Lesbian Canon?

For the last couple days I’ve been thinking about the concept of a lesbian canon. I mean, I know that canons in general are problematic, but I like the idea of trying to identify the books that really steered lesbian writing. I think the Wikipedia entry does a pretty good job, but I don’t recognize a lot and I’d probably add others. What do you think? I agree with:

  • The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
  • Ladies Almanack by Djuna Barnes
  • Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
  • The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein
  • Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
  • The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (as Clare Morgan)
  • The Beebo Brinker Chronicles by Ann Bannon
  • Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule
  • Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
  • Fresh Tracks by Georgia Beers
  • Curious Wine by Katherine V. Forrest
  • Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
  • Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue
  • Honor series by Radclyffe
  • Daughters of a Coral Dawn, Daughters of an Amber Noon, Daughters of an Emerald Dusk by Katherine V. Forrest
  • Ammonite and Slow River by Nicola Griffith
  • Sappho’s poetry

I’d add Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden and to a lesser extent Empress of the World by Sara Ryan. Also, Dykes to Watch Out For and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. I really want to hear what you think, though. I haven’t read most of these books, by the way. I’m defining canon as the books that are most referred to, the books that seem to have most influenced lesbian literature, and the ones that are often recommended as prerequisites to lesbian fiction.

Do you think there’s a lesbian canon? Why or why not? If there is, which books do you think make the list? Is popularity a requirement?

14 thoughts on “Lesbian Canon?

  1. Beyond the Pale – by Elana Dykewomon — It may not be considered a classic, but it should be. It is one of the most well written, beautifully told, real, chock-full of every possible emotion, novels I have ever read…gay or straight. YOU MUST read it!!

  2. From the Wikipedia entry, I HIGHLY recommend these mystery series:

    Kate Delafield, a lesbian LAPD homicide detective and former Marine in mysteries by Katherine V. Forrest

    Kate Martinelli, a lesbian San Francisco homicide detective in mysteries by Laurie R. King

    Lauren Laurano, a lesbian private investigator in Manhattan, in mysteries by Sandra Scoppettone

    I really like mysteries, and these are some of the best that I’ve read that feature lesbian characters and relationships.

    In terms of defining a canon- it is a difficult question, as you suggest. Most of the books (though not all of course) listed in the Wiki page are “classic” in the sense of being older, tried and true books, but there are so many contemporary books as well that should be considered too. I don’t like to uphold a canon, however, that means there’s only one way of looking at what lesbians have/ should read or that if one hasn’t read those texts they aren’t “good” lesbians. I also think that the Wiki list is heavy on the white women authors and that more women of color need to be included here in terms of both literature and non-fiction work.

    1. Those are all on my list and I’m definitely looking forward to reading them!

      Very good point about the problems inherent in canons. They don’t really allow for differences in taste. And you’re right, it’s differently very Western-, white-, cis-, abled-centered list. I wonder if there’s more balanced list somewhere?

  3. Thanks for the list! Though I haven’t read all of them. I like Emma Donoghue’s Hood, Stir Fry as well.

    What about Ali Smith’s work? I’ve read Ali Smith’s The First person and other stories and . Both are collections of short pieces (not of them with lesbi content). But the queer subtext are funny and interesting! Just to share.

    1. I’ve been wanting to read her books for a while now; they look fantastic. I’m not sure how they fit into a canon, though, since they aren’t exclusively queer. but that might be because I haven’t read them yet.

  4. I haven’t read many of these as well. But, one book I come back to over and over, claudine a L’école by Colette, although I suppose strictly speaking, it is bisexual. Thanks for the thought provoking post I will have to give the notion of canon more thought. :-)

    1. Ooo, I just finished reading a book that had an article all about that book! I’m just adding it to my list now. It definitely sounds like a great addition to the canon. I was also on the fence about another french novel, La Garconne/The Bachelor Girl/[apparently] The Flapper. It makes the lists of lesbian classics, but I can’t seem to find it anywhere in English. The only result that comes up at BookFinder.com is $6000… I guess I’d have to get the French version and try to translate, or get someone to translate it. It’s weird, because it should be in the public domain, shouldn’t it? Anyways, long story short, the French did a lot for lesbian lit.

  5. Many people would add Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller. Maybe also Stir Fry and Hood by Emma Donoghue?

    1. I was on the fence about Patience and Sarah, because I really liked it, but I couldn’t remember it getting a lot of mentions when people talk about the lesbian classics. I like it, but I wasn’t sure about the sort of influence it had on lesbian literature in general, you know?

      Yeah, I’m not sure which Emma Donoghue gets top spot. I’ll admit that I just picked Kissing the Witch because I’ve read it and loved it, and I feel like it did something sort of unique. Any or all of those three would probably work equally well, though.

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