~by Phyllis M. Betz
When The Lesbian Fantastic: A Critical Study of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Paranormal and Gothic Writings by Phyllis M. Betz was offered through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program, I immediately requested a copy. An avid reader of science fiction and fantasy since my youth, and with a personal interest in all things queer (I mean no offense by the term, it's how I identify), I was excited for the opportunity to read The Lesbian Fantastic. Betz has previously written two other full-length works about lesbian genre fiction: Lesbian Detective Fiction: Women as Author, Subject and Reader in 2006 and Lesbian Romance Novels: A History and Critical Analysis in 2009. The Lesbian Fantastic was published by McFarland in 2011. Even though I haven't read any of Betz's previous works, although their subject matter does interest me, I was looking forward to reading The Lesbian Fantastic.
Gothic, fantasy, and science fiction literature deal with human confrontations with the "Other." Stereotypically, the genres are frequently associated with straight men and male readership. In The Lesbian Fantastic Betz explores how these genres and their tropes have been adopted and adapted by and for lesbians, who are often considered to be the Other in society. After a preface and introduction, The Lesbian Fantastic begins with a chapter on the historical backgrounds and contexts shared by the genres. Betz then devotes a chapter to each genre separately as well as a chapter to mixed genre works. The Lesbian Fantastic ends with Betz's conclusions, the appendix "Why Would a Lesbian Author Use Gay Characters Rather Than Lesbian Ones?", chapter notes, a list of works cited, and an index.
The Lesbian Fantastic is inconsistent in how it portrays itself. The description on the back cover and the subtitle seem to indicate that science fiction is the genre most prominently addressed while in fact it is the one with the least information on it in the book. Paranormal isn't explored as its own genre and is instead folded into gothic, the genre that Betz spends the most time discussing. Betz also made the regrettable decision to employ the term "fantasy" to encompass all of the genres examined in The Lesbian Fantastic while continuing to use two other definitions of the word, including the one for the more specific fantasy genre. It is not always clear exactly what material Betz is analyzing in each chapter, sometimes looking a books written by lesbians and sometimes looking at books that are representative of lesbians or include lesbian characters or perspectives. Betz also has the unfortunate tendency to confuse sexuality and gender, which admittedly are very closely related but are two distinct concepts.
Although Betz has some interesting ideas and makes some valid arguments, overall I found The Lesbian Fantastic more frustrating than anything else. The Lesbian Fantastic is not a long book; each chapter is progressively shorter, meaning Betz doesn't have the space to thoroughly examine each subject. Volumes could be written about each individual genre alone; Betz only scratches the surface and is unfocused enough that most of the genres and subgenres aren't done any justice. I do understand why Betz would choose to address gothic, fantasy, and science fiction together in The Lesbian Fantastic. The genres are closely related in their history and in the themes they address. It is notoriously difficult to draw definitive lines between the genres upon which all fans and critics would agree. But the most problematic issue with The Lesbian Fantastic are the errors scattered throughout the book. Sadly, these aren't limited to typographical errors. I noticed several facts that Betz got wrong, too, which makes me question the rest of The Lesbian Fantastic. Still, the book does provide some interesting food for thought.