Monday, November 14, 2011

Barbara Grier, A Life Of Lesbians and Books

I was at NWSA when I saw an email about Barbara Grier dying. I was in shock for most of the conference and now today it is just slowly sinking in that she has left us. I am deeply saddened.

There is an excellent piece by Victoria Brownworth over at Lambda Literary:

Victoria gives a good overview of Barbara's life and work. Here are some other tidbits:

Jeannette Howard Foster wrote and published Sex-Variant Women in Literature in 1956 which is really the first book that defines a canon of lesbian literature. Foster was a librarian and read three other languages so she included all of those in her review of literature with lesbian themes. (For a delightful biography of Foster, see Joann Passet's book Sex Variant Woman). Grier searched out Foster and the two became good friends. Grier advocated for the republication of Sex-Variant Women in Literature by Diana Press and when Diana Press ceased publishing it, Grier republished it at Naiad Press.

Grier kept all of her notes about books on note cards. There are about 30 linear feet of note cards on lesbian literature at the SFPL. It is mind-blowing to me how organized she was with cataloging lesbian literature.

Grier was also a regular reviewer of books with lesbian themes in them. Many of these reviews were published in The Ladder and she collected them in a book called Lesbiana published in the early 1970s.

Grier could sniff out a lesbian from a book anywhere. Grier wrote about Mary Oliver's first book in 1967 (I think) that it would be sensuous and interesting to lesbians. Oliver didn't formally come out until 2002.

Grier was a prodigious letter writer. She estimated that she wrote 300 letters a week. At a typewriter or by hand. Astonishing.

Grier worked in a variety of jobs - generally so that she could have access to a free long distance telephone line. (Some remember that in the old days, we paid by the minute for long distance phone calls; barbaric, I know). The job that she was especially good at was bill collection. She could whip through her calls, collect the money (she apparently had extraordinarily high collection rates - this is by her account and she does have a bit of braggadocio, so take that for what it is worth), and then make her calls to organize lesbians.

She was a voracious reader and her literary tastes ran the gamut. I don't think it is an understatement to say that Gertrude Stein has popularity among lesbians in part because of Barbara Grier. She published a stand alone edition of Tender Buttons which before that was by and large unavailable to common readers. She also brought out an edition of Renee Vivien's work which sparked the scholarship on lesbians in France between the wars. Literary poetry though in Grier's mind and life was on the same shelf as mystery and romance. In the end, I think Grier's tastes were both profoundly ecumenical and strategically profitable.

She was savagely attacked for selling a serialization of Lesbian Nuns to Penthouse Forum in 1985. Yet, she insisted that she wanted to reach lesbian readers wherever they were, including readers of Penthouse and in fact there are a number of letters to her condemning her for including the serialization in Penthouse from women who said they saw it there because they were subscribers and find it erotically satisfying (my words at the end there, not theirs!)

She was an extraordinarily savvy business woman. She sold books profitably. She recognized by the mid-1980s that lesbians were going to buy movies on VHS and sold those profitably.

In addition to being a savvy business woman, she was extraordinarily principled. Many disagreed with her principles, but they really shine through in all of her work. Lesbians first. Real images of lesbians. Real images of lesbian sexuality. Debate and engagement as a part of community.

I am extraordinarily sad about her death. She was a literary giant. No one quite fills her shoes in the lesbian community right now and I hope that we won't look back and write that Grier was the end of an era because there still is more work to do. I hope that wherever Barbara Grier is tonight she is finding it a place filled with good lesbian books and plenty of time to read them.