The Naked Interviews: Interview with a Lesbrarian: The Bi and Lesbian Book Reviewers

The Lesbrary is a book blog for lesbian, bi and inclusive books, mostly made up of book reviews and featuring literary news and guest posts, as well as being a repository for finding great new indie works.

How did the Lesbrary get started?

Back in 2010, I was just getting into reading book blogs, and I spent a long time looking for lesbian book blogs. At the time, there were a few “Gay and Lesbian” or “LGBT” book blogs that, in reality, were 90-98% M/M books. Because I couldn’t find the book blog I wanted, I realized I’d have to start it myself!

Do you feel bi and lesbian female characters are well represented in mainstream books?

I think queer women characters are still rare in mainstream books. There are a few authors–the famous triad are Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson, and Emma Donoghue–that have broken into literary fiction. Occasionally a few titles from other authors become mainstream, like the excellent The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, but when it comes to mainstream adult fiction, overall the representation just isn’t there. It isn’t so much an issue of bad representation, but a total lack of it. YA is a very different arena, and queer women YA has exploded in the last few years. 2019 will be the best year yet for queer YA!

How do you feel bi and lesbian representation has changed in the world of literature?

There is definitely a lot more representation than there used to be. I’m currently working on a timeline of lesbian literature, and I’ve discovered that the history of lesbian literature stretches back a lot further than I imagined, but it was almost entirely negative until relatively recently. In in the thousands of years of literary history, queer women have only had sympathetic representation for roughly 100 years of it (excepting Sappho, of course!) One thing that I’m really excited about that’s happening now is more layered, complex, and diverse queer women characters. Where something like Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden had the lesbian content as the entire conflict, we are now seeing books like Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, with a Black bisexual Jewish main character, and where the conflict isn’t solely focused on any of those identities. (YA really is leading the way here.)

Do bi and lesbian authors face additional challenges in the publishing world?

I don’t have as much knowledge about the publishing/writing side of queer lit, but I do think that books with queer women characters (or queer characters at all) face additional challenges. Again, YA has become more accepting recently, and seems to recognize that A) queer people are a big enough segment of the population to be a market to pay attention to, and B) not just queer people will read queer YA. But it seems like in mainstream adult books, there is still the mentality that queer characters won’t be as ~relatable. There are exceptions, and hopefully progress is being made, but adult fiction does seem to be slow to change here. Instead, adult lesbian books tend to be kept in their own bubble, where they’re expected to be lesbian romance written by and for lesbians, and published by lesbian publishers. 

What advice would you have to someone wanting to write for the bi and lesbian market?

I’m not an author, so I can’t speak to the craft of writing, but I would say that it is so important to know how to market yourself. There is an audience for queer books, but the problem is this disconnect between the books and readers. Every day, I see people on tumblr lamenting the lack of queer books–when really, there are many, many more that they just aren’t aware of! It’s pretty rare to get published at a mainstream publisher who also is going to give your book a big marketing push, so it’s up to you to get familiar with twitter and tumblr and make connections! Seek out those readers!

When you read and review a book, what are the things you love to see?  And what are the things that make you groan?

I definitely notice the writing style first. It doesn’t have to be lyrical or show-stopping (though I appreciate it), but awkward, clunky, or padded writing will pull me right out of the story. I love writing that is flowing and thoughtful. For representation, I am really looking for the character to be three-dimensional. They should seem like someone who could exist outside of this story. I also like complicated relationships between characters, and it’s always a huge plus to have multiple queer characters–not just the main character and the love interest. (Though there doesn’t have to be a love interest to be a Lesbrary book!)

What are your thoughts on ‘token’ bi and lesbian characters in books?

Honestly, I’ve never noticed this as a problem. I do focus on books that have queer women main characters, so I have probably missed the worst examples of this, but the idea of a “token” queer characters seems to pair with the idea that “all characters should be straight, white, male, etc unless absolutely necessary.” I don’t think there needs to be a reason to have a bi or lesbian character.

Do you feel the inclusion or omission of sexuality and sexual scenes in bi and lesbian books is appropriate, misused, or written well, in general?

It really depends on the genre! I tend to read YA, literary fiction, comics, and I actually don’t read a ton of lesbian romance. From what I have read, with books published by lesbian publishers, it seems like there’s an expectation that there will be a certain amount of F/F sex scenes, regardless of the plot or genre of the book. It can feel a little awkward. In mainstream books, on the other hand, there still seems to be a nervousness about including sex scenes between women. In YA, sex scenes, in general, are still not that common, so it doesn’t surprise me, but it does appear like there is even less sexuality depicted between women. There are books that strike a balance, but right now, I do think there’s a dichotomy between books published by lesbian publishers and those published by mainstream publishers.

If someone is interested in starting to read bi and lesbian books, how would you recommend they get started?

  There are so many options! I think the most successful strategy is just to read a queer women book in the genre/s that you’re already interested. I keep a page on the Lesbrary of my favourites (linked to reviews), all sorted by genre, but there are other curated lists to check out to, like the excellent LGBTQ Reads (with a YA focus), or Sapphic Book Club(Romance focus), or Lesbian Reading Room (strong Romance focus).

What are your favourite classic books that give good insight and understanding?

If you’re looking for an understanding of lesbian lit, I’d recommend Sappho’s poetry (If Not, Winter by Anne Carson is a good translation), Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, and Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden are all foundational.

What are the best places (apart from Lesbrary) for people to find good bi and lesbian fiction or non-fiction books?

LGBTQ Reads and its tumblrSapphic Book ClubLesbian Reading RoomCasey the Canadian Lesbrarian, and Lambda Literary (LGBTQ in general), to name a few! And then there’s the booktube side, with Problems of a Book NerdWoolfsWhistle, and… me

How do you feel the representation of aro, ace, gender non-binary and queer characters has changed?

There has been some progress, mostly in YA, but it’s definitely been slower than gay and lesbian, and even bisexual, representation. It’s still in its infancy. There is, finally, some forward movement, but it’s happening slowly.

Is there a character or story that you are wishing that someone would finally write?

Personally, I’d like more exploration of sexual fluidity in fiction, because that’s something I’ve only seen represented in one book (Ramona Blue), and it’s how I identify. Other than that, I’m just excited to see more explorations of complex identities.

How important do you feel bi and lesbian representation in books is to promoting equality?

I think that books are a great way to promote empathy: you get into a character’s head when you read about them, and it makes it easier to relate to them. It’s also such a haven for people who are looking for representation. It’s a very private experience, reading, so I think that oftentimes, it’s an easier place to explore identities. On the other hand, it doesn’t get as much attention as something like a mainstream TV show. I do think that queer books are hugely important, but in terms of changing society, I think more mainstream media (TV, movies, and even advertisements) can change society more quickly.

What response have you had from the public to starting the Lesbrary in 2010?  Has this changed in 9 years?

The funny thing is, I don’t get a lot of response directly on the Lesbrary: it doesn’t tend to get any comments or feedback. But I do get feedback on tumblr, and I get a lot of thanks there. The weirdest thing is that I have now met a handful of people in real life who were regular readers of the Lesbrary! That’s been amazing. I’ve accumulated more followers (and a lot more content!) over the years. There are more queer book blogs out there now (thankfully!), but the Lesbrary seems to still have its own little niche, so that seems to be going well. I did have an incident or two with backlash: there were a few very vocal people angry that I include trans and bisexual books on the Lesbrary and its tumblr, but that seems to have died down.

What are your future goals for the Lesbrary?

I have a long list of goals for the Lesbrary, from the Lesbian Literature 101 series (an introduction to the entire history of bi and lesbian literary history) to more videos to themed recommendation posts and a better tagging system. I want to be able to devote a lot more time to the Lesbrary!

If someone would like to be a reviewer for the Lesbrary, what criteria do they need and how should they apply?

Reviewers just need to submit a sample book review to danikaellis at gmail! Interested reviewers can browse the Lesbrary to get a sense of the usual length and style, but every reviewer is different. It just needs to go into some depth and not just rehash the plot.

If someone would like to support the work of Lesbrary, what can they do?

There are lots of way to support the Lesbrary! Reading and sharing is always great, and I appreciate any messages I get. But if you are able to contribute financially, the Lesbrary has a Patreon account, and Patrons who contribute $2 or more a month get entered in monthly queer book giveaways! I also have a Support the Lesbrary page that details other options, like Amazon affiliate links and ko-fi!

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