AGENTS AND EDITORS
NEED TO ADVERTISE THEIR INTEREST IN DIVERSITY
That's the idea. And this series is an effort to do just that.
For now, we're focusing on agents, and today's post features agent Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management.
|Agent Jim McCarthy|
Jim McCarthy is Vice President and literary agent at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management in New York, NY. He has been with the agency for 16 years, initially starting as an intern way back in the ‘90s. He represents a wide range of fiction, adult and young adult, commercial and literary. He is also seeking narrative nonfiction, particularly memoir, history, and pop culture. His clients include New York Times bestsellers Richelle Mead, Victoria Laurie, Juliet Blackwell, Morgan Rhodes, and Suzanne Young.
And our interview:
Lee: Hi Jim!
Jim: Hi, Lee!
Lee: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk about your interest in Diversity in Children's and Teen Literature!
Jim: Happy to be here!
Lee: There's been growing discussion about how the 5,000 or so traditionally published books a year don't reflect the actual diversity of our world, including the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement and the stunningly low numbers of representation revealed in "Children's Books by and about People of Color Published in the United States," put out by the CCBC (The Cooperative Children's Book Center.)
To start us off, of the submissions you get, let's say in the past year, how many of those projects included some kind of diversity of characters or theme?
Jim: I don’t have exact counts, but I’d estimate 10-15% and say that for sure it’s less than I’d like to see.
Lee: Let's unpack that a bit: Are you seeing many stories featuring protagonists of color?
Jim: Many? No. More? Yes. Several years ago, I added language to my bio stating that I was seeking “underrepresented voices.” While I have seen an increase, the percentage of queries I receive about protagonists of color, it doesn’t match up with actual racial and ethnic breakdowns nationwide.
When I do see stories about kids of color, I’m more likely to see black or Asian characters than Latino or Middle Eastern. I’d love to see a broader array of voices in my inbox if people want to send them to me!
Lee: How about LGBTQ characters, and please break that down - are you seeing lesbian characters? gay? bi? trans*? questioning? queer or gender non-conforming?
Jim: I’ve seen a real surge in the amount of queer content. Some of that may be because I'm openly gay— I'm sure some people come to me because they connect with that personally or with certain books I've previously represented. I also think that cultural inclusion is helping, as well as the deliberate push for diversity in literature.
Breaking down my queries, I’m seeing more queer, bi, and gay females. Fewer gay males, a few more bi males. I'm encouraged by the increase in questioning, queer, and gender non-conforming characters. So far, I haven't really seen more asexual or intersex characters, which is disappointing. I am seeing a huge surge in transgender characters.
Lee: How about characters with disabilities?
Jim: This is a group whose visibility seems to have benefitted least from the diverse books push, at least in my inbox. I’d love to see more of these voices. I’d point to books I’ve represented like COURTING GRETA by Ramsey Hootman or THE ELEMENTALS by Saundra Mitchell for beautifully drawn characters who are disabled.
Lee: Are you seeing other types of diversity in the works submitted? - And please share any specific categories that spring to mind.
Jim: Diversity is such a catch-all word, so it’s hard to say. One thing I’ll note is that I’ve seen more books outside of specific faith-based publishing lately where characters explore their religion (or lack thereof). I also have a new manuscript I’ll be submitting in the Fall that really tackles issues of body image in a fascinating way while also telling a broader story.
Lee: How about the creators? Are you seeing under-represented writers and illustrators submitting to you?
Jim: What’s unfortunate to me is that I’m seeing more underrepresented characters than authors.
Lee: There's a lot of discussion about who has the 'right' to tell the story of an under-represented type of character. What's your take?
Jim: Most broadly, I believe that people need to be able to write across all kinds of lines. People can and should write about characters who don’t look or feel like them. If they didn't, that would lead to the world’s least interesting literature.
Unfortunately, along with genuinely diverse queries on the rise, I'm also seeing a sharp increase in the number of awkwardly-handled token characters who kind of hang around in the periphery until they’re called upon to be saviors.
There is so much responsibility taken when writing, and you better damn well do your research. And that’s not, “Oh, I had my one bisexual friend read it, and he said it was okay.” It’s reading and discussing and learning and challenging yourself to actually understand a group that you aren’t a part of. AND it’s about making sure that character isn’t being exploited.
You don’t get to use a black character just to show that a white character is open-minded. You can’t write a character of a religious background different than yours just to “disprove” their beliefs.
Lee: Here, here! Well said!
When you're submitting projects to editors, do you think stories with under-represented characters take more 'selling' on your part?
Jim: Less so than ever before. Years ago, I represented a novel about a black transgender teen living in poverty and trying to survive through sex work. It was a brutal and beautiful novel that I never managed to place. Pitching it felt like throwing myself into a brick wall again and again.
Occasionally, I’d get little nibbles of interest, but they went away as soon as someone tried to clear their editorial board. The closest I came was with an editor who asked me whether the author “shared the same experiences as the main character.” Because that might be more marketable.
“Is she asking if I grew up as a transgender hooker?” my client asked me. “I…um. I think she is.” He hadn’t. The editor passed.
I can’t say that I would be able to sell that novel today, but a decade on, I can say that the responses I got would have been infinitely more sensitive, appreciative, and understanding. And yeah…it would have been an easier sell. Things are getting better, yes.
I think that publishers are allowing themselves to publish broader content which means agents don’t have to worry about having a phone call where they are told that “X group doesn’t buy books,” or “Y group doesn’t buy books about X group.” Or, “It’s really good, but…I just don’t know who the reader is.”
They aren’t all the way there, but there are slow gestures in the right direction.
Lee: I often feel the sense of ‘otherness’ is transferable. That from my own experiences being marginalized (for being Gay, being ill as a teen, being Jewish, being an Atheist, etc…) I feel tremendous empathy for people who are marginalized for other kinds of ‘otherness’ as well.
Can you share what’s driving your desire to see more diversity in Children’s and Teen books?
Jim: I’m interested in stories, and I’m interested in people. It’s a really big world, and I read to understand it a little bit better. That means reading about people who live places I’ve never been, have identities I’ll never share, and respond to the world in ways I don’t.
I was the nerdy, fat, gay kid in Catholic school, so sure I’ve had some experience feeling “other.” At the same time, I’m a white man in America. I’m not going to try to pretend like I’m not extremely privileged.
I can’t claim that I understand what it’s like to be a member of most oppressed populations, so I read. I read to get closer to that understanding—I’ll never live it, but I can read the words of people who have. And that, to me, is profoundly valuable. Because understanding breeds sympathy breeds healing. And I think we need as much healing and understanding as we can get.
Lee: Tell us about some books that highlighted or included diversity that you loved and that inspired you (maybe even ones you wish you represented). What’s a Picture Book favorite?
Jim: Here’s where I confess that I know next to nothing about picture books.
Lee: Middle Grade?
Jim: Is it possible for anyone to answer this question and not mention BROWN GIRL DREAMING? Truly one of the most exquisite books in the past few years. WONDER is a stunning book. BETTER NATE THAN EVER is a favorite.
Lee: Young Adult?
Jim: I adore Sabaa Tahir’s AN EMBER IN ASHES. And Marie Lu’s LEGEND. These are diverse books, but they’re not books about diversity. They’re in that teen fantasy space that I so love and tell exceptional stories.
Lee: Okay, here’s your wish list moment. What are you looking for? Put out the call...
Jim: Oh gosh. I just want great stories. I want things that make me laugh or cry. I want to see romance and adventure and fantasy. I’m open to pretty much all middle grade and young adult.
I can say that I’d love to see books about people from a broader array of economic backgrounds, folks who live in other countries, novels set in states that aren’t coastal…truly, any experiences out there that are specific and distinctive interest me.
I also am always, always, always looking for stories set in sharply defined communities—that can mean a rural Amish community or a group of LARPers in San Diego. I’m fascinated by strong bonds within a community and the support they offer as well as the friction they cause.
I want all of those things, reflected through every lens. Is that vague enough? Send me anything amazing!
Lee: Nice. Just looked up LARPers and yeah, I'd love to read that book, too!
And for writers and/or illustrators reading this who feel a resonance with what you’ve shared and who want to submit to you, how should they go about that?
Jim: All my info is at www.dystel.com, and I’m always open to submissions!
Lee: Getting the world of Children’s literature to better reflect the diversity of our world -- the world kids today are growing up in -- is so important. Thank you so much for working to make things better!
Thanks, Jim! Look for another AGENT LOOKING FOR DIVERSITY interview of the first Monday of next month. Until then,
Illustrate and Write On!