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Every literary genre is a conversation among a community of writers and readers. And like all communities of conversation, it will develop its own dialect as that conversation evolves, elaborates, and extends itself across the territory of ideas being explored.  Of course, I don’t mean “dialect” in the sense of a set of characteristics of pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar; in this case we’re talking about a set of themes, tropes, prototypes, and expectations. And even when books share the same surface themes and imagery, those distinctions of literary dialect can present an unexpected challenge to their ability to share an audience. Consider the endless (and unproductive) debates over the dividing lines and relative merits of “literary” science fiction and “genre” science fiction. Or the clear difference in flavor between “magical realism” and “urban fantasy”, though both explore fantastic elements in contemporary everyday settings. If a language is “a dialect with an army and a navy” as Max Weinreich famously said, one might think of a genre as a literary dialect with a shelf label and a designated array of publishers.

The concept of literary dialect was much on my mind back when I was approaching the point of submitting Daughter of Mystery to publishers. In the midst of drawing up lists of possible markets, correlating against overt and implicit requirements, and tracing the connections of books and authors that seemed most similar, there were two points that struck me as important. I wanted to find a publisher who dealt with books similar to what I was trying to sell them. And I wanted to find a publishing home, not only for this one book, but for my future output as well.

I soon concluded that the first requirement was the more problematic. To some extent, there simply didn’t seem to be any clear existing literary community for my work. On the mainstream SF side, it’s certainly more possible to sell stories with gay and lesbian protagonists these days. Especially science fiction. And especially gay male protagonists. But the isolated works that my research turned up didn’t provide any useful guidance in choosing specific publishers to consider. And entirely too often they seemed to be exceptions to the rule, allowed to a writer of established reputation and enthusiastic fan base. On the lesbian publishing side, I waded through endless lists of imprints specializing in contemporary romance, contemporary mystery, paranormal romance, and every possible combination of the foregoing with erotica. But here it was SF works that were thin on the ground. And when present, the SF settings tended largely to function as a means of obviating the restrictions and prejudices of our own culture and history.

And then there was the question of dialect. Because, you see, I speak mainstream SF. It’s my mother tongue and both what I am most fluent in and most able to express myself in. (And, I should note, what I enjoy expressing myself in.) If I chose to go with a lesbian press, it would be as an immigrant to that culture, and as an expatriate from my own. And even if my work were embraced by my new culture, would it mean abandoning all hope of being read by mainstream SF fans? I read disclaimers such as Nicola Griffith’s comment on lesbian SF, “I find I'm prejudiced in favour of work whose writers appear to have come up through the sf genre rather than the lesbian genre.” and wince at what attitudes like that could mean for my book’s success even though, at heart, I share the same prejudice.

But in the end, there really was no choice. I wanted--no, needed--a publisher for whom the sexuality of my characters would never come into question. For whom, as for me, it was an automatic given that my books would always center around women whose emotional and romantic lives focused on other women. By the time I was ready to shop Daughter of Mystery around, I already knew it would be the first in a series continuing the same themes and characters. And I knew just as well that when I moved on to other characters and settings, my primary focus would always be lesbian characters. And I had no confidence that a mainstream publisher would be willing to support that.

So I find myself suspended between dialectal communities. Daughter of Mystery clearly disrupts the expectations and tropes of “lesfic”. (The most consistent criticism I’ve heard from that side is disappointment at the lack of explicit sex scenes.) But the most challenging aspect of finding the part of my readership that lies outside the lesbian publishing community is clearly going to be the automatic assumption that my book does follow those tropes and dialectal conventions and therefore will not be of interest to those who speak SF. But I prefer to see it as a challenge: to expand the thematic vocabulary of the one community and build roads to smooth the path of explorers from the other who seek a multi-lingual experience. It's far too soon to guess whether I'll be successful, but I do so love a challenge.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
ichseke
Feb. 8th, 2014 09:35 pm (UTC)
FWIW, I'm a straight female reader of SF, fantasy, mystery, and Georgette Heyer, and I'm looking forward to reading your whole series ...
hrj
Feb. 8th, 2014 11:45 pm (UTC)
Thank you! It gives me faith. As I say above, the key difficulty will be breaking through people's assumptions about the stories based on the publisher I chose. So if you like the book, talk it up to folks you think would like it but be unlikely to give it a try otherwise.
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