Niche off the leash: Val McDermid on progress in lesbian fiction

A decade ago, she was told that writing a novel with a lesbian theme would be 'commercial suicide'. Now, gay writers are mainstream. Here, Val McDermid charts the cultural shift that began with Radclyffe Hall

Eighty-two years ago a well-respected British publisher brought out a new novel from a bestselling, award-winning author. Within weeks, Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness had been banned for obscenity by England's chief magistrate and a national newspaper editor had claimed he would rather give a young person cyanide than this pernicious novel.

Hall's crime was not that she wrote about lesbian love (albeit in some of the most glum and leaden prose ever pressed into the service of sapphism) but that her fiction was accessible to a mass audience who would be unfamiliar with contemporary literary fiction such as Virginia Woolf's Orlando or Djuna Barnes's Nightwood. It was, apparently, safe for intellectuals to be exposed to what Hall called "congenital sexual inverts", but not for the common reader.

The establishment had their way with The Well of Loneliness. But they'd be birling in their boxes at the notion that British lesbian writers would ever take as big a share of sales and kudos as we currently do. There's no doubt about it: in the UK, we are currently punching far above our weight in the literary boxing ring.

The roll call of awards alone is remarkable: the Whitbread, the Somerset Maugham, the John Llewellyn Rhys and the Booker shortlist for starters. But this is a success story that goes beyond critical acclaim. It's also matched by sales. Even if every lesbian in the UK was buying a copy of each of these books once a month, it still wouldn't account for the numbers. The only explanation is that the wider reading public has learnt to love lesbian writing to a degree that would have been beyond belief even 20 years ago.

It's an explanation that begs its own questions. Why? What is it about our fictions that speak to a wider world than our own community? After all, while it's true that not all of our books contain unequivocal girl-on-girl action, I believe there is a lesbian sensibility that informs what we write. As Ali Smith says, "We can't avoid our biographies. I can't avoid where I come from and who I am, and those things are going to accompany me in anything I do, all the way through my life."

Fascinating though that is, it still doesn't answer the question of why we've burst into the mainstream with all the gusto of a boatload of whitewater rafters. Take my own journey. My first three novels, featuring the UK's first openly lesbian detective, Lindsay Gordon, were published 20 years ago by the Women's Press, a small feminist publishing house whose output went largely unreviewed by the mainstream press and was ignored by chain booksellers.

Back then, the notion that a commercial house would publish a novel that featured a lesbian protagonist was laughable. I knew that I'd never make a living as a writer if I stuck to writing about Lindsay. Luckily for me, my ambitions to spread my wings and push myself as a writer meant I embraced alternative possibilities. And because I was writing genre fiction – whose fans devour backlists of newly discovered writers – readers who discovered me later in my career had no qualms about tracking down those early lesbian novels. I'm probably the only survivor from those heady early days whose books have not gone out of print since they were first published.

Still, even in the late 1990s, when I suggested to my agent a novel with a lesbian theme, she was aghast. "That would be commercial suicide," she protested. And in my heart, I knew she was right. When I eventually wrote the book – Hostage to Murder, the sixth novel to feature Lindsay Gordon – it was published as a paperback original, buried between two well-promoted and well-marketed hardbacks. That was as recently as 2003.

Something has changed in the past seven years. My latest novel, Trick of the Dark, is probably the most lesbian book I've ever written in terms of the number of its gay female characters. And not an eyebrow has been raised at my publisher, Little, Brown. The sales and marketing effort that has been put into this book is, as far as I can gauge, exactly the same as any other book with my name on it would have received.

I like to think that's something to do with the way I write about lesbians. I don't write novels that indulge in special pleading or political point-scoring. I don't set out to hammer home a message or to titillate. And I'm not a separatist. I spend most of my life in a small village where my wife and I are the only out lesbians, but we are as much a part of the community as anyone else, and that's how I write about my gay characters. They're not weirdos or freaks – well, not unless the plot demands it. They're integrated members of society whose stories are no more or less interesting or important than anyone else's.

Sarah Waters thinks our emergence into the centre of literary life has something to do with a general loosening up within UK society. "I think there's been a shift in people's perceptions of what constitutes British literature in the past few years, so it's not only lesbian and gay voices that have been welcomed into the mainstream, it's a range of ethnic voices too," she told me. "Our books have gone into the mainstream at the same time as novels such as Brick Lane and White Teeth. I think there's been an opening up of British culture and a relaxing of British society. Our novels have done well at the same time as we've made legal gains; civil partnerships have come along. There's been a bit of a sea change that would have been unimaginable even 10 years ago."

I think there's some truth in what Sarah says. But there's more to it than that. What has drawn the general reading public – Virginia Woolf's common reader – to books that refuse to apologise for their characters' choices? It can't simply be that the books are better written than they were in the past. Writers of the calibre of Maureen Duffy and Patricia Highsmith give the lie to that.

I think it's got something to do with critical mass. Not just that there is good lesbian writing out there, but that there is so much of it, it's impossible to ignore.

Back in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher's Tories passed Section 28, the oppressive legislation that was meant to shut us up. But it had the opposite effect. They wanted to take gay issues off the UK political agenda, but we'd come too far to let that happen to us. Just as happened in the US post-Stonewall, gay people were mobilised; a whole generation politicised. History shows that our determination to be heard overcame their refusal to listen. But we had become sophisticated enough not to bludgeon our readers with "pity me" protest fiction. And all these terrific books started to appear. Curious readers began to pick them up. Then word of mouth started to spread. Books such as Fingersmith moved from cult favourites to mainstream bestsellers.

At the same time, gay began to become cool, as one of the characters in Trick of the Dark claims. Queer as Folk became a surprise hit for Channel 4. Openly gay television personalities such as Julian Clary and Jean Paul Gaultier won a straight following. And a significant tranche of the population stopped being scared of us. Now we all laugh along with Sandi Toksvig, and allow Patricia Cornwell to harrow us.

Of course, it didn't hurt that we had begun to write fiction that's hugely enjoyable to read. And maybe that's the key part of the answer. Maybe our present success has something to do with escaping from the weight of misery that was at the heart of The Well of Loneliness: the tradition Radclyffe Hall established of writing about crippled and damaged lives. We've left that behind us now. We've walked out into the sun and found a way to communicate our wider experience. We lesbian writers are far less obsessed with and defined by our sexuality than the straight world might think. Anyone who's human can enjoy our work. If you're a woman, there are aspects of our novels that may speak more clearly and deeply to you. And if you're a lesbian – well, that's just a bonus, really.

To read a longer extract from 'Trick of the Dark' and to win copies of the book, visit independent.co.uk/books

The extract

Trick of the Dark, By Val McDermid (Little, Brown £18.99)

'...What's your earliest memory? I don't mean something you've been told so many times it feels like a memory. I'm talking about the first thing you remember through your child's eyes. A knee-high memory, a don't-understand- the-words memory, an honest-to-god slice of emotion that can still fell you like a tree. The recalled moment that is the key to what shapes you for ever'

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