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Novel: Lesbian  
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From the great modernist writers of the 1920s and 1930s to the pulp writers of the 1950s to the lesbian writers of today, lesbian novelists have had a powerful impact on the lesbian community. Not only do lesbian novels define and redefine what it means to be a lesbian in our society, they provide an important record of changing cultural attitudes toward lesbianism. By depicting different versions of the lesbian experience, the lesbian novel enriches and enhances lesbian culture.

More broadly, lesbian novels, by questioning gender norms, debating what it means to be a woman in our society, and questioning dominant values, have not only depicted the lesbian community but also helped to constitute it.

Defining the Lesbian Novel

Exactly what features make a novel "lesbian" are difficult to specify. Critics have different ideas about how to define the lesbian novel, but most agree on two points: The author must be a lesbian, and the central character or characters must be lesbians.

Using this definition, novels that contain central lesbian characters but were written by men, such as Henry James's The Bostonians (1886) or Compton Mackenzie's Extraordinary Women (1928), fail to qualify as lesbian novels. Moreover, novels with a significant lesbian content but written by heterosexual women, such as Mary McCarthy's The Group (1963), do not qualify as lesbian novels.

As important as authorship in defining the lesbian novel is audience reception; although the audience does not have to be exclusively lesbian, the book should have particular appeal for lesbians. Numerous lesbian novels, such as Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928), Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), and Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1987), attract many heterosexual as well as homosexual readers.

The lesbian novel may contain lesbianism in either an overt or covert fashion. A number of important lesbian writers, such as Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf, do not explicitly refer to lesbianism in their novels; still, these writers do create lesbian subtexts in their work. Ultimately, all that can be said with certainty about the lesbian novel is that it is a genre that resists firm categorization since there is no single definition.

A thorough discussion of all important lesbian novels is beyond the scope of this brief essay, but I shall at least mention many of the most significant lesbian novels of the twentieth century.

Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness

No study of the lesbian novel can be complete without citing Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928), a novel that, as Bonnie Zimmerman has noted, has helped define lesbianism in this century. It was the first novel written by a lesbian that talked openly about homosexuality.

Stephen Gordon, the novel's handsome, aristocratic lesbian heroine, was a role model that lesbians strove to emulate for over fifty years. Countless women identified with Stephen's struggle to be a lesbian during a period when homosexuals were considered abnormal and mentally disturbed.

When it was published, Hall's book, which was banned as obscene in England, caused a scandal because it endorsed the view that lesbians should have a place in society and not be shunned as social pariahs.

Despite Hall's positive portrayal of lesbianism, her work has had ambivalent responses from lesbian readers. Although some of them praise Hall's work for its unconcealed depiction of lesbian relationships, others condemn it for Hall's adherence to an essentialist belief--first made popular by the late nineteenth-century sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing--that lesbians and lesbian mannerisms are the products of congenital "inversion."

Some lesbian readers are critical of Hall's angst-filled narrative and of her masculinist bias; they argue that The Well of Loneliness does not present lesbianism positively.

Whether or not we accept Hall's ideology, however, we can still respect Hall's courage in depicting lesbianism openly. We can also appreciate that Hall's novel helped innumerable lesbians discover that they were not alone. Even today, we can admire the characterization of Stephen Gordon, who remains one of the most fully developed heroines in lesbian fiction.

Other Lesbian Novelists between the Two World Wars

Not all lesbian novelists in the interwar period, felt comfortable talking openly about lesbianism in their writing, particularly since blatant lesbianism could result in getting a novel banned or discouraging its publication. These writers frequently disguised the lesbian content of their work.

Instead of the straightforward realistic depiction of lesbianism in Radclyffe Hall's novel, Djuna Barnes's Nightwood (1936), for example, presents a very different image of lesbianism. Throughout this surreal modernist novel, lesbianism is a topic just below the surface. One of the characters, Frau Mann, is called "the property of no man." Two other characters, Nora Flood and Robin Vote, fall in love, and their tumultuous relationship is the focus of much of the convoluted narrative.

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Djuna Barnes (top) and Virginia Woolf published important lesbian novels between World War I and World War II.
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