Barbara Grier, 1933-2011


I read this morning that Barbara Grier passed away yesterday. She was 78 and leaves behind her partner of 40 years, Donna McBride, and an inestimably significant legacy in the publishing world. Barbara Grier almost single-handedly created the genre of lesbian fiction. He publishing house, Naiad Press, was responsible for hundreds if not thousands, of books by lesbian authors. They were mostly entertainments–romances and mysteries–but they cast lesbians at the center of the story and lesbian lives as the driver of their plots. In the nearly three decades Barbara published writers like Katherine Forrest (Curious Wine is the bestselling lesbian novel of all time), Karen Kallmaker, Sarah Aldridge, Ann Bannon, Lee Lynch, Sarah Schulman, are but a handful of the writers who benefited from being in the Naiad stable. When she and her partner Donna retired in 1997, Barbara made sure that the women who now run Bella Books were ready to step in and carry on. That we can count on a steady stream of lesbian novels to be published every year is almost totally due to Barbara’s unwavering, rock-solid, in-your-face, unapologetic, absolute commitment to making this happen. At Left Bank Books, we sold hundreds of Naiad titles. We had some customers who would buy nearly everything they published. One customer had a standing order with us and came in monthly for her fix. For a while, St. Louis lesbians had their pick of stores: The Women’s Eye Bookstore and Our World Too and Left Bank Books from which to get their Naiad fix. But for many more years, before and after those other wonderful stores existed, Left Bank Books was the only place in St. Louis you could find Naiad’s titles. I had so many quintessentially Barbara conversations with Barbara over the years. She would call to tell me about the latest “bestseller” she was about to send me. “You’re going to need at least a hundred. Lesbians are going to be knocking down your doors for this. You might need security the morning it goes on sale.” She would be completely serious. She would tell me something like this about her new book several times a year. She completely believed in what she was doing. Barbara didn’t mince words. If we were a little late in getting a payment to her, she would discuss breaking kneecaps. My business partner, Barry Leibman, would grimace and hand the phone to me when Barbara called to collect. I always managed to smooth the way, Barbara the butch warming to my femme ministrations. We were in this together. We were part of this vast network that Barbara had so much to do with—lesbian booksellers and readers and writers and publishers making our own culture where the mainstream continued to ignore our existence, save for the odd Rita Mae Brown title or two. (And Rita Mae Brown didn’t get mainstream attention until the long-gone lesbian publisher Daughters Press published Rubyfruit Jungle first and made it into a bestseller). Barbara knew that the novels she published were sometimes formulaic, she also knew that there were thousands of lesbians out there who would pluck down their lunch money for a book in which the formula included lesbians. She was completely dedicated to making a cultural space by and for lesbians. Sometimes she appeared to misstep, as when she published the nonfiction anthology, Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence, in 1985. While it was a smash hit with lesbians, a cause for outrage among conservatives, it was the fact that she sold an excerpt to Penthouse Forum that caught the most criticism from her otherwise loyal base. Lesbians didn’t want their sexual laundry shared so obviously with a nonlesbian readership. But she stood her ground. If lesbians could make money, Barbara was all for it. Left Bank hosted an event with co-authors Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan. I can barely remember it today, but I know Barbara’s business decision dominated the conversation that should have been about the lives of the women inside the book. I loved Barbara. I loved her brash, confident attitude. I loved her complete belief in lesbians. I loved flirting with her at Lambda Literary Award Ceremonies every year. (with complete respect always to Donna) I was super proud that she hailed from Kansas City—proving for the umpteenth time that all important developments in lgbt culture were not invented in San Francisco or New York. I am, we are, forever in her debt for her meticulous lifelong work in archiving the written words of lesbians far beyond what Naiad published. Barbara was one of the few women still among us whose lives connected the early days of modern lesbian identity—in 1956 with her work on The Ladder, the first lesbian periodical with a circulation that capped under 5,000—to the end of the 20th century, when you merely have to press a button to see lesbian content on your computer. Not one lesbian writer, editor, publisher, reader, or bookseller would be what we are today without Barbara Grier, whether we realize it or not. I will miss you terribly Barbara.

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3 thoughts on “Barbara Grier, 1933-2011

  1. Thanks Kris for you loving and utterly accurate homage to Barbara. She was the most completely focused person I have ever known. With enough will and enough heart, anything can be accomplished — just never blink. Her great lesson to us all.
    I volunteered under Barbara’s stern wing for a few years (as did some other writers here in St. Louis) and owe her gratitude for early lessons in editing and proofreading, and a humbling view of what it takes to run a press. Her eye was always on the big picture — she was in fact creating a world, filling a great void, and not just publishing individual books.
    She was a tornado in force, focus, and in drawing in every possible resource in her path. She’d leave you bruised, touched, overwhelmed, grateful to be alive (if you’d failed her expectations in any way), and always creating the space for a new world to be built in her wake.

    Like

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