|A Review by Rebecca James|
Being a perpetual student, as well as a beach bum, my new year begins in September rather than January. At the beginning of each fall, I make my mental list of resolutions and plunge headlong into the new season. Aside from the typical physical good intentions, I usually make both personal and classroom-oriented educational goals. More specifically, I plan my winter reading list. I sift through all the recommendations I've received through the summer, cross off the authors I've already read, edit out the preferences of friends who read romances, science-fiction and westerns, and look through old professors' reading requirements. Perhaps it's the added motivation of working in a bookstore (or the frustration of selling more Danielle Steele than all the classics combined), but I've grown more ambitious this year and enlisted the help of several classic anthologies and reading plans. These new books, as well as ones I've been exposed to in the past, will hopefully prepare me and other aspiring souls for a well-read winter.
As soon as I began searching, it became very apparent that there is quite a selection of anthologies to choose from. The audiences they address vary from vague (as in everyone should read these) to incredibly specific (new lesbian writers of South Brazilian descent who were raised Catholic by gay men in San Franciscookay, just kidding, but pretty close). It's important to consider several different anthologies to get the most diverse selection of writers. There are selections, both old and new, from all over the world that may greatly influence your reading experience. I would suggest reading a few excerpts on 'queer theory' or 'queer reading' before beginning your search. Some of these essays may help you appreciate the same-gender friendships and history of classic folk-tales and literature, regardless of the sexual identities of their authors. Although geared mainly towards men, an excellent place to begin this task can be found in Robert Drake's introduction to The Gay Canon, a semi-chronological book of essays designed to be read along with the great works of literature. Also, try resources like the Lambda Book Report (available at Lambda Rising).
The Penguin Book of International Gay Writing is another popular gay anthology, but I hesitate to recommend it alone. Its editor, Mark Mitchell, has included no historical backgrounds or guides for any of the selections in his book. As an introduction to classic gay reading, it is sorely lacking. Mitchell has also chosen works with little subtletymost are overt homosexual experiences, with the emphasis on sexual. I would rather choose a guide like The Gay Canon and purchase the actual titles reviewed separately than rely on my own ambition and limited knowledge of history in 800 B.C.E. A 1998 release, The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature, looks very promising. Edited by Byrne R. S. Fone in mostly chronological order, it is also geared towards men. (Note: I stress the importance of chronological order in anthologies because I think it is beneficial to the overall sense of how the world was evolving between the different essays included).
For strictly contemporary writers, there is a much greater pool of books to choose from in both erotic and everyday fiction. Many publishers have his-and-her editions, such as Plume's Women on Women and Men on Men, or Faber and Faber's His2 and Hers2 series. The best classic anthologies, however, include contemporary writing as well.
Women will be pleased with the number of classic literature anthologies, but less lucky than men with the publication of reading guides. On the upside, more of the anthologies include editorial comments and historical notes than the men's. Lillian Faderman, a prominent historian in the field of women/gender/gay studies, has published several fantastic books on literature for women. Chloe Plus Olivia is a perfect introduction to women's writing and history, although it does not begin quite as far back as The Gay Canon. Readers will discover the usual excerpts from Sappho with comments
from Faderman, as well as exposure to contemporary writers like Audre Lorde, one of my personal favorites. Surpassing the Love of Men concentrates predominantly on the writings of women during the age of romantic friendships, but is a highly readable and enjoyable text. Faderman's latest release was To Believe In Women, which arrived in my store early this summer, just in time to be a perfect birthday gift from Lori. I haven't finished reading it cover to cover, but the overall organization and style is much like her other books, which I loved.
One of my favorite new anthologies of contemporary women writers is The Vintage Book of International Lesbian Fiction, edited by Naomi Holoch and Joan Nestle, the editors of Women On Women. It was here that I discovered the work of Shani Mootoo, the author of Cereus Blooms at Night, which just arrived for me from Avon Books.
All in all, I'd say I have a pretty busy winter ahead of me, and I hope that I'm able to hunt down some more "new to me" authors and still have time to produce some writing of my own. I am truly looking forward to the first cool fall evening when I can curl up with a hot cup of tea, a good classic, and a furry warm cat. Happy reading!
Rebecca James is the Assistant Manager of Browseabout Books on Rehoboth Avenue. She thinks that her sisters may also be creatures from the black lagoon, but mom won't tell.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 9, No. 13, Sept. 17, 1999