Have you ever had one of those weeks where you open your RSS reader expecting a cute cat macro or Dinosaur Comic and instead been faced with The Establishment Partaking in Embarrassing and Disappointing Behavior...Again? It was one of those weeks! Luckily for me and my blood pressure, I scooped up KJ, Resident Awesome Librarian and my feminist mentor, to discuss the latest drama in a calm and rational manner that is inherently more readable than capslock and my muffled weeping.KJ
: And so once again we have evidence that the mainstream publishing industry is nervous about publishing books with gay characters
. I have a feeling that we've been here before, and not that long ago, either. (The "Wicked Pretty Things"
incident comes to mind.) But it's no surprise that this particular incident has taken the Internet by storm, because there's nothing the Internet likes better than people who go public, not to mention lists of books to read.Renay
: "Nervous" is a really kind term, which is why out of the two of us, I am Bad Feminist Cop With Rocket Launcher of Rage. It seems like we're having one of these disturbances every week now! It's starting to become a regular occurrence. This week, it is the shocking revelation that YA literature is alarmingly heterosexist! Surprise!
This is such a STARTLING REVELATION to everyone but those of us who are queer and quite aware that while we're supposed to suck it up and read about heterosexual hijinks, the same is not true in reverse. Congratulations!
But yeah, no kidding, The Internet loves drama and this is certainly dramatic for those of us who aren't convinced we're post-ism-of-your-choice.KJ
: Being not-queer myself, but (at least trying to be) relatively clued in to issues around marginalized groups and their representation in literature, I can't say that I was surprised, exactly. But I was, hmm, let's say taken aback by how blatant the agent's statements were. So maybe that's why I can play Good Feminist Cop and leave the rocket launcher at home. But I agree, some of the shock and dismay seems a little disingenuous, or at the very least naive. This should not have been a surprise to someone who is paying attention.
I want to pull something else out here, too; it was an aside in the article, but I think it's important, and symptomatic of larger problems in YA and in publishing in general.
"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."
That first sentence, especially, just blows my mind. So consensual non-monogamy is out of bounds, but cheating and lying are A-OK? What kind of messages are we sending and internalizing here? And this seems to go along with the sexuality issue, to me, and every other way in which mainstream publishing reinforces heteronormativity and traditional gender roles in relationships. Renay
: I believe that in large part the industry is reflecting what it assumes is going to sell. When I look at YA in bookstores now, I see rows and rows and rows of paranormal romance, largely with a love triangle or a pairing where the male partner is an asshole/bad boy. These relationships are all heterosexual in nature (meaning, if there is a love triangle, the boys or girls aren't going to run off together) and very, very focused on the realization of Perfect Heterosexual Monogamy.
The idea that the dude has to be an asshole is in the grip of this trend, too. I can't prove that's why adultery is cooler than polyamory in this scenario, but I am pretty suspicious that there's a game being played with stock characters and Asshole DudeBro is the new black. What's worse than a love triangle with no drama? (Besides queer people! Queer people are way uncool, no one wants to buy that, ew.) So of course the guy couldn't be openly with two girls and the girls not fighting over him. I imagine the same is true of a girl and two guys. That situation is so alien to most people that it's impossible to get it past the gate. It's not reinforcing the dominant cultural narrative about relationships and therefore it's not marketable. As we see with this whole thing, queer characters are still being erased, polyamorous young adults see no reflections of themselves in their media (some may not even understand because they don't have a clue it exists and they just feel broken), and some agents apparently think it's safer to flat out demand a sexuality makeover than to take a risk in a market that isn't primed for it.KJ
: Which is exactly
what's going on with the request for erasing queer characters, as well. The agents and editors ask for what they think is going to sell, and so that's, in the main, what gets published. (For a really fun time, check out these discouraging numbers on how many YA titles have queer characters
from Malinda Lo.) Which of course helps perpetuate the idea that heterosexuality, and monogamy, and asshole boyfriends who cheat on their women, are normal, the default, and anything else is bad and wrong and to be questioned, avoided. So it's good that people like Manija Brown and Smith call attention to the role publishers play in keeping queer narratives out of the bookstore, even if we shouldn't be shocked to hear it.Renay
: These imbroglios about queer representation continually flabbergast me. It's a firework into a crowd, sending that crowd swirling and with tons of opinions about who is right (writers/readers) and who is wrong (publishers/agents/editors), the solutions to the problem, claims of "hey, I would totally read that book!"
But after the smoke has cleared and we're left with the mess from the fantastic, uplifting, supportive party of like-minded book lovers who just want to see some diversity, what happens?
Heteronormativity sets in.
I am guilty, too, although I have reached my limit on triangles full of love and jerks in hero clothing. I fall back on fandom and fanfiction for queer texts because searching for them in original work is difficult. Making a choice to go out and find a specific, niche topic in a larger genre flooded with material is so daunting and discouraging. When I was actively blogging about books, I struggled. Do I take the easy path and just take what's being spit out at me by personalized recommendation engines and book blogs which would result in great reading, but ensured my lists of authors would be full of white dudes writing about white people having extremely heterosexual, monogamous sexy times? Or did I buck the system and go dig deeper, with no certainty I'd even find what I'm looking for which was everything outside the above category? I'm an adult with the ability to really look and buy what I find. Other people aren't lucky like that. That's why we need mainstream publishers to embrace us.
I like that word you used: avoided. Because once the show is over it becomes really easy, if you're not one of the authors writing these works that can't find homes, or a reader who really wants to read them, to return to the status quo and avoid thinking about the issue and making choices that impact personal book buying. No buying queer books, no reading queer books, no reviewing queer books. It's all well and good to stand up and use a cute hashtag and tweet a link around on various social networks, but if that's not followed with tangible action, these gatekeepers will just keep hanging around, going "sorry, too queer!" or "yeah, we don't want any Nice Guys In Secure, Stable Relationships, thanks" with the undercurrent of "poly people are icky".KJ
: I suppose it's no surprise that creating lists of YA books with queer characters and characters of color was one of the first actions taken in this particular case. Everyone loves a good list! And in a way it's hard to argue with list making as a first step, because it's a lot easier to encourage people to read books about marginalized groups if we also help them learn what books are out there. But I seem to be incapable of looking at a list of books without wondering how many of them are written by women. ¹ So I did a quick count, and this is what I came up with:
Of the 37 books/book series listed on Science Fiction and Fantasy YA novels with Major LGBTQ characters
, 28 are by women and 9 are by men. Of the 33 unique authors listed, 24 are women (no man is listed more than once.) That's 76% and 73%, respectively. I do get the impression that YA has a higher percentage of women authors overall, but surely the difference isn't this large, especially not in speculative fiction.
Running the same exercise on the books featuring characters of color (Science Fiction and Fantasy YA novels with Protagonists of Color, A - L
, Science Fiction and Fantasy YA novels with Protagonists of Color, M - Z
), I count 58 books/series by women out of 85 total (68%) and 46 out of 68 unique authors (also 68%). Which is closer in percentage to the LGBTQ list than I thought it was going to be from my quick scan of the list.
Better representation of women in genre fiction is a drum I like to bang on a lot, and this gets me thinking: is greater mainstream acceptance of queer narratives and characters of color a path toward that end, as well as something that would be good in and of itself?Renay
: If this is the group of writers willing to step up, write the stories they want to tell over and over even in the face of being rejected, or baldly asked to make a change that goes against the their vision for a character, I think they should be encouraged and supported. The fact that women are all over the lists goes back to Jodie's point about Girls as Omni-Readers
. We're (as women) often equipped and in a position to write with diverse aims toward a literary world where there's more equality. We're not just interested in reflecting ourselves (although we can do that, and should) but we're interested in reflecting the entire world. That's not to say that other writers (men) don't want to, but it's that pesky Sexism again, hurting and limiting everyone, not just women. I find the parallels interesting. Why should men read or write about women? I like how easily it translates. Why should a straight person read or write about someone queer? Which only seeks to land us in literary theory waters of "what's the point of literature, anyway?"KJ
: I suppose there's some pleasure in reading a story that validates ourselves and our experiences — and I am as guilty as anyone of mostly buying and reading books featuring heteronormative relationships, because I am a lazy, whim-based reader who picks up books based on what looks good and what gets recommended to me, and so the cycle is perpetuated — but how boring would life be if that was all we ever read? One of the things I enjoy about losing myself in a book (or movie, or game, or television show...) is the opportunity to see the world through someone else's eyes, be someone different for awhile, spend some time immersed in an experience that is not my own. Renay
: Of course, when we take that view of the problem we run into the representation issue again. When I see people talk about YA and push for certain kinds of books it's about reflecting teen readers. X group doesn't read, we need more books aimed at X group. That's what went down with the argument (which I still think is ridiculous) for more "boy books" because it feels like the industry doesn't agree with you about experiencing different types of people.KJ
: Ugh, I hated
that reaction to the debate: The automatic assumption that the way to get boys to read was to write more books about boys, rather than by encouraging boys to read more widely. It's emblematic of a thousand ways that our society caters to the privileged.Renay
: Don't these events, though, and others like it, do the opposite of catering? We're asking the privileged to reach out and step up. That's really hard. It's hard for me and I'm aware of it, so I know it's hard for other people. Listing every book you've read in a year and realizing that the main characters are all men or white or straight or that the authors themselves are all men or white or straight (sometimes all three) is pretty alarming and jarring for people who get legitimately angry when they read of authors being told to fold to industry standards of marketability just to get published. The anger is there but not the follow-through, because the industry may be right in thinking it has to be Reflection of Straight White People With Money to turn a profit.
Do the majority of young adult fiction readers want themselves reflected? Or do they want the chance to roleplay in different types of personality? The truth is probably something in the middle which makes it even more complicated. I disagree with Malinda Lo on whether on not it matters if this is "active homophobia", but I do agree with her other point
: "Straight people, on the whole, are probably less likely to read books that are advertised as “gay books” because they might assume that the book is not for them."
This is true of any group that's marginalized and particularly in this case when it comes to queer or polyamorous people. This is a huge problem that lists and heartfelt requests to read and review more of X fiction won't ever address (and it makes it all the more clear to me why I couldn't find polyamorous YA when I looked for it). The majority has to embrace the minority. It's why we encourage men to be feminists, or heterosexual people to be queer allies, or white people to focus on their racism. We can't do it without the majority.The majority is who the industry is going to serve. They have more influence, it's not rocket science.KJ
: So maybe efforts like "YesGayYA" are looking at the problem from the wrong direction. Rather than pressuring publishers to be more open minded about what books they accept, maybe we need to pressure readers to be more open minded about which books they pick up. If (for example) more straight people bought queer-themed books, checked them out from the library, recommended them to their friends, blogged enthusiastically about them, and clamored for more, then we might not need to pressure publishers to do anything — the market would be there for them to embrace. And to give Manija Brown and Smith credit, they do call on readers to do this. But that's not the part of the message that came to the forefront — the signal boost seemed to focus on the sins of the agent. Probably because it's a lot easier to point at the big evil corporation that wants to sort us all into neat little marketing boxes than it is to look at our own behavior.Renay
: Oh, there's no doubt the effort is lost in the woods of its own self-congratulation. Reviewer Y telling themselves, "I tweeted a link by a gay author about this horrible thing, ugh, those mean publishers!"
and feeling proud will be followed directly by them reviewing ten paranormal romances featuring a lady and a sexy vampire. There's nothing wrong with ladies and sexy vampires, but it feels so disingenuous to me to flail around about an issue, get up in arms, and then do exactly nothing to alter the landscape. It means doing more than contributing to a list, or paying lip service to a cause because it's the hip thing to get on the bandwagon of discontent and ire over Issue X. It's easy to make Mystery Agent a scapegoat than face the truth that some of us are culpable in the literary environment we now see spread before us. Don't get me wrong, I love a good list and love that people make them and introduce the world to titles that couldn't get lofted up enough to be seen, but I am past the point where I think list making is really doing us any good. If people are angry about this, I want all of them to look at how much YA they've read and see how much of it features straight white characters. Because they — and myself, too, I'm not immune just because I don't read original work that much, spend more time with fanfiction queering white dudes — are both part of the problem and the solution, as well. KJ
: Right. We can complain about the marketing boxes all we want, but really? Most of the time, we're perfectly happy to hop into those safe comfy boxes on our own and hang out. Because reading what we know is easy. Challenging the majority view? That's hard. But worth it, in the long run, I think. Changing our buying and reading habits wouldn't necessarily get us to representation utopia overnight — large corporations can be slow to respond to calls for change, and I don't doubt that there actually are agents, editors, and publishers using the economic argument as an excuse for their own personal biases. But creating a permanent market for books representing marginalized groups would make it a lot harder for those folks to hide behind the "not enough people will buy it" fig leaf. Our job is proving that claim wrong, and like you say, no marginalized group can do it on their own. It takes allies who are willing to make a sustained effort. I was really glad to see Rachel Manija Brown's call for follow through in her latest post on the subject
; now let's just hope we can manage it.Renay
: See you in six months for a grueling review of our purchase history!KJ
: I can hardly wait.
¹ Because this blog focuses on gender issues, I only ran the counts for female versus male authors. I suspect that if we did similar analyses on the list in terms of the race/ethnicity and sexual orientation of the authors, we'd come up with higher percentages than average for YA authors overall there, too.* Generous hat tip to Brent Hartinger.
➝ Mirrors of the post that started it all, Authors Say Agents Try to "Straighten" Gay Characters in YA
➝ YA authors asked to 'straighten' gay characters
: It's a conspiracy!