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What's going on with #yesGayYA
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cleolinda
I have been writing (good) and having health issues (bad), so I've been quieter than I would have liked. However, before I can get to a number of other things, we have a publishing kerfuffle to discuss. Yes, another one. It's gotten pretty bad.

The short overview from the Guardian: YA authors asked to 'straighten' gay characters: Authors say agent offered them book deal conditional on making a character heterosexual.

The long version:

On Monday, Publishers Weekly's Genreville blog hosted a guest entry by Rachel Manija Brown (rachelmanija) and Sherwood Smith (sartorias), Say Yes To Gay YA.

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.

Remember that; it'll be important later. Brown and Smith go on to explain that they want to focus on the overall industry situation than name the agent:

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 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.

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.

The post ends with suggestions for what readers, writers, agents and editors can do. (Example: "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.") It might also be of interest to note "Who They 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." That is to say, well-respected writers in the community.


Three days later, this happens:

Guest blogger Joanna Stampfel-Volpe responds to a recent PW blog post on LGBTQ YA: On Being Used, the Lack of LGBTQ Characters in YA, and Why It’s Important to Work Together.

Note that, until this moment, no one had named the agency in question ("Joanna Stampfel-Volpe is an agent with Nancy Coffey Literary & Media Representation, where she primarily represents picture books, middle grade and young adult fiction"). Also, Stampfel-Volpe is not the agent who was in discussions with Smith and Brown. The agent herself has never been named. I'm not entirely sure if Stampfel-Volpe means "we" in the general "our agency" sense, and she is telling this story secondhand as a representative of the agency, or if she means that she specifically sat in on the phone call as well. Either way, here is her version of the story: 

Let me repeat this: there is nothing in that article concerning our response to their manuscript that is true.

We spoke with the authors on speakerphone in our office, and the conversation we had with them was very different than the experience they describe.

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.

[...] 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.

This was a guest post on Colleen Lindsay's blog, and Lindsay adds at the end:

In the spirit of righteous indignation, I retweeted the [original Genreville blog entry]. Almost immediately I was contacted by several well-respected agents - a couple of whom had already read and rejected the manuscript in question, based on the same editorial concerns - who called into question the facts behind the blog post. I later discovered that not only did I know the agent in question, but that this person was actually a dear friend of mine, someone who most certainly wasn't homophobic. The more I learned about this incident, the angrier I became at myself for reposting it and inadvertently hurting someone whom I respect and admire as a colleague, and whom I care about personally as a friend. This story has now moved beyond the book community online into the mainstream press; every new media outlet that picks up the story is a further insult to this agent's reputation; for that, each and every one of us who helped spread this story should be ashamed.

As a queer woman and a former agent who has happily repped - and sold! - YA with LGBT themes, I think we need to step back, take a deep breath and look at an important fact, one that hasn't yet been discussed.

FACT: Both these writers already have their own agents. At least one of those agents reps YA books. So what does it say when the respective agents for both these well-established writers advise them to find a different agent for the book in question because neither of them wanted to rep it themselves?

It tells me that homophobia was most likely not the reason that this book has thus far not found representation.

Any agent looking at this manuscript - knowing full well that these two writers already had their own respective agents who did not want to rep the project - would see this as a giant red flag and approach the book with a very critical editorial eye.

Does there need to be a conversation about lack of diversity in YA? Yes. Is this the incident to hang it on? I don't think so.

Both Brown and Smith have noted that they wanted a joint agent for a joint project; as discussed here, there is nothing unusual about that. Jim C. Hines points out in the Swivet comments that the note seems like a "cheap shot" on the manuscript's quality; Lindsay replies that it was not meant that way. Honestly... I'm not entirely sure what's going on here. Rose Fox, who hosted the original post at Genreville, was also approached by Stampfel-Volpe to post the rebuttal; she notes that she suggested "an alternative statement," which I'm guessing means "a little less inflammatory." Preferring to post the original statement, Stampfel-Volpe took it to Colleen Lindsay's blog, and here we are. I understand that gossip inevitably started about which agency it really was, but the aggressiveness of the statement is interesting. Particularly considering that Brown and Smith both stand by their statement that the characters' sexuality was an issue:

The unnamed agency in our previous post has chosen to come forward to present their perception of our exchange. We confirm that it was the agency we referred to. We stand by every word we wrote in our original article.

We did not wish to name them, because we preferred to focus on the larger issues. We did not spread rumors about them, and we don’t know who did.

This is why we went public: After the initial exchange a month ago, we spoke in private to a number of other writers, without mentioning the name of the agent or agency. There was an overwhelming response of "Me too!" Many other writers had been asked by agents and editors to alter or remove the minority identity of their characters, sometimes as a condition of representation or sale. Sometimes those identities had been altered by editors without the writers' knowledge or permission. [...] We urge you all to continue focusing on the bigger picture.

As Jane at Dear Author points out,

[The Stampfel-Volpe] post really surprises me because a) it accuses the authors of lying and b) of using the blog post to 'exploit' the agent. I wonder if their lawyers approved it. I can’t see giving that advice. The post itself may be a breach of fiduciary relationship at best and defamatory at worst. It’s definitely a she said/she said thing but the authors did not defame the agent whereas the accusations of lying and exploitation are risky statements to put out there publicly. What we do know from both blog posts is that the authors were asked to remove the gay character. It is confirmed in this contradictory statement by the agent:

s). 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

Two or three POVs needed to be cut including the gay character but we did not ask for any characters to be cut from the book?

The statement in question could possibly mean that the characters could remain, but their POV scenes should be rewritten from the perspective of the (now) "main" characters; the differing accounts of the conversation leave this unclear. [ETA: Rachel Manija Brown says that this was their primary suggestion, that the character would remain through the POV of others, so long as he wasn't gay.] I'm also not sure how you can exploit someone you don't even name.


Marie Brennan suggests,

Finally -- as some people have noted on Stampfel-Volpe's post -- there may be a middle ground here. As I said before, institutionalized prejudice works in less-than-obvious ways. It's possible the conversation could have been phrased in a way that TAIQ ["the agent in question"] did not see as reinforcing homophobia, which nevertheless could be heard that way. Without the exact words, we can't judge for ourselves. But I will say, for my own part, that I have a hard time believing this was, from the agent's side, purely an issue of craft, and not of the marketability of queerness. If the pov in question "didn’t contribute to the actual plot" (Stampfel-Volpe's words), then how could that be solved by making him straight? If she didn't actually suggest making him straight -- if that's a misinterpretation -- then how could Brown and Smith have subsequently heard anything that could be misconstrued as "if this turns into a series, later on you can show that he's gay"? And how could the misunderstanding have persisted past Brown saying his sexuality was a moral issue she would not back down from?

Brown herself says in a conversation on Smith's LJ,

rachelmanija: They specifically said that being gay was the problem. They told us we could keep the character so long as he wasn't gay. We protested, and they said that maybe he could be revealed to be gay in later books, but not in the first one. It's true that there were other cuts and changes they requested as well. We didn't mention them in the article because we felt that whether we agreed with them or not, they were unobjectionable on moral grounds and so irrelevant to the article.

calimac: "They specifically said that being gay was the problem." Yes, you did make that clear in the original post. The problem is that not only do they say that's not true, but that they offer a scenario whereby you could have misunderstood their intent. (Which leaves aside the great big issue of whether intent covers for conduct, of course.) I expect that nothing short of an exact transcript of the conversation could resolve this issue, and I presume there isn't one. But the nature of the brief response above does not increase my confidence that you did not merely misunderstand them.

beth_bernobich: Except the agent specifically said, "You can keep this character but not gay." That seems pretty unambiguous, and isn't addressed at all by their alternate scenario.


So, in the middle of all this discussion, I see a tweet with a link to the Stampfel-Volpe statement to the effect of, "Guess what? It was all a hoax." (The originating account has since been made private.) I see it crop up multiple times as RTs spread over Twitter, and "hoax" threatens to become the default assumption. OKAY, NO. This was the point at which I decided I was going to write up something about this if it took all night, so help me. Just knowing Sherwood Smith by reputation alone, and having been casually LJ-acquainted with Rachel Manija Brown for several years--I just don't believe there was malice aforethought or purposeful misrepresentation here. I just don't. Even if the truth lies somewhere between the two statements, I do not believe a "These writers are lying liars who lie" interpretation. I just don't.

@Ceilidhann: The agent's insinuation that someone as respected & well known as Sherwood Smith would use this for publicity is insulting.

@merriehaskell: At minimum, a difference of opinion on how you think a conversation went does not constitute one side's reportage being a hoax.

@ScottWesterfeld: "I feel foolish for getting only one side of the story. But I'll make up for it by uncritically accepting the other side!" -the Internets


I do want to stop here and give you Maureen Johnson's take on the situation, since she's been a very vocal advocate for YA as a genre, particularly with the #YAsaves argument with the Wall Street Journal. What I think this will illustrate is how deeply invested people are in making young adult literature a diverse and supportive place for readers. It might also explain why people find Brown and Smith's story hard to believe.

@maureenjohnson: I'm not saying that didn't happen, but I personally don't know a single YA agent or editor who would do that. And I know a lot of them.

@maureenjohnson: Lots coming in from agents and editors saying they saying they welcome manuscripts with queer characters.

[I saw some of these tweets; this is true.]

@maureenjohnson: I am genuinely shocked that anyone working in YA would ask for a gay character to be "straightened." I'd fall off my chair if I heard that.

@scott_tracey: It can come down to a business perspective though. "Straight" books might appeal to a wider audience=more sales" .....

@maureenjohnson: That's a craptastic reason. (I'm not saying you advocate it, only that it is craptastic.)

@scott_tracey: In which I talk about #YesGayYA and my experiences.

When I read this article about authors who were asked to “straightwash” characters in their novel, I sympathized. I’ve been there. I don’t like to talk about it, because I still feel like someone’s going to come and rap my knuckles with a ruler, but WITCH EYES had its moments. I had agents who said there wasn’t a market for a paranormal with a gay character who had a romance. I had editors suggest they would reconsider the book if Braden and Trey became Brenda and Trey. Or if I removed the romance and made it a straight girl/gay guy buddy comedy.

[...] So…it happens. And sometimes it works out. But I hate when people say it doesn’t happen. I don’t like to throw the baby out with the bath water. It’s not a black and white issue. Publishing is not completely homophobic, or completely supportive. It varies, and it changes, and there’s no one standard for how things work. It’s a business, and it’s a business run by MANY different people with MANY different beliefs.

If you want more books with LGBT content, buy the ones that are already out there. Show publishers that there’s profit to be made by investing in these books.

[Later:]

@maureenjohnson: All of this is to say that I really, genuinely feel that the YA industry is super supportive of queer characters.

@maureenjohnson: In my experience, FYI, LGTBQ books in YA are flourishing, agents and editors are open and welcoming. It's one of the best places to be.

@maureenjohnson: And not just for that reason. YA is a great place to be in terms of quality, genre-bending, and an enthusiastic readership. It's AWESOME.

[This is something I've said as well, that some of the most exciting storytelling is happening in YA right now. Which may be why problems within the genre become such a big deal.]

@maureenjohnson: I guess this story bothered me because there are so many rumors about "what goes on in publishing." I see them all the time.

@maureenjohnson: Some of them are true. Some are false. Some are half-true. Some are NUTS. And with something THIS important, facts are necessary.


@malindalo: New blog post: I have numbers! Statistics on LGBT Young Adult books published in the USA (w/ pie charts!)

Or, the short version:

@thinkprogress: Less Than 1 Percent Of Young Adult Novels Feature LGBT Characters.

From the Malinda Lo post itself:

My takeaways from this number crunching are:

1. I often hear people saying that publishers aren’t willing to publish LGBT YA, or that each publisher only publishes one LGBT YA per year. This, statistically, isn’t true. Every one of the big 6 publishers (and plenty of smaller ones) publish LGBT YA titles, and several of them do publish more than one per year.

2. However, the proportion of LGBT YA to non-LGBT YA is so tiny as to be laughable.

3. The good news is, the numbers have continued to increase over time, and other than the dip in 2010, the increase has sped up since 2000.

4. The bad news is, the G in LGBT far outpaces L, B, or T.

I think, overall, it’s a two steps forward, one step back kind of situation. And I think that true growth in the number of LGBT YA novels will only come through active effort on the part of agents, editors, and publishers, to seek out and acquire LGBT YA novels. I know that change happens one person at a time, but simultaneously, it’s hard to not be discouraged by the stats.

@JoVanderhooft: Kinda side-eyeing folks who say they didn't have a problem selling their LGBTQ YA book, so what's the problem? #yesgayya

@JoVanderhooft: the problem is that some authors just had a problem, so there's a problem, even if it's not the entire industry #yesgayya


From comments at Sherwood Smith's LJ:

willshetterly: Can you name anyone who changed a gay character to straight and then sold the story?

beth_bernobich: I know authors who had their gay character changed to straight in copyedits. I know other authors who were explicitly told by agents to change their gay character to straight. Some did, and the novel sold. Some did not, fired their agent, and went on to sell their novel.

willshetterly: Are they afraid to come forward? This is all very interesting to me, 'cause I never got flak about gay kissing or gay sex in my YA stories.

beth_bernobich: They posted in comments on the original PW article. Some gave their names (Nicola Griffith) and some did not.


Indeed:

Nicola Griffith: "I fired my first agent because she didn’t like the protagonist of my outlined novel being lesbian, said 'This is not a selling outline.' The novel, Slow River went on to win the Nebula Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and others." [Griffith is also quoted in the Guardian article.]

"Emblebee": "My first publisher (one of the Big 6) didn’t ask me to take out the gay character. My editor went through and deleted all gay references between my copyedits and the first pass pages without bothering to tell me. I pitched a fit and my agent backed me up. The gay character stayed in the novel, as written."

[Is it possible for an editor to change a manuscript without the author's permission? It happened to Caridad Ferrer. She discovered all of her colloquial Cuban Spanish had been "corrected" once the book was on the shelf.]

Anne Harris (aka Jessica Freely): "I had published three science fiction novels under my own name, Anne Harris. All of them had lesbian characters, two of them as protagonists. So I was shocked when I pitched my editor a YA sf novel with two gay male protagonists and his first words to me were, 'Do they have to be gay?' He passed on the book, and the agent I had at that time did not want to represent it. I wound up firing that agent over the matter, and writing a different YA series — one without gay male protags — for my editor. I have as yet not sold that YA I pitched, but I did insist on writing more books with gay male protags. What I found was that I could not sell them to mainstream YA SF/F markets. I now do most of my publishing with ebook publishers who specialize in erotic romance and welcome books with gay male protagonists. I use the pen name Jessica Freely and I write sf, fantasy, and contemporary, but not, needless to say, YA." [See also her blog post.]

Leigh Purtill: "I too was asked by a big 6 publisher to make a minor character not lesbian, since 'it didn’t have anything to do with the story.' I did make the change – I was younger and more naive – but have regretted it ever since. Of course it had something to do with the story: it 3-dimensionalized my mc who was her best friend. I am currently finishing a novel about a teen who comes out during her senior year and plan to e-pub it myself. I don’t want to change any of it for anyone."

"fantasy writer": "I was less pleased, however, when I discovered that all references to one of my major character’s ‘dark skin, curly hair and dark eyes’ had been removed from the text without my permission. [...] I succeeded in having most of these descriptors replaced, but it was a difficult battle to win and I found myself very intimidated during it. I think it’s worth noting that, in the struggle to keep these references to my main character’s ethnicity, I had to give up on similar references to one of my minor character’s African origins and another’s ‘Slavic’ features." [Editor Rose Fox’s note: This comment was sent to me for credibility verification. The writer of the comment is a fantasy author with well-received books published in multiple countries. I have a passing online acquaintance with this author and believe them to be trustworthy and reliable in this regard.]

Steven dos Santos: "When I was searching for an agent to represent my Young Adult, paranormal/espionage novel featuring a gay male protagonist, I had an agent tell me that, while they loved the novel, the voice, the story, etc., Young Adult novels were primarily purchased by heterosexual females and basically, no one was going to buy my book (I guess they believe that gay teens/adults don’t read and that heterosexual females are too narrow-minded…sigh)."
[ETA, via Maureen Johnson: A full blog post on the subject from Dos Santos, quoting a rejection letter.]

Anne R. Allen: "This has happened to me three times. Three times I had an agent call and say she loved the book (all different novels) but would I make one tiny change? Would I make the protagonist’s best friend straight so she could marry him? Would I eliminate the subplots about the gay people? Could I make her long-lost daughter not be a lesbian? Her father not trans? I’m still unagented. I don’t write YA, I write romantic comedy. So it’s the same everywhere. I also have a good friend who’s been shopping an anthology of stories by megastar gay authors. He has an agent, but editors are telling her 'gay doesn’t sell any more.' This is more than a problem with YA. It’s everywhere."

"Sandra S.": "This does not surprise me. I’ve gotten several editing requests for GLBTQ characters myself, and often, there’s little chance but to bow to it."

"Nina": "I *do* hear this from agents with in the industry and I know it has nothing to do with their own personal feelings or orientation. But it needs to *stop*. We need to show them that it’s sellable and desired."

Anonymous: "Several years ago I got a revision request from an agent I really wanted–and this agent asked me to change the sex of my gay main character so that the romance would be heterosexual. She made it clear it was for marketing purposes and not due to personal philosophy (because I had queried this person because LGBT was listed as a represented genre on agentquery), and explained that the switch would widen the potential market (not that there wasn’t one for LGBT characters). Even when I do see gay characters represented, I see gay men/boys far more than gay women/girls, and I wish in LGBT representation, women would be portrayed more."

D. F. Walker: "I was lucky enough to have an agent believe in my book and my lead character (a 17 year old African American male), unfortunately the book was rejected by 16 editors at 12 different publishers. [...] No one came out and suggested I change my lead character to a girl, or change his race, but there were some not-so subtle hints. The worst rejection came for the publisher I really wanted, as they have a decent record of publishing books for boys. Two different editors rejected the book, for the reasons above, but one added that it was also 'too dark' and 'too violent.' This shocked me, as I had read books this same editor had worked on, that were far more dark and violent than mine. Unless you are an already established author with a solid following, it is extremely difficult to get anything published outside the norm of what current trends are dictating. And even then it is difficult. No one wants to take chances, and the decision makers are largely individuals with limited vision."

Lori Lopez: "I talked with the agent and felt as if he really got the intent of the story. He had a few suggestions one being that I change the main character's sexual orientation. And here I thought he got the story. The MC is not a lesbian, though she is in a lesbian relationship, for reasons he should have understood. It’s a pivot point in the plot and one that a good part of the plot revolves around. He said it would limit the publishers he could approach. I laughed because this would limit the possibilities but the fact that she is also promiscuous with men, apparently wouldn’t. There are two scenes in the book where the characters kiss and one where they are lying naked in bed together, those needed to be taken out but the several where the MC is in bed with men, doesn’t. Really?"

M. J. Locke: "I had an agent once express discomfort with a gay character, but the agent backed down when I insisted on keeping the character as is. This was in the early nineties."

"thisisme": "This is so depressing. In 1988/89 I was getting rejection letters from editors that said (I paraphrase): 'I’m not homophobic and I’d publish it… except for this gay relationship presented as normal.' It did get published, but little enough seems to have changed since then."

Katherine Phelps: "I decided to write a YA novel that pulled the curtain away from [cultural and religious] differences and made them explicit, in order to encourage greater tolerance. One character has a Vietnamese mother who keeps a little shrine at the door. Then just as I finished the book, 9/11 took place. I thought, great, what an important time to put out such a novel. Agents and publishers thought differently. I repeatedly received rejections that said, 'Your writing is professional, but we feel uncomfortable with the material.' We hold such high ideals for publishing from having read those works and those authors who changed the world with their bravery. Sadly, publishing is a business, and people trying to make a living within it rarely have the vision, insight, and courage to publish from a place of integrity and social justice."


On the other hand, a blog entry from agent Michael Bourret, "De-gaying YA":

In the interest of full disclosure, I passed on the manuscript in question. [...] 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.
Except that we just saw that they are. Let's not even get into the whole Wicked Pretty Things business that we all apparently just hallucinated this spring.

Here's the thing: I think, for the purposes of this discussion, it would be best to take the word "homophobia" off the table. Not because that is or is not what's happening, or that it isn't a valid concern--I'm saying, set aside that question for a separate discussion, because it's the exact point where communication here is breaking down. Most people in this discussion don't want to be homophobic, wouldn't consider themselves or their friends or their colleagues to be, and immediately shut down once the word comes up. "That's not true. That's not what I am. So this is not a problem I have. I'm not censoring anyone, so censorship is not a problem." A number of the author complaints posted above actually support this interpretation--the issue isn't about industry feelings towards gay people; it's about their feelings towards marketing books about gay people. I know that sounds like a fine distinction, but in order to get anything productive done, we're going to have to use a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer for the moment.

I think that there are really two different issues going on here. Publishing probably really is one of the least homophobic industries, in terms of who works in it and how they feel about people in real life. No one wants to be called "homophobic," particularly people who are, in their personal dealings, anything but. That word comes out and people shut down, stop listening, stop believing. There is a difference between "I am gay," "my friends are gay," "my relatives are gay," "I would never do or say anything homophobic," and "I don't think this really good book will sell if the characters are queer." The latter is a far more subtle, widespread, insidious problem. As Marie Brennan puts it, "You don't have to hate gay people to contribute to the ways in which they get silenced. It can happen even if you like them, because that's how institutionalized prejudice works."

Let's go back to Scott Tracey's post for a moment:

Now, one of the initial outcries to the article was people coming forward saying they invited LGBT books, or were open to them.

That’s not exactly the same thing as putting out that content.

There is also a difference between books with gay supporting characters, and books with gay MAIN characters. Yes, there is a LOT of LGBT supporting characters in YA. But there are significantly less MAIN characters who are LGBT. In the former, the gay characters may have storylines, but the main story is about a hetereosexual character who is going through his/her own issues. In the latter, the gay storyline is more present, and of much more concern.

When I wrote WITCH EYES, I did it because there weren’t a lot of options to read a fairly traditional urban fantasy novel with a gay romance…so I wrote one. And now we’re starting to see more and more of these stories, and there’s more INTEREST in these stories.

Now, we are three years away from when I was on sub with WITCH EYES, and those experiences. So maybe things have changed. All I know is that in my experience, it happened. And it happens. But that doesn’t mean it’s the rule, or there’s NO content or support out there. Because it changes every day, and beliefs that people had three years ago, or five, or even ten, might not apply anymore.
Back to Michael Bourret again:

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.
And I think they're both right. Everyone is coming around to the same point: we all think this is a problem, we all want publishing to be better. Nobody who wants more diversity wants to hear that the choices they made weren't brave enough, that their well-meant advice is part of the problem, that they might have to accept weaker sales in a struggling industry if they want to be able to say they did the right thing. That's why I want to differentiate this from blunt, sledgehammer homophobia, because otherwise, no one will take it to heart; no one will recognize themselves in it. You know what's homophobic? This anonymous comment on the Stampfel-Volpe post:

I'm so tired of the reactionary nature of the internet. This is a case in point of that.

As a reader, I don't want to be force-fed something I'm not comfortable with reading or dealing with. This goes for anything, not just homosexual content.

Do homosexuals exist? Do rapists exist? Do drug addicts and drug dealers exist? Do dark and scary things exist?

Yes. But that doesn't mean I want to read about it. I read to escape and if a book leaves me feeling enraged or depressed or anything that isn't a feeling I want to have hanging over my day or week, it's not a book for me.

It has nothing to do with homophobia or bigotry of any kind.
You can be a wonderful, non-homophobic person and still be complicit in catering to people like this, tiptoeing around them and hoping to keep their business--people who equate "homosexuals" with "dark and scary things." That is the problem: good people taking the safer path. Just make it easier for readers to deal with. Just take out the dark and scary things so a good book will sell more and be more widely read, whether it's now the same book at heart or not. That's what all of those complaints up there have in common, whether the issue was cultural, racial or sexual: it was something that the agent or editor might not personally have a problem with, but something that they were afraid would turn prejudiced readers away. That, to me, is what Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith's initial post was about--

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.

--and what so many of these subsequent posts, even the ones that disagree, have touched on: publishers need to put out books about all kinds of people, and readers need to let publishers know that they will buy them. And they need to not let fear stop them, because YA saves, and kids need these books.

@robin_talley: The BEST thing you can do, if you're upset by #yesGayYA, is buy queer YA books. http://www.leewind.org.

That's all this was ever supposed to be about, I think.



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Thanks for putting this together. And so wonderfully formatted!

The whole thing got so messy in such a short amount of time. I don't think anyone really wanted to admit that there was something wrong with the publishing world in regards to LGBTQ representation in YA, as noted by how quick many people were to unquestionably defend & support the agent's post. It's all well & good to defend LGBTQ content in YA and support diversity on twitter & blogs posts and so on, but when it comes to the crunch, the numbers back everything up. 1% is embarrassing. At the end of the day, we just need to support LGBTQ YA books with our wallets as well as our words. I've had worse reasons to buy more books!

Thanks. Re: formatting, this is one of those moments where I do not in the least regret dropping out of grad school, because 1) I clearly got sufficient learnings out of the classes I did take, and 2) oh dear God I do not want to pay to write things like this for a grade ever again.

I'm just so amazed by how violently everyone flip-flopped, particularly after the critical thinking that was afforded to the Wicked Pretty Things case. For some reason, this was a situation that people just really, really did not want to hear or believe in. And names weren't even named!

I don't want to believe that the agency account is untrue, but I cannot believe that Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith are lying. If you turn it into an issue of mutually exclusive truths--which was unnecessary in the first place--I have to believe the writers. As several people pointed out, if they were really doing this for publicity--if they were lying--the easiest thing to do would be to keep lying and swear up and down that this agency was not the one in question, rather than have someone try to "expose" them.

As for why they were motivated to speak out in the first place--scroll down that list of complaints I threw in. It goes on FOREVER. If they were hearing a similar number of complaints, I can see why you'd want to call for change. It made me want to, and I don't even have a dog in this race.

(Sorry, this isn't really in response to your comment. Apparently I have a lot of feelings about this.)

Nice summary! Thank you. :)

-The Gneech

*leans back satisfied and has a cup of tea* This post was fantastic. Thank you, Cleo. :)

I'm really, really uncomfortable with the tenor of Lindsay's post. So much of it sounds so much like she (and the people backing her up) are trying to blacklist or silence the authors insolved by painting them as diva-tastic troublemakers who wouldn't accept that their book sucked. It's not quite Chrictopher Navatril terriroty (. . . yet) but it seems to have been done in a similar spirit, and I don't like that at all.

And yeah- the agent/publisher response to the whole thing seems to run along the lines of "nuh-uh! I'm not a homophobe! The mean authors called me a bad word!" This is the opposite of constructive, especially since the authors never said that. They said "this is a systematic problem, and we need to address it." Making it All About Them is not only disengenous, it's also silencing and dismissing the people who are ACTUALLY being hurt by this- i.e. the gay teenagers.

I understand the tone of both her note and the agent's post itself: there's a lot of personal hurt there, and people are often compelled to say some really rough things when they want to defend others. My question is how present Joanna Stampfel-Volpe was for the actual conversation. I mean, she totally might have been there. If she wasn't and The Agent in Question simply told her the story, that's yet another telephone in the game, as it were. And it's not even that I think TAIQ is lying, either. I just think people involved are very invested in their own idea of themselves as good, not-homophobic people (which may also be objectively true), and it hurts to be told that well-meant advice was silencing, particularly if they don't see it that way. Maybe you even minimize what you actually said because you're afraid you've damaged the agency itself, and your defenders run with that. And so people come out with guns blazing, and the further we get into people's feelings and away from the event itself, the more distorted the story becomes.

That's what I think happened, at any rate.

God. I reblogged that announcement when it came out, and just...no. I can't wrap my head around it. Finding myself an author for the first time ever (of fanfic) and that fanfic being mostly of the slash variety, I'm really pretty incensed for the authors here. You can't just...flip a character's sexuality like turning off a light switch. Sure, it may not be the most important thing about who they are, but it is who they are. And doing so in service of sales to make people more comfortable with their own latent homophobia? Just feeds the ugly beast, no matter what the marketer's personal opinions might be.

Honestly, that anonymous comment was kind of a gift, because it was such a perfect illustration of why YA publishers are so anxious about LGBTQ content in the first place, as completely separate from any possible personal homophobia.

Thank you for putting this all together.

Thank you! I really appreciate you taking the time to sort through all the comments and posts and put this together. It's really helpful.

I also think it's useful to look at Stampfel-Volpe's post very carefully, and realize that there is not nearly as much difference in the actual content of what she claims they said to Smith and Brown as what people are taking away from it. I feel like everyone is focusing on, "Oh, they didn't MEAN to be homophobic" instead of the more insidious "Take out the gay character [for these dumb reasons]." I know you talk about that in the post, but I'm just baffled by people who seem to read Stampfel-Volpe's piece and come away with an idea that it makes what Brown and Smith say FALSE.

I mean, the agent doesn't actually say that they didn't talk about the gayness of the character, does she? She just says that all of those reasons were because of editorial comments and middle grade issues (which, by the way, when did we get the memo that ALL MG couldn't have even the barest hint of sexuality in it, no kissing, no crushes?). So what might be happening here is that Smith and Brown didn't include the excuses for the straight-washing because they felt it wasn't particularly relevant. Sadly, there's a subset of people who seem to feel that the excuses for people behaving in homophobic ways (who might not actually be homophobic) matter more than their actions.

I do wonder, though, if we could ask the agent explicitly (and it is strange that the agent in question didn't actually post this rebuttal, and adds a layer of obfuscation that doesn't sit well) about the part of the conversation where she supposedly said they could reveal the character to be gay in later books. It isn't addressed one way or another in the rebuttal, you'll notice.

Yeah, the only "evidence" that the original post was false is an assertion that "none of it is true," really. As Jane pointed out, it's also inconsistent, which is telling. And honestly, yeah--the "let him come out in later books" part is the crux of the issue to me. Either you had a conversation about minimizing the character's sexuality or you didn't, and it's clearly separate from the POV issue, which at least is an appropriate technical critique.

I've been hearing about this for days--both sides of the argument--and thank you, thank you so much for bringing all the fallout to one place for our convenience.

As a YA writing bisexual (not exactly closeted, not exactly out either), I often wonder how prominent to make my LGBT characters, or how relevent to make their sexuality to the story, and whether I'm writing them this way to fill a certain quota or because it's actually right for the story.

And that's before wondering what will happen once I finish edits, synopsis-writing, and work up the nerve to submit the damn thing.

Can I have a link for your books?

I'm thinking of doing a follow up post of where to purchase GLBTQ YA books.

Excellent job here. Glad to see it all laid out. I've known Rachel through mutual fandom friends for over a decade, and I lean strongly toward her version of events.

My main questions about the agency response are the same as yours: Was the agent who wrote it directly involved in the negotiations or working off the word of people who were? And did the agency's lawyers approve the post? Because it makes me think of words like "libel."

I don't know about the post itself, but the "hoax" tweet was so casually libelous that my patience with the whole business just snapped. Not that the poster was intentionally malicious, but it was just such a sign of how badly misconceptions were snowballing.

The post itself--I'm with Jane, there is no lawyer who would have approved that, and even Rose Fox wrote that she suggested an "alternative" statement. Which I'm guessing was like, please, hand me the rope you are about to hang yourself with, I can't watch you do this.

This is the best summary I've read on this subject, thank you for this.

I think this one of the problems with a lot of homophobia (and racism and sexism for that matter): it's a lot quieter and less conscious--it's not active hatred ("there should be no gay characters!") but something subtler and not necessarily badly intended* ("it's very hard to market gay YA"). I think it's part of why a lot of the changes that need to happen go so slowly.

(And yeah, great write-up.)

Yeah. I just really think--particularly having watched the WPT thing go down--that it's important to see that good people can do well-intended things that still need to be reconsidered. Otherwise, it's just "I'm not homophobic!" all over the place.

Thanks so much for this post, especially the round-up of people with similar experiences. I'm sure there's so much more out there that we don't know about, too.

All this energy spent on finger-pointing when we should be focusing on the bigger picture... it's exhausting.

Do homosexuals exist? Do rapists exist? Do drug addicts and drug dealers exist? Do dark and scary things exist?

ONE OF THESE THINGS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHERS.

::takes a chill pill::

That is just the most amazing comment, yes. "It has nothing to do with homophobia or bigotry of any kind." O RLY. Also, apparently a (hypothetical) nice, sweet YA book about a queer character is by default "a dark and scary thing." Good to know.

Thank you for this comprehensive and level-headed summary.

Thank you so much for writing this up!

Thanks for the extensive summary! Wow, I had no idea it would just explode like this. I really hope something good comes out of it and Rachel and Sherwood aren't given the publishing stink-eye instead.

I have noticed a ton of authors defending them or taking their side, although a lot of people are also standing by the agency, which seems to have a good reputation of long standing. It's a tough situation. Obviously there are various sets of people who would never want to work together after this, but I'm hoping neither side is blacklisted over this.

Thanks so much for your post, which does a fantastic job of exploring a nuanced issue. And that's what the internets forget. This is a complicated nuanced issue.

I'm struggling with it, I have to admit. In some ways, it seems we are asking publishing to be a light unto the nations - to publish content that (maybe) people don't buy because it should be out there and people should read it - which is a moral judgment based on personal values. (I'm trying to distance the fact that those moral values coincide with mine, for the sake of discussion.)

But we defended publishing for doing just that when it came to the Wall St. Journal scandal about "dark" YA. Is LGBTQ content any different? No. Or at least, it shouldn't be considered differently. Is it? I'm not sure. I really feel from ALL of the various comments and posts that I can't tell. They're all anecdotal and they are all feuled by lots of very personal hurt and anger. One challenge in my consideration of this issue is that publishing rejection is subjective. And often there aren't clear reasons given. Some people say they were specifically told gay was the problem. Do I believe that? Sure. Do I also believe that people may be rejected for other reasons and ascribe it to gay content? Sure.

We have Malinda Lo's post with actual numbers (ya for facts!) about the amount of LGBTQ content that's published. I'd be very interested to see figures about whether those books sell/get award attention. Is it true that LGBTQ content doesn't sell? (If so, is the publishing business still required to be a light unto the nations and expend money on things that don't make it money because it's the right thing to do? I don't know what I think about that . . . if I put my own values about the matter aside.) I also worry about whether we have a chicken/egg situation in which this content is screened out before the buying public is given a chance to vote with their pocketbooks.

In sum, it's complicated . . . .

Yeah, I have a hard time demanding that companies publish things they might lose money on Just Because. It's their right to refuse. That's why I think the original post was more on point, because it was about changing the atmosphere in which publishers would be wary of LGBTQ content--getting readers to show that they want to buy it, and so on.

What I would really like to see (poor Malinda Lo, like she needs more work to do) is what percentage of YA bestsellers have LGBTQ content. If bestsellers have a significantly higher percentage than books that just didn't sell for whatever reason, that suggests that the market could support more LGBTQ content, and the overall low percentage is due to not much being published in the first place.

(Deleted comment)
At first I thought that this was, in fact, a continuation of the Wicked Pretty Things mess. Which, in a sense, it is... but not like I thought.

Yeah, when I first RTed something about it, people were like, "Didn't we already go through this?" Yeah... we did.

This is an important issue! So many LGBT youths feel so isolated because there's no proof out there that anybody else exists that's going through what they're going through. Just as important a message as "It gets better" is, "You're not alone."

Yeah... I'm just so amazed that this happened on the heels of #YAsaves. I thought we went over this already!

nicely done.

Hopefully this gets some traction and progess gets made.

Wow.

I am so glad you've put that last link in there, because I plan on buying a bunch of those.

My favourite author, Tamora Pierce, has written a book where one of the main characters is gay - but this was about 20-25 books into her publishing career. I do wonder what it would be like if this was the first book she'd published.

IIRC, Thom and Roger from the Alanna books were explicitly in a relationship in the earlier drafts, but it got taken out. I have no idea whether or not it was an editorial decision, though.

would love to vote with my wallet and buy more books with LGBTQ characters. Anyone have recommendations of books with a female, latina, bisexual character?

Mayra Lazara Dole's Down to the Bone has a Latina teen questioning her sexuality (I think she decides she is lesbian in the end, although IIRC there are bi and genderqueer characters too)! I have a few issues with the book but also really liked how there was a spectrum of Latin@ teens and sexualities.

Thank you so much! I've always been a bit suspicious about it so it's nice to see everyone's version of events.

Now about those best-selling YA books...

Lord of the Rings...depends on your point of view...Gimli and Legolas were totally Romeo and Juliet with a better ending...

Twilight...nada, zilch, zip...gay werewolves are apparently impossible?

Harry Potter...now I thought it certainly seemed like she was describing Albus and Gellert in a torrid romance but it was nice to have that confirmed. However, in the movies?

nada, zilch, zip

Someday, I would love for a movie about Albus' early years, like X-Men: First Class but with actual kissing...

The statement in question could possibly mean that the characters could remain, but their POV scenes should be rewritten from the perspective of the (now) "main" characters; the differing accounts of the conversation leave this unclear.

I can explain that part. We were given several alternatives for dealing with the character, Yuki.

1. Cut his POV and remove all references to his sexuality. He'd still be in the book, but be seen through the eyes of other characters. And he wouldn't be gay. He'd be a straight-seeming non-POV character.

That was the point in which the agent in question suggested that if we just never mentioned his orientation, maybe he could be revealed to be gay in hypothetical later books.

This was the change which got discussed the most. Alternatives 2 and 3 were mentioned briefly and in passing, when Sherwood and I argued vehemently against # 1. They were:

2. Cut him from the story entirely.

3. Make him straight.

It was not explicitly said that if we made him straight, we could keep his POV. We never asked about that. So I'm not sure if that was ever on the table or not.

But it was very, very explicitly stated that we could not have an out gay character in the book.

I will also note that while his main storyline isn't about being gay per se - the book is set in a non-homophobic society - he has a romance with another boy which is a major part of his storyline, and also plays into larger plot issues which affect other characters. Cramming him into the closet would entail significant rewrites to the entire book, and would destroy his own story.

Cut his POV and remove all references to his sexuality. He'd still be in the book, but be seen through the eyes of other characters.

Yeah, that was my best guess from the wording of the statement. I'll add that in.

I went to a publishing event last night and was chatting with an agent, telling her about a YA I'm trying to sell and she perks up an asks if it's a GBLT YA. So, from my experience with this agent, there's interest in GBLT YA.

As for this whole out of control situations, I honestly don't know what to believe. What would these 2 authors and even the agent get out of lying or flubbing the facts of what was said?

And if an agent did ask to make a character straight instead of gay, doesn't that necessarily make them a bigot?

There seems to be more here than meets the eye.


"And if an agent did ask to make a character straight instead of gay, doesn't that necessarily make them a bigot?"

I apologize, I meant to say it doesn't necessarily make them bigot.

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