In 1983, The Bookseller magazine – the trade publication for the UK book industry – declared that the 1980s would be ‘the decade of the gay novel’. Certainly,in the early years of that decade there was considerable evidence to support the idea of a burgeoning gay and lesbian book market.
Edmund White’s Boys Own Story, for example, had reached and stayed in the national top ten paperbacks. Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series was gradually building a presence on the shelves of mainstream bookshops. And, in the poetry sphere, Penguin had published it’s Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse.
Interestingly, this prediction was made just one year before a range of gay and lesbian fiction was seized in a Customs raid on Gay’s the Word bookshop in London. And yet, despite that particular attack, it’s fair to say that the growth in LGBT literature continued.
Central to this was the development of a home-grown gay publishing industry.
An increase in lesbian-themed literature had been one consequence of the establishment of women’s publishing houses. For example, Virago, established in 1973, was publishing a number of lesbian titles such as Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. Similarly, the Women’s Press, established in 1978, was responsible for titles like Alice Walker’s Color Purple.
1979 saw the establishment of Britain’s first gay-specific publishing house in the form of Gay Men’s Press (GMP). Over the next few years GMP released a range of titles including Fellow Travelers – Thomas Mallon’s account of gay life in McCarthyite America – The Milkman’s On His Way – David Rees’ story of gay teenage angst – and the English language version of Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin. The latter two titles subsequently achieved notoriety when advocates of Clause 28 portrayed them as propaganda for the mythical ‘homosexual agenda’.
In 1982 GMP was joined by Brilliance Books, which catered for both men and women and produced a wide range of fiction and non-fiction titles. These included Title Fight: The Battle for Gay News, The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, Alison Ward’s The Glass Boat and David Wurtzel’s Thomas Lyster: A Cambridge Novel.
Meanwhile, progressive mainstream publishers, possibly recognising an emerging market, began to publish lesbian and gay works in increasing numbers. In some cases these were original works like Edmund White’s Boys Own Story (Picador) and Mae West is Dead, a collection of lesbian and gay short stories published by Faber and Faber. In others it was the re-printing of earlier works such as those by Christopher Isherwood and Lytton Strachey (Chatto).
Yet despite this increased profile of gay and lesbian publishing it’s important to remember that much of it was taking place at the same time as the Gay’s the Word raids and prosecutions. And just to highlight what an anachronistic and vindictive act that was, it should also be remembered that the bookshop was actually being prosecuted for importing books that were already beginning to be published in the UK.