Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 139 (previously 42a) - On the Shelf for January 2020 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2020/01/04 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for January 2020.
Saying that, it occurs to me that we’re going to get an entire year of jokes about “20-20 vision.” So what’s my vision for this new year? I wish I knew. I’m just going to keep on keeping on and do my bit to add more diversity, more knowledge, and more understanding to the world. As for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, I feel like I’ve reached a point of equilibrium with all my projects. I don’t expect any major changes in format or content for the blog or the podcast this year. Maybe some minor additions and shifts.
As you know from the sponsor break text, the Project has a Patreon, in addition to the general Patreon for the TLT podcast group. I’ve been thinking about types of content that would provide value back to Patrons. One experiment I’m going to try is micro-reviews of the new book listings, which I’ll talk about later in the show.
Another type of content I’ve been working on is practical reference material for authors. I’m thinking of things like vocabulary about f/f sexuality, or examples of romantic and sexual language used between women in historic sources. I’m also looking at timelines of types of relationships and identities in historic cultures. This sort of content doesn’t work well for entertaining audio and is the sort of thing you’d want to save off for reference. If you want that sort of content--or simply want to support the podcast--check out the Patreon. I’ll note that show’s expenses are primarily royalties and narrator fees for the fiction series. I don’t expect patrons to support my book habit! And the podcast hosting expenses are under the TLT group as a whole, so support that aspect through the TLT Patreon.
2020 Fiction Series
Since it’s January, submissions are open for the 2020 fiction series! If you’ve been working on a story to submit, I certainly hope you’ll send it in for consideration. If you’ve been dithering and you’re a fast worker, you might still have time to write something. Check out the show notes for the link to the full instructions. If things go like they have the last two years, by the time you listen to this, I’ll be biting my fingernails because people always seem to wait for the last minute to send in their submissions. Mind you, there’s no advantage from getting your submission in early, except for keeping your editor from freaking out.
While we’re on the subject of fiction markets, in addition to the open submissions for the Silk and Steel anthology that I mentioned last month, I’ve run across a new market that has produced some interesting queer historical audio short fiction. The show is “A Story Most Queer” and it’s part of the Mischief Media podcast group, which produces a number of pop culture related shows. The podcast produces audio versions of stories by and about queer people. While the scope of representation is broad and all genres are welcome, they caught my interest not only because the balance of representation is good, but because out of the first 13 episodes, 2 of them involve f/f relationships in historic settings. So whether you’re looking for new podcast listening, or whether you have fiction looking for a home, check out their website. They pay a flat fee of $50 for stories in the 2000-4000 word range, with some flexibility, and they accept reprints. See the show notes for a link.
Publications on the Blog
The blog is being busy with some substantial books mixed in with the articles. In December we covered several papers on Renaissance and Early Modern topics: Valerie Traub’s “The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England”, Tim Hitchcock’s "The Reformulation of Sexual Knowledge in Eighteenth-Century England", and Randolph Trumbach’s "The Transformation of Sodomy from the Renaissance to the Modern World and Its General Sexual Consequences.” December finished with John Boswell’s classic Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Then at the beginning of January I rolled right on into Boswell’s other classic work, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. His work is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating because he tackled the history of attitudes toward homosexuality in Europe from a personal and sympathetic viewpoint, but frustrating because his work functionally ignores female homosexuality while paying lip service to being a general study. If you want more of my grumpy opinions on that topic, you can find them in the blog.
After that I take a brief breather with two survey articles: Leila Rupp’s “Thinking about ‘Lesbian History’” and Martha Vicinus’s “The History of Lesbian History.” Following those, I grit my teeth and tackle Michel Foucault’s three-volume The History of Sexuality, which I’ll cover in one volume each week. Foucault is a philosopher, not a historian, and I’ll be skimming rather that reading deeply, so this may not be as painful as I anticipate. (I haven’t actually started on it as of drawing up these notes.) I get something of a blog vacation after that, not because I won’t be posting, but because I already have articles written through April!
I hadn’t meant to buy any new books for the blog, but since all the copies of Foucault’s History of Sexuality were checked out of the U.C. Berkeley library, I decided to swing by Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue and was relieved to find a used set. My theory was that I’d get that work written up over the holidays, but...well...not yet.
Not a purchase, but while I was poking around in the library, I also checked out Phillips & Reay’s Sex Before Sexuality: A Premodern History which I’ll prioritize since I’ll need to return it soon.
This month’s author guest will be Kate Heartfield who writes some exciting historic fantasy. I connected with her at Worldcon in Ireland this summer but we only just worked out the logistics to record. I’ve had her pair of time-traveling novellas, Alice Payne Arrives and Alice Payne Rides on my radar for a while now.
I hadn’t decided on this month’s essay until I was sitting down to write up my script for this show, but I’d set up a bunch of idea folders and picked the one that seems closest to ripe. So I’ll be doing a show on Iphis and Ianthe, Ovid’s tale of gender disguise, same-sex love, and transformation that inspired many later variants and versions. It’s a story that sits awkwardly at the intersection of lesbian themes and transgender themes and I’ll be talking about how it can be a touch-point for a variety of modern identities. One of the aspects I’ll discuss is how the tale continued to be re-told and re-interpreted from Ovid’s Latin original early in the first century throughout the middle ages and Renaissance and on into the 17th century. When I imagine what models women in those eras might have had for same-sex love, this story is one that was common in pop culture retellings.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Time for the recent, new, and forthcoming books! In the podcast, I mostly stick to listing the books and giving the cover copy. Every once in a while I’ll mention a recommendation or a content advisory, but I want this part of the podcast to be a neutral service as much as possible. But people regularly ask me for more guidance in which f/f historicals I’d recommend, so I’m trying out a new service on the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s Patreon, where I provide micro-reviews based on preview excerpts. If you’d like to opt in to that sort of content, the Patreon link is in the show notes. Please keep in mind that this is the LHMP Patreon, not the TLT Patreon and these micro-reviews are not in any way affiliated with TLT or with The Lesbian Review.
I start off with a couple of December books and then the rest are coming out in January.
The first title is in competition for the earliest setting in my database: Where There Are Mountains self-published by Sarah Pearlman. The story is inspired by an archaeological find of a grave with two female skeletons embracing.
5000 BCE. Seven thousand years ago. A time of great migrations that took place over hundreds of years and thousands of miles as numerous tribes fled the cold and hunger of their northern homeland to travel a path south. Most were peaceful, wanting only a place where there was food and warmth—struggling past tribes that lived near Mount Olympus and the mountain passes of what would become Hellas. Greece. A matrilineal people that worshiped a female divinity. Celebrating and giving gratitude for the fertility of the land, the birthing of children, and sexual pleasure. Desire without rules. Others on the path were warrior people. Tribes who came to conquer and enslave. Bringing their male gods.
Clara's Way self-published by Roberta R. Carr is one of those books that only hints at sapphic content and I haven’t been able to get solid confirmation.
The year is 1904. Nurse Clara Tyler happily spends her days tending patients in rural Ohio. Her brother, who is working in Panama on the great canal, informs the family he must return home due to illness. Too sick to travel alone, he begs Clara to come and get him. Anxious about going but determined to save her brother, Clara makes her way to the Canal Zone. She is quickly drawn into a web of heartbreak, controversy, and friendship that keeps her there. When her father demands she return, Clara must decide where she belongs in this gripping tale about love and loss, courage, and the unexpected paths that shape our lives.
The next book is rather tenuous on the historic front, being a secondary world fantasy, but inspired by a gender-flipped version of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Lady Hotspur by Tessa Gratton from Tor Books. Whether you count it as a historical or not, I suspect it will be of interest to readers who like historicals.
STRIKE FAST, LOVE HARD, LIVE FOREVER This is the motto of the Lady Knights―sworn to fealty under a struggling kingdom, promised to defend the prospective heir, Banna Mora. But when a fearsome rebellion overthrows the throne, Mora is faced with an agonizing choice: give up everything she’s been raised to love, and allow a king-killer to be rewarded―or retake the throne, and take up arms against the newest heir, Hal Bolingbrooke, Mora’s own childhood best friend and sworn head of the Lady Knights. Hal loathes being a Prince; she’s much more comfortable instated on the Throne of Misrule, a raucous underground nether-court where passion rules all. She yearns to live up to the wishes of everyone she loves best―but that means sacrificing her own heart, and so she will disappoint everyone until the moment she can rise to prove those expectations wrong. And between these two fierce Princes is the woman who will decide all their fates―Lady Hotspur Persy, the fiery and bold knight whose support will turn the tides of the coming war.
A couple months ago I commented on what seemed like a flood of f/f Robin Hood stories in my forthcoming books spreadsheet. This month’s contribution is Nottingham by Anna Burke from Bywater Books.
Robyn Hood didn’t set out to rob the rich, but in Nottingham, nothing ever goes according to plan. . . . After a fateful hunting accident sends her on the run from the law, Robyn finds herself deep in the heart of Sherwood Forest. All she really wants to do is provide for her family and stay out of trouble, but when the Sheriff of Nottingham levies the largest tax in the history of England, she’s forced to take matters into her own hands. Relying on the help of her band of merry women and the Sheriff’s intriguing—and off limits—daughter, Marian, Robyn must find a way to pull off the biggest heist Sherwood has ever seen. With both heart and freedom at stake, just how much will she risk to ensure the safety of the ones she loves?
This next book combines some interesting cross-time tropes with the paranormal. Spellbound by Jackie D. and Jean Copeland from Bold Strokes Books.
Hazel Abbot spent her whole life unaware she was a witch. When a spell thrusts her great-aunt Sarah Hutchinson forward from the Salem witch trials of 1692 and lands her in Hazel’s bookstore, everything Hazel thought she knew about herself changes. Complicating matters, Raven Dare, a supernatural hunter, informs her that they’ve all been summoned by the Queen Witch, Morgan le Fay. Morgan compels Hazel, Sarah, and Raven to correct the shift in the realms of good and evil by ridding the world of the evil that followed Sarah into modern day. If they fail, the forces of white magic will be extinguished forever. But completing the perilous mission, convincing Sarah to return to Puritan life, and resisting their growing attraction for each other might prove more difficult than Hazel and Raven ever anticipated.
For this next book, I had to poke around a little but was able to confirm that it definitely has queer elements, although I have no idea how it all comes out in the end. The Companion by Kim Taylor Blakemore from Lake Union Publishing
1855, New Hampshire. Lucy Blunt is set to hang for a double murder. Murderess or victim? Only Lucy knows the truth. In the shadow of the gallows, Lucy reflects on the events that led to her bitter downfall—from the moment she arrived at the rambling Burton mansion looking for work and a better life to the grisly murders themselves. In a mysterious household of locked doors and forbidden affections, Lucy slips comfortably into the shadows, where she believes the indiscretions of her past will remain hidden. But when Lucy’s rising status becomes a threat to the mistress’s current companion, the delicate balance of power and loyalty begins to shift, setting into motion a brewing storm of betrayal, suspicion, and rage. Now, with her execution looming closer, Lucy’s allies fight to have her sentence overturned as the tale she’s spinning nears its conclusion. But how much of her story can we trust? After all, Lucy’s been known to bend the truth…
Similarly to the previous, I was able to get confirmation that despite the somewhat ambiguous cover copy, Blood Countess by Lana Popovic from Amulet Books definitely has queer content. This appears to be a purely historical take on Countess Báthory and not a supernatural one.
In 17th century Hungary, Anna Darvulia has just begun working as a scullery maid for the young and glamorous Countess Elizabeth Báthory. When Elizabeth takes a liking to Anna, she’s vaulted to the dream role of chambermaid, a far cry from the filthy servants’ quarters below. She receives wages generous enough to provide for her family, and the Countess begins to groom Anna as her friend and confidante. It’s not long before Anna falls completely under the Countess’s spell—and the Countess takes full advantage. Isolated from her former friends, family, and fiancé, Anna realizes she’s not a friend but a prisoner of the increasingly cruel Elizabeth. Then come the murders, and Anna knows it’s only a matter of time before the Blood Countess turns on her, too.
What Am I Reading?
So what am I reading? After last month’s reading extravaganza, this month was a lot slower. I’ve been reading different books on three different ebook apps: Claire O’Dell’s A Jewel Bright Sea on my phone, my own newest novel Floodtide while testing new ebook apps since iBooks isn’t playing nicely with non-Apple epub files, and in iBooks itself a non-fiction book Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels by Gwen Hayes. I have some thoughts on that last one, because I find that romance novels that follow the structure she promotes as the One True Romance Way fail to work well for me at precisely the points where they adhere most closely to her formula. I may blog about that.
Stat of the Publishing Field
The rest of the podcast is going to be doing some intense numbers geeking about trends in f/f historicals in the past year. If you’re a numbers geek like me, I strongly suggest following the link in the show notes to the transcript of this podcast so you can follow along in print. If you’re not a numbers geek, then I won’t feel the least bit insulted if you skip the rest of this episode. Really. It’s ok. Because if you aren’t a numbers geek, this is going to be really boring.
Last year, I did a separate episode that took my ongoing database of relevant historical fiction and did something of a survey of the field and comparing 2018 to what had come before. It’s a very rough analysis because my data is far from complete, especially for older titles. But now that I’ve had two years of scouring the new releases for historicals featuring queer women, I can start making some sort of comparisons for the current state of the field. I’m alternating between grouping the books based on which year I mentioned them on the podcast and publication date so not all the numbers will match. As usual, I can only talk about the books I know about, and I include historic fantasy as long as the setting is in some way identifiable by time and place.
The numbers of books mentioned on the pocast this year and last are roughly similar 101 in 2019 compared to 83 last year. When you look at date of publication, the groups are essentially identical, around a hundred in both cases.
Let’s start with basic publishing info. This year, 40% of the books were self-published, including through Amazon Digital, while the other 60% had a named publisher. In some cases the named publisher is a one-author imprint, so they’re functionally self-published, but this would take some work to sort out. This year’s 40% figure compares to 20% self-published last year. I suspect this isn’t a true change, but rather a reflection of me getting better at searching for relevant books on Amazon, and thus identifying more Amazon-published books, rather than needing to hear about them through other channels.
Of the books with named publishers, there were 49 different publishers for the 2019 books, but 80% of those publishers only had a single title on the list. This compares very closely with 2018 when I found 46 different publishers and 75% with only a single title. Statistically equivalent.
So for publishers who put out more than one title, that leaves us with 10 publishers in 2019 and 12 in 2018. Five publishers met the threshold both years. This included two mainstream presses (Harper Collins and Tor.com) and three small presses (Bella Books, Bold Strokes Books, and Sapphire Books). Bold Strokes was the clear leader in 2018 with 8 historic titles, but dropped to only 2 titles in 2019. The other publishers held steady in the 2-3 titles range. Five publishers had 2 titles this year after not meeting the threshold last year, while 8 publishers met the threshold last year but not this year.
Publishers with >1 title both years
Moved up into >1
Moved down from >1
I’m hesitant to draw any large conclusions since the numbers we’re dealing with are small, but overall it feels like a slight contraction in the market. What the publisher numbers don’t tell you is one striking trend, which is for historic romance authors who have already made a name for themselves writing m/f or m/m historicals taking on an f/f project. Writers like Cat Sebastian, Olivia Waite, Courtney Milan, and K.J. Charles. Two of them publish with mainstream presses and two are self-published.
Another way to look at the data is to take a set of 8 small lesfic presses as an index, based on long-term presence in the field and current activity in lesfic in general. For this index I use Affinity, Bella, Bold Strokes, Bywater, Regal Crest, Sapphire, Spinsters Ink, and Ylva. They’re also useful because I can check their back catalogs and be fairly confident that I haven’t missed much. If you look at the total number of historicals put out year by year from this index group, it’s averaging barely over 12 books per year for the last half dozen years, with fewer earlier than that. The numbers fluctuate a bit year to year, but not enough to show a current trend up or down.
Total books published by the index group
One clear conclusion that I also mentioned last year is how diffused f/f historicals are throughout the publishing landscape. There is no one publisher or even group of publishers that a reader can rely on to find f/f historicals. And, conversely, there are no f/f publishers who focus on historicals sufficiently to build up a reputation and expertise in the field. One of the things that became clear from the buzz around the mainstream writers entering this genre is that there are a lot of readers out there who would like more well-written f/f historical romances, but that they have no idea how to find them except from their existing social media networks. I keep hoping that this podcast will fill at least some part of that need.
So those are the dry numbers in terms of who’s putting out books. How about settings and themes? This is where I really have fun crunching the numbers! But outside of statistics, some impressions include clusters of Robin Hood retellings, highwaywoman adventures, the usual popularity of Regency romances, but less focus on the US Civil War and wild west settings. The two world wars continue to be a popular setting, but this year the period between them is fairly well populated as well. Now for the details.
The emphasis on stories set in the 19th and 20th centuries is identical to last year’s with about 80% of stories being set in the last two centuries. Earlier settings aren’t quite so badly skewed to the early modern period this year. About equal numbers are set in the medieval-to-Renaissance period as in the 17th and 18th centuries, with a smaller number set even before that, mostly in classical Greece or Rome.
Stories with New World settings are all in the 19-20th century group--no colonial period or Revolutionary War stories. Half the pre-19th century stories are set in the British Isles, which is also similar to last year, and British settings still dominate the early 19th century due to the popularity of the Regency. But this year The British Isles hold their own against American settings from the mid-19th to mid-20th century. This may be related to seeing fewer Civil War and Wild West settings.
Other than those two geographic juggernauts, where are stories being set? About a quarter of the stories have a primary setting that falls outside the US or Great Britain plus Ireland. But this is down from about a third last year. The US settings have also dropped from around 50% to around 40% and it’s been the British settings that have made up the difference. Non-US non-British settings are primarily European, especially France and Germany, with single representatives from the Caribbean, Uruguay, Japan, and Malaysia (which last has much of the action in England).
Looking at the US settings in more detail, we see a drop in stories set in the South (possibly related to the drop in Civil War settings) but otherwise similar regional proportions. I was able to identify 11 specific states in the cover copy, compared to 18 last year, and California edged out Texas for second place after New York this year.
I’ve been trying to do some coding in my database to track things such as whether books are strict history or have fantastic elements, whether they can be classified as romance in a broad sense, whether they have cross-time motifs, and what the sexual content is. Unfortunately this can be difficult when I’m only working from cover copy, so most of those aspects will need to wait until I have some way of crowd-sourcing data. But the question of fantasy elements is relatively easy to identify. Despite my delight at some of the great historic fantasy I’ve been reading, stories with fantasy elements have actually dropped somewhat from 27% last year to 20% this year, though the number of titles where the classification isn’t clear could easily erase that difference.
So there’s my take on the year in f/f historic fiction. I’d be interested in knowing what trends and patterns you’ve been seeing as readers. If you’d like to talk about the f/f historicals you’re enjoying, I’m always looking for people to contribute to my book appreciation interviews. Drop me a note.
Your monthly update on what the Lesbian Historic Motif Project has been doing.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online