Saturday, September 17, 2011

Agents ask writers to eliminate their gay character (or make him straight) in their Science Fiction Young Adult Manuscript

So there's this blog post over at Publisher's Weekly from Monday of this week where two published YA authors (Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith) discuss their experience trying to find an agent to represent their collaborative post-apocalyptic young adult novel, and they say:

"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.."
Based on the facts they present, I was proud of the authors for saying "no" to that agent, and for continuing their search.

And I was also pleased that they decided to come out about the experience - because it's only by calling the industry on this kind of homophobia (and let's be clear, if that's the offer they got, that's what's going on here) that we will have a chance to make things better.

The authors talk about what I know in my heart is true, from my own adolescence:

"When you refuse to allow major characters in YA novels to be gay, you are telling gay teenagers that they are so utterly horrible that people like them can’t even be allowed to exist in fiction."

That's how I felt.  And trying to change that is one of the main drivers behind my being a writer and creating this blog.

I especially appreciated the action section of their article directed at agents and editors, calling for them to explicitly state if they are open to and looking for more works with GLBTQ characters, rather than just saying they are open to 'diversity.'

I know I have had a discussion with an editor who had just spoken about how much they wanted to encourage diversity in the genre they focused in... and when I asked them about GLBTQ characters in that genre, their whole body language changed.  Queer characters seemed too diverse for them.

I agree with the authors' decision to not name the agent.  (Similar to how I'm not naming the editor above.)  I think there are three good reasons for this.

1.  Naming them would potentially villainize and polarize that person and make it very hard for them to learn and grow to a different understanding and position in the future.  The idea is not to make enemies but to change minds and create allies.

To that point, I recently read that that same editor is now explicitly open to GLBTQ main characters - including queer characters in their vision of 'diversity' - so things can and do change!

2..  The authors also write about how when they shared what happened in private conversations with other authors, "we heard from other writers whose prospective agents made altering a character's minority identity - sexual orientation, race, disability - a condition of representation... But...  few writers have come forward for fear of being blacklisted."

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

3.  Naming them would create a witch-hunt get-the-one-bad-apple atmosphere, which wouldn't address how:
"Forcing all major characters in YA novels into a straight white mold is a widespread, systemic problem which requires long-term, consistent action."

The comments section of the post is fascinating as well.  As of Thursday there were well over two hundred and fifty comments, including a number of agents who say they're changing their guidelines to be more explicitly welcoming of queer characters, authors who have also had similar experiences with the de-gaying requests/actions by agents and/or editors, and a number of authors who shared that their books with GLBTQ main characters did not hit any resistance from either agents or editors.  

There was also a comment from an agent currently repping two YA books by different authors with gay main characters, who wrote:

"I did not commit to these two authors because they wrote gay teen protagonists. I committed to them because they are FANTASTIC writers!"
Additionally, there was an interesting back-and-forth in the comments about e-publishing as a way around this prejudice, and whether or not that's caving in to the problem.

A twitter hashtag for discussion of the topic launched at: #YesGayYA

And Brent Hartinger, who will be on today's diversity panel, wrote a really interesting response article on this here.

Malinda Lo (author of the YA lesbian retelling of Cinderella, "Ash") posted two great articles on her blog, one called How Hard Is It To Sell A LGBT YA Novel? and the other  I have Numbers on LGBT YA Books published in the U.S.! (In which she finds that "Less than 1% of YA novels have LGBT characters." They are both well worth reading.

In another fascinating angle on the story, Michael Bourret posted on his agency blog his perspective as one of the agents who passed on the manuscript - though he certainly doesn't say he was one of the agents who asked the authors to de-gay their character!
The article seemed to be a must-read, and a great launching point for discussion. 

Okay, but here's where things get really interesting:  On Thursday, in a guest post over at Colleen Lindsay's blog The Swivet, Joanna Stampfel-Volpe, an agent with Nancy Coffey Literary & Media Representation, said that she has learned that one of her agents was the agent the authors were talking about, and that it did NOT happen in the way the authors portray.  She denies that they offered representation on the condition of de-gaying the character, and goes into detail about the editorial comments they did make - that had nothing to do with homophobia or de-gaying the book.  From her perspective, the authors are using the issue to the disadvantage of her agency's reputation and to gain attention to their project. 

Nancy does acknowledge that "There are not enough mainstream books that depict characters of diverse race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and physical and/or mental disabilities," and that it is an important discussion, but feels that basing the discussion on this instance is an unstable foundation.

The writers responded to Joanna on PW's Rose Fox blog (where the original article ran), saying that yes, it was that agency and that despite what Joanna wrote, they stand by their version of events.

I don't know what happened. 

I don't know if we'll ever know exactly how things were said or interpreted or misinterpreted between these writers and this agency, but I'm still glad this larger discussion is happening - I don't want agents or editors or marketing departments or anyone in publishing to feel that it's okay to request the de-gaying or other de-minority-ing of characters.

My hope is that the blow-up about this and the ensuing discussion about this issue will:

1.  Make everyone a bit more sensitive to how important it is to include GLBTQ characters in kid lit.
2.  Give pause to publishing professionals who might otherwise have suggested the censoring of queer and/or minority characters.
3.  Encourage readers to go out and buy the queer YA and MG that is being published to build the market for these books.

We'll definitely be talking about this at our KidLitCon panel on diversity today.  What do you think?


My thanks to C. Zampa, Nora Olsen, Curtis Taylor and Greg Pincus for making sure I knew about this story and its many twists and turns, so I could share it with all of you!


Angie said...

I just posted on this myself, so I won't repeat everything. I'll point out that Cleolinda has a great summary/commentary/link collection.

My take on this is that it's useful here to differentiate between personal homophobia and institutional homophobia. If some number of agents and editors honestly believe that YA books with GLBT characters are difficult to sell, or will sell in significantly lower numbers than books without, then it's possible for these people to perpetuate the institutional homophobia of the YA end of the publishing industry without being personally homophobic themselves. Even an agent or editor who is gay and out and marches in Pride parades might reject a YA book with a GLBT protag on strictly business grounds, and believe they're doing so as a responsible businessperson, just as a publisher who owns a ranch and grew up on horseback might decide to axe a line of western fiction on strictly business grounds, because they believe western novels don't sell anymore.

Institutional homophobia is just as harmful as personal. But people respond much more defensively when they think they're being accused of personal homophobia -- just check out, oh, half the responses to this issue, all over the net, especially after Ms. Stampfel-Volpe posted her response -- and are less likely to stay calm, listen to what you're saying, and see the true problem. Someone who's slamming something that basically means "How dare you call [me/my friend/my colleague] an evil homophobe!!" out on their keyboard, and using their insulted outrage to attack back (all the people who said the authors were just making this whole issue up to hide the fact that their book was rejected because it was bad) isn't listening, isn't receptive to discussion, and isn't going to help solve the problem, because they're so busy being offended and defensive. We see this kind of defensiveness all the time in anti-racism discussions too, and it basically negates the possibility of productive discussion with anyone who wasn't already on your side. It also leads people to deny the problem exists, because "my friends aren't homophobes!" or "this industry has lots of gay people working in it!" All irrelevant if the problem is institutional rather than personal.

I agree strongly that the long-term solution to this problem is to encourage more people to buy YA books with GLBT characters; you do a great job of that here. I don't think it's productive to say that the people on the other side of this are personally homophobic, though -- even if some of them might be. The bulk of the problem is institutional, not personal, I think, and showing the publishers and editors and agents that they can make money with GLBT characters is the best way to combat it.


Celine said...

There's another very concise rundown of the whole thing, from start to finish including an excellent analysis over here

Jodie-Ann Muckler said...


Jodie-Ann Muckler said...

Yeah, I just made stupidness a word. xD

andrea (book-scout) said...

you sir, are a godsend. thanks for compiling this all in one post. i had everything bookmarked separately, and it was getting a little tricky to follow. also, i wanted to say how much i enjoyed your panel at kidliton on saturday! it really was the highlight of my weekend. i just couldn't seem to work up the courage to introduce myself to a lot of people (yourself included), and now i am kicking myself for letting the opportunity pass. next year, maybe? thanks again!

maddox said...

As always, good rundown and great message Lee. What this debate did was personally motivate to go out and write LGBTQ YA characters, and even if it gets rejected just keep trying. We need more people trying just as much as we need more people accepting it.