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Lockdown literature: LGBT history
One of the hallmarks of a healthy society is our attitude to diversity. So whatever our sexuality and gender identity, we should care about LGBT rights. In February, LGBT+ history month provides the prompt to educate ourselves on how societal responses to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people have fluctuated over time. It’s an opportunity to celebrate diversity and, lest we get complacent, arm ourselves against possible erosion of rights in the future. And the good news is we can do so through literature!
From ancient times
The ancient Greeks valued male to male romantic love and sexual activity (albeit often with a power imbalance we condemn today). Winner of the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction, Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles evokes the passionate love between Achilles and Patroclus beyond the battlefields of the Trojan War. While grounded in historical detail, the psychology of the characters renders this novel highly relatable for the contemporary reader.
The unnamed narrator of John Boyne’s A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom glides through history via multiple incarnations from biblical times to the election of Donald Trump. His tenderness and passion for projects traditionally the female province means he’ll never earn his father’s approval, while his sister, a better fit for the masculine stereotype, is ignored. Meanwhile, same-sex couplings, while officially non-existent and often invisible to the narrator, crop up again and again.
Traditions of gender fluidity
As far as I recall from my reading, John Boyne’s hero never lives as a hijra: a traditional male to female gender identity in the Indian subcontinent. The Parcelby Bombay-born Canadian writer Anosh Irani is by far the best novel I’ve read about the culture of India’s third sex. Madhu has fled her disapproving father as an adolescent boy to become one of the most celebrated prostitutes in central Bombay, but now she’s reduced to begging. And preparing trafficked children for penetrative sex, making this one of the most disturbing – but nevertheless important – novels I’ve ever read.
Fiction has also introduced me to cultures in which girls can pass as male, albeit to fulfil a social function rather than from personal preference. As I learnt from Nadia Hashimi’s novel, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, in the Afghan tradition bacha posh, a family with surplus daughters can give one a change of clothes and a haircut, and let her attend school, wrestle with friends and run errands to the market, while her sisters are confined to the home.
Sebastian Barry’s novel, Days Without End, which won the 2016 Costa Book of the Year Award, is a story of migration and massacre; of bravery and brutality; of family, friendship and gender fluidity told in the unique voice of an Irishman in 1850s America. Teenagers Thomas and John work in a bar dressed as girls until, at seventeen, they join the U.S. Army, remaining a couple through peace and war.
War can bring opportunities to those stifled by sexual convention. With the men away, World War II spelt liberation for some women. Sarah Waters’ 2006 novel, The Night Watch, is a love story told in reverse about three lesbian women amid the excitement and terrors of wartime London.
Sex between men, however, seems to have been punished just as harshly during that period. Duncan, another of Waters’ characters, is imprisoned for his sexual liaisons, whereas Alec, the Alan Turing character in Will Eaves’ novel,Murmur, winner of both the Republic of Consciousness and Wellcome prizes in 2019, is made to submit to chemical castration.
In the same decade that Turing underwent the treatment that led to his suicide, Britain’s first trans woman, racing driver and former Second World War fighter pilot, Roberta Cowell was preparing for surgery. In 1972, Jan Morris, a renowned Welsh journalist and travel writer who had also served successfully in the military, travelled to Casablanca for gender confirmation surgery, as recounted in her memoir, Conundrum.
My own novel,Sugar and Snails, shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize, contrasts the secrecy around trans issues in the 1970s small-town Britain with the increasing acceptance during the early years of the twenty-first century, and highlights the still contested issue of adolescent transition.
The final decades of the twentieth century saw the gay community devastated by a deadly disease. My reading features two books spanning Ireland and America. Anne Enright’s The Green Road encompasses various millennial issues through the stories of siblings whose mother wants them home for Christmas. Among the adult children is Dan, who, having ditched his original ambition to become a priest, grieves for friends and acquaintances lost to HIV/AIDS in New York. In Martin Sixsmith’s non-fiction book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, a woman’s search for the son she gave up for adoption, leads to the US where the author confronts Reagan’s Republicans’ complacency about the crisis.
In these eleven books, I’ve only touched the surface of LGBT history. Now it’s your turn to add your favourites and tell me what I’ve missed.
Anne Goodwin is an English author and book blogger. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Throughout February, subscribers to her newsletter can read Sugar and Snails for free.
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The Shrinking Violet’s 6-point Guide to Promoting Your Novel
When Anne Goodwin rode up to Carrot Ranch with her first flash fiction challenge, I knew she was competent in the saddle — Anne knows her craft. With 61 short stories published, it’s no surprise Inspired Quill picked up her debut novel. However, like many skilled writers, Ann was reluctant to promote her work. In her guest post, Anne addresses how she mastered the launch of her debut novel.
Anne Goodwin, Guest Blog:
I’ve enjoyed Charli’s posts on writer branding, even as I bristled at the idea of considering myself, or my output, a commodity. Yet now I have a genuine product to sell in the form of my debut novel, some of Charli’s expertise must’ve rubbed off on me, because I’m determined to do the best job I can in getting my book to readers. This is very much an idiot’s guide cobbled together from the things I’ve done, or wished I’d done, in the process, and is particularly targeted at the anxious writer who balks at the idea of self-promotion (i.e. most of us, at least in the beginning). I can’t guarantee that following these steps will result in phenomenal sales. I can’t guarantee that it will remove all discomfort from the process. But I do believe that by confronting and managing our anxieties as outlined here we can be confident we’ve given ourselves and our books the best possible chance of success.
1. Cultivate your communities
This isn’t about forging friendships to flog your books. Not only is that slimy and cynical, it’s probably ineffective. But, on the other hand, there’s no point being a shrinking violet. Your relationships, both on and off-line, are an important conflict between you and your readers. This doesn’t mean, as an introvert (as many writers are), you’ve got to transform yourself into a socialite. It’s more a matter of not neglecting those ordinary human qualities of generosity and friendship. I’m not a great networker, but it turns out I have sufficient social capital to generate a mammoth blog tour that’s now in its fourth week and two launch events with forty or more people at each. If I, with a little thought and preparation, can achieve that, just think what Charli Mills, lead buckaroo of the Congress of Rough Writers, could achieve with all the goodwill she’s generated through her support of other writers.
2. Edit your way to a book you can be proud of
Let’s assume you’ve written the best book you possibly can and have secured a publisher or made the decision to self-publish. Isn’t it strange that, no matter how many edits you’ve gone through already, as soon as publication flips from an impossible dream to impending reality, you notice all kinds of new problems with your novel? Now’s the time to bring all those niggles to light and address them, not only for the obvious reason of enhancing your readers’ enjoyment, but also because anything that makes you feel awkward or apologetic about your words will be a barrier to promotion.
So, whether you’re publishing yourself or traditionally, you need to make full use of your editor. Their role needn’t only be to point out what they think can be improved, but to help you sort out any areas with which you aren’t one hundred percent happy. In my own experience, my editor’s suggestions enabled me to look more critically at my novel and make cuts and amendments to sections where she hadn’t felt it necessary to wield her virtual red pen. My editor was also able to reassure me about sections I thought were perhaps a bit iffy; if you trust your editor (and if you don’t perhaps you should find another) it’s a marvellous boost to the ego to receive her enthusiastic endorsement of your words.
3. Work through the limitations
A thorough edit should lead to a text you can be proud of (at least for the moment; many authors report still finding fault with their novels years after publication). Yet perhaps there are still aspects that make you cringe when you think about it making its way in the world? You might worry that you’ve tackled a controversial issue in a way that might upset some readers. You might fear that certain experts will criticise the shallowness of your research. You might be anxious about the overlap between the events in your novel and your own life: will people misconstrue your fiction as autobiographical or will you struggle to keep the personal personal in discussing your book? You might just be concerned that your mother, your hairdresser or your next-door neighbour will think it’s a load of crap.
It’s important not to dismiss such concerns; if you deny or belittle them, they’re more likely to hold you back. Discuss your feelings with trusted friends, your editor, other writers, a therapist. Go to events and observe how more experienced authors manage these areas in relation to their own work. For example, I found it extremely helpful to watch local author, Eve Makis, respond to a question about Armenian history (featured in her novel, The Spice Box Letters) from a reader with an Armenian background (and to discuss the parallels with my own novel afterwards with a close friend).
Your book, especially if it’s fiction, is not the definitive take on a topic, and nor is it meant to be. (It just feels like that, because you’ve spent so much time absorbed within it.) Readers are free to take from it what they wish – and that’s a good thing. But it’s worth addressing your anxieties about creating the perfect book so that you can allow it to be different things to different people.
4. Identify your potential readership
Make a list of everybody who might be interested in reading your book – and I mean everyone! Don’t limit yourself to people you can be fairly sure will like it, or like you enough to pretend they do. Think big and, at this stage at least, don’t let thoughts about the awkwardness of contacting them get in the way. Potential readers include, but are not limited to, anyone who knows you, in whatever role (not only writing), or has known you in the past; people who read your genre; people local to you or to your novel’s setting; and, for an “issue” based novel like mine, communities with a personal interest. I’ve been surprised by pockets of support in places I didn’t expect it but, two and a half weeks post-publication, I’m still knocking on doors I thought would be easier to open.
5. Identify ways of connecting with your readership
If you’ve done Step 1 and cultivated your communities and Steps 2 and 3 to produce a book that people will be happy to champion, you will have a lot of people who genuinely want to get the word out. But going beyond your immediate circles takes a little more courage. To get author and expert endorsements, you need to make contact well in advance of publication and to risk (as with those initial submissions) them telling you they don’t like your book. To get reviews, you need to approach reviewers in a courteous manner and accept that they’ll tell the world what they don’t like about your baby, as well as what they do. If you’re self-published, or with a small press like me, it’s amazingly difficult to get your books into bookshops, but often worth approaching your local favourites to give it a try. If they won’t stock your books, they might host you for a signing session, although with the big chains, even this is proving difficult. Some libraries are more amenable, however, especially if you’re doing author events. Don’t forget the local media, both print and radio. They are always pleased to celebrate an achievement, especially if you can demonstrate some connection with the area. I’m expecting to be in my local newspaper this week, in time for a library event the following Tuesday. I also had a feature in a newspaper that had previously published my short stories as part of a regional competition.
6. Make those connections in as pleasurable away as possible
You won’t be able to do everything, so you need to prioritise. If you’re time poor, you might feel it’s not worth your while to write lots of guest blog posts, as I’ve done. On the other hand, if you enjoy writing articles, or want the opportunity to develop your skills in this area, it might be something to invest in. For the things I found tedious (e.g. contacting a local printer to produce some flyers for my launch events) or scary (having a slot on local radio) I focused on the learning opportunities afforded rather than enjoying it or doing it well.
If you’re particularly daunted by the whole thing, perhaps you should go for quick wins to build your confidence. A launch party is great fun, even for shrinking violets, and I was touched how far my guest had travelled and how pleased they were to have been invited to mine.
Making it pleasurable for your supporters is bound to pay dividends. Write good content for those guest posts (obviously, this one is an aberration). Respond promptly to any queries and thank them for their contribution, however small. Because after all, a writer needs her readers. And you might want to do the whole thing again with your next book.
What strategies have you found most useful in promoting your work? What has been most difficult?
Anne Goodwin writes fiction, short and long, and blogs about reading and writing, with a peppering of psychology. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was published last month by Inspired Quill. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.