BOOK REVIEW / The boys come out on top: 'The Penguin Book of Lesbian Short Stories' - ed Margaret Reynolds, 15.99 pounds / 9.99 pounds; 'The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories' - ed David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell, 15.99 pounds / 10.99 pounds

I'M NOT sufficiently learned in the matter of lesbian fiction to know whether or not Margaret Reynolds's selection can be judged to have covered all the available bases, but if she wishes to claim that it does then all I can say is that lesbians are notably deficient in literary talent. Seven of the 'short stories' in this anthology aren't stories at all, but extracts from longer works, in one case a non-fictional work, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. Of the other 25 stories, one is genuinely comic and at least four or five 'comic' in the wrong way (with Merril Mushroom, Sarah Maitland and Francis Gapper the worst offenders).

If Reynolds were to argue in her introduction that, sub-standard though it is in literary terms, her anthology importantly documents the struggles of a repressed minority, then I would have considerable time for it. But she doesn't. Instead she treats us to claims that are not just large, but insupportable. That lesbians are more capable of empathy than straight women (let alone men); that lesbians were the chief Modernist innovators; that lesbian relationships are in some ways more 'natural' for women than any other kind; that 'lesbian practice was the forerunner of feminist theory'. And so on.

The volume kicks off with 'Martha's Lady', by Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909), as saccharine a story (servant sacrifices emotional life for fine lady) as you could ever wish to read. Here class attitudes so thoroughly bracket the protagonists that it hardly makes any difference that they are notionally sapphic. Katherine Mansfield's fragment 'Leves Amores' is much more enjoyable, a writing of texture that can capture, through the detail of some frayed lace or peeling wallpaper, the desperation of a life - so much more affecting than the literary exercises of H D, Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes. No doubt these women's lives were an important breach of convention, but I found their stylistic inventions - Stein's use of repetition, Barnes's mock medievalism and H D's cod classicism - affected, cliquish and laboriously self-referential. The Radclyffe Hall story is frankly silly, while Colette is as diaphanous as ever.

Once we have more firmly penetrated the 20th century, the writing becomes less mawkish, and more assured, but also insular and (to this reader) unsympathetic. The Jayne Anne Phillips story is an exception: a depiction of lesbian love that doesn't require an immersion in a political, sub-cultural perspective. But even it is little more than a fragment.

Arguably, for the male reader (gay or otherwise) male homosexual fiction will always prove more engaging. At any rate David Leavitt's introduction to his gay anthology is a far less bullish affair than Margaret Reynolds's. His aim is to present a collection of fictions that show the changing ways in which (male) gay experience has been portrayed. It is significant that far more of his and Mark Mitchell's selections are by heterosexual men, or women (heterosexual or otherwise), than are those of Margaret Reynolds.

Admittedly, this anthology is almost twice as long, and there is far more opportunity for the reader to browse. But the standards of prose and invention are, to my mind, simply higher. D H Lawrence, E M Forster and Christopher Isherwood all turn in strong opening pieces, followed by a peculiarly moving tale by Noel Coward about an old theatrical impresario dying in a Swiss clinic. Graham Greene's 'May We Borrow Your Husband' is far better at the second than the first reading: he slaps down trump card after trump card of emotional isolation, palpable friction and fine observation. But most enjoyable of all the pieces in either volume is, I think, the extract from John Cheever's novel Falconer.

Where the two anthologies to some extent elide is in the more recent contributions. Here gay fiction has been given a subject so large - Aids - that it consumes all else, while lesbian fiction becomes absorbed by the tensions within feminism. In both cases there is a tendency for the fiction to become more self-referential and strident. Dennis MacFarland's 'Nothing to Ask For', Michael Cunningham's 'Ignorant Armies' and Allen Barnett's 'The Times As It Knows Us' are all harrowing about the cataclysm that has overtaken the gay community. But for all that, there is a whiff of the creative-writing-school-approach which also accents the later American stories in the lesbian anthology.

Perhaps the impact of creative writing programmes on American literature will end up having more relevance to fictional posterity than the sexual orientation of the writer.

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