Is There, or Should There Be, Such a Thing as ‘Trans Lit’?
Author: Cheryl Morgan
February 25, 2010
Most people would agree that gay and lesbian literature exists. Go into a large, urban bookstore and you are likely to find a few racks full of books written by gay and lesbian authors, with gay and lesbian protagonists, aimed at gay and lesbian readers. Go looking for trans material, on the other hand, and you’ll probably find it in “gender studies”, next door to “feminism”. There won’t be any fiction. Most of the books will either be theoretical studies of trans issues, or memoirs of trans people (almost always male-to-female).
It is not hard to come up with possible reasons for this. To start with the number of trans people is relatively small compared to the number of gay and lesbian people. If the market for a book is very small then it is unlikely to be bought by a major publisher, or get on the shelves in anything other than a specialist bookstore. Of course a well written book about a trans person could sell to a wider audience. Jenny Boylan has been successful in doing this, but she’s something of an exception. Roz Kaveney is a respected literary critic and has written many books, but her trans novel remains unsold. One editor did express an interest, but senior management at the publisher blocked the deal on the grounds that they were already publishing “too many experimental novels by sexual deviants.”
There’s a problem right away. If someone like Gore Vidal or Jeffrey Eugenides writes a book about a trans person it is hailed as brilliantly edgy, but if a trans person does the same thing it is likely to be rejected as the work of a self-obsessed weirdo.
There are a number of trans people who have successful careers as writers, but mostly they don’t write about trans issues. If you are a writer you want to reach as many readers as possible, and if people don’t want to read about trans characters, well, you don’t include them. You can’t blame the writers for this. Employment discrimination against trans people is still rampant, and writing is one way they can earn a living without having to deal with a corporate HR department.
Yet what would “trans literature” be like? When we talk about the literature of an identity group we mean that members of the group want to read about people like themselves. African-Americans want books with African-American protagonists; lesbians want books with lesbian protagonists; and so on. But the trans community is very diverse, and different parts of it have very different needs. Cross-dressers, for example, often read, and write, erotic fantasies about cross-dressing. Pre-transition transsexuals reportedly read memoirs and theory voraciously in order to find out if transition is right for them, and how to survive it. Post transition, however, they often settle happily into their preferred gender and have no further need for trans books. They are often content identifying with characters of their preferred gender and don’t want to be reminded of what they see as a painful past life.
Those who regard themselves as in a third gender, as gender-free or gender-fluid, and those who are intersex, will probably want books about people like themselves. Obviously there is a real need for a literature for them. However, they are only a part of the trans community (and apologies to any of them who do not want to be regarded as part of it), so the market is even smaller.
Nevertheless, fiction about trans people does exist. Charlie Anders won a Lammy with the novel, Choir Boy. Online web comics, perhaps thanks to the influence of manga and anime, include many works by self-identified trans people. Rebecca Ann Heineman’s Sailor Ranko, Jenn Dolari’s Closetspace and Venus Envy by Erin Lindsey are good examples. Kate Bornstein recommends the writing of Sassafras Lowrey and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. The market may not be big enough to interest major publishers, but you can find it if you look for it.
Finally, we shouldn’t ignore non-trans writers who want to experiment. Trans characters are quite popular as fictional devices, especially in science fiction where writers love to speculate on the future of humanity. As trans people are still so badly misunderstood and feared by the rest of society, any positive portrayals of them are to be welcomed. Novel writers sometimes get things badly wrong, but they are generally less prone to sensationalism than TV or movies. I have worked with a few science fiction writers and have been pleased at how keen they are to get trans characters right.
Obviously an overview like this can only scratch the surface of the many and varied types of writing by and about trans people. My own specialty is in science fiction, which I’m always happy to write about. However, I’m hoping that other people will come forward and tell us about their particular corner of the wonderfully diverse field that is trans literature. What stories do you have to tell?