Gay in YA, and the Circle of Suck
There has recently been an online debate that has sprung up between an agency and two authors, discussing the issue of deleting a gay storyline in a book. I am not going to go deeply into it, though there is a great summary of it here, with further excellent points made here. This issue is a super-contentious one, likely to make anyone involved in the discussion indignant, angry, upset, liable to misread, and feel many other feelings. I will say that I do not believe the authors would lie about this, for their own gain or any other reason. I also think that there may have been a misunderstanding since it’s a fraught issue, and that the agent may well have just been trying to improve the book: lots of points-of-view are fun to write, but trickier to sell to a reader, and it’s very easy to clutter up a story.
But I think that ‘let’s think of a way to keep the gay storyline, because there are too few of those around’ should be a thing to consciously keep in mind.
The important thing is this: that the world often involves a Circle of Suck.
This is the most important post made about this subject. It is WAY more important than my post. There are facts and everything.
This is a hugely important fact for people to know: Less than 1% of YA novels have LGBT characters.
Characters. Not protagonists–characters. There should also be more protagonists than there are. But really–characters?
You may notice that art is not really holding up a mirror to life here.
This is a glaring example of the Circle of Suck.
The Circle of Suck goes a bit like this. Society is set up so life is often homophobic, sexist and racist. Not to say life is a never-ending round of pain unless you’re a white straight guy. Life is often just fine: but things can–not all the time, but very, very often–be that little bit more difficult, in lots of different situations. There are more roadblocks as one tries to go on one’s merry way. (And they are REALLY different roadblocks, and combined roadblocks if you’re, say, a gay lady of colour.)
It’s generally a bit harder to get published with a book that has gay characters or characters of colour. (Ladies are mostly seen to be a necessity… because without them things start looking a little gay… but how ladies are treated in stories can be pretty troubling.) It’s a bit harder if you have both, or the characters of colour are gay. It’s a bit harder to get published with gay characters who are ladies than if they were gentlemen. It’s a bit harder to get published if you are gay or of colour.
So, overcome roadblocks, get published by one of the big publishers, fantastic! Except now it’s harder to sell the book. There are loads of roadblocks after publication, too, many of which publishers cannot control. Book fairs sometimes won’t carry the book, which hurts sales. Libraries sometimes won’t carry the book, which hurts sales. The marketing department gives the book less money, and fewer people hear of the book, less sales. The art department gets less money for the cover, and the cover’s less good and people are less likely to pick it up. Walmart and Target are much less likely to carry the book: fewer sales. Barnes & Noble are less likely to carry the book: much fewer sales. People think ‘oh my gosh, I just want entertainment, not issues’ or ‘But kids shouldn’t read books with…’ and they don’t buy or read the book. And if due to all or any of these roadblocks, the book doesn’t sell–it’s harder to get publishers to buy or promote another. All of this stuff combines, all of this stuff feeds into each other, and forms the Circle of Suck. There’s never any one thing you can point at, and it feels much more difficult to do something about, and business is business/people have a right to choose.
I was talking about art holding up a mirror to life earlier: art should. Not in the sense of ‘every book should have way more characters than is easy to keep track of, include lots of boring bits, and have characters say “Ummm” and then think of something funny to say later.’ But it shouldn’t make the world smaller and less awesome by having fewer ways to live, and ways to love, than the real world does. That makes books suck more, and writers suck more, and the world suck more.
What to do? Give up on traditional publishing? Online publishing is awesome, but there’s the fact not everyone has ready access to their own computers, and if everyone facing the roadblocks gave up, there would be even fewer of these books accessible in, say, libraries.
Urge people to buy and libraryify more books with more diversity? Sure, and it’s great and it helps if they do, but that doesn’t solve the problem of fewer books with diversity being published, promoted, or in shops. So as well as readers: marketing departments should do more, bookshops should do more, editors should do more, agents should do more, book fairs should do more, bloggers should do more, writers should do more.
How can I make this happen? Er… I can’t, and definitely not with a blog post. No one person, or one agency, or one publisher, can. I can write books with more diversity (and hope they are published), blog about this (like so) and buy and librarify books with more diversity. Editors can try to buy more, and not edit it out when it’s there, and agents take on more, and bookbuyers (the people who get books on shelves at bookshops) buy more, and readers read more. Everyone except readers and bloggers still have to make some money or–you know, find a different job, which is not ideal, but they also need to think about lessening the Circle of Suck.
For those interested in buying and librarifying, there are lists here:list of YA sci-fi and fantasy books with major LGBTQ characters list of YA sci-fi and fantasy with characters of colour, authors from A-L and from M-Z.
These lists are awesome and I am glad to have them, but there’s more Circle of Suck stuff to come. Here is a thing: my books are on those lists. I am glad to have them there. I do my best not to contribute towards the Circle of Suck, and wish to do better than that in the future, as I Learn, Grow As A Person, Become My Best Self and (please world, oh please) get smarter.
But if I wanted the Very Best Feminist books, and someone told me ‘oh, these books by these dudes, they’re awesome.’ I’d be like… ‘I’m sure they are, buddy, but… Dudes do not have the day-to-day minute-by-minute experience of what it is like to be a lady that–ladies do. No offense, dudes! You can know a lot about being a lady! You can and often do write great ladies! But–you’re not going to be my go-to here.’
Day-to-day minute-by-minute experience is the most likely to be right. I’m straight (I say this with the qualifier that sexuality can be a moving target, labels can be dicey things, I’m not saying I’ve never questioned, I’m amending this should I fall for a lady, but currently I get the fewer-roadblocks-experience of being straight) and I’m white (no qualifier needed there). I do not have that experience. I can and do try anyway, but there were fewer roadblocks to me getting published, and I am more likely to mess up.
On finding the go-to books with less messing up: Authors who do have the day-to-day minute-by-minute experience do know better, and are more likely to get stuff right. So a quick, absolutely not-exhaustive, list of YA (mainly but not all sci-fi and fantasy) LGBTQ authors or authors of colour, and those who are both, who I have read and whose books I highly recommend: Malinda Lo, Cindy Pon, Scott Tracey, Alaya Johnson, David Levithan, Perry Moore, Coe Booth, Kimberly Reid, Saundra Mitchell, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Dia Reeves, Swati Avasthi, Marie Lu and Kendare Blake.
On messing up: It’s much easier to criticise the presence of something than its absence. For instance ‘One of the gay ladies in Buffy the Vampire Slayer died!’ is more remarkable than ‘There are no gay people on The Vampire Diaries.’ (So I don’t get corrected, I know that in The Vampire Diaries Caroline Best Character on Television Queen of My Heart Forbes has a gay dad, but we haven’t seen him, and there was a gay guy who was vampire-hypnotised into sexy times with ladies, but… you can all see the problems there. And yes, yes I think I could win a Vampire Diaries trivia quiz.) You can see one of these things and not the other. I’m not sure what the solution is to not seeing absences, because that is one of the major things that helps along the Circle of Suck. I suppose I just try to be aware of it, as I try to be aware of the whole Circle of Suck. Uh–constant vigilance?
So–fewer sales, and more being criticised. Criticism is a good thing: nobody agrees with all their criticisms, but it all makes you think more, and that leads to less messing up, and messing up less in the future is the goal. Also, criticism means readers can avoid books that contain particular areas of suckiness that really get them down. But at the same time, it does always smart to get criticised, and you always want to get less of it. Trying to break out of the Circle of Suck is difficult. But being a better writer of better books is more important. So to all the people who have ever told me (or just said around) that these elements of my books could use improvement–well, that sucked for me to hear, and thank you. For those who will tell me in the future–please feel free to do so anytime, and thank you in advance.
The Circle of Suck lives inside everybody’s heads. I know it lives in mine. Everything I’m saying about books goes about ten times over for movies, and the moving pictures, they are hypnotising.
There’s no easy solution to the Circle of Suck.
I’m not much for ‘my gracious, think of the children!’ but in this case I think it’s important to do so. YA is read by many adults, but it’s also read by, you know, quite a few teenagers. Books are massively important to me now, but they were even more important back then: the books I love the very best and mean the most to me, the ones I imprinted on like a baby duck, were books I read back then. There should be a consistent effort, by everyone involved, to get books for people to stumble on, on bookshop shelves and library shelves and online, that say ‘loads of different people can be heroes/awesome/have adventures’–that show themselves there, whoever they are, because that can mean a lot, and other people too. I do think that through this consistent effort, the Circle of Suck will end somewhere down the line, and I hope that it will suck less soon.
Note to This Post: Reading over this, I did not figure out how to talk about disability as well. But–could use way more representation, too.