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Gay YA: a question of intent

It takes a lot to make me overcome my inertia and actually make a blog post, internets, but that time has come.

So, you might not have heard the YA blogosphere blow up yesterday, but it did! Here are good summaries:

cleolinda makes an excellent and well-reasoned overview of the situation, complete with many links to the major players that you should follow

oyceter offers very good thoughts about where any effort at change has to start (try: everywhere)

I want to make a few points, because I think some aspects of this are getting drowned out. This is what Brown and Smith say happened to them in their original article:

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.

This is how the agent describes the exchange (an exchange, I might add, to which she was very ambiguously involved, since she wasn't the actual agent in question offering representation, but a colleague of hers):
The first bit of editorial feedback we gave was that they change the book from YA to middle grade, which would mean cutting most of the romance entirely (for both the straight and gay characters). The book included five character points-of-view (POVs). Our second bit of editorial feedback was that at least two POVs, possibly three, needed to be cut. Did one of these POVs include the gay character in question? Yes. Is it because he was gay? No. It’s because we felt there were too many POVs that didn’t contribute to the actual plot. We did not ask that any of these characters be cut from the book entirely. Let us repeat that, we did not ask that any of the characters in the book –gay or straight—be cut from the book. Also, we never asked that the authors change any LGBTQ character to a straight character.

We suggested this editorial feedback, because it’s our job, the initial step of the ongoing author/agent dynamic.

So, the agent starts her rebuttal categorically stating that "there is nothing in that article concerning our response to their manuscript that is true" and ends with a long description of the process that boils down to:

We told them to take out the gay character's POV and remove references to his sexuality [FOR REASONS THAT ARE ONLY ABOUT THE STORY AND MARKETING CONCERNS, OF COURSE]

As my mother would say, "They went in like gangbusters, and came out like we the people."

The rebuttal is a masterpiece of misdirection and subtle cues, pointing people away from the heart of this issue (a heart that Brown and Smith cogently addressed in their original piece).

Number one, Brown and Smith never accused the agency of asking them to cut the character from the book. According to them, the agency wanted them to "make the gay character straight, or else remove his viewpoint and all references to his sexual orientation." So when the agency makes the repeated, pointed denial "We did not ask that any of these characters be cut from the book entirely. Let us repeat that, we did not ask that any of the characters in the book –gay or straight—be cut from the book," it is meant to imply--falsely--that Brown and Smith had accused them of doing that.

But they didn't! They reported that the agency told them to remove his POV. Which, whatever the justification, no one denies. They also said the agency told them to remove references to his sexuality. Does the agency deny that? Well, no, actually: "cutting most of the romance entirely (for both the straight and gay characters)."  What they offer, it turns out, are not actually denials, not actually anything that justifies that categorical statement up front "It isn't true." What they offer instead are justifications. They offer editorial and marketing based reasons that just so happen to neatly dovetail with an undeniable fact of YA publishing.

As Malinda Lo very helpfully compiled this week, queer YA comprises LESS THAN ONE PERCENT of current YA novels. I am sure this number is even more abysmal in the subgenre of SF/F, which is what Smith and Brown write.

So, to recap, Smith and Brown say a prospective agent called them up with editorial feedback, informed them that, among other editorial issues, they wished the gay character to not be a POV and to not have any references to his romantic life in the text (which would mean in effect removing his sexual orientation from the text). Smith and Brown don't give the stated reasons for this. Presumably, I feel, because they were not very relevant to the larger discussion that they wanted to have. Which is:

Systemic issues in publishing, not necessarily due to overt or even subtle homophobia on the part of any one person, still at every level of the process prevent YA with queer main and secondary characters from being published, and being supported when published.

For those who doubt this is true, for those who think that YA is one of the most queer-friendly genres, and there's no problems at all getting it represented, published and supported when published, look at those pie charts Malindo Lo put together and tell me if you think 0.6% is an even vaguely defensible number. Tell me if you think that such paltry representation (and she included secondary, non POV characters in her tally) really indicates an industry dealing healthfully with sexual diversity. Tell me if you really can sustain the illusion that it's all about the readers or just about marketability.

(And as a disclaimer, it's probably a lot better in YA than it is in romance, for example, or other genres, but relative difference doesn't make the situation here awesome.)

The probable objection to the foregoing is that the justifications matter because it de-emphasizes the remove-the-gay aspects of the critique if they were also asked to remove-the-straight. But that, I think, combines a certain element of naivite with a dollop of why does it matter? Because it's not like there's some dearth of straight people in YA. And Smith and Brown say they explicitly objected on the basis of the effect these changes would have on the queer character. Stampfel-Volpe's reply relays nothing of what Brown and Smith said about these changes, and that's probably because what they said has a strong resemblance to their report in PW. And if we want to get into details, then: why would MG mean removing all references to the gay character's sexual orientation? Not a crush? Not a hand-hold? If there are too many POVs, and the authors like the gay character's, why not suggest removing one of the straight character's POVs instead and thus giving the gay POV more plot to move (the stated objection to his POV)? My point is that in the rebuttal, Stampfel-Volpe displays a willful ignorance of the real life effects of editorial notes that result in the marginalization of a gay main character, even if that was not their intent. She fails to realize that in a case of systemic prejudice intent doesn't matter, especially not in a rebuttal to a piece that explicitly pointed this out.

The one overt contradiction in the accounts of Smith and Brown and Stampfel-Volpe is the issue of just flat-out "mak[ing] the gay character straight." That is actually a he said/she said, and I guess in this instance it might be useful to think of the rest of the context. First, I repeat that the agent writing this account and rebuttal was not, in fact, the agent suggesting changes. They are colleagues. It is not explicitly addressed how Stampfel-Volpe was involved in these discussions, but there's a reference to a speaker phone. We don't know if she was actually sitting down with the manuscript with her colleague and going through these points, or if she was overhearing the conversation from down the hall. I think it is telling that Stampfel-Volpe does not make her role in this explicit, and relays a conversation her colleague must have been primarily engaged in as if it was one she had herself (many people had that misreading of her piece).

So it is then quite plausible that making the character straight this was mentioned as a possibility of overcoming the Middle Grade-friendly issues, and Stampfel-Volpe wasn't involved enough to remember. It's also plausible that Smith and Brown interpreted the repeated statements of the need to remove the gay POV and removing overt references to his sexuality as a de-facto straightening, but the agents themselves didn't see it that way.

Either way, I think you can grant that given the rest of the context, this is some serious hair-splitting, and you could easily concede that Smith and Brown were never told to "make the gay character straight" and still come away with the idea that this was a deeply reactionary stance for the agency to take.

It's telling that the agent never directly addresses what is probably the crux of Smith and Brown's account of the conversation: "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." Well, did this happen? She categorically denies everything, but as we see, that categorical denial gets a little fuzzy in the details. So to the original agent: did you suggest this? Stampfel-Volpe doesn't say either way.

It is also telling that the post focuses on Smith and Brown's credibility and the implication that they have manufactured a controversy (or a hoax!) to bolster their own careers at the expense of an agency that they took great pains to never identify. From Stampfel-Volpe's reply:
One of our agents is being used as a springboard for these authors to gain attention for their project. She is being exploited. But even worse, by basing their entire article on untruths, these authors have exploited the topic. By doing that, they’ve chipped away at the validity of the resulting conversation.
Given that this is a response to a post that never identified the agency, and spent all of three paragraphs discussing them explicitly, I feel that this is needlessly personal and dismissing. It also leads into this:
So let’s continue this conversation, and let’s base it on the truth, which is:

There are not enough mainstream books that depict characters of diverse race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and physical and/or mental disabilities.

Changing this starts with the readers. Scott Tracy has a great post about this on his blog. If more people buy books with these elements, then publishers will want to publish more of them. Sounds simple…yet, it’s not so simple.

Right there, we have our giant derail. Smith and Brown's post focused, quite explicitly, on things everyone could do to help the problem, starting, yes, with consumers buying the (0.6% of) books, but also focusing on what agents and publishers can do to solve the problem. And I think we need to go farther: agents and publishers have no business discussing this issue by fobbing the responsibility back onto readers, the people in this equation who have the least amount of power to change things. The publishers have the most. They're the ones with the money that makes the system run. Even more importantly, they're the ones who choose what to market with their dollars, and that, in turn, has a monstrous effect on a book's penetration among the plebes like us who just buy the things. Beware when a person at the high end of the power dynamic see-saw tells the person below them that they have to "start the change." Beware white people telling black folk that all they have to do is give their babies sensible names and learn to speak properly and they'll be invited into the riches of equality. Beware the IMF telling poor third world countries that all they have to do is privatize their water supply. Beware BP telling poor Americans that all they have to do is wear sweaters and use energy efficient light bulbs. And beware agents and editors implicitly rejecting the idea that their greater power gives them greater responsibility to address these issues about which they claim to care.

Should readers who care about this issue try to buy more of these books? Yes! But the buck just doesn't stop here, and it strikes me as possibly the most disingenuous aspect of a disingenuous defense for her to imply, by removing those important aspects of the original call, that it does.


( 28 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 16th, 2011 09:16 pm (UTC)
The probable objection to the foregoing is that the justifications matter because it de-emphasizes the remove-the-gay aspects of the critique if they were also asked to remove-the-straight.

When changing or closeting Yuki's sexual orientation was brought up, we had quite long argument on the subject. We were explicitly told that we could not have a gay character. When we argued, we were told that maybe we could just not mention his sexual orientation in the book, but have him come out in sequels, should there be any. That was not acceptable to us. (All else aside, his romance is an important part of the story.)

Toward the end of the discussion, we asked, "What about the straight romances? Why are they okay when the gay one isn't?"

The agent then said, "Maybe you should take out the straight romances too."

She hadn't brought it up before that moment.

Regarding the speakerphone issue: because of that, we don't know whether or not J S-V was in on the call. She wasn't the agent we referred to, though.

ETA: Forgot to say: yes, it was indeed said that removing the gayness would make it middle-grade-friendly.

Edited at 2011-09-16 09:20 pm (UTC)
Sep. 16th, 2011 09:29 pm (UTC)
Sorry for the tl;dr. I really would prefer to talk about the larger issues.

It is obvious from the bazillions of other authors with similar encounters with other editors and agents that this is not remotely an isolated incident involving one "bad guy." It is a systemic social problem which is not, of course, limited to YA publishing. That's just the particular piece of the system Sherwood and I happen to be involved in.
Sep. 16th, 2011 11:40 pm (UTC)
Hi! Thanks for the clarifications. You guys have been very professional throughout this, and I hope that some of the immediate, "oh, of course the agency is right!" responses might reconsider when the dust settles.

But you're absolutely right, this issue is systemic and pervasive. I have seen something similar happen in the editing stages (as regards race issues) and I think it's incredibly important to acknowledge and not dismiss these occurrences (because of course the people you know aren't homophobic.)

Which was what I was trying to get at in this essay (speaking of tl;dr, yikes!)

I guess what I mean is, if you give the agency the most absolutely charitable reading of events (because the other stuff you describe here is much more awful), what they did is *still* perpetuating the homophobic trends in the industry. And if someone read that rebuttal and came away with, "wow, it seems like they did nothing wrong," then I don't think they've dealt with the real-life implications and questionable premises of the defense.
Sep. 17th, 2011 05:57 am (UTC)
I have seen something similar happen in the editing stages (as regards race issues)

Is that something you can talk about?
Sep. 17th, 2011 02:05 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately, it happened to someone I know, not to me, so it wouldn't be fair of me to share it publicly.
Sep. 17th, 2011 05:23 pm (UTC)
No problem! I too know someone that happened to regarding race, who also didn't give me permission to discuss it. I hope it's the same person...
Sep. 18th, 2011 03:35 am (UTC)
++++++, especially especially especially to those last two paragraphs.
Sep. 21st, 2011 06:08 pm (UTC)
:) Thanks!
Sep. 18th, 2011 06:43 am (UTC)
This is a fantastic analysis and makes a lot of points I haven't seen raised elsewhere; thank you for making it.
Sep. 21st, 2011 06:08 pm (UTC)
Thanks :)
Sep. 18th, 2011 12:56 pm (UTC)
I love this post, especially the last two paragraphs. Thanks for making it.
Sep. 21st, 2011 06:08 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
Sep. 18th, 2011 01:24 pm (UTC)
yes, with consumers buying the (0.6% of) books, but also focusing on what agents and publishers can do to solve the problem.

Malinda Lo's number-crunching post is probably the most--I don't even know what it is. It's something. Damning? Because readers and writers are talking and blogging, and even arguing with publications like the Wall Street Journal, that diverse books are important to us, both to read and to write, that they save us, and then along comes a number like 0.6%. I don't know how anyone can look at that number and then say, "Readers are the problem." I know they're afraid people won't buy the books and they'll lose money on it, but you can't buy a book that someone won't sell to you.
Sep. 18th, 2011 01:55 pm (UTC)
I'm searching for agents now. My book is finished, polished, and it's risen through the slush of a Hugo-nominated publisher and is sitting on the editor's desk. I queried quite a few agents, yet hardly any of them bit on my book with an intersex main character. In some ways it's even more taboo that gay or lesbian. There's no I in LGBTQ.
Sep. 18th, 2011 02:56 pm (UTC)
I know! Thank goodness for her taking the time out to crunch the numbers. It helps make this discussion about something concrete. 0.6% just isn't a number that consumers can meaningfully influence by themselves.

Aside from worrying they won't sell, I'm sure another (possibly even bigger) issue with YA publishers is library censorship and challenges from conservative parents. YA books get challenged all the time for all sorts of baffling reasons, and that atmosphere probably creeps into marketing discussions.
Sep. 18th, 2011 04:17 pm (UTC)
I feel like part of this problem, why there's not a larger number than 0.6% is that publishers haven't realized that straight people will read LGBTQ too. I, myself, am 99.9% straight, but that doesn't mean I can't recognize the value of a good story or be totally invested in great characters just because said characters are non-straight. I know I'm not the only one that feels like this too. I mean, for crying out loud, the gay community reads novels and whatnot about hetero folks, right?
Sep. 18th, 2011 05:01 pm (UTC)
This is a great post. Malinda's numbers are so irrefutable and horrifying, and I have been trying to arrange my thoughts into coherency and not just link to Malinda's post forty billion times.

why would MG mean removing all references to the gay character's sexual orientation?

I heard about the changing it to middle grade thing and was like 'Oh I think I see what happened! Because MG is an even harder sell... no, but wait, that doesn't mean it should be...' Oh good job on being homophobic, self.

It'd be an interesting discussion, how gay content is treated as implicitly more adult than straight--how book fairs and some stores refuse to carry such things because of the kiddies and their impressionable minds (which might come away with the idea that love is cool in many forms, horrors). And what can be done to change things.
Sep. 18th, 2011 06:23 pm (UTC)
It'd be an interesting discussion, how gay content is treated as implicitly more adult than straight

I've always been curious about peoples' rationale for LGBT content being more "adult"-- why, say, a man giving a woman a peck on the cheek is fine for kids to see, but a man giving a man a peck on the cheek is ZOMG SO ADULT DON'T LET THE CHILDREN SEE!! It's the exact same action meant to express the exact same emotion. When I was in eighth grade, I went to the school library to check out this collection, since there was a story by Bruce Coville in it and I was a big Coville fan, and the librarian was extremely concerned about making sure I knew "what it was about." I was like "...yes, I know what it's about, it's cool." I literally could not understand why my wanting to check out a book about people coming out was such a huge deal. The librarian didn't want me to not check out the book or anything; she just seemed very concerned that I be aware of the subject matter, as if it was controversial or something. That's what I remembered most about the exchange as a kid-- the idea that I might be gay, even though I wasn't, was potentially a thing for people to be concerned about, which made no sense to me.

I think the key to changing such perceptions has to do with shows like Glee, or Brothers and Sisters. I'm not a fan of Glee, but I think it's been a HUGE gamechanger. The simple fact that the Big Lead Couple everyone cares about on a smash hit show is a gay couple-- and the appeal of the couple is not the fact that it's ~zomg a gay couple on the TV~-- I think that's huge.
Sep. 21st, 2011 06:07 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think that attitude is important to focus on, because it's where so much of this starts. It's so unobjectionable as to be invisible for heterosexual couples to appear in children's media. No one claims that having a married heterosexual couple on Sesame Street is forcing children to be exposed to sex, and yet somehow that magically changes when two women are shown to be in a relationship? Rejecting that underlying assumption has to be one of the most powerful tools to combat homophobia. Which then explains why it is so vigorously opposed by those who are homophobic.
Sep. 18th, 2011 09:47 pm (UTC)
This is a truly excellent post. Thank you.
Sep. 21st, 2011 05:59 pm (UTC)
Sep. 23rd, 2011 03:45 pm (UTC)
You articulate the problematic developments so much better than my comments on this. Thank you.
Sep. 21st, 2011 04:42 pm (UTC)
What a wonderful and eloquent post! I've experienced this exact same bigotry from an agent and have posted about it in my blog as well. It's great that this dialogue has begun and hopefully it will lead to change.
Sep. 21st, 2011 05:58 pm (UTC)
Thanks! And especially thank you for posting your own experience with this. It helps takes the focus off of two groups accusing each other and into a space where we have to acknowledge that THIS REALLY HAPPENS.
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 22nd, 2011 04:49 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I figured it's worth pointing out, since I don't think many people who aren't in the industry realize how much of it is driven by marketing. Unexpected bestsellers (i.e. un/under marketed books) are vastly outnumbered by those books the publishers have pushed.
Sep. 22nd, 2011 05:07 pm (UTC)
I am particularly astonished by the cheek of someone from the publishing industry coming up with that a solution.

Just give us your money. How selfless.
Sep. 24th, 2011 06:51 am (UTC)
Great post. This issue has had me flustered all day. It's almost 3am and I'm still not done reading what I can. Though it's well written posts like yours that has really explain the key points and made it easy for readers like me to understand the issues. Thank you.
Sep. 25th, 2011 07:39 am (UTC)
I'm so sorry this has hurt people. I can remember two novels with gay characters in recent years . . . can't really think of too many others. Mercedes Lackey used to have them in one of her series. Hmm . . . underrepresented in general, perhaps. I always have thought that _A Separate Peace_ was somewhat about gay-phobia, though. Which is a different issue. But they're still reading that in school. Although it's more subtextual than anything else. Do we have a character who is depicted as normal but is incidentally gay, in any current book or TV series? No, they're usually played for "laughs" or extremism. Well, okay, wait, Fran Drescher's new series "Happily Divorced" has a gay ex-husband. But he's kind of played for laughs. I don't know whether to like it or not. *aarghh*

( 28 comments — Leave a comment )