Queering SFF

Queering SFF: Wanting, Searching, Finding

There seemed to be a common theme in the discussion of people’s first queer SFF: it wasn’t found intentionally. It was found by accident, by word of mouth, by luck. That got me thinking about the ways in which I search for new books to read. In turn, that made me think about how hard queer SFF can be to find sometimes, especially when you’re just browsing by shelves in a store. Why is that? Flap copy tends to be one problem—I can’t claim to be the most thorough researcher in the world, but once I had the thought, I read over the backs/inside flaps of all the queer SFF books I own and that are in the bookstore I work for. You would be surprised (or perhaps not) at exactly how few of them bother to mention the sexualities or gender differences within the text, even when they are the driving force of the plot. Examples follow below the cut.

If you can’t find a book by browsing the shelves on your own, how can you? After a while, it gets tiring to only find them by accident in golden picks here and there. I’m tired of having to be pleasantly surprised when a book has a diverse cast. I’d like to just start at the point where I know there is one.

Of course, I’m also internet-spoiled. I’ll readily admit that. I’m a youngster and by the time I was actively searching out the books I wanted, I could use the internet and the great big pool of wisdom available to me out there. But hey, it’s a handy tool, and one that’s helpful in this kind of search. (I can’t fathom not having it to find things now. This is probably a bad sign for me in a future devastated by sentient machines/nuclear warheads/zombies/your favorite internet-killing apocalypse.)

So, how do I find my queer SFF? How do you? There’s more ways than I can think of, I’m sure, and I want to know what I’m missing. Let’s figure this out.

I want to return to the flap-copy problem for a second, because I feel like it’s a debate I could chase my proverbial tail on for years and never find an answer. Why should it be necessary to include a character’s sexuality in the flap copy if it has no direct correlation to the plot? That bothers me. I don’t like the implications. On the other hand, I want to be able to find more books that have queer characters and leads because I enjoy them. They feel more like home to me, like less of the same-old-same-old. On this same side it bothers me, as I said at the beginning, that even when a character’s sexuality or the queer relationship between two character is important to the plot, it’s not mentioned or it’s brushed over.

The common tactic with gay male couples is to refer to them on the back like they’re just really close friends. Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series has this problem with its flap copy: it carefully skirts the fact that Seregil and Alec are lovers, even on the back of the third book, where it mentions the fact that they’re living in exile together—but not, you know, that they’re living together because they’re deeply in love. Why? This is one of the more popular series with queer protagonists; it’s not like it’s a dread secret!  Another classic with non-queer flap copy is Swordspoint: I put a little less blame here, though, because the actual flap copy is a single small paragraph. The rest is blurb-age. It doesn’t even mention Alec’s existence, let alone Richard’s relationship to him. One that made me grind my teeth actively was The Steel Remains by Richard K Morgan. In the hardcover edition’s flap copy, it says “Gil is estranged from his aristocratic family” but fails to say that it’s because he’s gay and out about it in a violently homophobic society. That’s one of the major, major plot points and there’s a definite opportunity to mention it, but no. Not a word. That is so not an accident or a lack of space. It’s a direct passing-over of one of the main themes of the book for the purpose of avoiding discussing the queer content in the flap copy.

I don’t want to be the one yelling, “Hey! Hey! These flap copies are hetereosexist!” I feel like I might be stretching myself a little thin to proclaim that. But really, what is the purpose in cutting those important details? It draws me back to a review I received once on the OWW from a young man claiming that I would never be able to appeal to a male 18-25 audience because my lead characters were “gay together.” (The special irony being that, you know, they weren’t.) Is it because of this childish viewpoint? Do the publishers actually think that they might lose their potential young male readers if they tell them upfront there are queer character in the book? That seems—sneaky at the very least. And a bit shortsighted. I have books returned to me regularly at my store because the reader in question didn’t expect the man-on-man or woman-on-woman or alien-on-human action therein. Even if the squicked-out reader doesn’t return the book, he or she isn’t likely to come buy another by the same author. So why the “straightening up?” It also makes assumptions about a crowd of readers that I feel aren’t necessarily true. I think they can handle it just fine. Being straight doesn’t somehow magically make you a homophobe. It just doesn’t. Being straight and young and male really doesn’t either; I had a bigger problem convincing a friend of such type to read A Companion to Wolves because it had, well, companion-wolves than I did because it had explicit queer scenes.

I guarantee I would buy more books, faster, if the flap copies actually told me the information I wanted to know and I didn’t have to do extensive at-home research first. On my home-shelves I only managed to find two decent examples of queer flap copy. The first is the typical type: it’s an oblique mention, not really directly stating the facts but hinting at them. The flap copy for the paperback of Melusine by Sarah Monette mentions Felix’s sexuality only in terms of his abuse at the hands of another man, but it’s a sideways mention that at least provides some kind of a hint. The book I found with direct flap copy was a reprint of Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany that contained the sentence, “Tackling questions of race, gender, and sexuality, Dhalgren is a literary marvel…” So the only book I found on my shelves that was open about its queer content was a reprint of a famous queer SFF novel. Hm. Why aren’t the others just as true to their stories? It would only help, not hurt, the sales of the book.

I can’t offer a solution there, to be honest, and I’m more interested in hearing what other people think about the flap-copy issue. I can’t decide if it’s intentionally trying to hide the characters’ sexualities or not. I can’t even say that the information should always be there because sometimes, honestly, it’s not relevant to the plot at all. Especially with secondary characters; where are they going to fit that info into a paragraph? I think that I, personally, would just like a little bit more effort at openness. I don’t think honesty will throw off a potential reader any more than casually not telling them, having them get angry about the secret!gay!agenda! and then return the book later.

Enough about that tail-chaser of a problem. Somebody smarter and wider-read and more religious with research can argue it better than I can. Let’s get down to the active part: the searching/shopping/finding.

The most obvious of obvious things is word of mouth, which has become word-of-blog and word-of-message-board. I have a much bigger list thanks to the first Queering SFF post (and I love you all for it so much) because we all got together and talked. I heard about Poppy Z. Brite from a friend who smuggled around a battered copy of Lost Souls at all times in our school years. I found Anne Rice’s books via a different friend’s mother. Word of mouth is powerful, but it’s frequently not enough if you don’t have a circle of other readers surrounding you. The internet is hit-or-miss here too—you never know if something will pop up under “queer SFF” or “gay SFF” or “lesbian scifi” or none of the above. Searches are not perfect. A chat on a blog post will get buried under the weight of the rest of the internet pretty quickly. I love the word-of-mouth stuff, don’t get me wrong, but it’s pretty close to the “by accident” route.

There are websites and awards devoted to queer literature (The Lambda Awards have an SFF category, for example.) GLBT Fantasy Resources can be a handy place to find lists of titles and reviews, though I find myself regularly disagreeing with the reviews themselves. (Honestly though, that can be the fun part of reading a review at all.) The lists of potential books for review are especially helpful. They also don’t seem to exclude scifi, despite the page’s name. For themes of gender as well as sexuality, Feminist Science Fiction, Fantasy and Utopias provides a pretty damned comprehensive set of lists. As much as I have a deep and fearful loathing of Amazon.com, their customer list/connection features can be handy. You can search what other people have tagged on the site as queer SFF.

One of my favorite ways to find new books is actually reading reviews that pan them for having “outrageous” content and then reading them—usually to find out that there’s hardly any hot queer sex at all. I can’t help but be let down by a review that promises me unrepentant nasty pornography and instead I get like, three paragraph-long gay sex scenes in a whole book. I mean, really. Again, this in specific reference to The Steel Remains by Richard K Morgan. (We’ll get there in the review-posts, I promise.) On the nicer side of reviews, there are several places that give the nod to queer protagonists: Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist, for one. I’m looking forward to reading Nights of Villjamur after reading a review for it there that focused—but didn’t overfocus—on the sexuality of the lead.

Author blogs can be handy. Author recommendations, including cover blurbs, can be even handier. If you have an idea that writer A does a lot of excellent queer SFF, and they’re blurbing this other book by unfamiliar writer B, it is a good bet that you may want to check out the first few chapters and see if your assumption is correct. I found Elizabeth Bear that way, actually.

Overall—I guess it’s still word of mouth, in some ways, but a much more accessible and global word of mouth thanks to the internet. Lists and quickly accessible reviews are how I find most of the books I want; I buy them by ordering them if I’m particularly on fire for them or by simply searching for them on shelves. It feels like a reward to find them that way, you know?

Those are my favorite methods for finding good queer SFF, new and old. It’s not foolproof. I’ve missed a lot of books; I hadn’t managed to hear of Nicola Griffith until the first-reads post. I hope there are always more books, wider diversity in their characters, and more open treatment of those books by their publishers and marketing teams.

Now you tell me—how do you find your queer SFF? Do you go looking or just rely on luck?


Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.


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