How do Lesbians Read?
© Nicki Hastie
Previously unpublished article written in 1994. This is a fun article I wrote while I was heavily embroiled in doctoral research on the subject of lesbian fiction and communities of readers. For a more scholarly approach, see sample files from that unfinished PhD.
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You may think that an article about lesbians and our reading habits would ask “What do lesbians read?” I’m interested in this too, but just think for a minute – if you haven’t already asked yourself how you read, you may want to take a closer look at yourself (and others, perhaps) after reading this. And I’m not talking about how you learned your ABC…
Those who know me well are probably aware of my passion for libraries and bookshops. I’ll admit I can sometimes get a little carried away. Looking through The Pink Paper personals with my partner the other week, I cried out excitedly when I thought I’d found another dyke after my own heart, only to realise my mistake. I’d focused in on the word “reading” in the ad, but she meant she lived in Reading. No good. It’s quite possibly a fetish all this, but at least a very “serious pleasure”. And I am being reminded more and more frequently that it’s a pleasure closely allied with “dyke-spotting”.
I’m not alone in celebrating libraries and bookshops (as well as the books they house, of course) for their contribution to lesbian culture. Stories sometimes told by lesbians to explain our sense of development as lesbian include visits to the library to look up the “L”-word, or to seek out a particular book. Often this is Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. You probably have your own story. I’ve noticed similar journeys to libraries or bookshops repeated in fiction and film, so (hopefully) lesbians should now find a wide range of “L”-references on the shelves.
Recently, I wanted to gain some views on the range of lesbian material available and was lucky enough to interview a number of lesbians about their reading habits. You see, I don’t mind playing voyeur to someone else’s library and bookshop use once in a while. And that’s when I discovered that I don’t stand alone on this issue either. Subtle, and not-so-subtle allusions to that voyeuristic, but frequently reciprocal, practice of dyke-spotting (you spot while being spotted) began to creep into my research. Not content with “cruising” the aisles for literary lesbians, some women betrayed their interest in the more animate variety. One woman affirmed that the relatively new section of Virago books in her local library was an important development because “you often see other dykes looking for books around there.” And “Lesbian Sections” in bookshops, especially Silver Moon’s new “bigger-sized” “Lesbian Department”, were favoured, at least partly, for the potential accumulation of dykes at these sites.
Do these findings suggest that the bookshop has taken over from the bar as the dyke’s new “cruising-ground”? And what, then, are the implications? The phrase “going on a shopping expedition” has been given a whole new meaning for me. Perhaps lesbian fiction is even more commercial than some already believe it to be. There are certainly some questions to consider about relations between lesbians and consumer culture if, for example, lesbian romance fiction is not available on the shelves to be taken away and read at one’s leisure, but to be used then and there in the shop as an excuse, an aid to the “real thing”. When did you last enter a bookshop? And why? Will you be able to act so innocently next time you stand before the bookshelves? How do you perceive the range of “L”-material now?
The question “How do lesbians read?” is a pertinent one. We make many different “readings”, and uses, of cultural production. A lesbian doesn’t have to want to read (in the conventional sense of opening a book and turning its pages) the books in the lesbian sections in order to use them to help her engage in lesbian culture. She is a reader of signs, of cultural spaces. Sometimes the fact that she knows these literary or cultural reference points exist is enough to “spot” her, or for her to “spot” another.
Books(hops) encourage a multitude of social encounters.