love Rick Reed’s books. I love Rick Reed’s books. Everybody loves Rick Reed’s books…well, except for the you know what folks. To the best of my knowledge, which may well not be complete, Rick has never even got short-listed for a Lammie. How is this possible? Is everybody else in the world wrong? Or is this another example of how out-of-touch with the real gay world the Lambda Foundation is? You guess.

And by the way, it’s worth mentioning that many, maybe most of those guy writers are being published by women – the same houses advancing the M/M field. If there’s a single publishing house in the field that would turn down a book because it was written by a man, I’ve never heard of them. Would that we could say the same in reverse. So much for homophobia.

But it was the recent advent of the M/M women that made me think there is a glimmer of hope yet for my beloved genre. Maybe Laura’s books and Zam’s and Pat’s aren’t “great literature” – whatever in the hell that is; I don’t know, and I don’t think those precious people do either – but they are many of them damned good reads. Dickens didn’t set out to write great literature, he set out to entertain. Same with the Brontes. Same with Flaubert and Balzac and London and…well, I could continue that list for the rest of the day and the night. The point is, many if not most of the writers whose works we regard today as classics had one thing in mind while they were writing – tell a good story, mesmerize the reader with the magic of your words. Try, do try, luv, not to put them to sleep.

Get your heads out of your mole-holes, guys. All this whining and wailing about the lack of market for gay fiction is crap. Maybe there isn’t the market that there was back in the glorious sixties, but there are still people out there who like to read good stories and quite a few of them like a good story about guys doing the boom-boom, and I for one don’t give a rat’s patootie whether it’s a woman or a man reading my books, the fan mail gives me the same glow regardless. I’d make a guess that 80% of the people who write to tell me how much they’ve enjoyed my Deadly Mysteries are women. Good on you, girls. Fetishize me all you want. I’m yours.

All this huffing and puffing about straight women “invading” our turf is on par with the cow patties we used to pick up in our pasture when I was a lad. We used them for fuel, too, but they still stunk.

The reality is, we are an endangered species, and we’re going to hang together or we’re going to hang separately. Katherine Forrest posted quite recently, in defense of the anti-woman policy, “Our books are taken from the shelves of libraries all over the country and even from the website of this year. It is more difficult to be an LGBT writer now than it has been in many decades, more difficult to make any income from our written words, much less a living. Publishers have closed, stores have closed, the markets seem to be shrinking with each passing day.”
Well, I’ve already addressed that shrinking market business, and as for the other complaints, it seems to me all of that applies just as well, only more so, for the women writing M/M fiction. They have to deal not only with the general prejudice against gay fiction but with the prejudice of the gay community as well.

And, hey, wait a sec there, kiddo. As I recall, in that Amazon debacle, it was the women who raised the hue and cry, who sent up flares and organized petitions. It is my belief that it was the entire community standing up together that made Amazon back down, and not just a letter from the Lambda Foundation, though I have no doubt that helped too—another demonstration of what we can – could – accomplish if we started seeing ourselves as partners rather than “the enemy.” We’re all in the same boat. I think we’d go a lot further if we started rowing rather than throwing one another overboard.

Instead of sniffing and looking down their noses, these folks need to reach out and wholeheartedly embrace what is happening in our neck of the woods – because in large part it’s a helluva lot better than what’s coming down in theirs.
And if that means we don’t qualify for the Lammies, then I’ll go back to what I said earlier about my situation with these people – it says way more about them than it does about us.

Just some thoughts from an old word junkie.

56 comments for this entry:
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  2. Kris

    *waves back* 😉

    An insightful and thought provoking post, Victor. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this issue.

    I find the ‘us and them’ attitude in any debate ridiculous, but what strikes me as being extremely ironical in this instance is that the only way I, as a ‘straight’ female, became aware of the Lambda Awards and introduced to the so-called genre of GLBTQ literature was by reading m/m romance of which ‘straight’ women make up the majority of the authors, editors, publishers, etc.

    It makes me wonder how many other readers (ie book buyers) out there are like me.

  3. JoAnne Soper-Cook

    Victor, as always, you make salient points and you make them beautifully. Books are, at bottom (hee) entertainment; the point of writing is to entertain. As you pointed out, Dickens didn’t set out to write great literature; he wanted to entertain his readers and keep them enthralled and on the edge of their seats. Anything that brings m/m fiction further into the mainstream can only be helpful to the GLBT cause, methinks. As a woman married to a man, I would like to think that my writing of m/m novels helps enlarge that audience – and also helps, in some small way, to show that love is love and it doesn’t have a gender.

    Thank you for so effectively synthesizing the hot-points of this debate. Shame on Lambda.

    As always, you rock. 🙂

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