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Authors Say Agents Try to “Straighten” Gay Characters in YA

Editor’s note: The text of this post was written by Rachel Manija Brown, author of All the Fishes Come Home to Roost, and Sherwood Smith, author of Crown Duel and a great many other novels for adults and young adults. I am posting it in order to provide a pseudonymity-friendly space for comments from authors who have had similar experiences to the ones that Rachel and Sherwood describe. I strongly encourage all authors, agents, editors, publishers, and readers to contribute to a serious and honest conversation on the value and drawbacks of gatekeeping with regard to minority characters, authors, and readers, and to continue that conversation in all areas of the industry. –Rose


 Say Yes To Gay YA

By Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

We are published authors who co-wrote a post-apocalyptic young adult novel. When we set out to find an agent for it, we expected to get some rejections. But we never expected to be offered representation… on the condition that we make a gay character straight, or cut him out altogether.

Our novel, Stranger, has five viewpoint characters; one, Yuki Nakamura, is gay and has a boyfriend. Yuki’s romance, like the heterosexual ones in the novel, involves nothing more explicit than kissing.

An agent from a major agency, one which represents a bestselling YA novel in the same genre as ours, called us.

The agent offered to sign us on the condition that we make the gay character straight, or else remove his viewpoint and all references to his sexual orientation.

Rachel replied, “Making a gay character straight is a line in the sand which I will not cross. That is a moral issue. I work with teenagers, and some of them are gay. They never get to read fantasy novels where people like them are the heroes, and that’s not right.”

The agent suggested that perhaps, if the book was very popular and sequels were demanded, Yuki could be revealed to be gay in later books, when readers were already invested in the series.

We knew this was a pie-in-the-sky offer—who knew if there would even be sequels?—and didn’t solve the moral issue. When you refuse to allow major characters in YA novels to be gay, you are telling gay teenagers that they are so utterly horrible that people like them can’t even be allowed to exist in fiction.

LGBTQ teenagers already get told this. They are four times more likely than straight teenagers to attempt suicide. We’re not saying that the absence of LGBTQ teens in YA sf and fantasy novels is the reason for that. But it’s part of the overall social prejudice that does cause that killing despair.

We wrote this novel so that the teenagers we know—some of whom are gay, and many of whom are not white—would be able, for once, to read a fun post-apocalyptic adventure in which they are the heroes. And we were told that such a thing could not be allowed.

After we thanked the agent for their time, declined the offer, and hung up, Sherwood broke the silence. “Do you think the agent missed that Becky and Brisa [supporting characters] are a couple, too? Do they ever actually kiss on-page? No? I’M ADDING A LESBIAN KISS NOW!”

This Is Not About One Bad Apple

This isn’t about that specific agent; we’d gotten other rewrite requests before this one. Previous agents had also offered to take a second look if we did rewrites… including cutting the viewpoint of Yuki, the gay character. We wondered if that was because of his sexual orientation, but since the agents didn’t say it out loud, we could only wonder. (We were also told that it is absolutely unacceptable in YA for a boy to consensually date two girls, but that it would be okay if he was cheating and lying. And we wonder if some agents were put off because none of our POV characters are white.)

We absolutely do not believe that all our rejections were due to prejudice. We know for a fact that some of them weren’t. (An agent did offer us representation, but we ended up passing due to creative differences that had nothing to do with the identities of the characters.)

This isn’t about one agent’s personal feelings about gay people. We don’t know their feelings; they may well be sympathetic in their private life, but regard the removal of gay characters as a marketing issue. The conversation made it clear that the agent thought our book would be an easy sale if we just made that change. But it doesn’t matter if the agent rejected the character because of personal feelings or because of assumptions about the market. What matters is that a gay character would be quite literally written out of his own story.

We are avoiding names because we don’t want this story to be about one agent who spoke more bluntly than others whose objections were more indirectly expressed. Naming names can make it too easy to target a lone “villain,” who can be blamed and scolded until everyone feels that the matter has been satisfactorily dealt with.

Forcing all major characters in YA novels into a straight white mold is a widespread, systemic problem which requires long-term, consistent action.

When we privately discussed our encounter with the agent, we heard from other writers whose prospective agents made altering a character’s minority identity—sexual orientation, race, disability—a condition of representation. But other than Jessica Verday, who refused to change a character’s gender in a short story on an editor’s request, few writers have come forward for fear of being blacklisted.

We sympathize with that fear. But we believe that silence, however well-motivated and reasonable from a marketing point of view, allows the problem to flourish. We hope that others will speak up as well, in whatever manner is safe and comfortable for them.

The overwhelming white straightness of the YA sf and fantasy sections may have little to do with what authors are writing, or even with what editors accept. Perhaps solid manuscripts with LGBTQ protagonists rarely get into mainstream editors’ hands at all, because they are been rejected by agents before the editors see them. How many published novels with a straight white heroine and a lesbian or black or disabled best friend once had those roles reversed, before an agent demanded a change?

This does not make for better novels. Nor does it make for a better world.

Let’s make a better world.

What You Can Do

If You’re An Editor: Some agents are turning down manuscripts or requesting rewrites because they think that the identities of the characters will make the book unsalable. That means that you, who might love those characters, never even get to see them.

If you are open to novels featuring LGBTQ protagonists or major characters, you can help by saying so explicitly. When agents realize that LGBTQ content does not lead to a lost sale, they will be less likely to demand that it be removed.

The same goes for other identity issues. If you are interested in YA fantasy/sf with protagonists who are disabled, or aren’t white, or otherwise don’t fit the usual mold, please explicitly say so. General statements of being pro-diversity don’t seem to get the point across. We ask you to issue a clear, unmistakable statement that you would like to see books with protagonists or major characters who are LGBTQ, people of color, disabled, or any combination of the above.

If You’re An Agent: If you are open to manuscripts with major or main LGBTQ characters, please explicitly say so in your listings and websites. Just as with editors, simply saying “we appreciate diversity” could mean anything. (In fact, the agent who asked us to make our gay character straight had made such mentions.) You can throw the gates open by making a clear and unmistakable statement with details. For instance: “I would love to see books whose characters are diverse in all or any respects, including but not limited to gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, and national origin.”

If You’re A Reader: Please vote with your pocketbooks and blogs by buying, reading, reviewing, and asking libraries to buy existing YA fantasy/sf with LGBTQ protagonists or major characters. If those books succeed financially, more like them will be written, represented, and sold. Your reviews don’t have to be positive; any publicity is good publicity. Review on blogs, Amazon, Goodreads, anywhere you yourself read reviews.

An annotated list of YA sf/fantasy with main or major LGBTQ characters is available here, with links to Amazon. Please bookmark this list for reference. It will continue to be updated as new books are released.

Characters of color/non-white characters are often also relegated to the status of sidekicks in YA sff, and are depicted as white on the covers of the few books in which they do star. Please vote with your pocketbooks and blogs to support novels in which they are protagonists.

An annotated list of YA sf/fantasy with protagonists of color is available here, with links to Amazon. Part I: Author surnames from A – L. Part II: Author surnames from M – Z. Please bookmark these lists for reference. They will continue to be updated as new books are released.

The usual protagonist of a YA sf/fantasy novel is a heterosexual white girl or boy with no disabilities or mental/neurological issues, no stated religion, and no specific ethnicity. Reading and reviewing novels whose characters break that mold in other ways would also be a step forward.

If You’re A Writer: If you have had a manuscript rejected because of the identity of the characters, or had an agent or editor request that you alter the identity of a character, please tell your story. Comment here, or leave a link to your own blog post. If you would prefer to use a pseudonym, feel free to do so; see this post for more information on Genreville’s pseudonymous comments policy and credibility verification option.

If You’re Anyone At All: Please link to this article. (If you link on Twitter, please use the #YesGayYA hashtag.) If enough people read it and take the suggestions, enormous and wonderful changes could take place.

Who We Are

This article was written by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith. Rachel Manija Brown is a TV writer, poet, and author of the memoir All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India. Sherwood Smith has published more than thirty fantasy and science fiction novels, including the adult fantasies Inda and Coronets and Steel, and the YA fantasy Crown Duel. Together, we created an animated TV series, Game World, which we sold to the Jim Henson Company.

Our YA post-apocalyptic novel, Stranger, remains unagented and unsold.

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Editor’s note: Please see the follow-up post here.

Guest Post: Peter Cannon on Joshi’s Lovecraft Biography

This guest blog post comes from my fellow PW reviews editor Peter Cannon, a scholar (and parodist) of Lovecraft who was kind enough to share his thoughts on S. T. Joshi’s I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft. Peter has been my mentor for most of a decade–he taught me pretty much everything I know about reviewing and editing reviews–and I hope this will not be his last post for Genreville.

I am reading with pleasure the first volume of S. T. Joshi’s I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (Hippocampus Press), having read and reviewed the original incarnation of this landmark biography, H. P. Lovecraft: A Life (Necronomicon Press), around the time it came out in 1996. Besides restoring about 150,000 words that were cut from the earlier book, Joshi has brought the story of Lovecraft’s posthumous career up to date. As a Lovecraft fan and scholar myself, I’m happy to have all the extra information, even on the relative merits of his juvenilia. Joshi writes in an engaging, accessible style, much as if he were delivering a lecture to a room full of, well, fellow Lovecraftians. We don’t mind—indeed, many of us welcome—the biographer’s “frequent personal asides,” to quote the PW review in the Oct. 18 issue. I happen to agree with Joshi’s assessment of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (“For my part, I think it is an entirely charming but relatively insubstantial work”), but what are those who aren’t Joshi fans to make of such authorial intrusions? Furthermore, it’s hard to imagine a general reader who’s interested in learning more about Lovecraft racing through this twin tome’s more than 1,000 pages of text, notes, and bibliography. Might there be hope for yet another incarnation, or rather two? First, I would like to see a leaner, less academic life with the “I”s removed. Second, I wish Joshi would write an account of his scholarly adventures, Lovecraftian and otherwise, with himself front and center. Of course, such an autobiographical work might have to run to more than one volume. —Peter Cannon

Guest Post: Alma Katsu on Book Blogger Con

Longtime Genreville reader Alma Katsu was kind enough to cover Book Blogger Con for us. Here’s her writeup.

As someone who studies social media for a living and also recently sold her first novel, I was extremely interested in attending the first ever Book Blogger Convention (BBC), held in the Javits Center on the heels of BEA, 28 May 2010 (BBC was officially affiliated with BEA). Uber-geek in my day job, I’d just left the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence’s annual weblogs and social media conference in Washington, DC to sit in on BBC to get a sense of the state of the U.S. book blogger community.

Bloggers at Book Blogger Con 2010

Bloggers attending a talk at Book Blogger Con.Photo credit: Trish Collins.

Approximately 200 bloggers and 50 others from publishing houses, freelance publicists and authors came together for a full day of speakers and panels that covered the spectrum of issues confronting book bloggers, from building content that retains audience to using blog platforms to promote social causes. Organizers Trish Collins of Hey Lady! Whatcha Reading, Michelle Franz of Galleysmith, Natasha Maw of Maw Books, Amy Riley of My Friend Amy, Nicole Bonia at Linus’s Blanket, Rebecca Joines-Schinsky at The Book Lady’s Blog and Pam Coughlan of MotherReader put together a schedule of speakers who didn’t skirt divisive issues, such as whether to review self-published works or whether bloggers should subscribe to a codified ethical standard, the latter being the focus of Beatrice.com blogger Ron Hogan’s presentation. (Hogan made the case for the idea that book bloggers are in a new territory to which, say, ethical standards for professional journalists don’t translate directly. It’s a situation that’s repeated across online communities: the rules for offline communities often don’t apply and it would be futile to try to make it fit. Web 2.0 isn’t called a paradigm shift for nothing.)

The day started off with keynote speaker Maureen Johnson, a YA novelist whose books include Suite Scarlett and Scarlett Fever. She made the astute observation that “blogging is writing you do by yourself but not because you want to be alone” and applauded book bloggers for being activists for books. Johnson knows whereof she speaks, being a blogging and Twittering maven in YA book circles who was named one of Mashable‘s most interesting Twitter users to follow. In addition to her insights into the role of book bloggers in building the online book reading community, Johnson proved to be a wickedly funny speaker whose presentation had the audience wiping away tears of laughter.

One recurring topic was the relationship between book bloggers and the publishing industry. Ann Kingman, who works as a sales associate for Random House but attended the convention as an independent blogger (she also produces a popular podcast series, Books on the Nightstand), was “pleased to see the number of publishers’ representatives” at BBC. She agreed that publishers should embrace the value that book bloggers bring to the book world: “Sometimes you just need someone you trust to say, ‘Read this book.’ They provide enthusiasm to keep reading exciting and I think we need that fresh voice in publishing.”

So, to wrap up, from the uber-geek perspective, I can say BBC provided a great opportunity to interact with book bloggers and to partake in thoughtful and measured discussion of pertinent issues and to witness the vibrancy of its community. As an author, I can say that, after following the sturm und drang in the press about the decline of reading in the U.S., attending BBC provided a wonderful counterpoint. It was complete and utter bliss to be in an auditorium of people who live for books, who want nothing more than to talk books and who pour many hours into connecting with others who have this same passion. It’s an experience every author should have.

Alma Katsu’s first novel, The Taker, is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.