Scholars Talk Writing: Lillian Faderman

Full vitae lillian faderman

Photo by Donn R. Nottage

Around 1975, I began to think that maybe the time was right to go even further — to write about what had seemed so unspeakable in the 1960s. My first articles were on Emily Dickinson’s romantic letters to Sue Gilbert and how the letters might give insight into some of her more puzzling poems. Then I turned to the subject of female same-sex relationships in 19th-century novels by writers such as James and Longfellow.

I was encouraged when reputable academic journals began accepting my papers. But not many other academics were writing about such things yet. So, would I have been brave enough to do it if I didn’t already have tenure? I don’t know. I do know that tenure made me feel secure enough to write about a subject that was still largely disdained.

How has your writing style evolved? You have published with both trade presses and academic presses. Did it take you a while to find your voice, and how did that happen?

Faderman: I’ve been in the very privileged position not to have to write to get promoted — by 1975 I was already a full professor. My writing style remained consistent for a long time because the audience I envisioned as I wrote remained consistent.

I wanted my work to be meaningful not only to academics but also to general readers — to anyone interested in lesbian or gay literature, literary history, or social history. I’ve wanted to be rigorous in terms of scholarship, but I’ve also wanted my prose style to be accessible to any educated reader. Clarity and readability have always been huge values for me. I avoid academic jargon. I know academic jargon has its place if one is writing for other academics, but hermetic language would turn away a lot of the other readers to whom I’ve always hoped to speak.

In more recent years I started exploring creative nonfiction. I published a memoirNaked in the Promised Land, in 2003 and then a reconstructed memoir about my mother, My Mother’s Wars, in 2013. Writing those books helped me learn about storytelling, and I tried to bring my newfound skills to my latest books, The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, which came out in 2015, and my forthcoming biography of Harvey Milk.

Did having an agent make a difference in the kinds of books you ended up writing?

Faderman: Academic presses in the 1970s were open to feminist subjects, but I don’t think they would have taken seriously books about lesbian literature or lesbian history.

In 1978-79 I was on sabbatical and meeting regularly with a group of four other women Ph.D.s. in San Diego, to discuss our various writing projects. One of the women was Sandra Dijkstra, who’d recently gotten her Ph.D. and could only find a part-time position. At one of our meetings she announced she was going to New York to visit publishers with a project she was working on for a women’s committee of the Modern Language Association, and she said she’d be happy to take any of our projects with her. She was gone about three days before she called me to say she had offers on my project from both Random House and William Morrow. "But they think I’m your agent," she said. I said, "Sandy, be my agent." I recognized her talent. That catapulted both our careers in book publishing, and led to Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women From the Renaissance to the Present, in 1981.

I can’t imagine that a university press would have been ready for such a book at that time. In fact, I didn’t publish a book with an academic publisher until 1991, when Columbia University Press started a new series called "Between Men/Between Women" and offered to publish my book, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America.

By then the subject was not only permissible, it was popular. After the hardcover came out and did well in reviews and sales, Columbia held an auction for the paperback rights, and Viking-Penguin won. It’s been wonderful to have Sandy as my agent because she’s been able to make deals for me with major trade publishers as well as academic presses.

As the mother of lesbian history (actually, I know writers who are your intellectual grandchildren), how do you see the shape of the field?

Faderman: I love "mother of lesbian history"! As a biological mother, I learned that the next generation absolutely must explore paths that are significantly different from yours. And as a "mother" in a field of study, I understand that necessity.

Times change, needs change, boundaries keep shifting. For many young people the concept of "lesbian" is dated. It’s been traded in for "queer," "gender-nonconforming," "sexually fluid," etc. If those young people are academics, their scholarly interests will reflect the new visions. But if I helped at all to open up a dialogue in academic study about same-sex relationships, gender presentation, or concepts of sexuality, I’m pleased and proud.

How do you approach your own books in terms of shaping and revising?

Faderman: I developed a system when I was writing my dissertation 50 years ago, and I still use it. Before I start writing a book I need to have at least the illusion that I know how it’s going to end and everything else in between.

So first I need to complete most of my research. Then I review all my research notes — which generally takes several weeks — and I decide what will be useful and where in the book I’ll use it. I’ve concocted an elaborate coding system of numbers and letters, which I give to each idea or fact I anticipate using. Then I put it all into a huge outline with key phrases followed by the numbers and letters that will let me locate the material in my notes. When I was working on The Gay Revolution, an 800-page book, I had a 75-page outline. For my Harvey Milk biography, which is about 250 pages, my outline was 20 pages.

But when I finally start writing I veer away from the outline almost as often as I follow it — which is fine. The outline’s biggest purposes are to be a sort of Dewey Decimal System, to tell me where in my voluminous notes I’ll find things; to remind me of the ideas I want to develop; and to suggest their possible order.

What are the hardest lessons you’ve had to learn (when it comes to writing)?

Faderman: The first time I dared to think of myself as a real writer was when I was revising Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers for the third or fourth time. I’d printed out a hard copy, and I read it with a red pen in hand — and X’d out whole pages and even a chapter. So many beautiful sentences and astute observations, constructed with such dedicated labor, and gone forever with a stroke of the pen.

It was painful, but it was great — because I recognized that what I had X’d out was discursive or unnecessary, and that the manuscript would be much stronger without that material. I love that line: "In writing, you must kill all your darlings." I killed my darlings. That was the hardest and most useful lesson I learned as a writer — to forgo ego, to stop thinking of the long, difficult hours of research and composition you put into a particular passage, and to focus mercilessly on what will make the book better.

Any advice for academic writer/activists?

Faderman: For me, my writing has been my activism. I’m not a political or polemical writer in the usual sense. I don’t exhort my readers, but I’ve always written with passion for my subject. From the beginning, I tried to bring to light material that had been suppressed or considered unimportant because it didn’t support the reigning narrative. I wanted to address populations that the academy ignored.

You have to decide to whom you want to speak — what you want your writing to do to, and for, your reader. Granted, if you’re writing for tenure or promotion you may not have total freedom in what you write. Then you have to decide what you’re willing to risk.

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