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Yes to Gay YA–But Don’t Stick It In the Issue Books Corner

Authors Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith lit the young adult book world up yesterday with a piece for Publisher’s Weekly discussing a situation where an agent asked them to change the sexual orientation of their main character. I’ll give you three guesses as to what the character’s orientation was. They said no, and were shocked and appalled, and wrote a piece about it, discussing their moral objections, and talking about the larger implications for the publishing industry:

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?

An explosion of commentary from authors, writers, and agents resulted as people talked about the rise in representation for gay characters, and how it’s still an uphill battle. I know when I was in middle/high school, queer as fuck, and seriously confused, I really could have done with some books that featured people like me. That’s changing; today there are more books with minority protagonists, and there are more minority authors writing those books, and I think we’re going to see a steady and increasing shift in that direction.

But the conversation also set off some alarm bells for me, seeing the way that some people talked about gay YA and fiction that includes minority characters in general. There seemed to be a tendency to categorise them as ‘issue books,’ tales with some sort of agenda. Moralising books; the sorts of things some of us may remember reading in middle school and discussing in serious tones. Agent Sarah LaPolla, talking about personal politics, was careful to make a distinction, focusing specifically on books that are advancing particular political views (good or ill), but others were not so circumspect.

Here’s the thing: A book isn’t an issue book because it contains a minority character. Take Karen Healey’s The Shattering, which I just finished reading. One of the characters is lesbian, it comes up in the text, there is some discussion about it, but The Shattering is not an issue book. It’s a young adult fantasy that happens to feature minority characters. Contrast that with, say, Suicide Notes, which features a gay protagonist and is very much an issue book, since it talks about coming of age and mental health. Or Will Grayson, Will Grayson, another book with a gay protagonist that definitely fits in the ‘issue book category.’ All three of these are fine books, but they shouldn’t be treated identically.

There’s a tendency to believe that books with minorities belong in a special section. They aren’t ‘regular’ books, because the characters aren’t ‘normal.’ Which is not such a great thing, when you’re a young person looking for people who look like you. Some folks really love issue books, and I have a soft sport in my heart for them myself, but I also love it when minority characters are allowed to just be and it’s a natural part of the story, rather than the focal point. The reality is that we don’t go around being walking issues; we have lives, we do things, our minority identities are part of us but they aren’t the focal point, and with YA in particular I think it’s critical to make sure that representation includes not just a centring of issues, but also a showing of us in our natural habitat, so to speak.

It is harder to get representation, and to get a sale, with minority characters. Whether you’re writing an issue book specifically or something else entirely and your characters aren’t poured out of a bag of Wonderbread. Which makes it critically important to make sure that the publishing industry, and the world in general, knows that we aren’t ‘issues.’ We’re human beings who do things and have rich and complex lives, and we belong on the same shelves as the general fiction. Or the fantasy. Or the mystery. Or the science fiction. Or whatever genre it is that we happen to be. A book with a gay character isn’t ‘gay fiction’ unless the author wants it to be. A book by a transgender author isn’t ‘transgender fiction’ again, unless the author wants it to be.

It’s not just young adult fiction that suffers from this problem. N.K. Jemisin wrote about this in ‘Don’t Put My Book in the African-American Section‘:

Any bookstore or library which shelves my stuff in AAF has assumed that my work is automatically of interest to black readers — and only black readers — because I’m black. It further assumes that black readers don’t care about the book’s actual content; they’ll just read anything by a black author. Yet further this practice assumes that white readers are too xenophobic to consider reading a book written by someone of another race, so such books shouldn’t even be allowed into their sight.

This tendency, to think that books by or about minorities are only of interest to people with that identity, is very common. Jemisin focused on the racist roots of the African-American section, and the racist implications that continue to this day with the trend of pushing books by Black authors to their own separate area, instead of shelving them where they belong, in the shelves by subject or genre. This isn’t the only literature that gets segregated, depending on bookstore and policies. Where would you look for a copy of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit or Rubyfruit Jungle in your bookstore? Would your bookstore even carry either of these texts?

So yes. Yes I say to gay YA. Yes yes yes. Queer those bookselves up. And yes to trans YA. And disabled YA. And nonwhite/people of colour YA. And fat YA. Yes to minority representation in young adult fiction, yes to young minority folks having access to stories with folks like them. And yes, too, to including minority YA in its proper genre, not pushing it off into the corner where the issue books go, because not all minority YA is an issue book.

And while issue books have an incredibly important place in this world, so does neutral representation of characters who happen to be minorities. An ass-kicking swordfighting mage who happens to be disabled, say, a Black airship captain, a transgender student body president. Yes to books where minorities are integrated into the storyline naturally, where the focal point is not who they are and their identities, but what they do. Because it’s so, so hard to grow up with the constant reminder from everyone around you that you are not normal, to attempt to escape into fiction and to be unable to identify with any of the characters because none of them are like you. It’s so, so dehumanising to be reminded that you’re only important when you can be worked into an educational ‘issue book,’ and you don’t belong in ‘regular stories.’ And the fact that this trend tends to continue into adult literature, particularly with Black and queer literature, just drives that knife even deeper.

Let us not forget, in our hurry to defend gay YA, that this is not just about issue books, but an issue of representation across the board.

I’m editing this post (15 September) to note that a representative of the agency involved in the original story has responded, saying that the narrative advanced is…not correct, and the authors responded, affirming what they said originally and highlighting that their goal was to have a conversation about this issue, not to single out a single agent or agency.. I suspect that more information is going to be emerging in the coming days and I’m hesitant to say anything else about it, because it’s hard to establish facts in a they said/they said situation, but the core issues brought up in that post, and here, and in other reactions on the Internet, are not going to go away even if everyone manufactures a lot of drama and accuses everyone of lying. Minority representation in YA fiction is something we need to be addressing, as is the way we talk about it.


  1. liz wrote:


    Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  2. Steph M. wrote:

    This is an area where a sea change may ultimately be instigated by the self-publishing industry – some authors are achieving popular success and then getting attention from publishers; a good writer that theoretically corner a unfilled market going that route.

    Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  3. Susan wrote:

    A very good point! It’s not just Gay YA we want, but gay (etc.) people in YA. (But that wouldn’t make a snappy hashtag.)

    Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink
  4. B. wrote:

    Yes! Yes. Seanan McGuire has a similar take:

    Saying “queer YA exists” distracts from the issue at hand: there is very little in the way of YA with queer characters, as opposed to queer YA. And that’s something we should be aware of, and something we should be working to fix. My sexual orientation did not somehow change the stories that I was interested in, or the adventures I was able to have as a human being. It was just one factor, amongst a whole lot of other factors. We need explicitly queer YA the way we need sports books and horse books and The Babysitter’s Club and every other niche story: to tell us that this is okay, that this is an option. But characters in apocalypse YA ride horses, play sports, and babysit for children. So why can’t they date whoever they want, without being changed into something they’re not?

    Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink
  5. NoraReed wrote:

    “Issue Books” is a phrase I haven’t really heard before and it’s great. Thanks for it.

    I think this is one of the thing that ensamble casts are good for; it’s a way to ease into queer/disabled/minority/fat/etc characters without getting categorized as an “Issue Book”. Not that it’s a great final solution (hopefully eventually people will be cool with picking up books with queer/disabled/minority/fat/etcMCs and not feel like that dominates their entire story), but it’s a step in the right direction, I think. I’m looking at Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic series when I say this; it has 4 protags, one of which is fat, one of which is described as black (well, what we think of as black, it’s not a world with an Africa in it, but she has dark skin and textured hair). One of them (I won’t say which because of spoilers) is a lesbian, which you don’t find out about for a rather long time (not because of a coming out process or her hiding it or anything, it just doesn’t come up until they’re actually romance-age). Pierce has a lot of supporting queer characters (including a *gasp* transwoman in Bloodhound, who as a bonus is a really cool character in her own right) around too, but except for the CoM series they’re not protagonists.

    To take this out of YA (but not out of genre) I think this is the good thing about Willow and the good thing about some Bioware characters (there are a whole slew of bisexual romanceable characters in the Dragon Age series, a couple in Jade Empire, and a lesbian option in Mass Effect). This isn’t to say that they’re all great– there’s a reason they went with making Willow gay and not Xander and there’s a reason you get a lesbian option but not a gay (male) potion in Mass Effect– but at least it’s a step.

    Though it can go the other way and you end up with, like, Issue Episodes. Which can be good or can feel like Very Special Episodes. I’m looking at you, Glee.

    Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 7:01 pm | Permalink
  6. scrumby wrote:

    Issue Books? Do these twits know how many “romance with no possible chance of sex” books there are? Those little abstinence horrors are issue books. Alright if anyone needs a palate cleanser go pick up David Leviathan’s “Boy Meets Boy” which is a cute high school romance taking place in a world where the queer/straight proportions are flipped.

    Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 1:09 am | Permalink
  7. Rebecca wrote:

    Also that 90% of the stuff in the Gay Section is invariably erotica. Way to push the stereotype that queer folks are all about the sex, bookstores.

    Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 3:22 am | Permalink
  8. E. Hill wrote:

    Last year I visited a friend who lives in a semi-rural area where Wal-Mart is the only place to buy books. I know that Wal-Mart doesn’t carry music with lyrics they deem objectionable. Do they try to exert this kind of influence over the books they will carry?

    Tuesday, September 20, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  9. Lolita wrote:

    Great post. I’ve wanted to be a novelist my entire life. I never understood that being Black is a fiscal liability for editors and publishers.

    Also, consider using the term ‘people of color’ instead of minority. There is so much power in terminology.

    Wednesday, September 21, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink
  10. @Lolita, I am not speaking on behalf of s.e. and the choice of words in the post but “People of Color” is very, very US centric. In Europe, minorities (myself included) generally do not use such term as it is not really applicable to our lived realities or social constructions. Moreover, I only use PoC when I know for a fact I am addressing an American audience because such definition is widely understood in that context. Around these parts, you can be a PoC but also you can be a non PoC and still not be White. It’s a bit complicated and has to do with not just race but also national definitions of what constitutes a member of the dominant culture and what doesn’t. In general, minority encompasses both PoC and non PoC who are still not members of the dominant culture.

    Wednesday, September 21, 2011 at 9:31 am | Permalink