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NBC News recently published a feature about the rise of LGBTQ fiction sales and, as Dykette author Jenny Fran Davis puts it, the “renaissance of gay literature” we’re currently living in. And as the Autostraddle books editor, I’ve got THOUGHTS. I want to use the NBC News story as a starting point to deliver a sort of State of Queer Books overview to close out the year. So buckle in, and let’s deep dive into these NBC News figures and broaden their scope to see what they do and don’t show about the mainstreamification of queer lit.
According to the report, while the broader fiction market has slowed down, LGBTQ fiction specifically continues to grow and reached record sales this past year. According to data provided to NBC News by publishing industry sales tracker BookScan: “In the 12-month period ending in October 2023, LGBTQ fiction sales reached 4.4 million units, up 7% from the prior 12-month period and 200% from the 12-month period ending in October 2019.” Meanwhile, “the data showed that total fiction sales were down 3% in that latest year-over-year time period and up just 27% in the four-year span.”
Queer BookTokers, the LGBTQ BISAC code being added to a wide variety of fiction subgenres, and the fact that queer titles can be found on all the shelves in more and more bookstores instead of just being relegated to an “LGBTQ” shelf are all cited as part of this growth for queer lit. The piece briefly contextualizes that growth in the culture wars that have made queer and trans stories a lightning rod: “More than just migrating from the margins, queer fiction titles are thriving against a backdrop of record attempts to censor works by and about the LGBTQ community.”
But that’s all the piece really says about that, and even though I know not every news feature can contain all the complicated aspects of an issue, this positioning of a growth in sales as being a victory against LGBTQ censorship is a bit misleading, an incomplete picture of a literary landscape that should take into consideration not only the political contexts around it but also history.
More on that history point in a bit, but I want to start by talking about the unfortunate (and perhaps obvious, even if it’s not explicitly dealt with in the NBC News feature) reality that this rise in sales does not necessarily mean gay books are landing in the hands that need it most. One might be tempted to see the sales data and conclude it’s a direct response to book bans and other forms of censorship. And in some ways, yes, buying LGBTQ books if you have the means to do so is important to the overall cause. It supports queer and trans authors. It proves to publishers there’s high demand, so they’ll be less pressured to see taking on LGBTQ books as “risky.” But buying books cannot be the only means of fighting bans, and a queer lit renaissance should not be considered in a vacuum.
BookScan numbers are incomplete and do not include library data. As we know, book bans specifically target libraries and schools, places where queer and trans youth are, in theory, most easily able to access novels that touch on LGBTQ lives and experiences. Kids who might not have the means to purchase books themselves or might not feel safe to ask the adults in their lives to buy queer books for them can get those books in libraries. In practice, that’s becoming a lot more difficult — not only due to the rampant rise of book bans but also due to library cutbacks implemented by city governments that limit access.
Book bans, I will remind you, are not limited to the South. While they are certainly concentrated in places like Texas and Florida (where I live), there are public school districts banning books in places like New York, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, too. Book banning efforts were made in some California school districts, too, prompting Governor Gavin Newsom to sign into law a measure intended to curb these efforts. Schools that ban books on the basis of racial or LGBTQ content are subject to fines now. However, this version of anti-book ban legislation might not be far-reaching enough as it only applies to schools and not all libraries in the state. Less than a month after the state bill passed, the Huntington Beach city council approved a book banning ordinance. In Massachusetts, a cop literally entered a school to search for a book after a complaint.
Even if it’s just one district in a state or one city’s libraries, it does not serve us to downplay the nationwide consequences of censorship and book restrictions. Those aforementioned library cutbacks are also happening in supposedly progressive cities, such as in New York City where most libraries are now closed on Sundays, a slippery slope toward more cuts and loss of funding for libraries as my brilliant fianceé, who is a queer librarian, points out.
Maybe we’re living in a gay lit renaissance, but who exactly has an invitation to the renaissance?
It’s thrilling to see gay fiction sales on the rise. Hell, I’m literally about to marry a queer librarian who is also a queer novelist! But sales are just one small part of a tapestry of the state of queer literature. We must consider how a rise in sales and even the overall mainstreamification of LGBTQ literature doesn’t include everyone. And as we see in California, even legislative means of fighting book bans aren’t always a perfect solution.
One of the most exciting instances of fighting bans I’ve read about recently was in a CNN feature on The Queer Liberation Library, an entirely online nonprofit collection of hundreds of ebooks and audiobooks centering LGBTQ narratives that’s free to access. It launched in October and represents a creative way of circumventing book bans given social, political, and financial barriers to accessing queer literature. Existing entirely online, it welcomes people who might not be able to physically access spaces selling or lending queer books.
The nonprofit model allows the Queer Liberation Library to circumvent any potential attempts at state-level censorship as they do not receive government funding. But even more so than nonprofit efforts to fight book bans, I’m interested in how mutual aid-based approaches in recent years have emerged and grown. The Rolling Library, born from the mutual aid group Astoria Food Pantry, brings free books to New York City and surrounding areas and often specifically focuses on increasing access to LGBTQ+ books. The group has a queer book club (the excellent memoir Hijab Butch Blues is the current pick), sells Defend Your Local Library tanks, and often seeks donations of queer and trans books for children. We need more groups like The Rolling Library, especially in places where book bans are rampant. Because even the Queer Liberation Library can’t reach everyone as it requires internet access. The more community-driven efforts we have, the better.
I hope queer fiction sales continue to rise, and I hope to see an increase in programs and spaces like the Queer Liberation Library and The Rolling Library. I’m also strongly of the belief that this rise to mainstream prominence LGBTQ literature is experiencing should be coupled with a look back at the books that paved the way or were marginalized in a way they wouldn’t be now. Sarah Schulman spoke about this in an interview with Teen Vogue earlier this year:
If people looked back and said, “Wow, now we see that this work is great. Why don’t we go back to all the people who were doing this before, who we treated like garbage, and reevaluate them,” then they would be in trouble. Because the people who they did reward, all those now-irrelevant white men who dominated American literature for so many years, they would have to be repositioned. And then what does that say about gatekeepers?
So, they kind of pretend like none of that ever happened, and this thing just came up because the apparatus is so kind and inclusive. That is kind of a crisis of meaning, even though it hasn’t been articulated.
The NBC News story touches on the history of indie and small presses publishing queer and trans books only tangentially, such as when the co-owner of a bookstore that specializes in romance books notes that when they first opened in 2016, most of the LGBTQ titles they carried were from indie presses or self-published, and we’re now seeing a small but steady rise in traditionally published queer romance novels.
As far as literary fiction goes, I agree with Schulman that this moment when queer books are entering the mainstream cannot be viewed in a vacuum. Small and indie presses have been at the forefront of publishing queer and trans books traditional publishing houses wouldn’t go near, and that history is important. We’re starting to see some books by queer and trans authors get re-released, such as Random House deciding to republish Torrey Peters’ two novellas she previously published online. We should, as Schulman suggests, go back into the archives and revisit work that was pushed to the margins. And sadly, some of that work might be lost for good.
Drew Burnett Gregory writes in the introduction of her Encyclopedia of Lesbian Cinema on the reasons why her project cannot be truly exhaustive of all lesbian cinema because of access issues. “Some of the greatest works of LGBTQ+ film are not being watched, because people not within our community get to decide which films deserve attention.” This is applicable to the publishing industry as well. The traditional publishing houses determine which queer and trans books to push, and it means a lot of transgressive and radical work by queer and trans authors still gets pushed aside. And much like a lot of great lesbian films are lost or difficult to find, so many queer books published decades ago have gone out of print.
Small and indie presses are still publishing so much queer and trans work that would scare off traditional publishers. Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, which has become a lightning rod for the queerphobic fear-mongering behind book bans, was published by independent publisher Oni Press. It’s great that mainstream publishing is embracing LGBTQ fiction, but recognizing and supporting small press releases of both today and from years past is more urgent than ever in the face of book bans, which seek to stifle and roll back the progress we’ve seen in terms of more and more queer books being out in the world. I love seeing queer authors receive widespread coverage and mainstream attention, but we should not hinge the value of our art on approval from dominant cultural institutions. I hear stories all the time about queer authors at big publishing houses having to fight for their own work to be understood and championed.
We can’t talk about a rise in sales without also talking about decreased access. We can’t talk about queer books entering the mainstream without also talking about the marginalization of LGBTQ stories in the past and that’s still occurring even if more and more gay books are showing up on shelves and lists.