The first novel in the English language recognised as having a lesbian theme is Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928), which a British court found obscene because it defended "unnatural practices between women". The book was banned in Britain for decades; this is in the context of the similar censorship of Lady Chatterley's Lover, which also had a theme of transgressive female sexuality, albeit heterosexual. In the United States The Well of Loneliness survived legal challenges in New York and the Customs Court. A deeper examination of many classic novels and texts reveals lesbian-focused characters.
Lesbian fiction saw a huge explosion in interest with the advent of the dime-store or pulp fiction novel. Lesbian pulp fiction became its own distinct category of fiction, although a significant number of authors of this genre were men using either a male or female pen name. The feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s saw a more accepted entry of lesbian-themed literature.
Lesbian literature includes works by lesbian authors, as well as lesbian-themed works by heterosexual authors. Even works by lesbian writers that do not deal with lesbian themes are still often considered lesbian literature. Works by heterosexual writers which treat lesbian themes only in passing, on the other hand, are not often regarded as lesbian literature.
The fundamental work of lesbian literature is the poetry of Sappho of Lesbos. From various ancient writings, historians have gathered that a group of young women were left in Sappho's charge for their instruction or cultural edification. Not much of Sappho's poetry remains, but that which does demonstrates the topics she wrote about: women's daily lives, their relationships and rituals. She focused on the beauty of women and proclaimed her love for girls.
Certain works have established historical or artistic importance, and the world of lesbian fiction continues to grow and change as time goes on. Until recently, contemporary lesbian literature has been centered around several small, exclusively lesbian presses, as well as online fandoms. However, since the new Millennium began, many lesbian presses have branched out to include the works of trans-men and -women, gay and bisexual voices, and other queer works not represented by the mainstream press.
Works of lesbian literature are sometimes difficult to find if they are not published by small lesbian presses. There has always been a general lack of promotion of lesbian themes by mainstream publishers, and the small presses lack the funding to get the word out. An exhaustive list of works cannot be provided here, but key works in different genres are listed.
Young adult fiction
In Ruby (1976) by Rosa Guy, the main character is a girl from the West Indies. The novel tells the story of her relationship with another girl. Other young adult novels with lesbian characters and themes that were published during this time include Sandra Scoppettone's Happy Endings Are All Alike (1978). According to the author, it "barely got reviewed and when it did it wasn't good," unlike Scoppettone's novel about gay boys, which was better received.
Frequent themes in books published during the 1970s are that homosexuality is a "phase," or that there are no "happy endings" for gay people, and that they generally lead a difficult life.
The School Library Journal reported:
Throughout the 1970s, there was, on average, a single young adult title per year dealing with gay issues. Although many of these early books were well written — and well reviewed — gay characters were at best a sidekick or foil for the straight protagonist and at worst a victim who would face violence, injury, or death (fatal traffic accidents were commonplace). Young protagonists who worried that they might be gay would invariably conclude that their same-sex attraction was simply a temporary stage in the journey toward heterosexual adulthood.
Nancy Garden's Annie on My Mind, published in 1982, tells the story of two high school girls who fall in love. The novel, which has never been out of print, was a step forward for homosexuality in young adult literature. It was published in hardback and by a major press. In the book, homosexuality is seen as something permanent and to be explored, not "fixed."
In Kansas, a minister led a public burning of Annie on My Mind following a controversy after it was donated to a school library.
During this decade the number of lesbian-themed young adult novels published rose. Nancy Garden published two novels with lesbian protagonists, Lark in the Morning (1991) and Good Moon Rising, and received positive sales and reviews. In 1994, M.E. Kerr published Deliver Us From Evie, about a boy with a lesbian sister, which was well received by the public. Other books published during this decade include Dive by Stacey Donovan (1996), The Necessary Hunger (1997) by Nina Revoyr, The House You Pass On the Way (1997) by Jacqueline Woodson, The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998), about three different women, two of whom are either bisexual or lesbian (additionally, one of the male characters is gay), Girl Walking Backwards, (1998) by Bett Williams, who intended the novel for an adult audience though it was popular among teens, Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger (1999) and Dare Truth or Promise (1999) by Paula Boock.
The 1990s represented a turning point for young adult novels that explored lesbian issues, and since 2000, a flood of such books has reached the market. The public attitude towards lesbian themes in young adult literature has grown more accepting.
In the past, most books portrayed gay people as "living isolated lives, out of context with the reality of an amazingly active community." Today books also show gay characters not as stigmatized and separate.
There are fewer books about female homosexuality than male homosexuality, and yet fewer books on bisexuality are published. Despite the fact that availability of books with teen lesbian and bisexual themes has increased since the 1960s, books with non-white characters are still difficult to find.
Carolyn Parkhurst's 2006 novel Lost and Found, a New York Times bestseller, features two lesbians, one the 18-year-old Cassie, who is trying to establish how she feels about some of the mistakes she's made, but is quite certain she prefers women; another a thirty-something woman, Abby, who has married in an attempt to avoid the "sin" of homosexuality, but who is still attracted to women. Interestingly, Abby is married to soi-disant "ex-gay" preacher, Justin, who wants to proselytize the conversion of homosexuals to heterosexuality (while cheating with another man behind Abby's back), and Abby finds herself increasingly uninterested in this political program. Thrown into the mix is an adult one-time child actress, Juliet, who is willing to flirt with Cassie if it will bring more televised attention to herself.
A reviewer for Entertainment Weekly gave Lost and Found a grade of B+ and astutely observed, "Says the ex-child star: '[Cassie's] smart and she's funny, and more importantly, I think audiences are going to like her. I'm still deciding whether flirting with her is the right way to go; she's a little fleshier than I'd like, and I have to think about how that'll look.' And we're back on that theme, being seen, in a novel peopled by the visually impaired. ... How can Abby not see that Justin's barely staying straight? How can Juliet not see how calculating and grasping she appears?"
Guy Savage also remarked, in his review, on the conflicted dynamics between "Abby and Justin — former homosexuals who hope to spread their message of "sexual conversion" through the medium of reality television" and notes that "Laura and Cassie" are "an estranged mother and daughter team," though he missed the reason why, or chose not to explicate it.
The first lesbian publisher devoted to publishing lesbian and feminist books was Naiad Press, which published the seminal lesbian romance novel Curious Wine by Katherine V. Forrest and many other books. The press closed in 2003 after 31 years. Co-founder Barbara Grier handed off her books and operation to a newly established press, Bella Books which is still going strong today. Other early publishers include Spinsters Ink, Rising Tide Press, Crossing Press, Seal Press and New Victoria. In many cases, these presses were operated by authors who also published with the press, such as Barbara Wilson at Seal Press which became part of the mainstream company, Avalon, and Joan Drury at Spinsters Ink, which has been sold a couple of times and now is part of the Bella Books organization.
The current largest publishers of lesbian fiction are Bella Books, Bold Strokes Books, and Regal Crest Enterprises. Bella Books, established in 2001, acquired the Naiad backlist, including the majority of works by Jane Rule and all the works of Karin Kallmaker. Their catalog includes over 300 titles of lesbian romance, lesbian mystery and erotica. Bold Strokes Books established in 2005, publishes lesbian and gay male mystery, thrillers, sci-fi, adventure, and other LGBT genre books. Their catalog includes 130 titles. Regal Crest Enterprises, established in 1999, has a catalog currently exceeding 150 works, and they publish lesbian romance, lesbian mystery, some erotica, sci-fi, fantasy, and sagas.
Smaller publishers of exclusively lesbian fiction include Bedazzled Ink, Bywater Books, Intaglio Publications, Sapphire Books Publishing, Supposed Crimes, and Ylva Publishing. Some women's presses also produce lesbian fiction, such as Firebrand Books and Virago Press.
- The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall (1928)
- Nightwood, Djuna Barnes (1936)
- The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith (1952)
- Spring Fire, Vin Packer (1952)
- Rempart des Béguines, Françoise Mallet-Joris (1952)
- Chocolates for Breakfast, Pamela Moore (author) (1957)
- The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, Ann Bannon (1957–1962)
- Desert of the Heart, Jane Rule (1964)
- Patience & Sarah, Isabel Miller (1971)
- Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown (1973)
- The Color Purple, Alice Walker (1982)
- The Swashbuckler, Lee Lynch (1983)
- Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson (1985)
- Memory Board, Jane Rule (1985)
- Send My Roots Rain, Ibis Gómez-Vega (1991)
- Along the Journey River, Carole LaFavor (1996)
- Memory Mambo, Achy Obejas (1996)
- Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters (1998)
- Fingersmith, Sarah Waters (2002)
- Garis Tepi Seorang Lesbian, Herlinatiens (2003)
- Southland, Nina Revoyr (2003)
- Sugar Rush (novel), Julie Burchill (2004)
- "Ash (novel)", Malinda Lo (2009)
- Sarah Aldridge
- Ann Bannon
- Julie Burchill
- Jessie Chandler
- Ellen Dean
- Ellen DeGeneres
- Emma Donoghue
- Sarah Dreher
- Katherine V. Forrest
- Anna Furtado
- Eve Francis
- Jocelyne François
- Jeanne Galzy
- Nancy Garden
- Alicia Gaspar de Alba
- Ibis Gómez-Vega
- Rosa Guy
- Radclyffe Hall
- Ellen Hart
- Karin Kallmaker
- Lori L. Lake
- Carole LaFavor
- Malinda Lo
- Lee Lynch
- Rachel Maldonado
- Marijane Meaker (who also publishes as Vin Packer, Ann Aldrich, M. E. Kerr, Mary James, & Laura Winston)
- Val McDermid
- Achy Obejas
- Julie Anne Peters
- Radclyffe (who also publishes as L.L. Raand)
- Nina Revoyr
- Jane Rule
- Sarah Schulman
- Sandra Scoppettone
- Merry Shannon
- Valerie Taylor (novelist)
- Ebine Yamaji
- Sarah Waters
- Jeanette Winterson
- Jacqueline Woodson
- Samar Yazbek
- Lesbian pulp fiction
- LGBT themes in speculative fiction
- List of LGBT-themed speculative fiction
- Gay literature
- Yuri (genre)
- List of books portraying sexual relations between women
- Hall, Radclyffe (1981). The Well of Loneliness. New York: Avon. ISBN 0-380-54247-1.
- Foster, Dr. Jeannette H. Jeannette Howard Foster. (1985). Sex Variant Women in Literature, Naiad Press.
- Grier, Barbara (1973). The Lesbian in Literature. [Naiad Press], 1973.
- "Lesbian", Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1989. Retrieved on January 7, 2009.
- Foster, Jeannette H. (1985). Sex Variant Women in Literature, Naiad Press. ISBN 0-930044-65-7, p. 18.
- Aldrich, Robert, ed. (2006). Gay Life and Culture: A World History, Thames & Hudson, Ltd. ISBN 0-7893-1511-4, p. 47–49.
- Hart, Ellen. "ELLEN INTERVIEWS SANDRA SCOPPETTONE". EllenHart.com. Archived from the original on 2007-06-10. Retrieved 2007-06-24.
- "'Targeted' young adult fiction: the need for literature speaking to gay/lesbian and African-American youth". Retrieved 2007-03-04.
- Jenkins, Christine A. (June 1, 2003). "Annie on Her Mind: Edwards Award–winner Nancy Garden's groundbreaking novel continues to make a compelling case for sexual tolerance". School Library Journal. Retrieved 2007-02-25.[dead link]
- Goodnow, Cecelia (April 7, 2003). "Tacoma writer's gay-theme teen novel offers insights to young adults". Retrieved 2007-02-25.
- "Books in Trouble: Annie on My Mind". National Coalition Against Censorship. May 1996.
- Staff (January 1, 2000). "One Hundred Books that Shaped the Century". School Library Journal. Retrieved 2007-02-25.
- Woolls, Blanche; David V. Loertsche (February 17, 2005). The whole school library handbook. American Library Association. pp. 109–112. ISBN 0-8389-0883-7.
- Parkhurst, Carolyn (2007). Lost and Found. New York: Back Bay Books. ISBN 978-0-316-06639-6.
- Wheat, Alynda (June 14, 2006). "Lost and Found (2006)". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved May 20, 2014.
- Savage, Guy (September 30, 2006). "Carolyn Parkhurst: Lost and Found". MostlyFiction Book Reviews. Retrieved May 20, 2014.
- Bullough, Vern L. (2003). Before Stonewall. Haworth, 2003 (262).