(ARCHIVE FEVER) Martha Shelley and digital traces of Lesbiana - part 2
In the second part of her essay on the communities of Lesbiana, Catherine Kelly considers pre and post-internet rating systems, crowdsourcing as an early search engine, the afterlives of community presses and the small inscriptions and artifacts that are physical evidence of earlier forms of community custodianship. Working through — and against — 'the desire to possess and hold these objects of queer history, made more attractive by their obscurity and distance', Kelly then moves into what our current internet landscape looks like for creating new archives of Lesbiana and trans literature.
Lesbiana is a collective category, drawing together disparate objects, genres, political and social worlds, prioritising democratic clutter over single iconic figures. Still, if there were a patron saint of Lesbiana, it might be the American librarian and publisher Barbara Grier. One of the earliest uses of ‘Lesbiana’ is in the pages of the San Francisco based magazine the Ladder, where, from 1956 onwards, it was the title of a regular book review column. Although she didn’t start the column, Grier quickly took it over in 1957 under the pseudonym ‘Gene Damon’ and devoted herself to collecting and cataloguing lesbian literature. Her selections cut across genre and era: academic biographies, sexological reports, modernist poetry and 1950s pulp fiction were fair game, as was writing in which the treatment of lesbian life was subtextual or buried. Although they bore one pseudonym, these columns were a collaboration. Grier acknowledged the women who sent her “notes and notices, clippings and reviews, clues to the multitudes of titles uncovered, discovered and re-discovered in the endless lifelong pursuit of yet another title that belongs in the story of Lesbiana.”
Grier described the difficulty, in those early years, of finding material to review in the Ladder, but reading these columns, I’m struck by the vastness of this archive of largely forgotten lesbian writing. In 1967, Grier collected a decade of Lesbiana columns in The Lesbian in Literature, a bibliography of roughly 7000 books published before 1966. Her research, along with the research of her friend and collaborator Jeanette Foster, whose 1956 Sex Variant Women in Literature was the first published bibliography of lesbian writing, undermined the belief among queer writers in the second half of the twentieth century that, as the French theorist and novelist Monique Wittig put it “there were no lesbian books except Sappho.” Grier and Foster’s work of investigation and accumulation were a counterargument, demonstrating that the centuries long history of queer women’s literature was one of dogged continuity rather than absence.
To fit this number of titles into one volume, Grier replaced her reviews with a shorthand rating system. The Grier ratings are not primarily interested in conveying quality, instead they track lesbian-ness. Grier’s biographer, Joanne Passet, describes the system: ““A” for major lesbian characters, “B” for minor lesbian characters, “C” for “latent, repressed Lesbianism,” “T” for trash, and asterisks (*, **, and ***) to denote literary quality.” The emphasis on the visible presence of lesbian life on the page reflects the need of this nascent political and cultural movement to throw away old metrics of literary value. In Grier’s opinion, anything by or about queer women was worth recording. This view was not unanimous. In a letter to Grier, Jane Rule, author of the pulp classic Desert Hearts, complained that The Lesbian in Literature included too much T and not enough A***. Nonetheless, the Lesbiana columns show both a historical continuity and also a political identity in flux. The rating system lives on in archives like the enormous collection of lesbian pulp fiction at the University of Minnesota and in rare bookshops like Bolerium, which I visited recently during a research trip to San Francisco.
Bolerium’s Lesbiana section is at the back, blending into shelves of books and ephemera from the Spanish Civil War. While leafing through collections by Alta, Judy Grahn, Ntozake Shange and Karen Brodine, I chatted to the bookseller about his memories of a vanished San Francisco; his mother, he told me, had been active in the lesbian scene that centred on Valencia Street in the 1970s. The feminist bookshops in this area – Old Wives Tales, Full Moon – have long since closed. The bookshop in Oakland that once housed the Women’s Press Collective is now a real estate agency. The books that once lined their shelves are now scattered in archives and in private collections. At Bolerium, I settled on a copy of Lynn Lonidier’s 1970 chapbook, The Female Freeway. Someone had pencil-ed two ratings on the inside of the cover: ‘Grier A* C***’, i.e. gay but not that gay, or possibly good but not that gay.
Obliquely, the ambivalence of this rating records something of the relationship between Grier and Lonidier. The two women were friendly – Grier published Lonidier’s poetry in the Ladder in the early ‘70s – but Lonidier confided to a friend that Grier “didn’t know what to make” of her more experimental work. Grier turned down opportunities to publish Lonidier’s two novel manuscripts – “out of fear,” Lonidier assessed privately. Grier wasn’t alone in this judgement of Lonidier’s writing – the novels were never published – but it’s true that Grier’s personal literary tastes were influential in shaping the kind of work that lesbian presses and periodicals published between the 1950s and the 1980s. In the years since her death, her bibliographies continue to shape literary reputations.
Grier recognised something about the erotics of Lesbiana – the desire to possess and hold these objects of queer history, made more attractive by their obscurity and distance. I identify with this urge towards completism, in which rarity becomes a literary value in itself, but it’s an urge that serves the antiquarian market, not the reader. A better future for Lesbiana would be one in which writing fostered within radical social movements is not treated as a commodity gathering dust on private shelves, but as part of a shared history available to all. The Lesbian Poetry Archive – an online collection of small press publications, magazines and ephemera from the 1960s, 70s and 80s – is one digital space that represents this more expansive impulse. During the lockdowns of the last two years, when my local irl Lesbiana haunts – the Feminist Library and the Bishopsgate Institute – were locked away, I often found myself clicking through its lavender and white interface. The Lesbian Poetry Archive is the work of Julie Enzer, a poet, academic and current editor of the long-running lesbian feminist magazine Sinister Wisdom. Enszer seems, in some ways, like an heir to Barbara Grier. Few people have done more to preserve the neglected threads of lesbian feminist print culture. If you’ve spent any time looking for information about the unsung writers, editors and publishers of the women’s liberation movement, Enszer’s name may be familiar to you.
Like the Ladder’s ‘Lesbiana’ columns, the Lesbian Poetry Archive is collaborative. Names of collectors and digitisers are displayed on the site in an effort to make visible the ongoing work of maintenance and care that is vital to the preservation of bygone queer literary worlds. Although Enszer occasionally updates the site, most of the material on the LPA was uploaded more than a decade ago. As a result, site is full of broken links, many of them casualties of Adobe Flash Player’s demise. It’s a reminder that behind the illusory permanence of the digital archive is a much more precarious space.
In the decade since Enzer set up the LPA, social media has played an increasingly prominent, if ambivalent, role in disseminating work by queer writers. The poet Harry Josephine Giles’ twitter threads of trans literature show that it’s possible to document queer writing and ephemera in ways that address the limitations of the work of earlier obsessives. On her website, Giles has gathered lists of trans novelists and poets that have something of the spirit of Grier’s bibliographies, not only in their desire to record marginal queer literatures but in their push towards completism. In a post from 2019, Giles writes that she has read “almost all of the trans poetry published in the UK and Ireland.” Her lists from 2019 and 2020 display the breadth of contemporary trans poetry in the UK and US, not only through the names of the poets themselves but also the ungirding network of small presses and magazines that publish queer writing.
For a while, Giles’ trans bibliographies existed both as Twitter threads and as a list on Goodreads, although the link to the former now seems to be defunct. It’s an uneasy feeling to see a list like this disappear, even if fragments of it exist in other places. The precarity of the digital archive is different to that of the physical one where papers go missing or slowly decay. The risks of Twitter and Goodreads – the latter an Amazon subsidiary since 2013 – is that they offer a sense of democratic access while leaving their users subject to the whims of a handful of tech oligarchs. In an era of intensifying transphobia, it’s not paranoia to worry about the future of these kinds of trans literary records.
This might be an uncomfortable note to end on – it’s more satisfying to think about the past of Lesbiana-like collections than their futures. This work is still ongoing. In the introduction to her 2020 list, Giles writes that the urge to compile these bibliographies is “partly just my compulsive list-making and need for everything to be organised, but I do have a real grief for all the memories that might slip away. I make these lists to help me remember things; I’d like to look back on in 20 years and remember where I read these books.” As much as these lists are personal documents, they form part of a collective memory. This curation is an act of generosity, forming part of the never-ending work of, to paraphrase Grier, uncovering, discovering and re-discovering queer literary worlds.
Text: Catherine Kelly
Images: Catherine Kelly