Susanna J. Sturgis    


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Breaking Silence, Breaking Faith: The Promotion of Lesbian Nuns

Lesbian Nuns, Naiad Press's anthology of autobiographical stories by lesbian nuns and ex-nuns, was a publishing phenomenon before it even appeared on bookstore shelves. When asked to speculate about the reasons for the widespread attention given to Lesbian Nuns, both co-editors responded in terms of the book's content. Rosemary Curb attributed the media's interest to "the double marginality of lesbians and nuns."[1] Nancy Manahan echoed this and also elaborated, "I think it touches a deep nerve in our collective consciousness where religion and spirituality intersect with the enormous power of the sexual and erotic."[2]

But regardless of its contents, no book becomes an "overnight" publishing phenomenon unless it is brought to the attention of the right people. In Lesbian Nuns, Naiad Press had a title likely to rouse the interest of TV and radio talk show hosts, of those who write for trade journals and the popular press. It chose to promote the book to this audience, and the rest, as they say, is history: the Phil Donahue Show, a favorable review in Newsweek, vehement opposition from the Boston archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church, and much more.

If circumstances had been different, the story might have ended here: "Small press scores stunning success with controversial book." Instead, the methods used to achieve this success have become at least as controversial as the book itself. This is particularly true within the lesbian-feminist community, where lesbian nuns and ex-nuns are by no means as invisible or exotic as they are in the country at large. The promotion of Lesbian Nuns deserves widespread discussion among lesbians and feminists, for the issues it raises are by no means peculiar to publishing.

Mixed Messages

As book buyer for a feminist bookstore, I heard about Lesbian Nuns long before it was published. As the publication date approached, the flyers sent out to bookstores and to those on the Naiad mailing list began, "NUNS. Alien in their dramatic garb. Set apart from us in their regimented communities, by their singular dedication. NUNS. Different. . . Fascinating. Their lives intrigue us all." This copy was also used on the back cover of the book. Co-editor Curb objected to it, but publisher Barbara Grier reminded her that the purpose of cover copy -- and, she might have added, promotional flyers -- is to sell books.[3] The most casual television viewer or reader of the periodical press can testify that what sells best in this society is sex. Sex was an obvious undercurrent in Naiad's promotion of Lesbian Nuns; often it erupted like a geyser into the open air. In mid-February, over a month before the book's publication, I read a full-page story about the book in the trade journal Publishers Weekly. "Everyone wants to know what nuns do in the dark," Barbara Grier was quoted as saying. "I haven't quite figured that out."[4]

The mixed messages in that article reflected the two distinct tones present in Naiad's publicity. On one hand, the book was promoted as an important milestone in lesbian publishing -- which it is. On the other, presumably because important milestones don't have guaranteed blockbluster [sic] appeal -- "'There is a great deal of sex in it, but,' Grier pauses, 'I must emphasize that it's not prurient, because there are people who when they hear about it salivate down their jowls.'"[5]

When I read the PW article, I assumed that it could tell me nothing about Lesbian Nuns that I had not heard several times direct from the publisher. Skimming through, I noted only in passing the next-to-last paragraph, which said, "Naiad has sold serial rights to Forum magazine and to Ms." I had no idea what Forum was, or who owned it. It did not occur to me that it might be a good idea to find out.

Forum is owned by Penthouse International, and a copy of the June 1985 issue now rests on my desk. The lead headline reads, in dayglo orange capital letters, "SEX LIVES OF LESBIAN NUNS."

Unlike its parent publication, Forum relies on the written word to turn its readers on. Although some gay material and material by women is included, its primary audience is clearly heterosexual men. Feature articles are chosen, written, and edited with this in mind. "The Most Erotic Island," for instance, in the April 1985 issue, describes the lost customs of certain South Pacific islanders in a way that conjures for the heterosexual male reader fantasies of infinitely available women.

Forum's tone is "sexual revolution"; its ideal sex life involves fucking and getting fucked as often and in as many unusual settings as possible. It lends support to women who articulate a similar view within the feminist and lesbian communities; along with "Sex Lives of Lesbian Nuns," the June issue contained an enthusiastic review of the lesbian sex quarterly On Our Backs.

Forum also enjoys taking pot-shots at feminists with conflicting views. Listed among the out's and should-be-out's in its April feature, "What's In, What's Out," were Robin Morgan, Our Bodies, Ourselves, the Indianapolis and Minneapolis city councils (both of which passed anti-pornography ordinances), Women Against Pornography, Andrea Dworkin's tailor, feminist erotica, and Gloria Steinem.

No one will be surprised to learn that the Lesbian Nun stories bought and published by Forum -- "They Shall Not Touch, Even in Jest," "Finding My Way," and "South American Lawyer in the Cloister" -- all deal with sexual experiences in the convent. Forum cut almost all references to platonic friendships, spirituality, convent ethics, and feminist views from these stories. The abridged versions leave the reader with the impression that these three authors have no nonsexual dimensions in their lives. Their stories are thus used to perpetuate Forum's line that feminism is incompatible with explicit sexuality.

Barbara Grier told PW that Lesbian Nuns was not prurient, and to off our backs she reiterated her belief that "there is no way that you can take nonprurient material and make it prurient."[6] Having read both Lesbian Nuns and the June issue of Forum, I disagree. I believe that this is exactly what Naiad has done, or, more precisely, allowed Forum to do. In the pages of Forum, the stories of three lesbian ex-nuns become the literary equivalent of the female body parts that appear regularly in mainstream advertising and men's magazines.

Breaking Faith

To make matters worse, Naiad sold these stories to Forum without the knowledge or consent of their authors. Two of the three women whose work was published discussed their reactions in the July 1985 off our backs. "Margaret," author of "They Shall Not Touch, Even in Jest," was informed of the sale on May 9 -- when the June issue of Forum was already well on its way to retail outlets. "I have been betrayed and violated," she wrote in an open letter to her sister contributors and the readers of off our backs. "My deepest soul has been raped."[7]

Wrote "Mary Brady," whose "Finding My Way" was also excerpted in Forum, "I was sickened when I saw the June issue of Forum where my most sacred and intimate memories are laid out for the entertainment of men along with the Wheaties fetishes and the 'National Kink Test.' Unfortunately, anything that might have raised the level of the Forum version of my story above that of pure sexual titillation has been carefully rewritten or edited out."[8]

How could this have happened? Why did the sexually honest work of three lesbian former nuns end up in a magazine like Forum?

Some initial discussion of the Lesbian Nuns story has focused on the naivete of the women involved. The contributors signed their rights over to the editors, and the editors signed their rights over to Naiad Press, so how can they now complain that their work has been used in ways that they did not intend? They should have known better. Grier finds "distressing" "the view expressed by a few women that they felt the book would be read only by a select few women."[9]

But Grier also expresses surprise that Forum excerpted the stories it bought and thereby created its own distorted version of the "sex lives of lesbian nuns." "It did not dawn on me that Forum would edit or condense them in the way that was done. The contract between Forum and Naiad specifies their right to do that (but so do all contracts and it had never been done before) [italics mine]."[10] All of us base our future expectations on our previous experience. The farther one ventures from familiar ground, the greater the chance that previous experience will not be an adequate guide.

At the time that contributors and editors were signing contracts for Lesbian Nuns, Naiad Press had a solid reputation as a lesbian press that published lesbian books for lesbian readers. Because it marketed its titles through lesbian, feminist, and other progressive channels, its non-lesbian readers were likely to be friendly.[11] I don't find it strange or naive that Curb, Manahan, and the book's contributors assumed that their work would be handled in the same way. In retrospect, it is too easy to say that they should have been more suspicious.

As a writer, I have tried to put myself into the place of a woman writing her story for Lesbian Nuns. Perhaps I have never written these things down before, not even in a journal. Envisioning an audience of women -- feminists, lesbians, nuns, ex-nuns, women's studies students -- I can manage to write openly, with fear but also with trust, of experiences previously held secret. I may even sign my real name, and provide "before" and "after" pictures.


A lesbian is forced to come out in a time and place not of her choosing. For each lesbian woman and gay man, each act of coming out sets in motion unpredictable forces that cannot be turned back. Even if I believe that another woman's decision to stay in the closet is cowardly, or harmful to her well-being, or a liability to the gay rights movement. I DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT TO COME OUT ON HER BEHALF. She is the one who must manage the consequences. I have no right to impose them on her.

In trying and mostly failing to imagine how the Forum sale could have happened, I have had dozens of conversations with other women, nearly all of them feminists, most of them lesbians. A common assumption among these women has been that money was the overriding, if not the only, motive for the Forum sale.

A Financial Killing?

My four years in the feminist book trade taught me that within the feminist community there is a tendency to exaggerate the amount of money being made in feminist businesses. I want to emphasize here that no one is getting rich in feminist publishing or bookselling. Most of us without other sources of income are barely getting by. Some of us aren't even getting paid.

Naiad Press did not make a financial killing from the Forum sale. In an undated interview released on Naiad letterhead in mid-June, Barbara Grier said, "We received a total of $2,400 for serial rights; $2,000 from Forum; $350 from Ms.; and $50 from Philadelphia Gay News." Most of the stories distributed for reprint brought in no money at all; they were given to gay and other alternative publications that could not afford to pay for them.

For a small press like Naiad that does not have the money for extensive advertising, the sale of serial rights can be an important promotional tool. Magazine rights may bring in little or no money, but they do stimulate interest in a book and thus indirectly help to increase sales. A bookstore's buyer may base her decision to stock a book on its scheduled appearance in a magazine popular with her customers.

Naturally, however, the average periodical does not buy serial rights just to help a small publisher out. By featuring "Sex Lives of Lesbian Nuns" in its June issue, Forum expected to encourage its own sales and perhaps expand its audience. What benefits Forum also benefits Forum's owner, Penthouse International and its chairman/publisher Bob Guccione. Given Penthouse's misogynistic record, any lesbian or feminist who chooses to deal with Forum might expect some criticism of her decision.

In an interview with WomaNews, though, Barbara Grier said of the Forum sale, "I had no idea anyone would object!"[12] Earlier, when Lesbian Nuns contributor Joanne Marrow confronted her about the sale, Grier responded, "You have no right to ask this question . . . you don't ask a major publisher these questions . . . it's none of your business."[13]

Hearing these comments made me think that I had wandered through a space warp into a universe like and yet not like my own. What was going on here? A lesbian publisher had no idea that anyone would object to her selling other lesbians' sexual experiences to a Penthouse subsidiary? A lesbian publisher telling a lesbian writer that she has no right even to ask? A lesbian publisher claiming the right to be inaccessible and immune to criticism?

Lesbian and feminist publishers, Naiad among them, have been founded over the last fifteen years or so to offer women writers and readers some alternatives to the "major" publishers. Major publishers are not noted for their accessibility or for their generosity toward writers. Unless a writer can get it into her contract, she has little or no control over cover and book design, marketing, or the sale of subsidiary rights. Sometimes she doesn't even have control over the text of "her" work. Needless to say, major publishers do not ordinarily set a high priority on reaching lesbians.

When I read Joanne Marrow's letter, I was astonished and infuriated by Grier's blatant arrogance. It made me wonder if all of us in the lesbian and feminist print network are working ridiculous hours for ludicrous wages in order to give a few women the authority to act like "major publishers." Yet I also heard something else in Grier's words: You wouldn't ask a mainstream publisher these questions, yet you ask me. You do not take me as seriously as you would a mainstream publisher. If I want to be taken seriously, and I do, I must act with all the highhanded assurance expected of a mainstream publisher.

But the issue of "going mainstream" is a good deal more complicated than this. The world of low-budget promotion and small-press distribution is frustrating for everyone working within it. At least once a week a new customer would come into the bookstore where I used to work and say, "I never knew you existed! Have you been here long?" As I answered, "Yes, almost twelve years," trying to keep the edge out of my voice, I couldn't help wondering how things might have been different had we had the money to advertise in the Washington Post or to move to a prime commercial location.

Lesbian Nun Goes to the Drugstore

The lesbian and feminist print network reaches lesbians in our thousands and tens of thousands, but it is impossible to forget that there are hundreds of thousands, millions, of lesbians who are not being reached at all. "One of my goals," wrote Barbara Grier to the editors of Lesbian Contradiction, the quarterly "journal of irreverent feminism," "is to make sure that every 15, 16, and 17-year-old who wakes up to discover herself a Lesbian can casually walk across the street into almost any bookstore, any library, any drugstore or grocery store and find herself reflected in the mirrors of print."[14]

Reaching every young (and presumably every old and every middle-aged) lesbian who walks into the local grocery store is an inspiring ideal, especially powerful for lesbians who, like Grier herself, have lived in times and places where there was nothing available on the shelves that even hinted at lesbian existence. But is it, at this point in our history, a real possibility? Just what would it take to gain such wide exposure for a lesbian book aimed at a mostly lesbian audience?

Making use of its usual distribution channels -- its own extensive mailing list and the network of feminist and small-press distributors and bookstores -- Naiad has achieved remarkable sales success by almost any standard. A recent article in Ms. reported that "Naiad has never lost money on a title . . . Naiad's minimum press run is now 10,000 and nine titles have sold more than 25,000 copies."[15]

For many reasons, however, these channels cannot get books into "almost any bookstore, any library, any drugstore or grocery store." Naiad books are not packaged in the splashy, compact mass-market format that will attract attention and fit into the mass-market racks in grocery stores and train stations.[16] Neither Naiad nor its small-press distributors can afford to offer the high wholesale discounts necessary to interest the large chain bookstores. Naiad titles are not carried by the big wholesalers that serve those stores.

Yet Naiad before publication committed itself to a 100,000-copy print run for Lesbian Nuns.[17] There is no way that Naiad's usual distribution network could absorb 100,000 copies of a book in a relatively short period of time. When a well-capitalized mainstream publisher launches a new title with a print run of 30,000, 40,000 or 50,000 copies, the trade takes notice. For a small, presumably undercapitalized alternative publisher, 100,000 is an absolutely staggering thought. Keep in mind that the publisher's printing bills come due many months before money from book sales begins to roll in. An undercapitalized press can't afford to tie up great sums of money in this way, lest it wind up with a cash-flow crisis of mammoth proportions and have no cash on hand to pay salaries, rent, the phone bill, etc. Cash-flow problems killed Persephone Press, whose scarce funds were tied up in continually reprinting its very popular titles; there wasn't enough cash available for daily operations.

With Lesbian Nuns, Naiad took what may have been the only feasible route. Selling the book as exotica, promising to reveal what really goes on behind convent doors, Naiad aroused a deep interest among mainstream media people and booksellers -- enough to overcome the obstacles that generally confront an ambitious small press with a saleable trade paperback title. Of course, this was not seen as an end in itself but as a means to the primary goal: reaching as many lesbians as possible.

Lesbian Nun Goes to the Movies

Ripples continue to spread outward from this mainstream interest. According to Publishers Weekly, Italian translation rights for Lesbian Nuns brought in $10,000, U.K. rights a "$25,000 advance," and Australia–New Zealand rights $15,000.[18] Movie rights were bought by ABC-TV for an as-yet-unpublicized sum, about which Barbara Grier said, "It was a lot of money and we're very happy."[19]

The most lucrative of the subsidiary sales is the sale of mass-market paperbacks rights to Warner Books, a division of Random House, for "a six-figure sum."[20] Warner has access to the promotion money and distribution channels that small trade publishers like Naiad do not have. Said Mark Greenberg, president of Warner's in-house ad agency, "A book like this will go into supermarkets and drugstores and terminals all over the country."[21] It seems as if Barbara Grier's goal is about to be realized.

Without question, the mass-market edition of Lesbian Nuns will reach lesbians who would never see the Naiad edition of the book. So will the ABC-TV movie, if and when it is made. So will the editions of the book that appear in other countries. The price of this wide exposure is the removing of control one step further from the women who created the book. The editors and contributors had little or no say in how the Naiad edition of Lesbian Nuns was promoted. Naiad itself will have little or no say in the packaging and promotion of the mass-market edition.[22]

Naiad has indicated that reaching the mass audience is important enough to override all objections. If enough women can be reached, it is all right to entrust sensitive, complex material to those whose interest in lesbians and nuns is mainly commercial. Barbara Grier justified the Forum sale because, although the overwhelming majority of Forum's readership is heterosexual and male, 15% is said to be female -- and of that fraction it is likely that some are lesbians.[23]

Does the possibility of reaching great numbers of lesbians justify the betrayal of a few, the misleading of others? Do the ends automatically justify the means? Naiad employed a similar argument when it said that money made by the sale of books and subsidiary rights would "go to finance other lesbian books that cannot be expected to be moneymakers."[24] In publishing, some books break even, some lose money, and some do very well. The stronger sellers help subsidize the slower. With a financial cushion provided by a few strong sellers, a press can afford to take some risks, to publish books that are not sure things and books that may take a while to find their audiences.

Lesbian Nun Helps Out

Lesbian Nuns has the potential to subsidize lesbian publishing on an impressive scale. Surely all readers will benefit from the availability of books that would not have been published otherwise? Yes, but once again there are other questions to consider. One is whether a somewhat less stupendous success might have served the same purpose. It is also worth mentioning that had Naiad lost the gamble it took in publishing 100,000 copies of Lesbian Nuns, it might not have been able to publish any more lesbian books, moneymakers or not.

Even if Naiad has never lost money on a book, one may be sure that it is not making much by publishing and keeping in print Renee Vivien's classic works, or the essential bibliographies Black Lesbians and The Lesbian in Literature. At the same time, it is not always easy to tell which books have the potential to sell well and which do not. Barbara Grier has assumed that nonfiction and "serious" fiction don't sell.[25] Other feminist publishers have found otherwise. Sherry Thomas of Spinsters Ink wrote that "Spinsters' sales grew 300% last year [1984] on the strength of Look Me in the Eye and Out from Under," both of them serious nonfiction books.[26] What's the difference?

My guess is that Naiad's current audience is primarily interested in the light lesbian fiction that is the mainstay of the Naiad list. If Naiad wants to continue publishing books like Black Lesbian in White America or A Studio of One's Own, it needs to either expand the interests of its current audience or expand the audience to include women interested in those titles. Naiad markets a book like Studio in the same way it markets Katharine V. Forrest's novels, and it seems to have concluded from the results that nonfiction doesn't sell.

None of this is to deny that some books subsidize others, or that money brought in by Lesbian Nuns will have a beneficial effect on lesbian publishing. But when the abuse of women is justified by the greater good that may result, it seems necessary to raise the possibility that this greater good might have been achieved, at least in part, by less drastic means.

Lesbian and feminist publishers and booksellers function in an economy that does not share our interests. Like any institution, small or large, supportive or hostile, the U.S. economy exerts a profound, sometimes subtle, often unacknowledged effect on those working within it. To remain within, an individual must reconcile her interests to some extent with those of the institution.

The shaping effects of institutions are usually most clearly perceived by those who have been placed, or who have placed themselves, on the outside -- those who are, as lesbian-feminist writer Judith McDaniel puts it, "deinstitutionalized."[xxvii] For the rest of us, there is the constant temptation to not-see the compromises we make in order to stay inside, and to not-imagine the alternative choices we might make or create for ourselves. An alternative business functioning within the U.S. economy is pressured to sacrifice bit by bit all the qualities and priorities that make it alternative.

It is a symptom of creeping institutionalization that Naiad has resisted admitting that the public relations success of Lesbian Nuns has come at a price, that wrongs have been done and troubling questions raised. In her mid-June press release, Grier did express deep regret for the hurt done to the specific women whose stories were sold to Forum. She did not, however, make any real attempt to understand why this hurt was done, or what it might reveal about Naiad's priorities and ways of doing business.

I do not understand how Naiad Press, committed to lesbians and lesbian publishing as it is, arrived at the point where the three-ring-circus promotion of Lesbian Nuns seemed so advisable and necessary that it did not even have to be explained. How could any feminist think it all right to sell the work of other women to Forum magazine without their knowledge or consent?

Sour Note from Another Planet

I've heard rumors of some women who seem to have no problems with the Forum sale, but I haven't met any of them face to face. All the women I've talked with have problems with it, serious problems. Some of them are furious. Many of them are feminist booksellers, writers, book and periodical publishers, and/or readers of Naiad books -- women who have had some relationship with Naiad Press. Yet Barbara Grier says she had no idea that anyone would object.

If this is true, it suggests a horrifying isolation from a substantial part of Naiad's audience How could Grier possibly be so out of touch with women she deals with face to face and over the phone, with some of the women who are Naiad's reason for existing? Somewhat uneasily, I reviewed some of the more recent frustrations I had encountered as a bookseller in dealing with Naiad Press. Not once had I communicated my annoyance or anger to Barbara Grier, who had been over the years my most frequent contact at Naiad.

I was on the verge of holding myself, other feminist booksellers, and other women in print at least partly responsible for Naiad's isolation and thus, indirectly, for the gross errors of judgment made by Naiad in the promotion of Lesbian Nuns. Then I recalled my experiences as a reviewer of Naiad Books. Some of my reviews were favorable and others were not so favorable. Grier generally responded to the not-so's with a note about how well the books were selling. I soon inferred that she was not interested in criticism, constructive or otherwise. In an essay published in Lesbian Contradiction 9, Grier seemed to be suggesting that reviewers should consider ourselves volunteer public relations agents for lesbian and feminist publishers.[28]

Both before and after the release of Lesbian Nuns, Barbara Grier set clear limits to the feedback she was willing to hear. When she told Joanne Marrow that the Forum sale was "none of your business," the tone was unusual but the underlying message was not. In the concluding paragraph of her LesCon 9 essay, she implies that she considers the discussion of these issues a luxury, to be dealt with only in her spare time -- of which she of course has precious little.

"I speak to you out of another eighteen-hour day required to run a lesbian publishing house," she wrote. "I feel inordinately tired at this moment, perhaps because this correspondence has been time-consuming and, apparently, futile. If you'll excuse me, I must return not to the business of publishing lesbian books."[29] Time-consuming the correspondence may well have been, but futile? Hardly. Several writers, including myself, were moved to respond, and, if my experience is any indication, many women participated in good, searching discussions of essential issues that would not have taken place without the impetus provided by Grier and others.

I sent a copy of this essay in a previous draft to Grier and co-publisher Donna MacBride, hoping that it might begin to build a middle ground between Naiad and its critics. Grier wrote back, saying that she found herself unable to respond to my "letter essay diatribe." "We live on very different planets," she said. She implied that I had made incorrect factual assumptions but said that she did not have the "time and patience to go through and simply correct" them. She added, "[I] don't feel I have the right to take time to argue with someone when there is real work to do."

I used to be impressed whenever I heard an activist speak, as Barbara Grier not infrequently does, of her 18-hour days and her 80-hour weeks. Sometimes I tried to match that kind of schedule, and to drop hints to let everyone else know just how committed I was. The rest of the time I wondered why I couldn't be that dedicated, why I seemed to need time to sleep, hang out with friends, daydream, bake bread, read trashy science fiction novels, and go for long walks and bike rides.

"More dedicated than thou" is a dangerous game to play. The one playing it best can discredit the words of any woman who seems to be less committed than herself -- while growing more and more angry that no one understands her or is willing to help her out. No one helps her out because she has given the clear impression that any less-than-herculean effort is inconsequential -- why bother? Unless one is also willing to put in 18-hour days, 80-hour weeks, one loses the right to speak.[30]

The eventual outcome is a serious case of "siege mentality." Not only are others insufficiently dedicated, they just don't understand. Potential co-workers fall away, and one's own shifts become longer and longer. One has no time to focus on anything else. As one's focus narrows, the peripheries fade from view. One has no time for freewheeling ethical discussions, speculation about the motives a Penthouse-owned magazine might have for buying sexually explicit stories by lesbians, or reflection on what a lesbian ex-nun might think about her work being excerpted by Forum magazine without her permission.

This obsessive dedication to duty has its advantages, a major one being that those nagging, answerless questions rarely rise to the surface of the mind, and when they do they don't remain long before they are submerged in a new burst of activity.

Another advantage is that some people are awed by martyrs and saints. Not that they want to be saints themselves, you understand. They do penance for their "selfishness" and lack of dedication by displaying single-minded support for whatever the saints do. One such woman, Stephanie L. Gotlob, wrote to off our backs to say that criticizing Barbara Grier for her part in the Forum sale "is like criticizing a great symphonic creation because of one sour note." She suggested that we instead "hire a hall and schedule a banquet to honor and acknowledge Barbara Grier for the enormous ongoing contribution she has made to lesbian literature and to us all."[31]

In an open letter to "friends and associates of the Women in Print movement," long-time feminist print activist Helaine Harris makes a similar argument, that Grier's long record of dedication somehow exempts her from criticism.[32] Harris makes a number of important points about political correctness, trashing, and the nasty things that have happened when feminists disagree with each other, all of which should inspire widespread discussion. But imbedded in her letter is this telling statement: "I'm not quite sure why Naiad Press is getting all the heat, but I suspect it has something to do with being the most successful sitting duck."

I beg to differ. Naiad is getting all the heat not so much because it is "the most successful sitting duck" as because it did something that no lesbian or feminist press has ever done before: it sold the stories of several lesbian writers to a heterosexual men's magazine without first obtaining the permission of the women involved. If this is not enough to provoke some very heated responses, I have grave worries for the future of the feminist movement.

Both Helaine Harris and Stephanie Gotlob write as if the sale were a small thing, an aberration. Gotlob, after all, compares it to the sour note in a symphony. But in a symphony, sour notes are generally played by accident. The Forum sale and the promotion of Lesbian Nuns did not happen by accident but as the result of many choices made over time by the women involved in the publication of the book. No one is exempt from criticism, no matter how laudable their motives, how illustrious their records of service. To criticize the Forum sale or to raise questions about the promotion of Lesbian Nuns does not require any woman to deny or try to tear down what Barbara Grier or Naiad Press has accomplished in the past.

It does not concern me so much that some women think that Grier and Naiad should be exempt from criticism on the basis of past performance. It does bother me that Grier herself seems to think that she should be exempt from even listening to criticism because she puts in 18-hour days as a lesbian publisher. Perhaps in the short run, she can get away with not listening. In the long run -- well, we have the Forum sale, and all the issues it raises for those of us working in or caring deeply about lesbian and feminist publishing.

All of us, the women of Naiad, included, need to get into the habit of asking ourselves some questions before important decisions are made, particularly when those decisions are based on some variation of "the ends justify the means." If a certain goal can only be attained by exploiting other women, how important is that goal? Can the organization survive without it? How will a given decision ultimately affect the group or community it is intended to benefit? Can I live with these possible consequences? Is this decision being made in a way consistent with the group's political and ethical principles and commitments?

I hope that we are not so jaded that we can accept either the Forum sale or the indiscriminate promotion of Lesbian Nuns as necessary for the survival of a lesbian business. I hope also that we are honest enough, self-knowing enough, to realize that a recurrence of this kind of episode cannot be prevented by excommunicating Naiad press from the network of feminists and lesbians in print. The necessary ingredients are present in many of our organizations, not just in publishing, and not just at Naiad Press.

Afterword: Sorry Note from the Same Planet

The situation has improved somewhat since Barbara Grier told Joanne Marrow that she had no right to ask about the Forum sale. Naiad's acknowledgment of responsibility, however, remains very limited in scope. Speaking for the press, Grier and MacBride have tried to dismiss their critics as unreasonable and/or insignificant in number. Their rebuttals generally hinge on the burgeoning Naiad mailing list, the influx of unsolicited manuscripts, the worldwide interest in Lesbian Nuns.

In her June press release Grier referred to a lawyer-mediated negotiation between Naiad and the book's editors. "A number of items were worked out granting various levels of control over the book to Rosemary and Nancy that had previously been held entirely by The Naiad Press," she said. "In addition to that we were able to make changes in the contract to allot funds that normally would be Naiad Press's income to Rosemary and Nancy for whatever purposes they may feel appropriate in the future." I hope that the editors will find it appropriate to channel some of this income to the book's contributors.

I don't believe that Naiad Press can or should be "drummed out of the movement," but I do believe that we who profess feminism, or who work in the name of all lesbians, can be held accountable for what we do. This doesn't mean that we should strive for the impossible goal of pleasing all of the women all of the time. It does mean that we should hear out our critics and even entertain the notion that they might be making some important points. It is the absence of this listening that disturbs me the most.

In Naiad's actions, and in its refusal to be accountable for those actions, I heard a clear message, directed to me as lesbian, as feminist, as writer, as feminist-bookstore worker, and that message was, We at Naiad don't need you, we've gone big time, we don't have to listen to your annoying questions. This message of rejection has made me feel powerless and angry and with only one option: to withdraw my support from the one who has withdrawn support from me.

I learned of the Forum sale on April 2; by early July, I had left both my bookstore job and the Washington area. In those three months, I placed no orders with Naiad Press. I ordered Naiad books, including Lesbian Nuns, from a small-press distributor, knowing full well that Naiad would be paid less and later for the books I bought. I tended to stock fewer Naiad titles, and those in smaller quantities, than I had before.

As I write, the Common Lives/Lesbian Lives collective has responded to the Forum sale by urging its subscribers to consider a number of measures, all of which would reduce the sales of Lesbian Nuns. Do these unconcerted responses constitute a boycott? I feel none of the heady defiance I have felt during boycotts in the past, whether the opponent was Nestle or the grape growers or J. P. Stevens. What I feel, what I hear, is grittier: I will not support you as long as you use my support to ridicule or dismiss the ideas and priorities that are important to me.

I am not happy about this, but I do not know what else to do. Naiad does not want to discuss the issue. It appeals instead to a sort of lesbian silent majority, an entity that by definition does not include any of us who are asking questions about what Naiad has done. In her June press release Barbara Grier says that Naiad would not consider selling to Forum again, or to "any magazine that might fall within the same category." Then she says that she hears in her head "the terrifying drum beat of censorship." Does she then equate censorship with exercising a modicum of discretion and responsibility?

I want Naiad to survive and thrive as a lesbian press. I want all of us who criticize Naiad on these and other issues to remember what Naiad and Barbara Grier have done for lesbians in the past. I don't want us to indulge in holier-than-thou judgments or trashing. I want Naiad to listen, to hear and consider what we say, to acknowledge the possibility that most of us are speaking with all due respect for past accomplishments and current commitment. But as I write these small things seem virtually impossible.


[1] Paula Krebs, "Breaking Silence About Lesbian Nuns," off our backs, May 1985.

[2] Wendy Patterson, "Breaking Silence Stirs Controversy in the Women's Community," WomaNews, June 1985.

[3] Krebs, op. cit.

[4] William Goldstein, "Naiad Hopes to Break Out Lesbian Nuns," Publishers Weekly, February 15, 1985.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Krebs, op. cit.

[7] "Lesbian Nuns: Betrayed and Outraged," off our backs, July 1985.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Naiad press release, June 1985. It remains unclear to me just what Grier means by "select few."

[10] Naiad press release, June 1985.

[11] Only last year did Pat Califia's lesbian sex guide Sapphistry, published by Naiad in 1980, reach the American Booksellers Association's annual list of books that have been banned somewhere in the country. I assume the lag time was due to the fact that the book banners didn't even know the book existed. [SJS note, January 2006: Probably should have been the American Library Association's list of banned books?]

[12] Patterson, op. cit.

[13] Joanne Marrow, letter, off our backs, May 1985.

[14] Quoted in Jane Meyerding, "Introduction: The Literary Ball Starts Bouncing," Lesbian Contradiction 9, Winter 1984–85.

[15] Andrea Fleck Clardy, "Making Change: Best-Sellers from Crone's Own, Light Cleaning, Down There, and Dozens of Other Feminist Presses," Ms., August 1985.

[16] My Simon & Schuster/Pocket Books sales rep once told me what a hard time her company (a subsidiary of Gulf & Western!) had getting the trade paperback edition of The Color Purple into these markets -- after it had been a hardcover best-seller and won prizes, acclaim, and wide attention all over the country.

[17] It has been difficult to establish exactly how many print runs, and of how many copies each, there have been of Lesbian Nuns. Publishers Weekly (February 15, 1985) reported that Naiad "at first planned to print 45,000 copies in paperback and 5,000 hardcovers. Those figures, Grier says, have been reevaluated and Naiad will print 90,000 copies in paperback and 10,000 in cloth." According to a New York Times article published on April 12, 1985, "Naiad Press has printed 125,000 copies, 10,000 of them hardcover" of the book. In a letter to contributors and friends, dated April 12, 1985, Naiad co-publishers Grier and MacBride said that the book was "now in its third printing with 25,000 additional paperbacks expected off press on May 1, 1985." Finally, on July 16, 1985, a Boston Globe article reported that, "There are 150,000 copies of the $9.95 trade paper back edition of 'Lesbian Nuns' in print, and it has gone back to press for a fourth printing of 10,000 copies." Give or take 10,000, there are about 150,000 copies of the book in print as of July 31, 1985. No quibbling over "how many" and "when" can obscure the basic truth that Lesbian Nuns has had a phenomenal publishing record.

[18] Paul S. Nathan, "Rights," Publishers Weekly, May 31, 1985.

[19] Nancy Pate, "'Lesbian Nuns' a TV movie?," Boston Globe, July 16, 1985.

[20] Dudley Clendinen, "Book on Lesbian Nuns Upsets Boston and Delights Its Publisher," New York Times, April 12, 1985.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Pate (op. cit.) reported that editors Curb and Manahan were asked to be consultants on the ABC-TV movie project. Curb was quoted as saying, "But we still wouldn't have any control. They can consult us, but they don't have to listen to us."

[23] Christine Guilfoy, "Nuns' Stories Sold to Penthouse's Forum," Gay Community News, April 17, 1985.

[24] Krebs, op. cit.

[25] Barbara Grier, "Ignoring the Ninety Percent: A Response," LesCon 9, Winter 1984–85.

[26] Sherry Thomas, "Seriousness and Sobriety," LesCon 10, Spring 1985.

[27] Unpublished interview conducted with Judith McDaniel by Susanna J. Sturgis, April 12, 1985, Washington, D.C.[SJS note, January 2006: The interview was published in off our backs, March 1986.]

[28] Grier, op. cit. My own response to Grier's article, "One Reviewer's Reflections on Her Work," appears in LesCon 11, Summer 1985. [SJS note, January 2006: "One Reviewer's Reflections" can be found on my website.]

[29] Ibid.

[30] For a witty and incisive discussion of this feminist phenomenon, read Joanna Russ's "Power and Helplessness in the Women's Movement," in Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts, Trumansburg, N.Y.: The Crossing Press, 1985.

[31] Stephanie L. Gotlob, "The Measure of a Woman," off our backs, June 1985.

[32] Helaine Harris, letter, Sojourner, August 1985, and elsewhere.

Published in Lesbian Ethics, vol. 1, no. 3, Fall 1985.


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