New York Times 100 Notable of the Year: Where are the lesbians?

It’s that time of year when everyone starts posting their “best of” lists. For better or worse, The New York Times Book Review’s list of the 100 notable books of the year is one of the most anticipated. It remains one of the most widely read and respected newspapers in the country even if it often seems woefully out of touch, elitist, and random. Having a review or mention in the Book Review and especially in the best of the year list is a tap on the shoulder for any author—you’re in, we take you seriously, you deserve to be recognized as a part of the literary community. So, how did the lesbians stack up this year?

 I’m seeing 3 books out of 100 that might be considered of particular lesbian interest, and that seems a stretch.

  1. ROOM by Emma Donoghue (Little Brown). Donoghue is an out lesbian who has written several excellent books, many of which include lesbian characters and lesbian issues. Alas, this book isn’t one of those but it certainly has one of the most intriguing narrators of the year. In other hands, the story of a little boy trapped in an 11-by-11-foot room with his mother could have become maudlin or boring. This book is as full of life and humor as it is tension and fear thanks to Donoghue’s masterful writing.

2. THE TALENTED MISS HIGHSMITH by Joan Schenkar (St. Martin’s). While everyone gleefully notes Highsmith was manipulative, secretive, and obsessive, rarely does anyone acknowledge that she was gay. But she was. And, she wrote one of the first lesbian novels where no one dies, commits suicide, or turns straight at the end—THE PRICE OF SALT. She was also an alcoholic, cruel, and anti-Semitic so not exactly a lesbian role model.

3. THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST by Stieg Larsson (Knopf). So she’s bi or queer or whatever: Lisbeth Salander kicks ass. Leave it to a Swedish man to write one of the best portrayals of a woman whose sexuality is simply part of who she is (though nothing with Lisbeth is ever really simple).

It’s disappointing not to see more books by lesbians or about lesbians on the list. Lambda Literary looked at the list in a more general queer way and the gay quotient increases a smidge. I can’t say I’m surprised. For all that gays are more covered in the media, there’s still a lack of mainstream coverage for gay books. But I can’t put all of the blame there because I can’t think of other lesbian books I’ve read or heard about this year that should be on that list.

So what’s going on? Do I just not know about those lesbian books? Entirely possible. But as someone who pays a lot of attention to the book world, if I don’t know about them, a lot of other potential readers don’t either and that needs to change. Or, are lesbians just not writing literary books, especially with lesbian characters or themes? Or, are they writing them but they’re not being published? Or, are they not writing them because they don’t think they could get published?

I wish I had more answers than questions but actively reading, connecting with other lesbian readers and writers, advocating for those books and authors, and supporting booksellers, publications, organizations, blogs, etc. that also do so is one of my resolutions for the new year.

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