Gone Are the Days of Flashlight, Sheet Over Head and that Juicy Lesbian Novel.
Yes, ladies, we have come a long way from pulp lesbian novels like I Prefer Girls by Jessie Dumont to The Girls in 3-B by Valerie Taylor. Crest Books brought us some of the campiest stories of forbidden love and, if you can find them, some of the most suggestive film noire art work worthy of framing. Little did we know that when Artemis Smith published The Third Sex in 1959 that the world would read the front cover hype that it was the “penetrating story of society’s greatest curse: homosexuality”. Oh my.
Prior to this wave of lesbian fiction, there were actually outstanding novels that did draw women into the world of women’s relationships, albeit fraught with longing, hiding, guilt and loss. At some time in our search for “our stories”, you must have read Radclyffe Hall‘s The Well of Loneliness (1928). Not exactly the uplifting story we hoped would make us feel that lesbian was an okay thing. But, we resonated with it and in turn we searched for more.
As a person fascinated by the impact of lesbian literature and film on society and its barometer of where we have come in the world of mainstream genres, I looked back at the novels that exemplified the coming of age of lesbian literature and the natural progression of impactful lesbian stories to film.
In 2010, the BBC brought The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister to television. The diaries were a culmination of her writings from 1791-1840. In a page from 1821, Miss Lister writes, “I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them, in my turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs.” Because homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment, her diaries are written in a code that was “cracked” and published as I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Miss Anne Lister. The BBC movie takes us back to a time when passion and self-knowing superseded any fear of being found out. Anne Lister is our heroine and her affairs no less revealing as any modern day novel or film.
Stories with lesbian characters and relationships have become a recognized genre in its own right. Filmmakers are combing the decades of great lesbian literature and bringing these stories to the big screen. When asked if she thinks of herself as a lesbian writer, Sarah Waters replied, “Yes and no. I am very comfortable with the concept of a ‘lesbian writer’ or a ‘lesbian text’. Most of my novels so obviously foreground passions between women that it has made lots of sense to me to invoke the ‘lesbian’ label. I have many enthusiastic lesbian readers who have been with me right from the start- long before I became popular as a mainstream writer. At the same time, I don’t sit down at my desk every morning thinking ‘I am a lesbian writer’.” Yet, filmmakers realized Tipping the Velvet (1998) and Fingersmith (2002) were the quality lesbian stories that would make great films.
In 1952, Patricia Highsmith wrote The Price of Salt. Sixty years later, Phyllis Nagy has turned the book into a screenplay, renamed it Carol and it will come to the big screen in 2015. The author became notorious due to the story’s latent lesbian content and happy ending, the latter having been unprecedented in homosexual fiction. Highsmith recalled that the novel was inspired by a mysterious woman she happened across in a shop and briefly stalked. The film adaptation stars Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Sarah Paulson. Will it be the lesbian film to finally remove that tag and be “a movie” rather than “a lesbian movie”?
There are current lesbian themed novels and lesbian focused writers whose books have an important part in the literature genre. First off, they are very good stories. When Shamim Sarif wrote I Can’t Think Straight her hope was to translate it into a feature film.
I recently spoke with Rachel Spangler about lesbian fiction and its place in mainstream fiction. She stated, “I think it is so important for lesbians to see themselves represented in all areas of fiction. For so long the only time we saw lesbians portrayed in literature was if they died. What kind of message does that send to our community? Fiction is such a powerful tool for developing a collective self-image. How we are represented goes a long way to tell us who we are. We deserve to see ourselves as heroes; we deserve to see ourselves as leading women. Mostly, though, we deserve our happy endings. As for why I write lesbian fiction, I don’t know that I limit myself at all. I will write anything that speaks to me, but so far those are simply the stories in my heart.”
Filmmakers and screenwriters would be wise to bring Rachel’s novels like Timeless (2014) or Does She Love You (2013) or The Long Way Home (2010) to the big screen. First time author Kristen Zimmer has a winner with The Gravity Between Us (2013). Lynn Ames, whose newest release, All That Lies Within (2013) is just one of her many novels that I envision being told through film.
Do you remember your high school English teacher telling you to read a book during your summer vacation? She wanted to keep you reading because a novel takes us on a journey into a wondrous story filled with characters we either want to be or hope to never be. We are mice in the corners and voyeurs at the door the minute we immerse ourselves in a good book. Then sometimes with luck and the wisdom of the filmmaker, the stories burst forth from the pages to become applauded films like Tipping the Velvet, Notes on a Scandal, Night Watch and The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister.
Jan Miller Corran, Ph.D., is CEO/President of More Than Friends Productions (MTF). Dr. Corran is a film producer with numerous films to her credit as Executive Producer, Associate Producer or consultant. For a list of her books and films, visit www.morethanfriendsproductions.com