booknotes: the lesbian fantastic

Back in October's batch of LibraryThing Early Reviewer books, I won Phyllis M. Betz' The Lesbian Fantastic: A Critical Study of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Paranormal, and Gothic Writings (McFarland, 2011). The Lesbian Fantastic is the third volume Betz, a professor of English literature, has written for McFarland examining genre fiction written by lesbian authors (a slippery category that I'll talk more about below). The previous installments in the series look at lesbian detective fiction and lesbian romance novels.

At a slim two hundred pages, including chapter notes, bibliography, and index, The Lesbian Fantastic -- as the subtitle claims -- takes on the ambitious task of exploring the history  and themes of fantastical literature written by and about lesbians. The brevity of the volume is, indeed, one of its problems, since each aspect of fantastical literature Betz covers (science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, and gothic) could take up a book of its own. I was certainly thankful that Betz refused up-front to play genre border patrol and police the boundaries between, say, "gothic" vs. "paranormal," but that decision left her with a vast landscape of literature to summarize, analyze, and place in some measure of socio-historical context. The inevitable result is that corners are cut and I was left wanting a meatier discussion on many fronts.

Likewise, Betz fails to strike a comfortable balance between examination of lesbian authorship, readership, and the lesbian as character in fantastical literature -- whether or not that character is written by a self-identified "lesbian" or otherwise non-straight woman author. All of these aspects of genre fiction by and/or about lesbians would have been fascinating subjects to explore in-depth, but given the length of their treatment in this study, I felt all three topics came away muddled and short-shrifted. Was this book a study of lesbian authors? Not entirely -- in part because not all authors' sexual orientations are known and/or fit into modern-day identity categories. Betz also weaves back and forth between writing narrowly about lesbian-authored works (however she defines them) and women generally and authors in the genre generally. Was this book about lesbian readers? That category, too, suffers from a high degree of volatility ... are we talking about readers of fiction involving lesbian characters? Readers who identify as lesbian? Who engage (or have engaged) in same-sex relationships? Who experience some measure of same-sex desire? While categorization is always going to be somewhat arbitrary for the sake of a study such as this, I would have appreciated a clearer sense of whom Betz herself is including under the umbrella of lesbians who read genre fiction, and what her sources are for those voices.

Finally, Betz could have used a good editor with knowledge of the genre who might have caught, for example, the fact that China MiĆ©ville does not identify, as far as I know, as a lesbian or a woman. Or could have gone over the manuscript and deleted the repetitious author introductions (Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland is re-introduced almost every time it appears). 

Overall, The Lesbian Fantastic is a book on a fascinating and potentially rich (and heretofore under-studied) topic that suffers from over-vague parameters and a frustrating simplification of lesbian identity. I think Betz' subject might have been better served had she chosen to focus on the treatment of lesbian/queer characters in fantastic fiction. In that context, she could have constructed some interesting compare-and-contrast arguments about lesbian characters in genre fiction generally versus genre fiction written by lesbian writers and/or for a lesbian/queer audience. Or, she could have focused more specifically on queer female readership and fandom, discussing the genre fiction pitched specifically to non-straight readers and the ways in which those readers interact both with "lesbian" genre fiction and its mainstream counterparts. Reader voices are notoriously difficult to locate and analyze, but online forums and fan-created transformative works (fan fiction, videos, art, etc.) have made the possibility of hearing the reader's voice in much more depth.

The Lesbian Fantastic will be useful to other scholars in the field who will, hopefully, take Betz's arguments in more complex directions.

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