(Originally aired 2021/02/06 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for February 2021.
When this airs, the submissions period for the 2021 fiction series will have closed, the stories will have been read, and contract offers will have gone out but probably not yet been finalized. Isn’t it fun to write in the future perfect tense? If you don’t want to wait another month to find out what this year’s offerings will be, keep an eye on the blog where I’ll post as soon as everything’s finalized. (See the link in the show notes.)
Every year the submissions are a slightly different experience. As I’m writing this now on the 24th of January, we’re way above the submission numbers for previous years at this point. And if a pile of submissions come in during the last few days of the month like usual, we’ll definitely have a new overall record. There are some interesting shifts in what’s being submitted and by whom as well, but maybe more on that later when I have the whole picture. Even if my only goal were to encourage people to write more short sapphic historical fiction, I’m already winning!
It's amazing to think that this is the fourth year for the fiction series. Every year there’s been at least one moment where I thought, “You know, maybe this is where to close. It was a good run.” And so far, every year, there’s been a point where I think, “This is great! Where can we go from here?” I don’t really have ambitions beyond the current model. I know my own limitations too well. But I’m confidently looking forward to the 2022 fiction series. Five years sounds like an accomplishment to be proud of. And if the submission numbers this year follow the pattern of past years, I think that next year I’ll have to bring in a couple of other readers to help make the selections. Because more submissions means more great stories, which means much harder choices!
Publications on the Blog
So what publications have I been covering on the blog? January was full of articles from the collection Homosexuality in French History and Culture edited by Jeffrey Merrick and Michael Sibalis. We see a variety of forms female intimacy can take in the 17th and 18th centuries, from Leonard Hinds’ study of the theme of female friendship as the foundation of ideal love in the works of Madeleine de Scudéry, to David Michael Robinson’s interpretation of the memoirs of Madame de Murat in the context of police records about her tempestuous affairs with women and wild behavior, to Olivier Blanc’s discussion of the differential treatment of the privileged known to indulge in “the Italian taste” as homosexuality was called, to Susan Lanser’s argument that sapphic themes in the 18th century developed from libertinism to a politically-tinged separatist philosophy.
The article on Madame de Murat convinced me to make her the topic of this month’s essay podcast, so stay tuned for French aristocrats gone wild!
In February I’ll be finishing up the last article in this collection and then looking for a few more shorter articles to get my momentum back before tackling entire books again.
I’d be doing the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog for my own purposes even if nobody else read it, but it’s great when I overhear people recommending it as a resource, or when I get tagged in on questions about research for particular topics. In January, a random twitter question led to putting together a list of my 25 favorite books from the blog to recommend for those who want to start their own dive into lesbian history. Check it out!
I’ve been turning up some intriguing leads on publications from the bibliographies of works I’ve been blogging recently. Bibliographies are my most common source for titles to track down, followed by mining the tables of contents of journals in JSTOR, and browsing through the publisher’s displays at conferences. But my most recent acquisition is a brand new 2021 book: Sapphic Crossings: Cross-Dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature by Ula Lukszo Klein. And I think I ran across this one online, though I don’t recall if someone mentioned it on twitter or if it was in a book catalog email from the publisher.
I’ve accumulated several books that address the fuzzy intersection of gender and sexuality that is the phenomenon of assigned-female persons living lives that are read as male, and that examine the topic both in terms of trans identity and of gender disguise.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
It’s new and recent books time! Just five titles this month, two from previous months. And I’m holding back one title for next month because it’s an Audible original and they don’t do pre-orders so the link isn’t up yet.
We have a historical fantasy from December: Beloved Daughter, self-published by Ellis Brightwell. Set in the 6th century in the English kingdom of Kent, a young woman with eerie powers is accused of the death of a wealthy nobleman. But when she is seized by the king’s men, she and the king’s daughter find themselves helplessly drawn to each other. It’s a bit hard to tell whether this is a romance or a supernatural thriller.
A January book with a relatively early setting is Brother Mary Michael, self-published by Henry Bennett. Set in Tudor England, a young woman escapes the consequences of murder and an accusation of witchcraft by cross-dressing to enter a monastery. I wasn’t sure what to make of this book so I peeked at the preview. Content note for graphic violence and sexual assault, though the framing story indicates a happy romantic ending.
February books start off with this month’s author guest, Anne Shade, talking about her new release Masquerade from Bold Strokes Books. In the exciting atmosphere of the Harlem Renaissance in prohibition-era New York, Celine is introduced to the world of drag balls and nightclubs and tumbles into a chance to explore feelings she’s always kept hidden. But her heart is pulled in two directions: the lure of comfortable happiness and the seductive excitement of a gangster.
Next month, our author guest will be Aliette de Bodard, and her novella, Fireheart Tiger, is released this month from Tor-dot-com. In a historic fantasy set in a version of pre-colonial Vietnam, a princess is sent to a neighboring kingdom as a hostage and makes the mistake of falling in love there before returning home in failure. Now her beloved arrives on her doorstep but she is the diplomat who must confront her in negotiations.
And this month’s books conclude with a 1950s dream of Broadway in Melanie Crowder’s Mazie from Philomel Books. Mazie has the chance of a lifetime to leave Nebraska for a chance to audition in New York. But big city dreams aren’t that easy to realize. The lesbian representation is from secondary characters, not the protagonist.
The Annual State of the Field Report
The past two years, I’ve done an episode summing up the year’s sapphic historical fiction in terms of trends and themes. With the new podcast format, this review doesn’t get its own episode, and I suspect most of the detailed statistics are of limited interest. So the full summary and comparison to previous years is on the blog, but here’s an overview with the high points.
The number of books I can find that fit my parameters seems to have stabilized around 100 titles, though all of my conclusions here must be taken with a grain of salt as they rely on how successful I’ve been at finding the books. The proportion of self-published books seems to be fairly constant as well. I can’t give a precise percentage for self-published books because that would mean figuring out which authors have set up their own named imprint, but the proportion of books that don’t list a publisher name is still running around a quarter of the total.
It continues to be the case that a slight majority of titles from named publishers are the only lesbian historical put out by that press during the year. But the surprise is that when you look at the most consistent producers – the publishers who have put out two or more books each of the last three years, half of them are mainstream publishers. The mainstream press presence jumped significantly in 2020, but rather than adding to the overall numbers of books published, it was offset by a decrease in numbers by the small queer presses.
In terms of story settings, we’re seeing a very similar distribution to previous years, though there’s a slight increase in pre-19th century settings, and also an increase in locations outside the English-speaking world. Both of these are good trends, if they hold up, especially as many of the non-Western settings are being written by authors with roots in those cultures. But there’s a strong tendency for certain settings to be stereotyped and associated with specific events.
About half the books are clearly identifiable as romances (keeping in mind that I’m mostly working from the cover copy), with maybe 20% definitely not being romances, and the rest undetermined. About a third of the titles have some sort of fantasy elements, but keep in mind that I have strong connections to the fantasy book community so this may be partly my bias. I’m not as systematic about tagging tropes and motifs, but plots involving either gender disguise or cross-gender presentation or identity are popular, as are stories occurring during iconic historic events such as various wars and revolutions.
I’m still working on the efficiency of my searches to identify relevant books. It would be lovely if authors and publishers sent me announcements, but given the uncentralized nature of the field, that’s unlikely! Of the titles I include, I managed to identify a slight majority prior to their publication date. The ones I don’t come across until after they’re published are mostly self-published books that may not have had an online presence before publication. For those authors out there thinking about book promotion, think about some of the consequences of that model. When I’m scheduling guests for the podcast, my first priority is being able to coordinate with a book release. If I don’t even know a book exists until it’s already out, I probably have my guests scheduled for the next couple of months and there’s less impetus to try to fit it in. I love supporting small press and indie authors, but I have to know about your books to do so.
And speaking of guests, this month we’re happy to welcome Anne Shade to the show.
[Interview is not yet transcribed.]
Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
Links to Anne Shade Online