Friday, January 20, 2012

2012 Lesbian Fiction Appreciation Event: Jean Roberta and Lesbiana

There is so much to say about lesbian fiction that I’m not sure where to start!

I once made contact (via long-distance telephone call) with one of the mothers of modern lesbian fiction, Barbara Grier. In the 1960s, she was editor of The Ladder, an early lesbian magazine which began as the journal of the Daughters of Bilitis, a discreet lesbian organization in a time when most lesbians didn’t dare “come out” for fear of losing jobs, children, friends, and even their freedom. (Until 1973, “homosexuality” was officially classified as a mental illness.)

Barbara Grier and her lover/partner, Judith McBride, founded The Naiad Press in the 1980s, and it produced a stream of popular lesbian romances. They sold like hotcakes via mail-order from Tallahassee, Florida, after Grier & McBride settled there. The only store in my town in Saskatchewan, Canada, which openly displayed Naiad books was a collectively-run alternative bookstore. I was a collective member who worked full-time in the store on a six-month government grant.  While discussing a book order directly with Grier, I mentioned her groundbreaking list of lesbian books, The Lesbian in Literature, originally compiled in the 1970s with Marion Zimmer Bradley. Barbara Grier said she was too busy to produce a new, expanded edition, and she hoped that someone would continue the important work of listing all the books in English that have lesbian content!

For awhile, I actually tried to do this. I kept book titles and brief descriptions on card catalogues. In 1988, I ran off photocopies of my own typed, unofficial version of the new Lesbian in Literature (I had no access to a computer) to hand out at a local gay/lesbian conference. By the 1990s, I realized that I couldn’t possibly keep up with all the new publications. 

Eventually, The Naiad Press sold their backlist to Bella Books. Barbara Grier passed away from cancer in November 2011. As far as I know, no one else has ever tried to compile a comprehensive bibliography of lesbian literature in all genres, from all times.

By the time I gave up my dream of becoming the next great archivist of lesbian lit, I had written a collection of lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World, which was published by a one-woman press, Lilith Publications of Montreal, in 1988. My stories weren’t sexually-explicit, but the publisher pulled out the most suggestive passage in the whole book and put it on the slick, hot-pink back cover as a teaser. OMG. I wondered if I would have to move to the sparsely-populated far north of Canada and wear a balaclava on my face at all times.
To my surprise, lesbian friends encouraged me to include more sex in my stories. This surprised me because of the Feminist Sex Wars, currently raging in all lesbian-feminist communities. All the women I knew who defined themselves as feminists took it for granted that “porn” (produced by and for men) was degrading to women in general. Presumably, every raunchy word and picture needed to be banned and burned. On the other hand, every lesbian I knew seemed hungry for reading-matter about the sex they were actually having (with luck), or wanted to have.

While promoting my book at the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal in 1988, I saw a call-for-submissions for lesbian erotica. With sweaty palms, I wrote (in longhand, in pencil) three stories, typed them, mailed them off, and got an acknowledgement before the small press went bust and the planned erotic anthology was cancelled. When I tried calling the press long-distance, I reached a seafood restaurant. For a moment, I wondered if this was some sort of lesbian code.  Being a lesbian writer far from any large coastal city felt like being a secret agent. 

In 1998, my sweetie (my legal spouse since 2010, since same-sex marriage became legal in Canada in 2005) and I acquired our first computer. I found an on-line group, The Erotic Readers and Writers Association, which provided support and information for erotic writers. My Muse was seduced. After writing about sex between women, I tried writing about it in other flavours (women with men, men with men) to see if I could do this convincingly. I got encouraging feedback from other erotic writers of all genders, inclinations and levels of talent.

In 1999, my first erotic story, “Something Natural” (an ironic reference to a hand-carved dildo) was published in Batteries Not Included, an anthology about lesbians and sex toys, edited by Alison Tyler. When I recklessly showed my contributor’s copy to several friends, they asked if I had posed for the cover image: a hot babe with a naked butt. (No, I couldn’t claim that honour.)
By then, it seemed, the tide had turned in the Feminist Sex Wars. Lesbian writer, editor and sex educator Tristan Taormino edited the first edition of Best Lesbian Erotica for Cleis Press in 1995. As she has explained, she had to beg her writer friends to submit stories for that first volume, but the number of submissions has increased every year, and the series continues to sell well.

One of my original three stories of lesbian sex, “The Princess and the Outlaw” (a wishful-thinking story in which an heir to the throne and female outlaw find that lust conquers all), appeared in Best Lesbian Erotica 2000. After that, I had a string of stories in “BLE.” Three of them are told by Dr. Athena Chalkdust, an academic domme as a version of the ever-popular kick-ass heroine. She has much more fun in the Ivory Tower than I do.

Eventually, I had over eighty erotic stories in print anthologies alone, not including my stories which ran for one week each on the illustrated subscription site Ruthie’s Club (alas, now defunct). I found the artists very willing to work with me in producing images to go with my stories. One of them gave me full rights to re-use his illustration, included here, for my story, “A Bushy Tale” (also in Best Lesbian Erotica 2004).

Unfortunately, some of the best lesbian and/or erotic presses, magazines and websites have been short-lived. Eventually, an editor I know helped me to set up my own site,, which still lists all my earlier publications, but too many of them are no longer in print or on line.

My interest in the politics of sex (and especially the conflicts on this subject that still erupt in lesbian communities and within lesbian minds, hearts and loins) inspired me to write a monthly column, “Sex Is All Metaphors” for the website of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association from 2008 to 2010. After the on-site columns were closed, the 25 column pieces became an e-book with a racy cover, sold by Coming Together, publisher of erotica to raise money for good causes. 

I write one review per month for Erotica Revealed   (, which posts honest, in-depth reviews of current erotic books. I also write reviews of lesbian/gay/bi/trans/queer material for The Gay and Lesbian Review (http://www.g& originally produced at Harvard University. This glossy magazine does not accept reviews of “genre” fiction, including erotica and romance. Erotica in general, and lesbian erotica in particular, is still kept out of certain clubs.

Probably the second big change in lesbian fiction has been the emergence of erotic romance, fiction which includes sex in a plot about a developing relationship between women, loosely speaking. At least one character in a current “lesbian romance” may be transgendered (FTM or MTF).

My longest story in this genre so far is “Madame Blanche,” a retelling of a French fairy tale of the 1600s about a shapeshifting cat and the prince who discovers her secret. In my version, the “prince” is every bit as bold but not as male as he is in the original. This story appears in a collection of lesbian fairy tales, Rumpled Silk Sheets:

Trends in lesbian fiction seem to have changed immensely in a fairly short time. I will probably divide my writing time between fiction and non-fiction as long as my arthritic fingers enable me to. There is so much more to read now than when Barbara Grier started her first book-list!

You can find Each Has a Point, my second diverse collection of erotic stories here: Check out this six-writer blog, Oh Get a Grip ( , where I post something new every Thursday.

3 comments: review said...

very interesting. as always))

DorisRose MacBean said...

Thank you for the interesting history that bears telling today. Often we forget those who forged the trail.


Jean Roberta said...

Thanks to you both. (Oops - the illustration I mention in my post didn't appear on the blog. Maybe too racy, or tech-incompatible in
some way.)

Readers keep writers going. :)