Literary agent asks YA authors to cut gay characters

LGBT issues and characters in YA books have long been an important matter. Could there be a more important time to read about queer lives than when you’re a teenager, sussing out your own identity and trying to make sense of the world? In the fight to create diversity in literature and in the world, no one could really deny the need for more quality YA books with queer characters. No one, except maybe some shady literature agents.

This week the news broke on Publisher’s Weekly’s blog that two writers, Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith, co-authors of Strangers, a “post-apocalyptic young adult novel” had their work blatantly discriminated against. Their novel was considered by a literary agent from a major agency (who represents an unnamed current YA bestseller), but the agent had one condition: that the writers eliminate or change the gay main character, one of five main characters in the book.

Rachel Manija Brown

“Making a gay character straight is a line in the sand which I will not cross,” Brown said in her response to the agent’s demand. “That is a moral issue. I work with teenagers, and some of them are gay. They never get to read fantasy novels where people like them are the heroes, and that’s not right.” In the article, she continues: “When you refuse to allow major characters in YA novels to be gay, you are telling gay teenagers that they are so utterly horrible that people like them can’t even be allowed to exist in fiction.”

The agent apparently wasn’t blanching at any sexual content that could’ve cause controversy. The authors say that the gay character’s romantic life involves kissing, but absolutely nothing different than the action the heterosexual characters in the book get. After the authors refused to un-gay this character, the agent tried to bargain, saying that if the book became popular, they could perhaps introduce a gay character later in the series, i.e. after sales had been secured. On behalf of champions of gay YA lit everywhere, these authors declined. Their book remains without agent and unsold.

It’s a brave thing for writers who have experienced this kind of discrimination to speak up, knowing that the publishing world can become a very small place when you’re calling colleagues out on their uncouth practices. Writers are coming forth with similar encounters across the board, including Nicola Griffith, who smartly responded to her agent’s question of why one female character would have a girlfriend with the answer: “Because she’s a dyke.” All told, though, it sounds like the publishing world is sometimes requesting not only the exclusion of queer characters, but also of characters of color, or characters with disabilities.

In sci-fi/fantasy series in particular, the lack of diversity is stunning. Fantasy books are also obviously popular choices for young readers (who didn’t want to escape into a completely different universe, when you’re in high school battling gossip and acne and homework?), so the absence of diverse characters carries heavy repercussions. Teenagers of all types should be able to see themselves in books. And while realistic fiction has branched out in diversity over the years (think of Jacqueline Woodson’s books, Julie Anne Peters’ lesbian and transgender characters, even the presence of Emily in the Pretty Little Liars series), it’s important for this diversity to reach fantasy books, too.

The Publisher’s Weekly post does a grand service by not only shining a light on the issue, but offering solution. They provide resources for titles of fantasy/sci-fi YA books with queer characters (valuable on many levels, including my new found knowledge that there’s a “supernatural boarding school comedy with lesbian vampires” out there: Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins). They also provide titles of fantasy/sci-fi YA books with protagonists of color, and suggest actions that concerned people can take all the way down the publishing totem pole, from agents and editors to bloggers and readers. And while the world of agents tend to serve a more mainstream publishing model, there are the independent presses, too, like Tiny Satchel Press, who are unabashedly committed to diversity in YA literature.

Of course, one of the first queer fantasy YA books that jumps to many minds is Malinda Lo’s recent successes, Ash and Huntress. She actually had a positive experience with shopping her fantasy book for teens, complete with queer protagonist to the publishing world, which is uplifting, to say the least.

There’s a beautiful scene in Ash, where the main character leaves the house she’s serving to see the holiday celebrations in the square, and she witnesses two women kissing in the midst of the revelry. What’s grand is that this is not the focus on the scene; this isn’t some epiphany where the main character realizes she’s gay. It’s a passing moment; it’s beautiful reality. If agents are alarmed by the presence of gay characters in YA books, they should take a look at what Lo does so gracefully. The presence of queer or diverse characters in literature makes it more than just queer literature: their presence makes it real.

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