A couple of days ago, I wrote here about a story in PW in which two children’s authors claimed their agent wouldn’t take their YA novel because it had a gay male main character. I nodded: a version of this happened to me when I outlined Slow River in 1993 (in my blog I said 1994–but that’s when I sold the finished novel; the outline was in 1993). I ended up firing my agent over the matter. I appended a video of me telling that story at a reading.
It’s interesting how facts can get shredded during propagation. Pink News (the European queer paper) ran with it, and ended up saying I had a ‘run-in with publishers’ over the issue. Well, no. All my publishers have always been absolutely accepting of my work. (And only that one agent, a long time ago, has not.)
To be frank, it feels a little odd to go to sleep thinking I’d just posted a wee story on my blog for those who read my books, and to wake up to mainstream world media using my name to make a point. (Yes, I know, I know: it’s the internet. It’s global the minute I hit PUBLISH. I should expect this. Uh huh. Oh, of course I should expect world media outlets to pick up my blog. Who wouldn’t?) At least the Guardian got the facts (that is, the facts about my story) right, as did the Cape Town-based Mail & Globe. It would have been nice if they’d included the information that what happened to me happened eighteen years ago, but to be fair I’m not sure how clear that was in my story. Eighteen years is a long time. I honestly find it difficult to imagine any agent I approached these days having the response I got so long ago.
There again, I don’t write novels for young people. Different publishing categories often have different rules. Also, as I pointed out in a comment, refusing a novel doesn’t always mean the refuser is homophobic. Sometimes it just means the book, in the agent or editor’s opinion, won’t sell. Sometimes this means the writing isn’t good enough to overcome the in-built prejudice many people carry around quiltbag issues. Sometimes it means the writing isn’t good enough, period.
There are always two sides (at least) to a story. And this particular one is getting more complicated. As Colleen Lindsay reports in The Swivet:
When the PW article was first posted, I was asked by several people to retweet the piece help to spread the word. Because this piece was printed in PW, I felt safe in assuming that the facts of the story had been checked. In the spirit of righteous indignation, I retweeted the story. 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.
I don’t feel ashamed. I linked in good faith to a magazine with a professional reputation. (Just as, no doubt, people linking to Pink News are.) And while I can’t speak to what happened between the agent and authors of the PW story, my response to it is absolutely genuine. As far as I recall (and, oh, isn’t that a slippery little phrase?) it happened just the way I describe in the video. And though I regularly gets laughs when I tell the story, and the story had a happy ending, it was not a bit funny at the time. It was shocking. And because I remember that shock, because it was a shock, I’m open to the possibility that it could happen again when I least expect it.
And, clearly, something is still going on, at least in children’s/young adult literature. Malinda Lo has done a solid bit of sleuthing and tabulation regarding quiltbag main characters in YA literature. She has numbers. She has charts, broken down by year, publisher, sexuality of the main character. The charts are pretty–but I warn you, the information is not. Bottom line: in the US, less than 1% of YA fiction has a queer main character. Less than one percent. Of those characters, 50% are boys, 25% are girls, and the other 25% shared between trans, multiple characters, and ‘other’. However you slice it, YA lit is not currently representative of the population it’s intended for. Why? Well, that’s a whole other conversation…