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De-gaying YA

**Updated 9/18/11**

There’s been a lot of talk in the YA world this week about an article over at Publisher’s Weekly about the difficulty in selling work with LGBTQ protagonists, and the story is even being picked up by non-publishing outlets. (There’s also now some controversy, seen here on the Swivet, about who the mystery agent is, and if, in fact, they ever said such a thing.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I passed on the manuscript in question. It had absolutely nothing to do with the gay character–in fact, it’s not something that even registered. Perhaps it’s having lived on the coasts for years, or perhaps being gay, but finding a gay character in a book rarely registers. An author of mine recently sent in a new manuscript in which the brother of the female protagonist is gay, and honestly, I wouldn’t have noticed if the author hadn’t mentioned it in relation to a plot point. The guy’s gay.  Ok.  Moving on. And I’ve sold more than one YA book with an LGBTQ protagonist, including a YA memoir.

The same is generally true when I get in submissions. I’m not looking for gay or straight protagonists, and I don’t pay much attention. I care about the concept, the plotting, the voice, the writing–the sexual orientation of the character is the last thing I’m thinking about. Please send me books with LGBTQ characters; I’d love to see anything good! I think just about every agent and editor out there would say the same thing; it’s it’s good, we want to see it.

That said, we also have to be honest about the realities of the marketplace. There are fewer gay readers than straight readers. “Gay books,” on average, sell less than “straight books.” Readers seem to be more interested in reading about straight people–at least that’s what sales indicate. So publishers thinking about what to publish have to take this into consideration. Despite appearances to the contrary, publishing is a business, and sales matter. But YA books with LGBTQ characters continue to get published, are published well, and find audiences well beyond gay teens.  For more on this issue, I really recommend you read Malinda Lo’s brilliant blog post “How hard is it to sell an LGBTQ YA novel?”, which was referenced in the Swivet post above, and gives a great view from an author on this subject.

Publishing has to be one of the least homophobic businesses around. The percentage of gay agents, editors, and other publishing professionals is much, much higher than the population in general (no matter which statistic you’re looking at), and people are fairly liberal. I can almost guarantee that there’s no one censoring gay content. ***

If you want to see more books featuring LGBTQ characters, I have a piece of advice: seek out and buy those books. If publishers are rejecting books with LGBTQ characters because they believe they won’t sell, the way to change their minds is by buying the books when they are published. Publishers are chasing after sales, which is why you see so many copycat books–vampire novels after Twilight, dystopian novels following Hunger Games. Vote with your dollars. The more LGBTQ books you buy, the more you’ll see. And I know that we publishing professionals will be happy to sell them to you.

*** I should have chosen my words more carefully in this sentence. I didn’t mean to say that there was never any suggestion that GLBTQ content be removed from a book; clearly, that isn’t true. I was trying to say that I didn’t think anyone was doing this with a set agenda; I don’t think any particular editor’s or agent’s homophobia (blatant, latent or internalized) is the reason that such suggestions are made.

I also never intended to offend anyone with this post, and while I still don’t think I’m being naive or ignoring a blatant issue, I will certainly be more aware and sensitive going forward. I appreciate your responses and comments on this post, whether you agree with me or not. As so many have pointed out, what matters here is that we’re discussing the subject openly. And that can’t be a bad thing. Thank you.

32 Responses to De-gaying YA

  1. Bryan says:

    This is really good and smart. Being straight, it felt inauthentic for me to get too involved in the discussion (and besides: I have a book to write…) But this seems to be where I’d fall, I think.

  2. Josie R. says:

    Meh. The writers wrote a book that needed fixing. They didn’t want to hear it needed fixing, so rather than fix it, they climbed on a soapbox, cried about how mean agents were to gay characters, and let everyone’s righteous indignation soothe their egos.

    The whole idea that agents or publishers either one would request or demand a “degayed” character was stupid to begin with. There are gay characters in everything from smaller books like H. Moskowitz’ Gone, Gone, Gone to big names like Cassie Clare’s Mortal Instruments series and Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan series. But rather than acknowledge that, these writers decided to take a very real concern and use it as leverage when it was never an issue in the first place.

    It’s disgusting, and I’d doubt any agent or editor would want to work with someone who makes an internet firestorm out of simple, constructive criticism.

    • Parini says:

      “Meh. The writers wrote a book that needed fixing. They didn’t want to hear it needed fixing, so rather than fix it, they climbed on a soapbox, cried about how mean agents were to gay characters, and let everyone’s righteous indignation soothe their egos.”

      Just one question: How do you know?

      And this:

      “But there are books with these characters out there, and if people buy them, the publishers will see that they’re not a gamble, but a demand to be filled, and they’ll publish more of them.”

      SO NOT TRUE. Please go read about the many authors who have tried to do just this and have gotten nowwhere, thanks to institutionalized privilege/prejudice. You speak from such a position, just brushing this stuff off without even doing any research.

    • Ciara says:

      I don’t agree at all, i’ve heard of more cases than this one where the author was asked to de-gay their mc simply because of the idea that straight romance sells more copies. you have no idea what the original Ms was like so it’s kind of ridiculous to assume that the problem was with the ms and not the gay mc when that’s what the author was specifically asked to alter.

      • Jane says:

        Actually, that’s not what they were asked. They were asked to remove two POV’s from a 5 POV novel, one of the two (as opposed to the sole one) was the gay character. He wasn’t a main character and he wasn’t removed from the story completely; the agent simply suggested editorial streamlining. The other suggestion was that the novel would do better as MG, which removes most romantic elements because of the age. If the voice was geared more to MG than YA, this is a legitimate suggestion to make the book sell better. The agents involved not only DON’T have a policy that forbids gay characters, they represent stories that DO have them. It’s far more likely that this is sour grapes on the part of the writers.

        • Cathy Butler says:

          That’s what the agent has claimed: the authors’ story is different. Why are you uncritically accepting the one rather than the other?

  3. Dale B. says:

    Well said, good sir. Well said.

  4. Corinne says:

    Regarding:

    The whole idea that agents or publishers either one would request or demand a “degayed” character was stupid to begin with. [...] when it was never an issue in the first place.

    and

    I can almost guarantee that there’s no one censoring gay content.

    Except for all the cases where it’s already happened. Various other authors have come forward saying they’ve been asked by editors or agents to de-gay their work. Scott Tracey, of the recently published WITCH EYES, was one of them. Also Jessica Verday. Also Nicola Griffith. The very first comment on the original Genreville post was someone saying how an editor took out all the mentions of queerness without even discussing it with the author.

    And that’s just the examples I can think of from the top of my head. I’ll guarantee you there are far more examples out there, not to mention everything that goes on behind the scenes.

    Even if this account was false, and even if Malinda Lo had no problem selling her work, it doesn’t mean there’s not a wider issue to be concerned with. Just look at Malinda’s recent blog posts, wherein she looks at the numbers and realizes that less than 1% of YA books has gay characters.

    I’m really, really glad to see so many agents and editors speaking out against homophobia, and saying how open they are to books with queer content. I’m also thrilled to see the accounts of authors whose work got published with no problems of any kind. But both those things seem to be trotted out with the implication of, “No problem here, moving on!” which, unfortunately, isn’t the case.

    • Michael says:

      I should have chosen my words more carefully on the “guarantee” sentence! And, it’s definitely good that we’re discussing the issue.

    • LOL on the Nicola Griffith reference. I went to Clarion with her back in the day. I’m still trying to picture how an agent would dare ask her de-gay her work without expecting to be skewered, seasoned and roasted for dinner. Maybe it was in an email. Or on the phone.

      People, please get a clue (I’m sorry to be rude, but really, everyone is averting their eyes from the ugly naked king). Censorship is alive and well in YA fiction, and gay characters are right up there with the other big taboos. Why anyone would think that Texas can get science and history cut from textbooks and wouldn’t have an influence on YA fiction (which relies on libraries and school for big sales) boggles my mind.

      Yes, some books get published (a large percentage are issue books, but I know at least one gay writer who wrote some light YA with interesting non-issue gay characters).

      I agree that buying the fiction would change that — but again, if schools and libraries are the drivers of YA fiction sales….

      Maybe I’m just still smarting from having my cheerleading witch censored from remarking that a fellow cheerleader needed to lose 5 pounds (fear of encouraging bulemia or anorexia). Since she spoke in reference to a flyer (the cheerleader who gets lifted and thrown in the air, etc.) and my character never actually paid attention to anyone’s weight in any other scene, I was shocked. But my editor had consulted others, and they felt the line should go *because of the reaction it would get from parents and teachers and librarians*.

      I figure if editors are going to take out one line about weight loss that is in legitimate non-pro-anorexia context, there are those who will suggest de-gayification for broader sales appeal (read, libraries and schools willing to buy the book without fear of having it banned by an angry parent).

      • Michael says:

        Kelly,

        Librarians and educators are an important market for YA fiction, but they’re not the same people censoring textbooks–those people are most certainly NOT librarians or educators, they’re elected school board members. I actually think most (though not all–I’m trying hard not to generalize and yet still make a point) librarians are eager to get books that reflect their diverse student bodies. I’d argue that the issue with marketing LGBTQ fiction (or fiction featuring LGBTQ characters) has more to do with bookstores than with libraries, especially as library budgets decrease and larger percentages of YA sales come from the bookstore.

        -MB

  5. Lee Wind says:

    Hi Michael, I’m glad you’re weighing in on this, and love that people are hearing your words,

    “Please send me books with LGBTQ characters; I’d love to see anything good! I think just about every agent and editor out there would say the same thing; it’s it’s good, we want to see it.”

    But your passing on their manuscript (reasonable, if it’s not “good” and a match for you) is different than another agent asking them to make their gay character straight if they want to be represented (that feels homophobic and IS someone censoring gay content, and that’s what they say happened.)

    I agree with you that we all need to read and buy the GLBTQ YA and MG titles out there so we get more of them. But also we need the publishing professionals who are still censoring gay content to stop doing that. And discussions like this are one way to hopefully change that moving forward.

    Namaste,
    Lee

  6. Good writing is good writing.

    I also agree that the marketplace may prefer straight material, which is unfortunate. I can understand that with romance and erotica, but for other genres it’s a damn shame.

    Still, a gay character shouldn’t force the label ‘gay’ on a book. If it’s urban fantasy, it’s urban fantasy darnit, and it should end up on the bookstore shelf with that label.

    It may take take a certain amount of courage in the agent’s part to push that message, but doing so can put it in the hands of fans of the genre regardless of where they fall on the rainbow. Good writing makes that a hell of a lot easier. Who doesn’t love Lafayette (from the True Blood series). Dumbledore? J K Rowling outed him outside the books, but everyone loves him. Again, good writing is good writing.

    It takes more courage by the agent and publisher to push a book with Alphabet (LGBTQQITS*) content through even though it may result in reduced sales. The payoff? A more tolerant world.

  7. AudryT says:

    My husband has been writing scripts for Hollywood for ages. One of his favorite points to make re: “what sells and what doesn’t” is that no one thought a movie about a ship that sank a hundred years ago would be a huge hit with teenage girls. But TITANIC was.

    IMO, there’s something to be gleaned from that for writers. The teenangers didn’t come to TITANIC in droves because they were nautical buffs. They came because someone was savvy enough to know what that market wanted, and to give it to them in droves, woven into a story they might otherwise have glossed over, if only because they hadn’t tried a story like that before.

    Writers can work unfamiliar races, physical disabilities, orientations, beliefs, and cultures into stories that have what the mainstream audience wants — that offer what already appeals to them, while also exposing them to new people and new worlds. Writers can do this deliberately, with the intent to broaden both their own horizens and the purchasing interests of the audience. It’s the sort of thing you see books like WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON do so successfully.

    We writers can have a big impact on how much QUILTBAG characters appeal to a majority-straight audience, but we have to want to have that impact, and we have to get off our butts and start working new characters into our manuscripts today, so that we can show those in the business that it IS worth publishing a wide array of material, because it could end up being more profitable than they have imagined in their wildest dreams.

    (Oh, god, I’m ending on a cliche! Part of me just died, but I have to get back to novel writing, so I’m letting it stand.)

  8. This discussion has put me into an unexpected quandary. Like Michael, gayness barely registers for me as I was brought up in an uber liberal home often populated with LGBTQ couples. I was in junior high before I even had a notion some folks considered gayness a problem. As a writer, I now feel tense about including a gay character. Not because I think there is anything wrong with the state, nor that I feel it would get me in trouble on the road to publication. It’s because I’m worried it will be seen as tokenism or somehow awkwardly politically correct. Suddenly, gay characters are infused with subtext, intended or not.

  9. As soon as I saw that one of the agents involved in this incident was the one who writes The Swivet, my eyebrows raised. She’d be the last person I’d expect to reject a LGBT-themed book, at least for that reason, and it should be obvious you wouldn’t have an issue with that aspect of the book, given that you are gay as well. At the very best, perhaps these authors have faced a lot of criticism, bullying, and censorship in the past, and are merely assuming there’s homophobic reasons behind their rejections rather than that anything is wrong with their writing. More likely, and worse, is that they’re just trying to get attention now, in hopes of publicity and probably a book deal from some agent who wants to prove the industry isn’t bigoted. Conversations about diversity in literature are good and necessary, but it’s unfortunate that this one was started by lies. Perhaps it’s too much to hope this was just a misunderstanding.

    Your post about buying books with character demographics you want to see more of is spot-on. I’ve often had friends or library patrons/students complain that there aren’t any books out there with characters of color, gay characters, etc. There are. In each case I can name several titles off the top of my head, and come up with more after a few minutes of contemplation or searching. Are these enough? Probably not. But there are books with these characters out there, and if people buy them, the publishers will see that they’re not a gamble, but a demand to be filled, and they’ll publish more of them.

  10. Pingback: More on the GLBT YA issue | Cora Buhlert

  11. dGlenn says:

    What I’ve read elsewhere regarding this kerfuffle suggests that the Big Issue isn’t so much whether “gay-themed” YA books are acceptable, but rather that when TGBLQ content isn’t the Main Theme, suddenly the gayness/transness/whateverness of protagonists or POV characters becomes an obstacle. In other words, that gay characters are consigned to a sort of gay ghetto where they only exist in Special Gay Stories or in the background, and are not allowed to exist as characters having other kinds of stories and just happen to be gay.

    Have I misread the commentary elsewhere on this, or has the author of this blog (and several other commenters) fundamentally missed the point?

  12. Giora says:

    If you have an interest in an American fiction about two sixteen years old girls being in love, and they are the main characters, my query will be on its way. And Michael, congrats on the glowing review you got by one of your client in Writers Digest. Have a great weekend, and peaec to all.

  13. Crabby DGLM Client says:

    I can almost guarantee that there’s no one censoring gay content.

    No, you can’t. As a current client with DGLM, I am beyond annoyed to see one of the people in my agency claiming this doesn’t happen. It DOES happen; it’s happened to me MORE than once, and I have the documentation to back it up.

    I’m sorry you felt the need to cover your ass in case the authors in question also pointed you out as one of the agents who rejected them, but this post just smacks of No True Scotsman.

    And for that matter, so does Joanna’s, and so does Colleen’s. The FACTS, as Malinda Lo so ably pointed out, are that less than 1% of all YA fiction features gay protagonists.

    1% fiction in a world where we make up at least 12% of the population, wow. Either LGBTQ people really suck at the arts *eye roll* or somebody’s engaging in institutional homophobia.

    Just because there are tons of people like us in publishing doesn’t mean that there are tons of people who are operating without internalized or institutional homophobia.

    To see a professional, in fact, a professional that’s part of the agency that represents me make a post like this from the official blog both disgusts and infuriates me.

    • Michael says:

      I’m not feeling the need to cover my ass at all. I just thought it important to mention that I’d received the submission in question. I didn’t think that was a detail I could leave out. And I wanted to post about this subject not because I’d read the submission, but because I’d seen the story picked up on Towleroad, AfterElton and AfterEllen, and noticed that it was causing a stir in the LGBTQ community at large, not just within the writing community.

      Again, I apologize for my choice of words, which weren’t intended to offend.

      - MB

  14. Madigan says:

    It’s pretty interesting that all these authors are coming forward – many of them new, but several of them well-known (I mean – Sherwood Smith, for god’s sake. Obviously three’s a hack who just needs to stir up drama for publicity, am I right?) – and talking about how they are experiencing homophobia and straight-washing from editors and agents and you basically just flat-out ignored that. Are you at all familiar with the Wicked Pretty Things mess that happened very recently? Did we all hallucinate that since, in your opinion, no one is trying to cut out LGBTQ characters from mainstream YA novels? I feel like you are being dismissive of a very serious issue at best and being deliberately offensive at worst.

    • Michael says:

      I’m not trying to be dismissive or offensive. Rather, I was trying to continue the discussion! I think the problems lie more in society than they do in publishing, which is, on the whole, more liberal and gay-friendly than the rest of the world.

      In the end, the point I’m trying to make is that it’s important for those of us interested in supporting LGBTQ content in publishing to actually go out and buy the books. And to say that in my personal experience, I’ve never had an editor ask me or an author to take gay content out of a book. (The Wicked Pretty Things incident aside, since I didn’t rep the story itself and wasn’t involved in the situation, though Jessica Verday was a client at the time.)

      -MB

  15. Jessica Verday says:

    As far as the “guarantee” that Michael mentioned above, I’m sure that he was trying to point out that publishing is a more accepting community than most. Michael was my agent during the experience with the Wicked Pretty Things anthology so he saw first hand what happened there.

  16. I don’t think Michael said it hasn’t ever happened. He’s saying that gay characters don’t necessarily affect a way a book sells. I’m testament to that. My first novel (CRANK) had a lesbian character. Not as the protagonist, but certainly as a hugely important character. No one knew who I was when I met my editor at a writers’ conference and S & S bought the book without blinking. It also had sexual content, drugs, the F-word and a rape (the top four reasons for challenges, rape being violent, followed by homosexuality), all of which qualify it for the fourth most challenged book in 2010. As far as sales go, however, um…. let’s just say it is a huge bestseller. Because of the writing, the story, and characters readers believe.

    Almost every one of my books since has a gay character, and yes, as main characters, and they’re all NY Times bestsellers. My current editor happens to be lesbian, but my first one wasn’t, and neither is my agent. Homophobia wears many faces, but it isn’t the norm in children’s publishing. It is the exception.

  17. A writer says:

    I get what you’re saying here, but I think you’re missing the point. I think that when you say that there are less straight readers than gay, you’re assuming that only gay people will want to read books with gay characters. That’s like assuming that boys will only read books with boy characters, girls will only read books with girl characters, and that African-Americans will only read books with African-Americans in them. I get that maybe books where “being gay” is the central issue might be a more difficult sell, but books with characters that just happen to be gay? I think that’s an unintentional prejudice on the part of the agents.

    Here’s a fun example. I sent a book on submission that happened to have a gay main character. I sent it to a healthy sampling of agents. All the male agents passed. 90% of the female agents asked for the full manuscript to read. Now, I’m sure there are other possible reasons that agents passed–I’m not egotistical enough to think my book would appeal to every single publisher everywhere. But I can’t deny the clear split between male and female agents. And I think that, at the very least, it shows that a bias might exist out there against books that feature gay protagonists.

    Maybe no one is out there twirling their mustache, coming up with ways to keep gay books out of the market–okay, maybe there are…but they’re a fringe–but I think this attitude of “gay books don’t sell to straight audiences” is a form of bias, it’s a form of censorship. It’s an easy way for agents and publishers to wash their hands of it and not feel bad about themselves. They can say, “Oh, I LOVED this book so much, but I just don’t think it’ll sell….it’s not me, it’s the market.”

    Just something to think about.

  18. Ryan Field says:

    Interesting discussion. I’ve learned not to comment one way or the other unless I know details first hand. Anything I’d have to add to this would be hearsay.

    But I do know this. I’ve worked openly as an LGBT author for almost twenty years and I’ve never experienced discrimination in publishing. And that’s not up for discussion. It’s my own personal experience, not hearsay.

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