The fine line between issues and stereotypes

 Warning: rambling post ahead.

Anyone who pays attention to the rumblings of the YA-verse on twitter (as in YA writers, agents who represent them, editors and publishing houses who pub them etc) will have seen today the kerfuffle over this article on the Publishers Weekly blog.  Briefly, it is the story of a writing team who say that a specific (but unnamed) agent would only agree to represent them if they "straightened out" a gay character in their book.

I have Views on this.  Herewith:

For starters, the title of the article is misleading.  It isn't agents (plural) to which the article is referring, it is one agent.  And yes, I believe making that distinction is important.  To generalize in that way is simply another form of exactly the same problem that's being railed against.  You can't generalize a whole profession, a whole industry, by one member of it, in the same way that you can't - and shouldn't - generalize people regarding their sexuality.  To claim that "agents" - without giving specifics - do this kind of thing is sensationalist and misleading. 

I queried a novel with an openly bisexual main character, two other openly gay characters, and an atmosphere indicating that none of this was frowned upon.  I didn't do it because of any Issue, the main character is bi because he told me he was and I couldn't think of a good reason to take it out.  The others are gay because that's how the plot worked.  No part of the book is about sexuality, it's just about people.  Did I get rejections?  Yes.  Did any of those rejections cite the sexuality of the characters as a reason?  Not a single one.  I received two offers of representation, and had phone calls with each of those agents.  In one, it was mentioned only in an "I love that you did that" passing kind of way.  In the other, there was no need to mention it at all.  Off the top of my head I can name half a dozen YA books that contain LGBQT characters that I've read this summer alone.  Agents will take on these books.  Editors will love them.  Houses will publish them.  To claim otherwise is a tactic that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Why?  Oh, I don't even know where to start on the reasons, but it's mostly these: because it will scare people off writing books with a full representation of the spectrum of humanity, and authors will self-censor before those nameless, faceless agents get a chance.  Because authors will get more militant about "standing up for the cause" and the books will wind up being "issue books" about nothing other than sexuality, and that's a huge, undesirable problem.  Being defined by one's sexuality is exactly what most LGBQT people I know don't want.  They're people, not walking lists of who they sleep with.  In fact, I don't know any straight person who'd want to be defined by that list - rarely would it paint an entirely flattering picture of the person in question.

It's easy to get upset when reading an article such as the one linked above, and it's easy to take up arms for the cause, especially when everyone else is.  (Look up the #YesGayYA hashtag on twitter to see a good example.)  And I have nothing but respect and admiration for anyone who does look at something like this happening and thinks, this is wrong.  This shouldn't happen.  I agree.  It is and it shouldn't and I have absolutely no doubts whatsoever that it does happen, daily and behind closed doors and in closed minds.  The thing is, though, that you don't get to pick which generalizations and stereotypes are okay to perpetuate and which ones are Issues.  You can't, on one hand, say, "Agents do this and it is WRONG, everyone fight back!" but, at the same time, complain that YA novels (or any other subset of fiction) contain stereotypical, white-bread characters and that needs to be changed.

In short, you can't rail against the generalization of sexuality but lump an entire profession into the category of all having one single, unified opinion on said sexuality.

Even if you read the article, don't generalize, and accept that it was one agent who did this...well, so what?  Sure, it's possible that they were being guided by personal beliefs, but equally possible they were being guided by what they thought might sell.  Agents misjudge what might sell all the time, and you only have to read about [insert NYT-bestselling author here] getting 50 rejections before landing an agent to know that.  There are hundreds of agents who don't represent what I write, and hundreds of agents who represent what I don't write.  There are agents who request edits from their authors that turn out not to be the right editorial choices.  I personally know at least three people to whom that's happened.

That doesn't make the gap between author and agent an Issue.  It makes that agent not the right match for that author.  Nothing else.

And to add to what I'm sure is a list as long as my arm of unpopular opinions I hold, I'm not at all sure that the battle-cry of "we need more X" (where X equals any kind of minority or difference from the "norm") isn't part of the problem.  Do we need more gay characters in YA?  Yeah, we probably do.  We also need more kickass girls and fewer assholes and more non-catty relationships between BFFs and a whole host of other things.  We need more realistic people in our books, however those people manifest.  Defining anyone, be it an actual human or an imaginary creation, by one particular aspect of who they are is a slippery slope that, I think, subtly but surely teaches us to view them as one-dimensional.  Not good for a person, not good for a character.  Open-mindedness is about more than accepting one whole facet of a person.  It's about accepting that they have four thousand whole facets and each of them deserve attention.


Jonquil said...

If you read the comments, nine different people have spoken up and said this happened to them -- including one whose editor removed all the gay references between the copyedit and the galleys!

Nine different people who were told "Take out the gay and I'll sell this book". Are you saying they all talked to the same agent, even though some of them report editorial interference?

Ementior said...

No, I'm saying with reference to the article itself, the title was misleading and that generalization is unfair, even dangerous. You'll note that I did say I'm sure this happens all the time, but to stereotype it is a symptom of the problem, not the solution. I also don't believe it's wise to ascribe motive (and I have seen the word "homophobic" tossed around regarding the agent in question) when in fact the truth of the matter is unknown. There is real, honest-to-god prejudice out there and to use that label without knowing if it's warranted diminishes its power.

As to the people in the comments (which I did not read and was not referring to in my post), clearly this bears out what I said about being sure this DOES happen. However, I still maintain that generalizing about an entire industry is no better than "straightening out" characters in fiction. The very clear fact is that books with LGBQT characters DO get published, all the time, and therefore the issue is with individuals and not the industry as a whole.

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