Are Young Adult Novels Being De-Gayed?

The blogosphere is aTwitter this week about a very interesting article on the Publishers Weekly blog in which two published authors allege that they’ve been pressured to “de-gay” a work of commercial fiction in order to get agent representation.

I like the article a lot, because the authors are very quick to point out that the reason the book is not selling is probably much more complicated than just “the book has a gay character.” I’m also thrilled that this whole topic is finally getting some mainstream discussion. As the article emphasizes, there are a lot of people who declare, “I appreciate diversity!” But they don’t really want diversity: they want tokenism, if that.

Even so, I confess I did have something of a “I’m shocked, shocked that gambling is going on in here!” reaction to the article. Which tells me I’ve been too close to this issue. For over ten years now, I’m made my living primarily as an author of young adult fiction, often gay young adult fiction. And I’ve found these sorts of discussions are somewhat common, among agents, editors, and authors.

Then again, why wouldn’t they be? I’ve never received a $100,000 advance, but I know from my friends and colleagues that such advances (and more) are quite common, at least for books of commercial fiction.

And naturally, the more money a company is spending on you, they less “risky” they want your work to be. After all, publishing is a business, one that involves “target markets” and “marketing campaigns” and all the rest. So there are going to be discussions about what aspects of a book might cause problems in some markets.

This doesn’t seem crazy-outrageous to me. It just makes sense.

Some agents and editors are more or less “pure” about these discussions than others; sometimes they don’t bring these issues up with authors at all, so as to not interfere with the artistic process. I respect this, but as for me, I want my editors to be upfront about all their concerns, even purely commercial ones. I may not always agree with or care about their concerns, and I always want the right to make the final call myself, but knowledge is power. I prefer knowing what my editors are thinking at the time, not hear after-the-fact that this was a nagging concern they didn’t dare voice.

The bottom-line question is: do gay characters impact sales? And the answer is: yeah, I think they usually do.

Yes, there’s a vibrant market for GLBT-themed books. And yes, the younger generation is much more comfortable with these themes, even than their twentysomething peers.

(This wasn’t always the case. When my agent was shopping my first novel, Geography Club, back in the 1990s, we were told, quite baldly, that despite the fact that a lot of editors loved the book, “There’s no market for a gay-themed teen novel.” But you know what? Back then, those editors were probably right. Had the book been published in 1994, I think it might’ve tanked. But those editors were definitely wrong by the time it was published in 2003: it was part of the first wave of gay-themed teen novels that were also popular successes, helping to create today’s strong GLBT teen fiction market.)

So leading gay characters and a strong gay theme doesn’t mean your book won’t get read. These days, you can have a perfectly respectable career as a writer of GLBT young adult fiction. You can be in the mainstream bookstores and everything!

But that’s definitely not the same thing as writing a true “bestselling” book, one that’s available in huge stacks in the chain bookstores or (God help me!) the mass-market stores like Target or Costco. GLBT young adult books are still not quite “commercial” or “mainstream,” at least in terms of sales.

Think “arthouse film” versus “megaplex blockbuster.”

Even today, leading gay characters means book challenges and lost school and library sales. It probably means being put in a different category in the eyes of most bookstores and librarians. You’re a “niche.”

For whatever reason, you likely won’t end up a “true” break-out bestseller. After all, despite hundreds of existing GLBT-themed young adult books, last year’s Will Grayson Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan was the first young adult novel ever to have a leading gay character and also make the New York Times bestseller list (which it did only briefly).

And it was half told from a “straight” point of view, and was half written by a longtime New York Times bestselling author (Green)!

This may be sad or frustrating, but saying that GLBT-themed young adult books are still not quite “mainstream” or “commercial” doesn’t seem like a particularly controversial statement. It seems like just a statement of fact.

And people in publishing are thinking about this fact, whether they say it out loud or not.

In other words, the status quo isn’t just a case of editors and agents being homophobic. This may be part of it, but it’s actually much more complicated than that.

That said, GLBT books aren’t ever going to get wider readership if editors and agents are pressuring the more potentially “commercial” of those books to be de-gayed. If that happens, we’ll always be stuck in “literary” and “gay” publishing ghettos. We’ll never be in Costco, and we’ll never be made into movies starring Robert Pattinson.

Some big publisher will have to take some risks with their commercial fiction — and they might even need to be pressured to do so. This is one of the problems with GLBT young adult books, one that we need to figure out how to solve.

Which, again, is why I’m so thrilled about this insightful Publishers Weekly article. Because before you can hope to solve a problem, you have to identify exactly what the problem is, that it does actually exist. And the more discussion and awareness about the publishing industry and commercial GLBT books, the better off we’ll all be.

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