Lesbian literature is quite easy to find now, if you know where to look. Amazon’s Kindle store is filled with thousands of lesbian books and self-published shorts. Bookstores now are more likely to carry novels about queer women without relegating them to the LGBTQ+ section of the store.
In years past, readers relied on specialty publishers for their books. The now-defunct Naiad Press, like many other lesbian presses in the 1970s-1990s, relied almost exclusively on mail orders from readers to distribute their lesbian genre fiction. These books, which fell into a variety of genres, center loving lesbian relationships, contrasting with the lesbian genre fiction popular years earlier.
Barbara Grier founded Naiad Press in 1973 with her partner Donna McBride, along with Anyda Marchant and Muriel Crawford. Grier and McBride sold the Naiad Press to Bella Books in 2003 upon their retirement. During its operating years, Naiad was one of the most prolific presses during this time, having published over 500 works of lesbian writing, including the 1984 reprint of The Price of Salt (Carol) by Patricia Highsmith (published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan.)
Here is a thread of the Naiad press books I own from a donated collection starting off with the one that I keep out on my shelf.
Pembroke Park by Michelle Martin pic.twitter.com/t5eifIpvJc
— Sarah the Yule Cat (@Queer_Reader) June 10, 2021
Since then, the books themselves have been rare finds, often cropping up in used bookstores, curated Etsy shops, and booksellers focusing on rare, out-of-print, and antiquarian books. The books themselves are something of a time capsule, perfectly capturing the specifics of lesbian life in the late 20th century.
A nice little collection of mysteries from groundbreaking publishing house The Naiad Press! pic.twitter.com/V8v5zbNgII
— topher (@topherlundell) October 5, 2021
Popular genres included lesbian crime fiction, like the Stevie Houston Mysteries by Tracey Richardson. The first book in the series, Last Rites, follows Stevie, a detective who suspects the death of a priest was actually homicide. While working on the case, she becomes enamored with forensic pathologist Jade, leading to a whirlwind romance. Published in 1997, the book is a time capsule, rather than a timeless classic.
More queer bookstores have closed than still exist.
Last Rites, like other lesbian genre fiction of the time, introduces readers now to the lives of lesbians past, a history that many queer folks like myself have not known. In academic settings, queer history often focuses on major historical events or more “literary” writing. In contrast, genre fiction occupies a more accessible space in literature. Some of these books also firmly rooted themselves in places important to the lesbian and queer community at large. Barbara Johnson’s 1995 book The Beach Affair is an even more detailed look at a place important to queer women: Rehoboth Beach.
Took a flyer on a group of Naiad books — and got a happy ending: first printings of two major historicals, the first Naiad Press edition of Loving Her, and Karin Kallmaker’s first book (among others). Pleased as a cat about these. pic.twitter.com/sORiYcXJhG
— Rebecca Romney (@rebeccaromney) November 24, 2021
The protagonist of The Beach Affair, Colleen, is an insurance investigator tasked with visiting Rehoboth Beach to check out insurance claims related to the death of a female bodybuilder in the town. Colleen’s experience in the town is quintessentially queer, because Johnson references real businesses throughout the book, integrating Colleen into the community, which has been a queer destination for decades. Johnson’s inclusion of these specific places gives a snapshot of queer life in the 1990s. Rehoboth Beach was known as a safe queer hangout with queer friendly business. In The Beach Affair, Colleen often visits LGBTQ+ bookstores. Sadly, none of the bookstores Colleen visits are in business any longer. Lambda Rising (Washington D.C.) closed in 2010 and Lambda Rising (Rehoboth Beach) closed in 2009.
Ad for Naiad Press in Feminist Bookstore News (November 1993)
— Invisible Histories Project (@iHPSouth) December 10, 2021
In fact, many of the businesses mentioned in The Beach Affair are no longer open. The Bed & Breakfast where Colleen stays during her visit to Rehoboth Beach, The Paper Nautilus, had itself closed by the time of the book’s publication, and changed into a restaurant sometime between writing and the book’s publication in 1995. Queer safe havens still exist, of course, but many of our community’s gathering places and publications have been lost to time—more queer bookstores have closed than still exist.
When Colleen’s not investigating potential insurance fraud related to the death of lesbian bodybuilder, she lives a relatively normal life. Her existence is both distinctly different and analogous to the lives of lesbians now. She has fears about publicly coming out, but also must navigate the AIDS epidemic in Bad Moon Rising, The Beach Affair’s sequel.
Naiad focused on telling the stories of queer folks for the enjoyment of queer folks.
Though the landscape of queer spaces has changed since 1995, many of the tropes and stereotypes of lesbian relationships are present in the books. Richardson’s book has Tracey and her lover move in and get engaged within the span of a few days. Their relationship is fast and intense, mirroring a similar phenomenon (or stereotype) often applied to lesbian relationships now. There’s no shortage of “U-Haul Lesbians” on TikTok after all.
The Beach Affair, Last Rites, and others hold space in the queer canon not often occupied. Lesbians, for quite some time, have been beholden to the gaze of straight men who fetishize their sexuality. Naiad served as a foundation to queer presses that operate now, each focused on telling the stories of queer folks for the enjoyment of queer folks.
Bella Books is still in operation and regularly releases new titles. After buying Naiad Press, many of Naiad’s writers moved their contracts to Bella Books, which also carries Naiad’s backstock. Another queer-focused press, Bold Strokes Books, caters to an even more diverse range of sexualities and genders. The up-and-coming Gurt Dog Press publishes LGBTQ+ speculative fiction, carving out its own niche for queer readers.
Naiad Press and other lesbian publishers of the era changed lesbian the scope of lesbian literature, cultivating a culture that celebrates the relationships of queer women. These books may be quick, fun reads, but they also connect readers intimately with the queer women in recent history. ♦
Many of the books published by Naiad Press are available for free on Open Library.