Lesbian eXcursions: Chapter One

Lesbian eXcursions: Journeying through the personal narrative – Chapter One

© Nicki Hastie

Dissertation submitted for the degree of M.A. Modern Literature: Theory and Practice, University of Leicester 1991

If you are quoting from or printing parts of this page, please give full acknowledgement and reference as: Nicki Hastie (1991) Lesbian eXcursions: journeying through the personal narrative [WWW] https://www.nickihastie.uk/my-writing/essays/lesbian-excursions-chapter-one (add date you visited this page)

Some parts of this dissertation were revised and subsequently published as Nicki Hastie, “Lesbian Bibliomythography” in Gabriele Griffin (ed.) Outwrite: Lesbianism and Popular Culture London: Pluto Press, 1993 pp.68-85


(A number in square brackets, e.g. [1] indicates a link to a footnote)

Chapter One

[The] tooth of criticism is what we Writers crave almost above everything else … That precious bite into the very flesh, if not peeled walnut (yes, it is like a walnut) of the human brain. At last someone else capable of savaging the bubble, of linking us up with the precious power of our own critical judgment … to change, to transform ourselves … to learn, and thus to reap the fruits of our own eXpenditure in turn.

(Miss X or The Wolf Woman, Christine Crow)


Telling stories

The title of a short autobiographical piece in the lesbian and gay anthology Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation is “Portrait of the Lesbian as a Young Dyke”. [1] Alternative permutations of this title are almost certainly better known, but the theme of development, of “growing up and gradual self-discovery” [2] detailed through an emergent lesbian consciousness is deserving of far greater interest if only for the fact that lesbian experience has always been under-exposed – silenced and falsely disparaged. There is no story if she does not tell it herself.

Karla Jay, author of “Portrait of the Lesbian as a Young Dyke”, is one lesbian/artist (yes, that too) who acknowledges that there are many stories to tell. One chapter in her story/ies insists that the telling of stories which create and express origins is an essential lesbian lifelong process. Many of these stories contain the phrase “I am …” very close to the beginnings, but the coming out tale is never really complete. Karla Jay’s essay “Coming Out as Process” emphasises how as lesbians we are constantly in development, continually making that step of coming out, naming and again re-naming, for otherwise we are stripped of our sexuality in this heterosexist world which presumes every person to be heterosexual.

Having access to these stories themselves, to literature, can be a moment of great liberation in itself: “buying a gay book … could be your first act of coming out, the salesclerk the first person to behold you with ‘suspicious homosexual material’.” [3] Buying my first book, actively seeking it out, I remember being terrified as I waited at the cash desk. The price was on the back cover, and so was a description of the novel. Everyone’s going to know, I thought, and later, as I took the book excitedly out of its paper bag on the bus riding home, I was thinking the same. I was disappointed when nobody even noticed what it meant to me.

Karla Jay is now editor, with Joanne Glasgow, of a startling new contribution to lesbian feminist criticism, Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions. It purports to be the first book of its kind, that is by “bring[ing] together writers and readers and texts that illuminate and challenge what we mean by lesbian writing and reading.” [4] Quite a remarkable story, I feel. I was lucky to discover it, not at all terrified this time. Back covers of books can still be very illuminating, sometimes inspiring even. Rita Mae Brown offers a thought-provoking one-liner here: “This book … proves that telling the truth about yourself is a revolutionary act.” I want to contribute to that truth-telling, to reply to the lies and stereotypes which impede my knowledge of myself. There’s no such thing as the whole story but I can try to redress the balance.

Reading for love: the paracanon

I have followed someone else’s growth as a reader and writer, eagerly devouring her words as she details a developing relationship between lesbian experience and texts. This is Catharine R. Stimpson, whose work on Gertrude Stein and the lesbian novel has influenced my own reading. She makes my writing possible in some ways for she has already found form for her personal voice. I trust her: she wants reading to be pleasurable, and understands the importance of praising publicly the books that we crave privately. The books which are our individual discoveries and those which may be treasured by a localised community of readers; the books which have not yet ‘made it’ into the classroom. Stimpson’s essay “Reading for Love: Canons, Paracanons, and Whistling Jo March” doesn’t focus on lesbian texts, but it does open up much of value for the lesbian imagination. [5]

The ‘canon’ exists to provide some criteria of selection, a touchstone by which to construct an orthodoxy, to measure which literary texts are good and which texts are not good enough (Literary Critics Keep Out: “Trespassers will be Persecuted”). The concept of the ‘paracanon’ rejects the notion of a system of rank and instead declares that “No matter how difficult or accessible, how ‘high’ or ‘low’, any text is eligible for inclusion in a paracanon if it is beloved.” [6] That’s good news as far as I’m concerned. Reading for love means that books are friends. For the isolated they may be a first meeting-place, a means of connection with others. Reading can be a private passion, but when our individual preferences are shared by others it is possible that we may be assigned membership of social and cultural groups.

I choose to read lesbian writing, to be an overt lesbian reader, because such books allow my existence, encourage me to be. They need me as much as I need them.

[P]aracanonical love can beautifully enhance the relationship between a text, be it written or oral, and a specific community of readers. When this is the case, the community’s love aids in ensuring the survival of a text. In turn, a text sustains the group’s identity.[7]

What is most exciting, perhaps, about the concept of the paracanon is that in reclaiming reading as an act of love and pleasure, it also legitimates the autobiographical by permitting personalised emotions a central part in literary criticism. I fully intend to make my presence known here: critic and author, reader and writer, it is the act of authoring (always inclusive of the act of reading) which constitutes a large part of my exploration.

I am concerned with the lesbian narrative of self-discovery, how we come to discover ourselves through words, through stories, to “reap the fruits of our own eXpenditure (that cunning raised ‘X’, cypher of the censored, script for the unnameable); how we make ourselves conspicuous throughout the ‘identity parade’. I will inevitably encounter problems underpinning the construction of identity, problems which emphasise the difficulties inherent in an attempt to define who it is we are. But such definitions are usually called for when writing of the lesbian in life and literature. I must list some stumbling-block questions even now, aware of my critics as all writers inevitably are, who hope to be read by readers other than themselves.

What does it mean to write as a lesbian?

What does it mean to write as a lesbian? That is a question commonly posed by our heterosexist society which demands that lesbianism be explained, while accepting heterosexuality as the trouble-free ‘norm’. Most problems which arise for lesbian writers and critics are in some way, then, associated with the difficulties of definition. What is ‘lesbianism’? Who is a ‘lesbian writer’? What is a ‘lesbian text’? Lesbians enter into this struggle with definition in order that the realities of oppression are not forgotten.

There is no single picture of the lesbian, but it is important to state at this stage what I mean by ‘lesbian’ in this study. Following the example of Barbara Christian and Catharine R. Stimpson who have responded to this question, I do not mean women-identified women, feminists, or women who are loving and supporting of other women, who simply have ‘best friends’ who are women, but specifically women who find other women sexually (erotically) attractive and gratifying: “a commitment of skin, blood, breast and bone”. [8]

I am of course fully aware of the way in which identities undergo change and of how, as lesbians, we have spent much time campaigning against our representation as purely sexual beings, against the term ‘lesbian’ referring solely to a sexual practice. ‘Lesbian’ is also a mode of life in which a woman’s political, intellectual, emotional and social energies are focused on other women, but if we expand the term so as to virtually negate the sexual, to state oneself as lesbian becomes meaningless in our society. As I am interested in personal narratives I am also concerned to acknowledge personal, self-designated identities. These may, at different times, be influenced to a greater or lesser degree by social identities, by the lesbian community or by the larger society, but in the context of the writing I have chosen to examine it is women’s erotic attraction to other women which forms the basis for a discussion of identity or ‘lesbian identity’. Self-definition is essential for a viable analysis of oppression. The insistence on a separate ‘lesbian identity’ challenges the heterocentric linking of lesbianism with deviancy and perversion. To speak openly as a lesbian is then an act of resistance. I agree with Rita Mae Brown: telling the truth about yourself is a revolutionary act. But yet again I feel the need to remind you that telling those stories is “[a] continuing process rather than a quick sexual (orgasmic or preorgasmic) act that is completed at any given moment.” [9] It won’t be over in a flash; there are a lot of lies to subvert.

On the identity of lesbian writers I borrow from the words of Nicole Brossard:

Generally speaking, I would say that in order to write one must
a) know that one exists,
b) have a captivating and positive self-image,
c) respond to an inner necessity – if only in self-defence – to inscribe in language one’s perception and vision of the world; in other words, one has to want, consciously or otherwise, to make one’s presence known, to declare one’s existence, and finally
d) feel a profound dissatisfaction with the prevailing mainstream discourse, which denies differences and congeals thought.
In sum, then, to write is to be a subject in process, constantly calling into question the existing order. To write, one must first belong to oneself.

There are some initially puzzling insights in this passage. Brossard sees the practice of writing to concern the individual, but also recognises that before one can have an awareness of one’s own individuality it is necessary to have a sense or understanding of community. Before naming oneself as ‘lesbian’, one must be aware of such a group identity. I would add to Brossard’s second recommendation that writing can also be a means to discover or develop a positive self-image. To write, one must already have some awareness of one’s individuality and also accept that the act of writing is the moment of creation of self. It can be a moment of transformation, a point where self-designations signal a major event in one’s biography. Writing is a way of bringing one’s self into existence and of seeking as well as building community. The lesbian comes out to the larger society, but that is just the start of the story. She is always in development, for just as to write is to be a subject in process, coming out is process too, both self-affirmation and self-discovery.

It is this authoring of one’s self that is so significant for lesbian women – “Only through literally creating ourselves in the world do we declare our [lesbian] existence” [11] – the personal narrative which finds public space, that I wish to explore. What form can this writing take? As Marianne Hirsch has pointed out it is the novel of development which has become in the twentieth century “the most salient genre for the literature of social outsiders, primarily women or minority groups”, particularly as it lends itself to an investigation of both individual and communal identity. [12] Karla Jay’s “Portrait of the Lesbian” is this process in miniature: the early years, from birth to age twelve. I could adopt such terms as the novel of formation or the narrative of self-discovery to describe the lesbian coming out story. I would not be the first to do so. [13] These terms are in turn expansions (re-inventions) of the genres of Bildungsroman and autobiography. The story I tell now is perhaps a re-invention of my autobiography. I don’t mean to suggest by that, of course, that it is a withholding of the truth.

I speak in terms of re-invention because conventional generic models have been formulated to describe a specifically male tradition of writing. It is only very recently that women have been allowed to recognise their own potential for development, an awakening to the growth of inner capacities, and an approach to life which can communicate alternative narrative closures to marriage, madness or death. Critics have questioned whether the “fully realized and individualized self who caps the journey of the Bildungsroman” is a viable way of representing the developmental goals of women. [14]

I now wish to consider briefly the origin of the Bildungsroman genre and then, through the course of this study, suggest re-workings which can adequately express a lesbian critical theory of personal life. Not to be made extinct by genres which oppress us, lesbians re-invent and re-define those genres to present a literary shaping of lesbian personal politics.


The Bildungsroman genre

Literature, especially the novel, seems to offer the complexity of form necessary to detail the many different factors influencing personal development. [15] Genre expansions occur consistently, but it has taken a long time for Bildungsroman (the distinctive name given to this type of formation narrative) to become flexible enough to consider the specific experience of women. The Bildungsroman genre has its origins in the eighteenth century German preoccupation with self-cultivation and a sense of inner-determined self-development; it emphasises the interplay of psychological and social forces. Goethe’s Wilheim Meister’s Apprenticeship is commonly regarded as the prototype for this generic form. At this stage it is a form obsessed with human perfectibility and historical progress: “a novel form that is animated by a concern for the whole man unfolding organically in all his complexity and richness.” [16] The protagonist should finally accept a responsible role within the finely-organised structure of a social community, moving from a position of ignorance and innocence to one of maturity through the successful negotiation of conflicts (psychological and social) which mark significant growth points in his biography. Sandra Friedan notes the close relationship between Bildungsroman and a further traditional genre:

another eighteenth-century literary tradition that developed alongside the Bildungsroman was that of the autobiography, an outgrowth of Pietistic confessional fervor. … Together, the Bildungsroman and the autobiography acted as complementary counterparts of the same excessive role: the fictional and the non-fictional account of the individual in his … development, in his struggle to integrate himself, his ideals, and his perspectives into an increasingly industrialized, materialistic, and alienating bourgeois society. [17]

Later writers, among them Marianne Hirsch, identify the Bildungsroman genre as having a broader European use, not to be limited to a purely German tradition of literature. [18] The expanded definition is not so interested in human perfectibility and harmony. Instead it is the individual’s clash with social convention which characterises a major part of the developmental process; there is less emphasis on social integration, although if the protagonist is to succeed to that valued condition of maturity, there must be some accommodation to the existing society. That other “Portrait” of youth, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is one such example cited by Jerome Hamilton Buckley. [19] Buckley uses the German word Bildungsroman as a synonym for the English novel of youth or apprenticeship. Still he speaks only of a male hero in formulating what he sees to be the principal characteristics of the genre:

A child of some sensibility grows up in the country or in a provincial town, where he finds constraints, social and intellectual, placed upon the free imagination. His family, especially his father, proves doggedly hostile to his creative instincts … antagonistic to his ambitions, and quite impervious to the new ideas gained from unprescribed reading. His first schooling … may be frustrating insofar as it may suggest options not available to him in his present setting. He therefore … leaves the repressive atmosphere of home … to make his way independently in the city. There his real ‘education’ begins … [and] his direct experience of urban life. [This] involves at least two love affairs or sexual encounters, one debasing, one exalting, and demands that in this respect and others the hero reappraise his values. By the time he has decided, after painful soul-searching, the sort of accommodation to the modern world he can honestly make, he has left his adolescence behind and entered upon his maturity. His initiation complete, he may then visit his old home, to demonstrate by his presence the degree of his success or the wisdom of his choice. [20]

Female developmental narratives

I have been aided in my research by two books which concentrate specifically on the authorship and tradition of female developmental narratives, both published in the 1980s. The first of these is a collection of critical essays – The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development – which begins historically by charting nineteenth-century re-definitions of the male Bildungsroman and includes amongst its topics a survey of the twentieth-century lesbian novel of development. The second is by Esther Kleinbord Labovitz, a study entitled The Myth of the Heroine: The Female Bildungsroman in the Twentieth Century which aims to recover the missing female heroine and to suggest that a re-defined Bildungsroman is an instructive means of representing and exploring women’s goals and expectations. [21] Interestingly, Catharine R. Stimpson’s example of a paracanonical text in her essay “Reading for Love” is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, itself an example of female Bildungsroman included in The Voyage In. [22] Stimpson found Little Women as a friend while she was growing up, the novel forming a significant chapter in her own story of personal development. Both The Voyage In and the book by Labovitz suggest that Bildungsroman is now populated much more by female protagonists: “the male Bildungsroman [is] thought to be disappearing in contemporary society, and no longer a viable genre for a pluralistic and fragmented society”. [23] There are reasons why narratives of self remain viable for women.

Rita Felski, in Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change, “establish[es] the relevance of a notion of self to feminist theory before going on to consider the more specific question of the literary manifestations of subjectivity in contemporary women’s writing”. [24] Felski is interested by the repeated confessional and developmental emphasis of contemporary women’s writing. The legitimacy of her study – a response to the large number of self-expressive narratives by women published since the early 1970s – reveals that notions of self and identity are far from being outmoded concepts for members of subordinate groups. For these groups the discovery of self-identity is politically powerful as it can be the link required to join in collective resistance against oppressors: “the creation and affirmation of symbolic identities constitutes a recurring need on the part of marginalized social groups, fulfilling a desire for self-validation in the face of the hostility of a dominant culture”. [25]

The poststructuralist deconstructing and decentred approach to ‘identity’ (ally to the “pluralistic and fragmented society”) is of little value to social and cultural groups who have never enjoyed the privilege of having a self, who have always been forced to acquiesce to the dominant culture. The dominant (white, heterosexual) male protagonist who occasionally still appears in male Bildungsroman may have been reduced to a parody of his former ‘self’, but minority and oppressed groups have taken the form (albeit in a re-defined sense) as their own empowered means to gain visibility and strength in pursuit of a more just society. The telling of personal life-stories is one way to share knowledge, to build community, and invite support.

Identity politics

I am introducing here the idea of ‘identity politics’, a reference to the basing of one’s politics on a sense of personal identity, whether this be lesbian, gay, Jewish, Black, female … . I must state, however, that identities are historically specific, susceptible to change over time. An individual may identify politically as having more than one identity, but will usually mobilise most strongly around the sense of self in which they feel most powerfully invalidated. [26] In concentrating on the politics of ‘sexual identity’, specifically lesbian, I wish to consider the way in which expressions of lesbian identity have developed this century through particular historical moments.

The social theorists of the 1950s (Erikson, Goffman) introduced the question of ‘identity’ in terms which linked it to the development of individuality. In many ways this process resembles the journey or quest of the Bildungsheld (that protagonist of Bildungsroman). Individuality: “a reality to be struggled for in the hazardous process of maturation or against the awesome weight of the social, rummaged out in the interstices of society, amongst the crevices forgotten or ignored by weighty social forces.” [27] For lesbians and gay men struggling with their own knowledge of separateness and individuality at this time, the discussion of identity formation opened up new and exciting ways to explore what it meant to be a ‘sexual minority’. The naming of a Lesbian and Gay Movement in the West in the 1960s saw the growth of self-definition and individual and collective resistance. The determination to continue naming through the lifelong process of coming out is a determinism to keep ‘identity’ alive and on the agenda, especially while oppressive state legislation remains to compromise lesbian and gay lives. [28]

However, in literature written before the politicisation of the 1960s and the emergence of ‘lesbian identity’ as a political necessity, critics have identified a lesbian aesthetic or prose tradition of abstracted subjectivity. [29] At a time when lesbian experience had to be encoded in texts, lesbian modernist writers were not simply conforming to a social pressure to disguise lesbian experience by transforming personal pronouns in their work, confusing the ‘he’ and the ‘she’ in a heterosexist literary tradition. These writers, among them Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf, sought to expose the silencing of the lesbian voice by “refus[ing] to reveal the ‘I’ of the creator any more than the specificity of the created”. [30]

An inability (or unwillingness) to state oneself as ‘I’ is politically significant in the larger history of lesbian literature. A fuller examination of these ideas is beyond the confines of my present purpose of study. I can simply point the reader in the direction of other writings on this subject. [31] I have introduced these ideas here because I wish to show how the transformation of traditional (heterosexist) genre and gender categories has been central, through all parts of this century, in the lesbian search for literary form able to describe alternative subjectivity. Coming out narratives are one example of such transformation and conflation of genre. Alternatively, a tradition based on the inability of language to express the human ‘self’ survives in the writing of Monique Wittig. I don’t intend to study the French writer’s work, but I shall be meeting her in a later chapter insofar as she is an influence (one of the aids/teachers to/of development) within the pages of Christine Crow’s Miss X or The Wolf Woman. Lesbian literature invites affirmations of identity while at the same time challenging assumptions about human identity.

In the making of lesbian theory it is necessary that “identity … be continually assumed and immediately called into question.” [32] This is a task I shall examine in the following pages.


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