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Identity is Not a Genre

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Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

I’ve been writing a sapphic book blog for more than a decade now. When I first started it, it was harder to find book with queer women representation. A lot of them had been published, but it required some research to find, and they often weren’t considered profitable to publish. Luckily, a lot has changed since then, and far more people are talking about queer books — and especially sapphic books — than they were even a handful of years ago. We weren’t even using the term “sapphic books” back then!

It’s an absolute delight to see more LGBTQ books getting published, and more readers picking them up. I love following other creators who also delight in reading sapphic books. No matter how many times it happens, I still can’t get enough of the hum of recognition of reading a book with a character whose experiences resonate with mine. Even if we are different in many other ways, it’s a way into the story. And I appreciate seeing queer representation beginning to become more varied, because we’re not a monolith.

As more people begin picking up queer books and talking about them online, though, I have begun to see some trends that I find unsettling. (Is this a BookTok callout post? Maybe a little.)

While they manifest in different ways, they all come down to one misunderstanding, which I’d like to clear up now: identity is not a genre.

If a book is sapphic, or it has a sapphic main character, that doesn’t tell you anything about the genre, plot, or tone of the story. A “lesbian book” is simply a book with a lesbian main character. It may have an F/F love story, but it may not. It may be a thriller than only mentions her orientation in passing, and it never comes up again. It may be a coming out story that is all about her sexual orientation. You’d have to read the actual description of the book to find out.

Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to have gotten the message that “sapphic book” means F/F romance. This is especially frustrating to me because before we were using the term “sapphic book,” a common term was “lesfic”, short for lesbian fiction. (It’s still used occasionally, but not usually as an umbrella term anymore.) Anything with a lesbian or bi woman main character was labelled lesfic, though it was mostly associated with F/F romances. This not only erased bisexual women, but it also flattened the variety of even lesbian books out there: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson is lesbian fiction, but it’s certainly not a romance.

The term “sapphic” was popularized to include bi women, and now it has also expanded to include nonbinary people under that umbrella. It was deliberately intended to be inclusive. So when I see videos of people who are complaining about a book being “false advertising” because it’s labelled as sapphic but has an M/F romance, it feels like no progress has been made at all. A woman is still bisexual if she’s in a relationship with a man, and so a book about her is still sapphic.

A surprising side of this I’ve seen is readers objecting to calling a book sapphic because it has serious themes. It’s a book about WWII, or about grief, or colonialism. But saying that a book has representation of a certain identity (sapphic, disabled, Black, etc) doesn’t negate it having different themes. Just because a book has queer content doesn’t mean that’s all it’s about, and mentioning the queer content shouldn’t erase everything else about it.

If I say a book is sapphic, I mean it has a sapphic main character (or subject, for nonfiction). That single word isn’t meant to also tell you with precision the plot, genre, tone, or theme of the story. Everfair by Nisi Shawl is sapphic, and so is In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, and so is The Very Nice Box by Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman, and so is Home Field Advantage by Dahlia Adler. It can involve M/F, F/F, F/NB, or NB/NB relationships, or no relationship at all. It can be funny or dark. It can be a romance novel, a history book, a horror story, or any other genre. It can focus on queerness or barely mention it.

To be brutally honest, I find it lazy for a reader to expect the word “sapphic” to give them all the information they want about a book. If you’re looking for something specific, like lesbian representation, or an F/F relationship, or a happy and fluffy tone, you’ll have to do a little more research to make sure you’re getting the book you want. In fact, I’ve written about this already: WLW Books, Lesbian Fiction, Sapphic Books, F/F Romance: What’s the Difference? In short, not everyone is looking for the same thing from these overlapping categories, which is why it’s worthwhile to be specific.

While I’m so happy to see queer books being discussed and recommended more online, I’d caution readers to remember that you’re talking about identities that real people share. Just as knowing someone is gay doesn’t tell you anything about their personality, knowing a book represents a certain identity doesn’t tell you anything about its plot or genre.