The Chronicle Review

The Q Factor

A publisher looks back at queer studies

Michael Rosen

The anthropologist Gayle Rubin, a pioneer in the study of sexual subcultures
January 01, 2012

The closing of Series Q feels like a quiet end to a vivid chapter in academic publishing. It's difficult to remember what gay studies meant a decade ago, much less 30 years back. If you began graduate school in the early 1990s, and if you had an interest in the study of gender or sexuality, the start of Series Q may have a place in your own scholarly history. As Jeffrey Williams would note, you were probably reading theory journals back then, too. Much has changed since.

First, and maybe last, is the name. "Q"? What was meant by Q when the series debuted in 1993 had been simply "gay studies" a decade earlier. Other labels were used to describe the field—"gay and lesbian studies" or "lesbian and gay studies." (There was something charming about publishers reversing the terms, uncertainly, politely.) "Lesbian, gay, and bisexual studies" brought a third term into play. "Transgender" added a fourth. "Queer studies" sounded less neutral, more political, more in-your-face.

From the academy's perspective, the difference between "gay and lesbian" and "queer" can be important. But for most academic publishers, these labels followed without superseding one another. The distinctions dear to the author had to be erased in the big, generalizable effort of marketing, where all books with some degree of Q about them could be gathered into a single-subject catalog. Gay studies or queer studies? Would you really read only one of those catalogs?

Still, I can't think of another series title—quite aside from its contents—that I admired more than Series Q, the brainchild of Ken Wissoker, editorial director at Duke University Press. With one swift stroke, it named its unnameable subject. Besides, it looked good on the page. It avoided excess words. It was Strunk and White-y. It marked the Q factor—not the one physicists and engineers mean when they talk about bandwidth and oscillators—but a space where sexual identity, whatever it might be, could be put into play. Yet with all due respect to its many contributions, we can see now that Series Q was perhaps the last big wave in the scholarly market for gay studies.

A bit of publishing history might be in order. It's no longer news that brick-and-mortar bookstores, general or specialized, are endangered. When the Internet's sucker punch came, gay studies, like women's studies, took it hard. Small gay specialty stores—selling both books and things with batteries—were especially vulnerable. Many were privately owned and struggled to keep afloat, and they had few options in publishing's new techno-economy. On the production side, trade publishers—who addressed the broadest, least academic segment of the Q readership—looked to these bookstores only to find their core-distribution outlets disappearing. Chain stores stocked books in these subject areas—irregularly, then not well, then not much at all.

General books for gay readers came from all kinds of publishers, most small and unknown outside their target market. In the post-Stonewall era, St Martin's Press offered one of the most important big-title trade lists, largely through the influence of editor Michael Denneny, a force in gay studies until his departure from the press in 2002. St Martin's Press executive editor Keith Kahla told me that the gay and lesbian bookstores—80 by his count, along with maybe 50 "strong indies"—were the press's primary outlets. Publishers didn't depend just on bookstores. Most of the reviews for these books appeared in gay and lesbian newspapers and magazines, and as those publications shut down, it became harder to get the word out.

Scholarly work on Q topics came from a combination of small independent publishers, commercial scholarly houses, and university presses. In 1980, the University of Chicago Press published John Boswell's landmark Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe From the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. It was the enabling legislation for gay scholarly history. Executive editor Doug Mitchell has spent a career at Chicago building a major list in the history of sexuality. Boswell's book hasn't disappeared on the shelf of revered unread classics, either: a thousand copies annually, 30 years after publication, and still going strong. It's history that stays news.

Columbia University Press dipped its toe into the waters of sexuality studies in the mid-80s. I was a young editor there at the time when I had the chance to sign up Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's breakthrough book, Between Men (1985). I was struck at the time by the convincing simplicity of Sedgwick's claim about male bonding, a claim she wrapped in artful, gorgeous prose. It was a thrilling piece of criticism. Some years later, other editorial hands at Columbia crafted a successful book series called "Between Men, Between Women." Between-ness was one form of Q-ness.

In 1990 came Judith Butler's game-changing Gender Trouble, brought to publication by my colleague Maureen MacGrogan at Routledge. Among other things, the influence of Gender Trouble showed that there was no easy border between philosophy, feminist theory, and the study of gender and sexuality. In that decade, the list at Routledge—where I was then publishing director—steamed ahead in the fields of sexuality and gender. Many editors—in New York and London—contributed to a sometimes brash, often exhilarating publishing program that crossed from media and cultural studies to the social sciences. The house was good at getting books on Q subjects to a wide swath of academic audiences.

One evening in 1993 I was representing Routledge at the Lambda Literary Awards. The honorees included Tony Kushner, Michael Denneny, Leslie Feinberg, Starhawk, Madeline Davis, and Elizabeth Kennedy. That was a lot of Q-ness in the room: activist theater, lifetime achievement, transgender fiction, social history, and Wiccan ecofeminism. It was, as they say, a moment.

In the midst of this Q-factor glamour was an award for a Routledge anthology, The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, edited by Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David Halperin. It was big, it was theoretical, it was even a little nerdy.

In their introduction to the Reader, the editors wrote that "The history of the field to which these essays all contribute, lesbian/gay studies, has yet to be written." It is, of course, difficult to see that you're writing history at the moment that you're doing it, but this was a watershed publication. The Reader was a doorstop, with 42 essays—many of them already important documents—by Adrienne Rich, Gayle Rubin, Cherrie Moraga, Judith Butler, Marjorie Garber, Biddy Martin, Diana Fuss, Catharine Stimpson, and others. There were men, too, of course, but looking at it now, I'm again struck by the importance of women's voices in articulating the terms of study for a field whose social visibility seemed, at least to the lay world outside the academy, dominated by men.

The connections between the emerging language of gay and lesbian studies and the work of second-wave feminism may no longer feel as urgent as they did at the time. But the editors were forthright. "Like women's studies," they wrote, "lesbian/gay studies has an oppositional design." The oppositional design extended to the editors, publishers, and booksellers who made such books happen. Though I was fortunate in that I never felt any risk in taking such books forward, it would be naïve not to acknowledge that risk—for editors and authors—was part of the oppositional design. Lots of people took professional chances to make these books happen. Press editors had to persuade editorial boards that Q-ness represented a market opportunity and an educational need. An assistant professor writing in the mid-1980s on a Q subject was staking her career on the judgment of senior colleagues for whom the subject was terra mercifully incognita.

Any academic study puts its subjects under the microscope. In retrospect, the gay and lesbian publishing efforts of the field's heyday treated their subjects dimorphically. Gay men and lesbians, and then bisexual and cross-dressed and transgendered people, were both hypercorporeal and theoretical. Their bodies had more bodiness than other bodies, their physicality more impact, more cultural consequence. At the same time, they also became philosophical subjects of inquiry. This was pretty irritating for some, especially when the aroma of high theory curled around the lived experience of ordinary gay men and women. But that irritation was a feature of the tension between the street and the academy long familiar in the women's movement.

Someone once remarked to me that scholarly publishing in gay studies was a conflict between the nerdy and the naughty. A lot of history of sexuality and a lot of philosophizing, often producing books that were too dense for the general reader with whom their authors were eager to communicate. "Don't overthink it," someone might have said back in those heady days of gender theory. But it seems that in academia, we sometimes have to overthink before we can think. Complex thinking and complex writing have been tools of legitimation in every academic field. That may be one of queer theory's unintended lessons.

What else have we learned? If a field remains, it isn't a coherent one. By one metric—the presence of robust publishing programs—"gay studies" now marks only a historical trace. You'd be hard-pressed to find a bookstore with a first-rate selection in the discipline, and compared with 1993 you'd have to look a lot harder to find a good bookstore, period—except online.

We've also lost the annual gay and lesbian studies conferences, energizing events that brought together scholars and editors eager to exchange ideas. There was something exhilarating about the Q factor.

People—as Eve Sedgwick had written gnomically, earnestly, in Epistemology of the Closet (University of California Press, 1990)—are different from one another. But there were limits to how much curiosity we could have about those differences. At the peak of the gay-studies moment, Ilene Kalish, now executive editor at NYU Press, published books on queer Jews, queer India, and queer many other things. But when she saw a proposal for queering queerness, she knew a threshold had been reached. Many editors who worked the Q fields have reinvented their publishing programs, concentrating more on social issues, for example, or developing lists in fields like communications and new media.

Gay studies had a good run. One could even argue that the project of gay and lesbian history and queer theory was so successful that it brought about its own dissolution, as academic studies moved from a strict Q-ness to big-tent Q-ness. Like Lady Gaga's embrace of us, her little "monsters," the Q factor expanded to make room for all kinds of difference. Difference itself was queer, and in academic circles, it seemed less special to be L, or G, or B, or T, or just plain Q.

But while book markets say one thing, life sometimes says another. The end of a series is hardly the end of a subject or of a need. As I write this, gay people can get married in six states, the District of Columbia, a few Indian tribes, and The New York Times. But look at the rest of the paper, almost any day. Another political candidate wagers his appeal on a campaign against gay people. Another student is vilified for being Q. Outside the United States, even worse things have been happening. Can scholars, writers, activists, and ordinary, decent people change these things? Do we still need ideas and arguments and histories and plays—people writing words down, people reading them—to move us—fairly, humanely—forward? We do, we do.

William Germano is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Cooper Union. He is author of From Dissertation to Book (University of Chicago Press, 2005).