While sexual difference may not exist between lesbians all other forms of difference do. These include differences of identity: race, class origins, employment status, age, religion, physical abilities – and while we may struggle against these differences within our individual spaces’ they have a material and institutional reality that cannot be wished away What, to you, seems important about the terms gay and lesbian in literature?
In the face of a homophobic society we need creative and critical processes that draw out the complexity of lesbian lives and same sex choices, not a retreat into the comforting myths of heroines and unfractured, impeachable identities This quote addresses directly the primary difficulty of the issue. The terms gay and lesbian are useful in literature in that they allow a group of people who have been marginalised and even persecuted to become visible. They enable a way of life and a set of identities, harmonious or conflicting, to be presented, to be questioned, to be understood and accepted.
As categories they create space’ in which there may develop a more evolved understanding of texts and they also create a genre within which many lesbian and gay writers are comfortable with being placed. A gendered reading of a text can reveal undercurrents and depths which might otherwise not be apparent. These categories also make space’ for the author within the text which leads to a closer tie between the author and the reader in the reading process. However the danger which this sort of terminology presents is that of homogenising ways both of reading and writing a text.
In creating a category one is always not only creating an inclusive zone but in doing so also excluding certain elements. The risk is run of stultifying the creative process through the exclusion by a minority group of the minority groups within. As Bonnie Zimmerman writes in her essay Lesbians like this and that’ By positing the lesbian as excess’ in the patriarchal system we may fail to note the identities that function as excess’ within our own newly created lesbian community.
There is a risk of adopting a separatist approach, of placing the categories of gay and lesbian literature outside the mainstream and creating a gay canon but in doing so retaining the underlying values of that patriarchal system. ‘ How does one avoid replicating the masculinist cultural error of taking the dominant for the universal In cutting a group of people or literary category away from a system which is seen as unacceptable and unaccepting you create a vulnerable new entity which in order to secure itself often creates a unifies majority image, a prototype for its membership which can suppress rather than embrace creativity.
The problematic desire for a unified and heroic self image is one of the central dilemmas of contemporary lesbian cultural politics Perhaps it is better, therefore, to recognise that while these terms are useful their usefulness rests on their ability to embrace difference, thereby nurturing creativity. A separatist approach can be damaging to that ideal. Careful attention to history tells us that our differences are as important as our similarities. With this in mind the terms lesbian and gay within literature can be useful in drawing bridges between differences of identity.
In the highly sexualised society of today it is hardly possible to write outside of gender or of sexuality. Given the extent to which identity is so closely linked to gender, to sexual experience it is no great suprise that it is so very much apparent in literature. Since it is through language that we create and express our identities how could it be otherwise. Bell Hook writes of the need for shared sensibilities to build those bridges across differences. Radical postmodernism calls attention to those shared sensibilities which cross the boundaries of class, gender, race, etc. that could be fertile ground for the construction of empathy – ties that would promote recognition of common committments and serve as a basis for solidarity and coalition. Leaving aside literary criticism, one of the primary reasons for reading and indeed one of the greatest enjoyments it yields is the creation of empathy, the feeling that we are in some way similar to or have shared experiences with the character. In lesbian and gay writing this need is particularly evident as, in most communities, regardless of race or class origins both gay men and women are marginalised.
Edmund White in his introduction to his novel A Boy’s Own Story relates that although he himself felt the novel to be quite distant in tone, not entirely open to association and empathy, he nonetheless received many letters and reviews from those who felt they identified with his experiences as a young boy growing up gay. I learned that no matter how unsentimental, even cold -eyed, my book might be, readers inevitably had a soft spot for their own childhood and any echo of it. Jeanette Winterson received similar responses to her own lesbian bildungsroman,’ Oranges are not the only fruit.
The categories of gay and lesbian literature are crucial in providing mentors, role models, ties for what is, as yet, an emerging community. There is also a particular style to a great deal of lesbian writing, a twisting of gender, of language and of imagery which if significant in itself as a valuable contribution to literature. Perhaps it is one of the particular contributions of lesbian writing: to disrupt what we accept as reality and suggest new connections between signs This is very much true of Jeanette Winterson’s writing.
Oranges are not the only fruit, in particular, sets about what Brossard sees as vital A lesbian who does not reinvent the word/world is a lesbian in the process of disappearing In her introduction to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit Winterson outlines the importance of this task, explaining that her interests in writing are “anti-linear” and proclaiming that it is the duty of every generation of writers and artists to find fresh ways of expressing the habitual circumstances of the human condition, To serve up the lukewarm remains of yesterdays dinner is easy, profitable and popular.
It is also wrong. Her own way of going about finding “fresh ways” of writing is to adopt, as many lesbian writers have, a writing pattern which works in spirals not in lines, which challenges gender roles and characteristics, which finds new and changing versions of meaning in the “sign”. As Bonnie Zimmerman writes The basic insight of lesbian critical theory was that the particularity of lesbian experience leads the writer to produce texts with a unique lesbian perspective on reality and the reader/critic to see and therefore decipher encoding of lesbian experience in those texts.
Winterson sets about, quite literally, rewriting the word. ‘ The titles of the chapters in Oranges are not the only fruit are taken from the bible and she skilfully places each in a new light. The opening chapter, Genesis, takes the biblical version of man begetting man and challenges it with a household in which Jeanette is adopted, has no defined origin, is not begotten’ and yet is seen as being essentially of her mother’s creation and under her mother’s control. The father figure is far from being that.
He is barely present and described always as her mother’s husband’, not a father, not a begetter. ‘ The mother in reading Jane Eyre to Jeanette as a child rewrites’ the ending. The tale of Merlin is also subverted and retold from a female viewpoint. The novel is a prime example of female/lesbian reinterpretation. It challenges, in the way that lesbian writing often does and almost must, the notion of His-story. Her novels Written on the Body and The Passion take similar approaches, both toying with and bending the rules of gender, the idea of gender as absolute.
In fact, in Written on the Body the gender of the protagonist, Lothario, is never revealed. A lesbian reading, of the encryption within the novel would reveal Lothario as a woman, as a lesbian, but even this is significant in that it shakes the view of Lothario as the classic male lover. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando similarly challenges prescribed notions of gender. This is one of the vital functions of gay/lesbian literature – to displace male/female roles and images and create greater flexibility than that of male/female, straight/gay.
These polarities are cast aside in most gay literature and indeed in Oranges are not the only Fruit , in the Genesis section, they are very much ridiculed. This is necessary in order to attack the way in which women are defined within our entire language structure as Other. The terms gay and lesbian in literature function as challenges to our preconceived notions of gender and indeed of identity itself. The task at hand for gay and lesbian literary criticism is one of opening and keeping open the gates which act as barriers to our understanding of texts and of identities.
It is very easy to get caught up in a gay and lesbian’ history which is purely middle class white Euro – American’ or indeed to adopt women like Audre Lorde or Gloria Anzaldua as token representatives of racial difference but it is necessary that the movement remain fluid and it can do so only in creating bridges over the barriers of identity. If in its beginnings it was necessary to create a traditional unified subject which a majority could identify with it is necessary now to allow solidarity to give way to complexity of analysis and identity.