There’s an epidemic in the world of publishing. Ladies in love don’t sell books. Or so they say.
When I first started seeking out queer women in literature, I found a lot of books exploring the rejection and homophobia faced by thousands: the quintessential coming out tale. But that was where queer literature seemed to start and end. Or did it? Turns out the stories of adventuring princesses and dragon-riders who fall in love with their fellow women are out there; they’re just hidden from plane sight.
Time after time I’ve picked up books from the genre fiction shelves, whether it be fantasy, sci-fi or historical fiction, and quickly discovered my heart’s desire: ladies in love. At first this was a pleasant surprise and I thought, I need more. Then I realised discovering more was going to be a quest in itself. How do you find queer women in literature when the publishers don’t tell you they’re there? Books that turn out to be queer are often exactly that: they ‘turn out’ to be queer. There’s no mention of queer identity or romances between two women in the blurb. There’s mention of women who must save the world or forbidden romances with no further elucidation but rarely are there rainbow flags flying throughout these stories’ marketing campaigns.
Please don’t tell me it’s because romance doesn’t sell. From Twilight to Daughter of Smoke and Bone, from Throne of Glass to Clockwork Angel, romance plot-lines between women and men are implied if not explicitly stated in the blurbs of popular genre fiction. So, who are we hiding the queer relationships from? Because it surely can’t be the queer readers.
Having spoken to queer authors the teams behind their book’s blurb seem to think that these themes won’t sell, or they can surprise homophobic readers into queer-acceptance by springing these subplots on them during the reading experience. Well, there are problems with both of these arguments and they both come down to the undervaluing of the queer audience. Who do queer books exist for? Of course, everyone can read and enjoy a queer novel, but the significance of representation is that it makes queer readers feel seen. It gives us a voice; it says ‘you are not abnormal’ and that ‘your stories matter too’. Queer literature doesn’t exist to convince others we are valid.
In fact, hiding these romances does all readers a disservice. LGBT+ bookshops like Gay’s the Word, the only one of its kind in England, rely heavily on customer recommendations when stocking their shelves because the publishers fail to flag their titles’ queer themes. How many books have I missed-out on in my local bookshop or library because I had no idea I might find myself represented in these fantastical adventures? How many authors’ works have been done an injustice because their publisher convinced them they would sell more copies if they kept their book in the closet? My guess? Too many.