Editor and Writer Helen Eisenbach on Working in LGBT Publishing in the Early 1980s
Author: Donald Weise
October 21, 2015
“I never questioned the value of gay writers but took as a given that their—our—stories should be published, and every one of us who expresses that calm certainty moves us another step forward in dismantling the resistance to our worth.”
Until recently I’d not heard of editor Helen Eisenbach, no matter that she led one of the most impressive and respected lists of gay and lesbian books ever assembled: Plume, that stalwart paperback imprint of New American Library [now an imprint of Penguin/Dutton Books] that for a generation of readers such as myself (read: over 40) served as a virtual reading list. When I came out, I searched for representations of this new life, and more often than not, I found them in writing. Plume for me was therefore a reliable if not essential source. Poet Essex Hemphill’s collection Ceremonies was the first Plume title I purchased, but considering the line’s high quality and visibility (even to a newcomer like me who’d never bought a gay book before coming out), I went back to their list again and again. I’d probably still be going back today, but from what I can tell the gay and lesbian arm of the imprint seems dormant. Then again, so does a lot of stuff 30 years later.
Since I’d not met Helen before our interview and knew nothing of her background, much of what follows was news to me despite the many years I’ve spent in gay and lesbian publishing. How was it possible for her to slip by me for so long in the relatively small world of gay and lesbian publishing? I’ve known, for example, from the start of my career the work of gay editors such as Michael Denneny and Sasha Alyson as well as that of women editors employed by lesbian and feminist presses. So it came as a surprise to discover that an out lesbian whose name was new to me had once headed the imprint I’d so admired. As a result I decided I’d like to hear her story.
Let’s start with your first book-related job. When did you arrive in New York and what brought you to book publishing?
While I was still in college (Oberlin), I got a GLCA internship at Ms. Magazine working for the book review editor, Ruth Sullivan. The choice was between Ms. and Cosmo, which seems like a metaphor somehow. I’d been to New York when I was little with my family to visit relatives, and found it dirty, noisy, smelly. But the minute I set foot in it again for my interview, I was home—dirty! noisy! smelly! Five seconds after I graduated Oberlin, I moved to Manhattan—and was shocked to find there wasn’t a job waiting for me at the magazine. I’d read somewhere that you should try to cultivate relationships with professionals in businesses where you wanted to work, so I sent out 30 letters to book editors asking if I might have a few minutes of their time to talk about publishing. The strategy netted me about 28 letters saying, “There’s no job here, sorry,” and one meeting with W.W. Norton books legend Star Lawrence, who graciously gave me advice. (I still marvel that he took the time.) I landed an editorial assistant spot at New American Library working for two young female editors, a kind of louche wannabe bisexual who did hardcover originals and a very hardworking and serious woman who did trade paperbacks and mass market books. I got to edit a manuscript my first day, which was my idea of heaven. I soon started to work for one of my boss’ bosses, the incomparable John Dodds, who was larger-than-life, gayer than gay, and incidentally the widower of actress Vivian Vance.
Whose idea was it to start a line of gay books at New American Library (NAL) and what prompted that? What year did it start, by the way?
The Plume gay line was born when our publisher at the time, the late Elaine Koster, came back from a meeting with sales reps who had asked her why we weren’t publishing gay books, which they said had always shown themselves to have a market and sold well. I have no idea what Elaine’s personal views about lesbian and gay people were—this was the early ’80s, I’d say 1982 or ’83—but she certainly viewed making a profit as a positive, and so she issued an edict for all of us to be on the lookout for such books. At the time I wasn’t aware of how repressive the culture was, but looking back, it does seem to have had a bit of that fun-filled ’50s flavor. I was very young, so mostly what I remember is how much I worried about what people would think of me—it was a time when you reflexively assumed people would be disapproving at best and disgusted or actively hostile at worst if they learned you were gay—but I was hungry to find gay books I wanted to read, so my fears didn’t get in the way of my chasing all over town to find ones I could advocate for. For some reason I seemed to be the only editor who found gay books to publish, so I was informally drafted as the head of the Plume line, overseen by one of my then bosses, Arnold Dolin. He got to be my lucky date when The Normal Heart was first produced at the Public Theater with Brad Davis—and was less than optimistic about the play’s commercial prospects. But once Frank Rich raved about it in the Times, Arnold approved my buying it for publication. I don’t think either of us imagined it would continue to have any relevance some 30 years later.
That line was so important to gay readers. I’m not the only gay person who sought out Plume titles in bookstores. You mention the sales reps asking for gay books, so how and where did you start? What did you perceive at the time to be most needed on the market, what would sell the best?
What was interesting was that as soon as we started putting out the Plume line, we heard that gay writers knew about it and wanted to be a part of it—the kind of publicity you don’t expect and can’t buy. (Gotta love that gay grapevine!) I can’t say there was a specific goal in what we chose as far as what was needed or what would sell best. At the time—and really, this has always characterized my work as an editor—I assumed that if I responded to a book, others would too. It could be anything: quality literary fiction, addictive guilty pleasure fiction, camp divertissement, intriguing sociology, or serious nonfiction; I just wanted to put out the kind of books I wanted to read, and I believed readers would share my enjoyment of them. For some reason my publisher would not approve any of the gay female books I wanted to publish, so it became a male enclave until after I left, at which time they published some lesbian books (as if to spite me!). It wasn’t always easy to find gay books, and even when I did, we weren’t always able to convince the agents or authors to let us have them. I remember trying to get Michael Cunningham’s first novel, Golden States, into print and being told he wasn’t happy with it and didn’t want it out there.
I’m suddenly thinking of young people who weren’t around when Plume’s gay line was so vibrant. Do you want to do a sort of highlight “best of”?
Some writers in the Plume line: Andrew Holleran, Larry Kramer, Edmund White, Joseph Hansen, Dorothy Allison, George Stambolian, Paul Russell, Alan Gurganus, David Feinberg, Dale Peck, Christopher Bram, Paul Monette, Joe Keenan, Ethan Mordden, David Leavitt, Felice Picano, Norman Wang, Robert Ferro, Stephen Gaines, James Robert Baker, and Agustín Gómez-Arcos. Later Plume authors would include Sarah Schulman, Matthew Stadler, Robert Rodi, Jaime Manrique, Jameson Currier, and Justin Chin.
That’s an impressive list. Did you feel you had to go after the big name gay authors in order to legitimize the list in the eyes of the public and your peers? Also, how in the beginning did the gay line of books fare in terms of sales and readership?
The choice of publishing Edmund White had to do with his stature among gay writers, and I was adamant about publishing Andrew Holleran because of his iconic place in gay letters thanks to Dancer From the Dance. But it really was a very different time back then; the idea of there being a big pool of famous openly LGBT authors from which to choose was far from being a reality. You had classic writers like James Baldwin and Gore Vidal, of course, and a few writers had a patina in smaller circles—the Violet Quill were held up as the elite, for instance—but as for “big name” authors,” there wasn’t exactly an embarrassment of gay riches in the publishing world. Last year two gay books I wrote were reissued as e-books, and it has really hit home with me how much has changed. It felt truly risky—shocking and not a little scary—to publish a novel-with-lesbians in 1988 and even a lesbian humor book in 1996! Today the mainstream culture has far less resistance to LGBT gay works, even if politically we seem to be experiencing a severe backlash eager to strip gay people of the full rewards and protections of citizenship.
As for the reaction to the Plume list, there seemed to be an almost instantaneous positive word that spread among gay writers, an awareness that we existed and a desire to join. We heard from people who wanted to be part of it fairly quickly, without having advertised or promoted it in any way. Plume’s instant credibility spoke to the hunger for such representation, I think. I don’t imagine we would have continued it if sales were not strong, but I don’t know the exact figures.
So did this burst of gay lit put you in a position of authority on the topic?
It put me in a position of automatic authority within the house, with some agents, some LGBT authors, and a few fellow editors, but not nearly so many as if I’d been, say, a hot young gay male editor. That grapevine can’t be topped, and it’s not always so interested in female fellow travelers. (Not that I’m bitter…) I might have had a higher profile among lesbian editors if I’d been able to publish lesbian writers—I’m not sure when I became aware of Carole DeSanti or Ann Godoff, or when they began their ascendency—and it’s possible people didn’t realize I was gay, or assume I was as they would have if I’d been a male editor running a gay line. (Damn that tradition of supportive straight women!) I tend to be more about doing the work than promoting it, a definite flaw in this or perhaps any age, so that may be why my reputation didn’t spread that far. Michael Denneny came over and introduced himself to me at a Rizzoli publishing event, but he was the only one I recall doing so.
Did this emergence of out gay writers carry over into the editorial side where editors suddenly were coming out and looking for gay books?
I wish I could remember an outpouring of editors who came out and created a groundswell for gay books! Within Plume (NAL/Dutton), Dudley Frasier was the only other gay editor with whom I worked. I was the lone female in a piece The Advocate ran about gay editors, probably the only gay one in a similar New York Times piece, and I’m remembering Bob Wyatt, Michael Denneny, Bill Whitehead but blanking on others I knew at the time, sadly. I knew of the women in the subset of small “feminist” and “lesbian” presses but I didn’t know any of them personally, and I can’t imagine they knew my name. Wish that old (or young) girls’ network worked better than it did.
Did the gay line continue at Plume? I don’t think of Plume in the same way I did 20 years ago. Today it seems like a mainstream paperback line without much distinction. But then that’s true for a lot of imprints.
After I left NAL/Dutton, the gay part of the Plume line continued for a while, but without a fervent LGBT head/advocate, I believe it was somewhat diluted. I think you’re right about Plume today; I’m not aware of gay books coming from that list. Of course Plume started out being a mainstream literary (mostly fiction) list to which the gay line was added, so I suppose without someone enthusiastically looking out for LGBT talent, it reverted to its original state.
Overall, what do you think Plume’s contribution, and yours, to gay literature was, generally speaking?
I don’t tend to be a generalizer (she says, generalizing), but if pressed, I’d say the Plume list brought gay voices into the cultural conversation, opening the door to our being given a place at the table. Not in the spotlight, exactly, but in a corner LGBT people noticed, and straight people with an openness to other worlds and viewpoint were intrigued to discover. Being part of a respected list instantly validated gay/lesbian works for non-gay and gay readers alike.
Getting lost in the world of a book is one of my favorite things in life, and I think people of all stripes are hungry not only to see their own experiences illuminated but also to be awakened to worlds unfamiliar to them. I never questioned the value of gay writers but took as a given that their—our—stories should be published, and every one of us who expresses that calm certainty moves us another step forward in dismantling the resistance to our worth. I hope I helped enrich the cultural conversation, and that I get to keep doing so.
Photo courtesy of Helen Eisenbach