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.