Genders OnLine Journal

Issue 51     2010

Bar and Dog Collar
Commodity, Subculture, and Narrative in Jane DeLynn


[1] The author of five novels (the first of which was published in 1978) and numerous stories, essays, and articles, Jane DeLynn has had a respectable, if not prolific, literary career.  She has attracted little critical attention, however, even in the specialized field of queer literary scholarship—three of her novels, namely In Thrall (1982), a narrative of adolescent love, as well as the two I turn my attention to in this essay, Don Juan in the Village (1990) and Leash (2002), are primarily lesbian-themed.  The dearth of attention is worth thinking about, particularly when one considers that Don Juan made a considerable splash in lesbian and feminist literary circles when it was first published.  One reason why DeLynn has been more or less ignored, perhaps, is that her representations of lesbian culture and lesbian identity don’t fit easily into the paradigm of queerness as heroic (if only partial) subversion of the hegemonic regime of heteronormativity.  Her novels are stubbornly unavailable for readings of lesbian identity and community as utopian, resistant, or future-oriented.  In many respects, her work would seem to offer promising material for the recent tendency in queer criticism to explore negative affect, abjection, and antisociality (e.g., Edelman, Halperin, Love).  Up to now, however, the apparently “negative” images of lesbianism offered by DeLynn’s work—where they have attracted attention at all—have generally been condemned.  Gabrielle Griffin, for instance, in a brief discussion of Don Juan, complains that the novel “cannot be said to promote homosexuality as a desirable identity or existence”  (182); and DeLynn herself in interviews and essays has claimed that responses to her from the lesbian community have often been disapproving, manifested in carping reviews, walk-outs at readings, and so on (“Sentences” 17-18; “What” 9).

[2] In this respect, it’s instructive to compare DeLynn’s critical stocks with those of Sarah Schulman—like DeLynn, a New York-based documenter of Manhattan’s downtown lesbian scene.  Schulman is a veteran activist as well as a writer and her political sympathies animate her fiction; her novel People in Trouble (1990), for instance, fictionalizes the radical AIDS activism of the 1980s in which Schulman was herself engaged.  Schulman’s work is impeccably right-on in its investment in a leftist, pro-queer, pro-multicultural, and pro-working-class agenda, and her work has consequently been extensively celebrated by lesbian critics (Schulman—admittedly more prolific than DeLynn—currently has twenty-four MLA entries while DeLynn only has one, and that is for an interview rather than a scholarly essay). The characteristic narrative arcs of Schulman novels tend to engender in her commentators anticipatory glimpses of a better world. Schulman features prominently, for instance, in Sally Munt’s book-length discussion of lesbian representation in terms of “heroic desire,” with its calls for an “aspirational figure who gathers the desires of the lesbian reader into an intersubjective space” (8).  Similarly, a recent discussion of one of Schulman’s novels by Alla Ivanchikova concludes that her work “opens up possibilities for a new, more radical and fair, future” (41). 

[3] Rather than offering such feelgood, futural visions of lesbian life, DeLynn, as I will go on to show, tends to insist on its banality, its lack of profound “point.”  This jaundiced outlook, I suggest, offers an account of the contemporary lesbian lifeworld that, while it might not seem as obviously politically serviceable as the work of other lesbian novelists, ultimately offers a nuanced account of the intrication of lesbian identity and commodity culture.  In their rendition of the tensions and relays between consumer capitalism and lesbian desire, DeLynn’s novels Don Juan in the Village and Leash simultaneously invite reconsideration of the common postulation of lesbianism as external to commodification and suggest ways in which queer sexuality might constitute a riposte to the saturation of the commodity form.

[4] Don Juan in the Village recounts the sexual adventures of a nameless first-person narrator, a novelist who cruises the lesbian bars of downtown Manhattan as well as several exotic locations (Puerto Rico, Ibiza, etc.) in the years “after Stonewall”—the post-gay liberation period from around 1970 up to the late 1980s—with one venture back into the narrator’s closeted early adulthood at a famous Midwestern writing school in the late 1960s. The structure is episodic and non-linear: each chapter details a different sexual encounter and the narrative jumps unchronologically from one historical moment to another; it is the preoccupation with sexual pursuit and the narrator’s sardonically humorous voice that constitute the book’s chief unifying features.  Published twelve years later, Leash might be termed a quasi-sequel to Don Juan.  The first-person narratorial voice is characterized by the same jaded, bone-dry wit; as in Don Juan, the narrator is a long-term habituée of Manhattan’s downtown lesbian bar scene; and there is at least one possible reference to an incident from the earlier book (an unfortunate encounter with a “fat” woman at a party).  I call the book a quasi-sequel, however, because it moves into quite different generic and thematic territory from the earlier novel: Leash involves not simply a continuation of some of the concerns of the earlier novel but an amplification and a redirection of them.  Don Juan offers an exploration of the possibilities of the commodified post-Stonewall lesbian lifeworld that stays firmly within the mode of novelistic realism, albeit a realism rendered through an intensely “subjective” first-person voice.  Leash, on the other hand, ratchets up the earlier novel’s passing interest in “transgressive,” non-vanilla sex, veering off into the mode of pornographic fantasy in order to elaborate not simply an account of the connection of lesbianism to commodity culture but a devastating critique of commodity culture in general. 

[5] The two books’ distinct stances with regard to the interrelations of sexuality and commodification are manifested not only generically or modally, but also in their markedly different narrative styles.  While Don Juan is temporally disjointed, Leash is inexorably linear, unfolding its account of sexual transgression according to a compelling and ultimately terrifying logic of self-emptying.  But if the narrative styles of the two novels contrast, they have in common the derangement or refusal of what Judith Roof identifies as the “reproductive” logic of narrative.  I suggest in this essay that is through an investigation of their narrative strategies that the two novels’ engagements with sexuality and commodity culture can be most productively described.

A Lesbian Ghetto?

[6] Both Don Juan and Leash probe the possibilities of the first-person voice, unsparingly exposing their narrators’ vanities, hypocrisies, and perversities, as well as their less than charitable private thoughts about others.  For instance, exemplifying the apparent lack of lesbian solidarity that has distressed some critics and readers, some of the women the narrator encounters in Don Juan are called “repulsive,” “ugly,” “pigs”—as well, as has already been noted, “fat.”  But if Don Juan and Leash are thus relentlessly “subjective,” their organizing preoccupation with sexual encounters means they are also necessarily concerned with intersubjectivity, and thus with lesbianism as a group identity.  While DeLynn does not provide the positive emphasis on community available in the work of a writer like Schulman, Don Juan and Leash are rooted in the post-liberation urban subculture.  This subculture, synecdochically represented in both novels in the downtown bar, provides a framework for both identification and disidentification for the narrator.

[7] By focusing on the commodified environment of the bar, DeLynn’s novels offer a corrective to prevalent ideas, promulgated since around the dawn of the liberation period, that lesbian forms of subculture and community are less commodified than gay male ones, or that lesbianism somehow offers an alternative to commodification.  In both scholarly and activist accounts of lesbian culture, commodification, and the closely related phenomenon of ghettoization, have been seen as primarily masculine phenomena, or, where they can be seen to have affected lesbian subcultures, as masculine impositions upon women. In an essay from 1977, for example, Adrienne Rich writes that lesbians are caught between two patriarchal cultures—heterosexist patriarchal culture and

homosexual patriarchal culture, a culture created by homosexual men, reflecting such male stereotypes as dominance and submission as modes of relationship, and the separation of sex from emotional involvement—a culture tainted by profound hatred of women.  The male “gay” culture has offered lesbians the imitation role-stereotyping of “butch” and “femme,” “active” and “passive,” cruising, sado-masochism, and the violent, self-destructive world of “gay” bars. (225)
If, in the post-queer critical climate, this statement reads as virulently separatist, it should be pointed out that its initial occasion was a speech given at a protest against the 1977 antihomosexual campaign whose figurehead was a woman, Anita Bryant; Rich, while lending her influential voice to the anti-Bryant cause, was also appalled by what she claims was the gynephobic and misogynistic tone of much of the protest coming from gay male quarters (223), and sought to sound a warning against the ways in which an alignment of lesbians with gay male culture might subject them to the same old oppressions.  We also need to make allowances for Rich’s ideological orientation: as a cultural feminist, Rich was committed to an idea that lesbianism is qualitatively, essentially different from gay masculinity. 

[8] But more recent scholarship has often continued to locate lesbianism as prior to or outside of the forces of commodification and ghettoization, if using less vehement language and under the auspices of different ideological dispensations.  In a frequently cited essay, “Commodity Lesbianism” (1991), Danae Clarke assumes that the consumer style of “lesbian chic” represents the “colonization” by capitalism of a lesbian identity that precedes the operations of marketing (Clark 199; see also Allen 47 n.7).  And Dianne Chisholm, in Queer Constellations (2005), an analysis of contemporary fictional representations of queer subcultural urban space, consistently identifies lesbian writers as engaging more critically with consumer capitalism than their gay male counterparts.  Her argument concludes with a predictably heroicizing account of Schulman’s “lesbian bohemia,” in which “the price for being/acting lesbian on the metropolitan stage is greater than that of being/acting gay . . . demanding immense moral and spiritual investment just to survive” (222). 

[9] I don’t mean to suggest that there is no truth to such analyses of the difference between gay male and lesbian subcultural identities and spaces.  There are a range of reasons why the overt interpellation of lesbians by consumer capitalism, or the ghettoization of the lesbian subculture, might indeed be more attenuated or less visible than is the case with gay men: for instance, women are, on average, less economically powerful than men, and they are, or have been, less likely to access the public world of the city streets when not in the company of men.  However, it does not follow from these facts that lesbian identity is somehow less imbricated with commodification than gay male identity.  As John D’Emilio has shown, it was the changes to traditional social arrangements wrought by capitalism—importantly, increasing urbanization and a new emphasis, for both men and women, on self-determination rather than responsibility to the family—that enabled the emergence of recognizably “gay” and “lesbian” individuals and subcultures in the first place (D’Emilio).  Following D’Emilio, a range of scholars working in diverse disciplines have argued that both sexual identities and sexual desires in modern and postmodern capitalism are, in part at least, actively produced by the demands of a constantly expanding and fracturing market economy (e.g., Birken, Floyd, Griggers, Wiegman).

[10] Lesbian literature has in fact exhibited a persistent interest in the bar scene dismissed by Rich as imitative of a pernicious gay male culture, thereby indicating the shaping force of commercial activity on lesbian identity and desire.  From Colette’s The Pure and the Impure (1932), through the lesbian pulp novels of the 1950s and 1960s, to the post-liberation work of novelists as disparate as Rita Mae Brown and Marie-Claire Blais, writers have featured prominent treatment of the bar experience as a means of addressing the specificities of lesbian life (Jay).  This lesbian literary representation has thus offered a corrective to more clamant activist and academic claims for the uncommodified purity of lesbianism; and, also writing somewhat against the grain of these claims, numerous lesbian critics have traced the complexities of the representation of the lesbian bar, not only in fiction but also in cinema (Barale, Hamer, Hankin, Jay, King).  Arguably, however, neither the lesbian fiction that precedes Don Juan and Leash, nor the criticism that has treated that fiction, has foregrounded the logic of the commodity to the same salutary extent as DeLynn’s novels.  Don Juan in the Village incorporates the very rhythms of consumer culture into its narrative treatment of the bar.  Leash, on the other hand, while it virtually begins in a bar, soon moves out of this setting to provide a “broader” critique of early twenty-first century consumerism.  Nevertheless, I will contend, it is the specificities of lesbian sexuality and of the lesbian subculture that make this critique possible and that give the novel its peculiar force.

Don Juan in the Village: Lesbian Loiterature

[11] In a review of Don Juan, the lesbian novelist Bertha Harris wrote, “The 14 discrete episodes that make up ‘Don Juan in the Village’ are not a novel; they are the 14 first chapters of a novel awaiting further revelations.  As they stand, the Don is prone to repeat herself, although the dirty parts and the Don’s social anxieties are very funny indeed” (Harris).  Denying Don Juan status as a novel, Harris, a highly literary writer in the tradition of Djuna Barnes, endorses a surprisingly conservative account of what the novel might be—a narrative that progresses towards “revelations.” 

[12]In what might be construed as a riposte to this criticism, DeLynn has spoken in an interview about how she decided on a repetitious structure for Don Juan because that seemed the most appropriate way of conveying the particular experience with which she was concerned.  Gesturing towards the autobiographical basis of the novel, she says:

I used to live in the West Village, very near the bars there and I would go cruising a lot.  Not always finding people, but I used to have a lot of thoughts in the bars and I thought about the meaning of the experience a lot.  It was a very important experience for me and I wanted to convey it.  And I think the form of the book, with its repetitiousness, helps to convey that experience better than would a more conventional novel format.  (“Sentences” 12-13)
Further on in the same interview, she states, “I don’t believe in certain kinds of story development and I’m totally opposed to having epiphanic moments in fiction—those little moments that supposedly give a larger meaning to life, and so on.  They exist but I don’t think they have any special significance” (13).  The form Don Juan took, DeLynn says,  “saved me from thinking I needed to present some grand epiphany and enabled me to deal with the repetitiousness of everything” (13).

[13] By refusing one conventional, if not hegemonic, novel format—linear temporality culminating or climaxing in revelation or epiphany—and by linking her episodic narrative format to the repetitiousness of the bar experience, DeLynn can be understood as having written a lesbian counterpart of the gay male cruising narrative that Ross Chambers identifies as an example of  “loiterature”—literature (including critical literature) of a wayward and digressive orientation—under which rubric he groups such diverse authors as  Marcus Aurelius, Jacques Diderot, Paul Auster, and Meaghan Morris.  The gay male cruising narratives that exemplify loiterature in Chambers’ book-length study of the topic include John Rechy’s Numbers (1967) and Renaud Camus’s Tricks (1981), both of which, like Don Juan, relate a series of sexual encounters in episodic or picaresque format.  Chambers states that the cruising narrative “tend[s] not to have a narrative ‘curve’ at all, and closure is . . . irrelevant to it. . . The structure here (if ‘structure’ is the word) is episodic, repetitive (but in the Kierkegaardian sense, in which repetition implies difference) and, in a word, digressive” (252).  The cruising narrative, which Chambers opposes to the ends-focused “bourgeois novel” (60), is anti-purposive, anti-teleological; it eschews the future-oriented revelation approved by critics like Harris.

[14] In accordance with Chambers’ model of loiterature, Don Juan eschews the model of narrative progression and closure, instead appearing to be all deviation.  For all its detailed description of sexual encounters, for instance, Don Juan is virtually devoid of orgasms, those physiological events which, as Judith Roof points out, are powerfully associated with the notion of narrative “end” (Roof 2-6).  The withholding or scanting of descriptions of orgasms from its sex scenes reinforces, at the level of narrative event, the sense that Don Juan is not a novel that “comes” to a definitive end.

[15] Don Juan concludes with an “Epilog” but it is not, as we would expect of the epilog of the bourgeois novel, a summing up of the redemptive maturation of the protagonist: Don Juan’s self-absorption remains undinted.  These are the last words of the book:

   When I was in a room by myself there was no one in it, which is why there had to be noise: the TV, the radio, a phone call—or even two or three of the above.  Sometimes I would go to turn on the radio and it would be already on, and sometimes, while reading the newspaper, I would look around for something to read.  On occasion, when I fell in love, someone was with me in the room and it was no longer empty, but quickly they became part of the furniture, the television, the paint on the walls, and the papers on my desk.
   This disturbed me, of course, but in the immense vanity of my self-love and self-hate it was just one more way in which I managed to prove to myself and whoever was listening that I was the most incredible human being in the entire world.  (240)
Whatever their initial impact, the narrator’s lovers recede into the object-world of her apartment, leaving her alone in her self-centeredness. However, the seemingly solipsistic isolation of the narrator that succeeds and supersedes the experience of romantic attachment is qualified by the indication of interlocution, or at least of an audience, in the reference in the novel’s final sentence to “whoever was listening”—the “whoever” to whom she “prove[s]” that she “was the most incredible human being in the entire world.”  The invocation of an auditor reinstalls the (lesbian) other who is disappeared in the previous paragraph, attesting to the novel’s informing concern with the collectivity of the lesbian subculture. 

[16] Rather than vouchsafing a sense of the narrator’s psychic or emotional progression, the epilog, in a further manifestation of the interplay between the individual and the collective that underpins the narrative, stresses the impact of the supra-personal category of history upon the personal life.  Set in 1988, two years before the novel’s publication, the epilog situates us in a present devastated by AIDS, in which the abandon of Manhattan’s gay male culture, with which Don Juan enviously identifies, has been drastically curtailed, and in which she herself, as she says, “[doesn’t] get around much any more” (237).  In its invocation of social history, the epilog is of a piece with the rest of the novel; for if Don Juan eschews the coherence of teleological novelistic temporality, it is preoccupied by the passing of time.  Rather than future-directed, the book is retrospective in orientation, presenting thirteen different pasts (one for each chapter), each one of which is recalled, with varying degrees of explicitness, from the disenchanted yet regretful vantage point of the present.  An autumnal tone both informs and offsets the novel’s humor—the book is marked by a sense of the loss of the promise of liberation even though this nostalgia is always uneasy, and often tinged with irony.

[17] The novel’s sense of pastness or periodicity is conveyed through several varieties of temporal marker.  These include references to shifts in fashion and culture: “People still ate white bread then” (55); “This was so long ago, the trains hadn’t been started up to be stopped again” (35); “This was long before punk had made short hair respectable” (221).  They include references to newsworthy events—the Olympic slayings in Munich in 1972, the 1979 death of a famous baseball player in his private jet (103, 178).  Pre-eminently, though, the passing of time is marked by references to historical shifts within the gay and lesbian subculture, from pre-liberation closetedness, through the heady sense of possibility entailed by the 1970s moment of liberation, to the sexual and social caution that characterizes the AIDS-stricken “now” of the late 1980s.  So, for instance, the narrator says in passing at various points: “I was poor then…. And yet I was not unhappy, for I lived entirely for love.  Much of the city did then, though it never will again ” (221); or, “this was a long time ago, when people still wanted to get laid” (35).  In a more specific notation of subcultural change, Don Juan describes the butch-femme styles of lesbians in San Juan, Puerto Rico, during a visit made in the 1970s: “I had seen women like this dressed before, back when we were just beginning to talk about ourselves with excitement, in bars where women who knew nothing of this talk still dressed in ways that were a sign of the past we were trying to destroy” (23). This temporally disjointed and unteleological narrative, then, is nonetheless saturated by a sense of time’s passing, of the changes wrought in the subculture and in an individual.

[18] The interrelations of individual experience and the spatio-temporal category of the subculture are also signally manifested, as I’ve noted, in the narrator’s ventures into lesbian bar life.  In the passage from the interview to which I referred earlier, DeLynn identifies her time spent in bars as “important.”  In what, though, does this importance consist and how is it conveyed in the novel?  I have suggested that DeLynn resists the inscription of lesbian experience as having a meaningful direction or profound point.  Nevertheless, in Don Juan being in the bar yields experiences that are important even if they are not profound, indeed even as they are explicitly identified as pseudo-profound: “I knew the way I was thinking was bullshit, yet it felt very profound, as what I thought in the bar always felt profound, perhaps because it was not a normal place to be” (238).  It is because the bar is “not a normal place to be” that the visits to it are important, even if individual visits turn out to be “boring” or bathetic: “Often the bar was boring, but it was not normal, which in itself made it interesting.  The atmosphere was conducive to thought, and the thoughts weren’t normal, so the experience acquired a richness” (71). While Don Juan picks up several women in her solitary visits to the bars, the hours before she picks up necessarily involve a lot of “thoughts,” thoughts that are generated by her placement in a crowd or group of others who are, to use her own frequently used phrase, “like me.” Don Juan’s designation of lesbians and also sometimes gay men as people “like me” gestures to these others as points of identification at the same time that it marks their difference from her. The bar is necessarily a site of sociality, from which Don Juan is alienated at the same time as she is irresistibly drawn to it.

[19] Manifesting these conflicting impulses, Don Juan states, in the description of one night in a bar:

    I was surely the smartest person in the bar.  No doubt I was the best writer in the bar.  I may even have been the most famous person in the bar.  Deep down I felt that in some way I was the best-looking person in the bar, though I would have had a hard time explaining to anyone else in precisely what way this was true. . . . 
      And yet, in spite of the obvious superiority of all aspects of my being, in the bar I was treated just like an ordinary person.  This irritated and mystified and in an odd way intrigued me—and was perhaps the main reason I kept coming back to the bar. (72-3)
The experience of the bar brings into humorous question Don Juan’s narcissism, confronting her with a sense of her similitude: the fact that she is here treated as an “ordinary person” means that she is assimilated to the crowd of others “like me,” even as her thoughts enable a distance between herself and the others in the bar.  Like any collectivity, the lesbian subculture depends on a sense of a sameness that unites differentiated individuals, an operation which we might further parse as the experience of a certain standardization redolent of the serial, repetitive logic of commodity culture. 

[20] Referring to the spectacular youth subcultures of post-World War II Britain, Dick Hebdige argues that such collectivities are means of “communicat[ing] through commodities even if the meanings attached to those commodities are purposefully distorted or overthrown” (95).  Modern and postmodern gay and lesbian subcultures can be similarly understood as communicating through commodities (often through a subversive or at least unorthodox repositioning of commodities), as is most evident in the way members of those subcultures often adopt an identifiable “look”—a seriality of style—that indicate membership, such as butch-femme or the gay male clone appearance.

[21] Seriality and repetitiveness are also evinced in Don Juan, I suggest, in the narrator’s habitual returns to the bar, a recursiveness evoked and emphasized in the quoted passage’s own repeated return to the phrase “in the bar,” its turning this phrase into a repetend or refrain.  The sexual desire that is one determinant of the narrator’s repeated visits is intertwined with the consumer desire that sustains the contemporary urban environment in which the bar is located.  The passage I’ve quoted gestures towards the simultaneously spatial and temporal, or horizontal and vertical, experience of Kierkegaardian repetition-with-a-difference that is integral to the subcultural experience and that subtends the book as a whole.  That is to say, the spatial experience of repetition-with-a-difference entailed by the bar is paralleled in the book’s peculiar temporality, its recursive narrative structure (synecdochically figured in the passage’s emphasis on habitual return), in which the protagonist again and again pursues erotic contact with various others “like me”—others who (it is the book’s repeated, sad “lesson”) invariably turn out to be unreachably other in spite of their apparent sameness. 

[22] In the epilog, Don Juan pays her final visit to a bar, in which she finds herself among a crowd of unfamiliar, younger patrons, and is thereby made aware of her own age and the longevity of her cruising career:

Although inside I was only sixteen, a bratty adolescent, the mirror over the bar told me I was the age of the women I used to scorn, so perhaps it was only fitting that young girls raced their eyes past mine as I used to race mine past those of older women years ago.  Back then I imagined I saw pools of misery spreading from them, but if that’s what anybody saw now they were wrong.  It was not misery but astonishment, at the person I had been and the person I was now.  (238)
The narrator recognizes herself in the image of those “older women” she used to scorn, as well as in the sight of the “young girls”—or, more accurately, the attitude of those girls, who now direct towards her the scorn she used to direct towards others.  But both recognitions are also misrecognitions: the image in the mirror of the narrator’s “older” self is discrepant with her own internal sense of herself as a “bratty adolescent”; while the imagined perception of the young girls that she is miserable is contradicted by her actual experience of astonishment.  

[23] As in her earlier interactions with people “like me,” repetition (represented in literal and figurative mirror-images of sameness) is inflected by difference.  The experience leads her to ruminate:  “I had come to the bar for knowledge, but it turned out that knowledge was only about how to behave in bars such as this.  Now that I had the knowledge I was too old to use it—or maybe it was only that I was too old to want to use it” (239). This realization—it is hardly the revelation that Harris desiderates—seems to indicate that the narrator’s subcultural career has been a pointlessly circular trajectory.  But the novel in its resolutely uncelebratory way also suggests that knowing “how to behave in bars such as this” is not nothing.  The narrator’s tentative, exploratory experiences of the bar, and of cruising more generally, speak to the tentative, exploratory experiences of women desiring women in a culture in which such desire, in spite of the impact of liberation, is barely acknowledged. 

[24] Comically self-centered though she is, the narrator is also, in her incessant sexual pursuit, motivated by what I call, following Lauren Berlant, the drive towards intimacy.  Describing her desire in the epilog in terms of travel and destination, the narrator “wonder[s] where [her] port was, and if [she] was ever coming home” (239).  This notion of unfulfillable desire is on one level, no doubt, a well-worn one, underpinning a diverse range of influential discourses from Romantic literature to Freud, Lacan, and beyond (and indeed the Lacanian idea of insatiable desire explicitly informs Leash, which uses as its epigraph Lacan’s “Desire can never be satisfied because it is a desire to desire”).  But I want to suggest that this familiar idea is given more specific historical and cultural density in Don Juan—and in Leash.  Don Juan’s desire (never satisfied, never redeemed) exemplifies the way in which, as Berlant says, the “drive toward [intimacy] is a kind of wild thing that is not necessarily organized” (284) by the conventional spaces provided for it by liberal society—including what Don Juan would call the “normal” sphere of heterosexual domesticity.  

[25] Berlant contends that the drive toward intimacy “can be portable, unattached to a concrete space: a drive that creates spaces around it through practices. . . . These spaces are produced relationally; people . . . can return repeatedly to them and produce something, though frequently not history in its ordinary, memorable, or valorized sense and not always ‘something’ of positive value” (284-285).  Don Juan, as we have seen, is premised on “return[ing] repeatedly” to a particular relational space, the space of the bar.  Of course, in a sense, the bar is “concrete” and therefore perhaps not a perfect match with Berlant’s more metaphorical spaces that emerge from “mobile processes of attachment” (284).  But subcultural spaces are more or less by definition not socially valorized, and they are therefore much more different from, than they are similar to, such spaces as the bourgeois home  (they are, in the words of Don Juan, “not normal”).  The bar, and the subculture more generally, precisely because of their phenomenological distance from “normal” life are sites in which the “something” of which Berlant speaks is likely to be generated—that is, the something “frequently not history in its ordinary, memorable, or valorized sense and not always ‘something’ of positive value,” or, as Berlant also puts it, a “something that holds a place open for unforeseen changes” (285). 

[26] It is this “something” that sustains Don Juan and its representation of desire as repetitive, recursive, and insatiable; as Don Juan says after her final visit to the bar, and on the novel’s penultimate page, “I still wanted something, of course, but what it was was more ineffable than ever” (239).  The bar, and the subculture, are spaces of possible transformation (of individual identity, of female identity, of lesbian identity), even if that transformation is not necessarily positive, and even if it does not betoken some politically brighter future.  As a whole, the book attests to the way in which the subcultural experience, centered on though not confined to the experience of the commodified space of the bar, offers a new knowledge, of oneself and others, that is formed through participation in repetitious activities that, in the eyes of many “normal” people (and of some lesbians, and some lesbian critics), are a waste of time.  If the profundity of the thoughts the narrator has in the bar is ersatz, the importance of the experience of the bar lies in the improvisation of a self, and the improvisation of ways of desiring, that are available in a congregation of people “like me.”

Narrative Perversions 

[27] In its concern with time spent in the bar and the experiences it affords, Don Juan can, I suggest, be profitably be read in dialogue with recent work in queer theory on “queer temporalities”—modes of perceiving and experiencing time that reputedly disrupt the normative routines of daily time, life history, and history “proper.”  In a recent roundtable discussion on this topic in the journal GLQ, Judith Halberstam defines her understanding of queer time as entailing “engage[ment] in activities that probably seem pointless to people stranded in hetero temporalities” (181-182).  She continues: “Queer time for me is the dark nightclub, the perverse turn away from the narrative coherence of adolescence-early adulthood-marriage-reproduction-child rearing-retirement-death, the embrace of late childhood in place of early adulthood or immaturity in place of responsibility” (182).  This version of queer time values the ephemeral rather than projecting hopefully into the future, as in the utopian orientation of much queer thinking and of politically progressive thought more generally; and it is DeLynn’s eschewal of the gesture towards the future, I’ve suggested, that might in part explain her neglect by lesbian literary scholarship.

[28] Foregrounding the relation of socially productive future-oriented time to commodity culture, another contributor to the GLQ roundtable, Christopher Nealon, asks, “How are our theorizations of alternate temporalities legible . . . as attempts to think through or around or against the dominant form of the social organization of time, that is, the time of the commodity?” (188).  One answer to this question might identify cruising as a socially irresponsible use of time that evades the imperatives of capitalist production and reproduction; such an account of cruising and of the literature which celebrates it implicitly or explicitly informs work, for instance, by Mark Turner (in his book Backward Glances: Cruising the Queer Streets of New York and London [2003]), as well as the work by Ross Chambers on loiterature that I’ve already mentioned. 

[29] Yet the putatively irresponsible frittering away of time that characterizes cruising can also be identified as a necessary, indeed an encouraged, effect of a cultural and economic system that enjoins its members to be “puritans by day and hedonists by night” (Bell xxv).  In this account, cruising, rather than an evasion of commodity culture, is captured by the logic of capital.  However, my reading of Don Juan suggests that while commodity capitalism pervades the experience of time so thoroughly that the practice of cruising may in some sense be a repetition of its logic—the movement from one thing to another—the practice also creates a space in which new modes of being and desiring may emerge.  Commodity capitalism is not therefore, simply a pernicious mode of control; on the contrary, it enables the patterns of sexually variant identity and desire.

[30] While the loiterly narrative does not point towards some future goal, its inconclusiveness potentially provokes more narrative: it offers not closure, but the possibility of more.  As Chambers puts it, in the loiterly narrative, “There’s a lack of fullness and firmness . . . There’s always a loose end, more to be explored, thought, or said, another direction to take, an unforeseen swerve” (64).  The open-endedness of her cruising narrative seems to have prompted DeLynn to write more, to give us more.  In the interview I’ve already cited, DeLynn describes Leash, which she was then writing, as a continuation of “certain themes of Don Juan” (“Sentences” 19).  But Leash is also, as I noted at the outset, very different from the earlier novel, both thematically and with regard to the formal aspect of narrative time.  Rather than the fragmented time of Don Juan, Leash presents a linear narrative that remorselessly escalates in tension as it moves from one meticulously described scene of sadomasochistic sex to another.  But while the narrative strategies of the novels differ greatly, they both can be regarded as challenging conventional heterosexualizing and commodity-oriented conceptions of narrative.

[31] My argument regarding the narrative strategies of both Don Juan and Leash draws upon the argument proposed by Judith Roof in Come As You Are: Sexuality and Narrative (1996).  Roof contends that the way narrative tends to entail the negotiation and reconciliation of differences means that it is perceived as metaphorically heterosexual and reproductive.  This heterosexualized understanding of narrative, Roof maintains, is bound up with the imperatives of modern capitalist culture.  But while the orthodox bourgeois narrative of the family and reproduction confines sexuality to a “non-incestuous heterosexuality,” entailing “profit, continuity, and increase” (35)—a narrative manifested, for instance, in the happy marital endings of the nineteenth-century bourgeois novel—this model of linearity and progress is complicated by the advent of twentieth and twenty-first century commodity culture, which, as Roof puts it, “seems to suspend us in a perpetual [narrative] middle” (38) in which consumer desire leads us, pointlessly and endlessly, from one commodity to another.

[32] However, Roof argues, consumer desire “is finally not as polymorphous as it might seem; rather, it still makes sense only within a strained reproductive logic that nostalgically situates the entire process as patriotic, moral, right-minded, and natural” (39).  Nevertheless, this “survival of the reproductive narrative” is “dependent upon precisely that perversity of desire typical of the commodity system, the desire perpetually misled” that is evinced in the tolerance of various forms of homosexual desire and culture: these “new perversities” only “make sense” in “contrast to the ‘authentic’ narrative of production represented by the old story of heterosexual reproduction”: “They are produced by it and in turn perpetuate it within the shifting realms of need and object” (39). 

[33] Perversity is therefore bound up with but also may work against the reproductive imperatives of conventional narrative forms.  Roof sees hope for the alternative imagining of narrative and its attendant conservative understanding of sexuality in certain “perverse narratives,” examples of which include Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936) and Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text (1973).  The perversity of perverse narratives, she contends, consists in their perverse relation to dominant narrative forms rather than necessarily in their perverse content: “Insofar as lesbian or gay is linked to perversion, the lesbian or gay narrative might be the perverse narrative.  But the perverse narrative’s perversity is not in its subject matter, for that is squarely planted in the realm of narrative, but in the way any such narrative enacts a perverse relation to narrative itself” (xxiv).  I suggest here that DeLynn’s novels, in the perversity of their relation to narrative, rather than simply in the perversity of their content, exemplify the kind of scrambling of narrative convention that, Roof argues, is a salutary   alternative to the hegemonic narrative of progress promulgated by the interlocking forces of capital and what Roof calls “heteroideology.”

[34] In its episodic and repetitive form, recalling and invoking the “perpetual middle” of commodity culture in which we move restlessly and insatiably from one commodity to another, Don Juan refuses to come to the point, to a telos of revelation or maturation that, while it would be an ending, would also point toward a definite (and definitely better) future.  The novel thereby refuses a sense of what Roof calls narrative “reproduction,” or the resolution of the narrative’s various tensions and oppositions:  as we’ve seen, in Don Juan the dialectic of individual and collective lesbian identity is not resolved in a future-oriented vision of community but remains suspended right up to the point of the book’s final sentence, in which an apparently emphatic assertion of subjectivity is tempered by the invocation of intersubjectivity (“it was just one more way in which I managed to prove to myself and whoever was listening that I was the most incredible human being in the entire world”).  Leash also refuses the heteroideology of narrative, not by avoiding reproduction, but by presenting a kind of cruel joke on the reader’s expectation of an ends-focused narrative.  So integral a part of this novel’s overall effect is the novel’s surprise ending that the soberly retrospective mode of literary analysis can only betray the jolting impact that is part of a first-time reading experience. 

Leash: Monstrous End

[35] Leash’s plot is kicked off when the narrator, spending an aimless summer while her lover is overseas, places a personal ad in at the Village Voice: “Bored with ordinary things.  Willing to experiment. . . .  Looking for something.  You tell me what” (17).  The ad is answered by a woman whom the narrator arranges to meet at an East Village apartment.  They begin a sadomasochistic (or s/m) relationship in which the narrator is always blindfolded; she never sees her female “master.”  In a scenario familiar from s/m narratives such as Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs (1870), the course of the relationship is initially determined by a contract whereby the narrator agrees to become her master’s slave.  The narrator (or “Chris,” to use the pseudonym she adopts in her communications with her master) is also given a dog collar to wear that is “emblematic of [her] complete submission” (113).  Even when she is at home alone, the narrator is subject to her master’s commands (no masturbation, no TV, etc.); she always divulges her occasional transgressions of this strict regimen when she is summoned before her master again and is duly punished. The relationship progresses through scenes of spanking, bondage, verbal humiliation, the ministration of a dildo and a pepper enema.  Later, Chris becomes the centerpiece of a perverted dinner party: she is encased in plaster of Paris and used as a table on which her master and others dine; afterwards she is hung upside down, suspended from chains “like a carcass of beef” (187). 

[36] Eventually, Chris agrees to a shift in the relationship whereby when she meets with her master, she is dressed in a dog suit (out of which she still cannot see), and generally treated like a dog: forced to walk on all fours, taught to fetch, sit, heel, and fed dog food.  She is also muzzled so that she cannot speak, and instructed to convey her needs and feelings through canine sounds such as barking and whining. She becomes a companion to her master’s actual dog and is instructed by her master to have intercourse with him.  Finally, she is taken to a “dog show” held by a secret organization, the Society of the Leash (226), at which other human dogs are paraded by their female owners.  To her initial distress, she is told by her master that she is to be auctioned off.  Standing on the auction block, she is offered by the auctioneer “the Magnificent Choice,” whereby she will become fully “dog”: her tongue and vocal chords will be partially severed so that she loses the capability of coherent speech, and her thumbs sewn to her fingers so that her hands become like paws; her former life as a human will be erased by the Society, which has the power to terminate bank accounts and to empty apartments.  She will become a member of the Society’s “pack,” a group of human-dogs who are adopted out to Society members.  If she chooses not to take up the Magnificent Choice, the auctioneer tells her, she may return to her old life, though under the threat that “things will not go well with you if you attempt to betray whatever of our secrets you think you possess. . . .  You may be sure we are not without connections” (235).

[37] The offer is a moment of high narrative tension.  Chris’s muzzle is removed so that she may use human language to give her answer, but the reply is delayed for over a page while Chris thinks back on her sexual life, and the tendency for “love” always to devolve into “pain,” “ because,” as she thinks, evoking the novel’s Lacanian epigraph, “it is the nature of desire to go forever unfulfilled” (246).  Finally, Chris howls “’No! …then ‘yes, yes, yes.’”  We learn that the narrative we have been reading is a record that she was allowed to write “before [her] fingers were fully converted to paws”: “partly for the benefit of those who had known me personally, so that they may cease torturing themselves over the nature of my so-called ‘disappearance,’ but mostly to alert those like us who are unaware of our existence about a world in which, if they are lucky, they may someday find themselves at home” (247).

[38] If Don Juan fails to provide a narrative “reproduction” through the resolution of its various tensions and conflicts, the reproduction of Leash is monstrous.  The binary opposition that the novel ultimately negotiates, and in which its thematic tensions are crystallized, is that of human and animal, and the novel’s final image is a fantastic one of human/animal hybridity, in which the animal predominates, canceling human forms of language and subjectivity.  In this, the end of Leash can be read as an allusion to and a supersession of the famous conclusion of Nightwood, the novel offered by Roof as an example of perverse narrative that challenges heteroideology.  At the end of Nightwood the central figure Robin Vote descends to the level of her former lover Nora’s dog, getting down on all fours and tormenting him so that he bites at her and barks:
“Then she began to bark also, crawling after him. . . .  Crouching, the dog began to run with her. . . .  He ran this way and that, low down in his throat crying, and she grinning and crying with him” (139).  The parallelism of dog and woman in Nightwood’s closing scene caps a narrative in which temporal progression entails bodily and psychic regression or degeneration (Seitler).  Leash perhaps refers to this regressive image, but also surpasses it in its dramatic melding of dog and human qualities: parallelism is trumped by transformation.

[39] The ending of Leash, and indeed the novel’s narrative content more generally, also recalls another famous novel of masochistic debasement, Story of O (1954), by Pauline Réage (a pseudonym of the French writer Anne Desclos). Indeed, Leash can be read as a rewriting of Story of O, which also traces what Susan Sontag, in her essay “The Pornographic Imagination” (1967), calls an “ascent through degradation” (55).  In steadily intensifying scenes of sexual humiliation carried out (as in the latter part of Leash) by a secret society, O willingly submits to a process of self-emptying, culminating (again as in Leash) in her transformation into a quasi-animalistic state—O is dressed in an elaborate owl costume and brought on a leash to a party where strangers sexually touch but do not speak to her.  Sontag points out that Story of O, although an intellectually serious work, self-consciously draws upon a range of s/m pornography: its secret society, debauched English lord, chateaux, and so on are allusions to what she calls “a stock type of pornographic trash” (50).  Leash in turn alludes to a whole tradition of s/m “trash” and Story of O itself.  The increasing implausibility of Leash’s narrative is matched by an increasing stiltedness of narratorial language and dialogue, offsetting the Don Juan-style demotic realism, that recalls haute porn. 

[40] This stiltedness is evident, for instance, is a passage in which Chris brings together the concerns of sexuality and narrative: 

Now we come to the heart of the story, where things are no longer led up to but transpire, where Fantasies end and Action begins, where the titillations of delay and suspense give way to the supposed pleasures of fulfilment.  I am talking as much about esthetic satisfaction as I am about orgasm.  Indeed, what is the difference, save one favors the Body and the other the Mind?. . . . What are you looking for, dear Reader, so supine and passive in my hands? (137)
The analogy of sexual and narrative tensions could not be made much clearer in this passage in which the reader takes the place of the slave occupied by Chris in the novel.  Unlike Don Juan, which proceeds through a series of disjointed episodes, Leash, as this passage makes self-consciously clear, works toward climax, toward narrative “orgasm.”  Unlike Don Juan it is a narrative of coming, of reproduction—but its reproduction is a monstrous “issue” that disrupts the standard narrative of heteroideology.

[41] In the closing sentence of Leash, Chris tells us that in her transformed existence she has “abandoned the world of words for another—one deeper and richer, surely, with its own joys and sorrows—but of this, alas, I cannot speak” (247).  Don Juan ends with a scenario of speaking and listening as the narrator attempts “to prove to [herself] and whoever was listening that [she] was the most incredible human being in the entire world.”  The scenario of talking is implicitly continual, as the scenario of desire is continual; and this inconclusive and recursive dynamic of the novel, I have suggested, is carried into the “more” that is Leash, Don Juan’s quasi-sequel.  At the end of Leash, however, with the transformation of human into dog, speaking necessarily terminates.  If Don Juan attests to the insatiability of a cruising sexual desire that can be linked to the imperatives of contemporary commodity culture, here that desire is at once fulfilled and terminated through Chris’s fantastic transformation.

[42] Leash almost literally begins in a lesbian bar—left alone for the summer by her lover, Chris feels “old longings [begin] to stir” (5) and visits a bar in a fruitless search for sex.  But the middle-aged narrator finds herself even more alienated from this environment than Don Juan at the end of the earlier novel, and the narrative of Leash soon moves away from this familiar scene, subsequently taking place, for the most part, either in the narrator’s apartment or in the apartment of her s/m master.  This curtailment of setting and dramatis personae paradoxically entails an amplification of the earlier novel’s implicit concern with the interrelations of capitalism and desire.  However, the lesbian subculture eventually returns in the distorted, implausible form of the Society of the Leash.  Ultimately, the novel depends as much as Don Juan does on the idea of the subculture for its thematic force.

[43] In Leash the jadedness of the narrator arises not only from her disaffection with love and desire, or with the forms the lesbian subculture has taken, but also from her disenchantment with the whole of early 21st century boom-time consumer culture.  This is evidenced, for instance, in a moment reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis’s satire of acquisitiveness American Psycho (1991), in which the narrator lists for over a page, in brand-name-festooned detail, the contents of her lavishly outfitted apartment: “[a] 2300 square foot loft  with . . .  11 foot high ceilings and eight 4’ x ‘7 windows . . . Thonet chairs and Philippe Starck cabinet, the bed and night tables by Dakota Jackson, the Sub-Zero fridge and the Viking cooking range and the bathroom Jacuzzi [etc., etc.] . . . “(22).  At the end of this list, Chris states: “Did these things bring me happiness?  Not at all.  Yet I was sure I could not survive without them”(23).  Chris is fully aware of the ways that “Capitalism enslaves us in its chains;” “But,” she ponders, “if I were not enslaved, could I want anything?” (26).

[44] In exchanging her enslavement by capitalism for enslavement by her master, and in ultimately taking up the Magnificent Choice, Chris progressively absolves herself of “the tedious curse of humanhood” (233) under contemporary capitalism.  The tediousness of this existence is summarized by the auctioneer in presenting her with the Magnificent Choice.  Saying “yes” to the Choice will mean “No more jobs, no more taxes, no more checkbooks, no more bills, no more credit cards, no more money, no more mortgages, no more rent, no more savings, no more junk mail, no more junk, no more mail, no more phones, no more faxes, no more busy signals, no more computers, no more cars, no more drivers' licenses . . .” (233). This list of negatives, which goes on for many more clauses, provides a pendant to Chris’s earlier enumeration of her possessions, the things that do not make her happy but which she cannot imagine living without.  Under the Magnificent Choice the wearing complexity of life under late capitalism is replaced by a life without language and without volition, but also, tantalizingly and temptingly, without responsibility. The auctioneer tells Chris, “you will achieve a position few in this world will ever know—one that is both wholly slave and wholly free, wholly vulnerable and wholly safe, wholly arbitrary and wholly guaranteed. . . .  One thing only is required of you, and that is to do what your master commands“ (237-38).

Conclusion: Subcultural Possibilities

[45] Embodying in its very form the repetitious rhythms of pleasure-seeking under capitalism, Don Juan indicates the intimate relation between contemporary lesbianism and commodity culture.  No heroic lesbian narrative, the novel is informed by a profound skepticism about the lesbian subculture and ideas of lesbian community.  But it also locates within the lesbian subculture the possibility of new ways of being, thinking, and desiring—although these possibilities do not necessarily point to some brighter future.  The novel’s ambivalent relation to both lesbianism and the consumer capitalism within
which lesbianism is embedded is manifested in its perverse irresolution—its refusal to knit together individual and collective identities, its refusal to bring desire to an end.

[46] In Leash, by contrast, the problem of desire within capitalism is “solved”; but it is a solution that, in its outrageousness, points to the current impossibility of evading the commodity form.  Posing animality as an alternative to life in late capitalism, Leash concludes with a fantastic hybridization of human and dog, positing a monstrous reproduction, an impossible future, as the answer to the novel’s galvanizing question: “If I were not enslaved, could I want anything?”  Its outrageous resolution of its central thematic tension, whereby woman is transformed into dog, is beyond sex but it begins in sex—it is the ultimate, “logical” conclusion of a transgressive desire that is explicitly presented as an alternative to the numbing comfort of affluence.  Leash thus suggests that certain modes of queer eroticism can carry a critical force within commodity culture.  Moreover, if a recognizable lesbian subculture soon recedes from the narrative, the novel retains a sense of the subcultural alternative in the sinister but ultimately positive form of the Society of the Leash and in Chris’s mention of others “like us” (compare Don Juan’s repeated phrase “like me”) “who are unaware of our existence,” but who may someday wish to join the community of human-dogs.  If Leash’s resolution of its own central tension is fantastic, thereby suggesting the apparent impossibility of avoiding capitalist imperatives, the book attests to, and indeed embodies, the desire to evade those imperatives—and it locates that desire both within transgressive lesbian sex, and as the inchoate longing of an unspecified collectivity “like us.”  While neither Don Juan nor Leash locate in the subcultural experience a realistic or definite hope for the future, for both novels that experience is a source of critical energy—a means of negotiating the simultaneously seductive and oppressive lineaments of contemporary capitalism.


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Contributor’s Note:

GUY DAVIDSON is a Lecturer in the English Literatures Program at the University of Wollongong, Australia.  He has published essays on sexuality in late nineteenth-century British and American literature and twentieth-century American and Australian literature in journals such as GLQ, The Henry James Review, and Journal of Modern Literature.  His current main research project concerns commodity culture and same-sex desire in contemporary U.S. literature.


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