On her blog, The Swivet, Colleen Lindsay hosted one of the agents involved in the story I linked to, “Authors Say Agents Try to ‘Straighten’ Gay Characters in YA.” Joanna Stampfel-Volpe saw the novel described in the piece, and explains why she and her colleagues decided to pass. Indeed they did ask for the gay character to be removed, but not because he was gay:
The first bit of editorial feedback we gave was that they change the book from YA to middle grade, which would mean cutting most of the romance entirely (for both the straight and gay characters). The book included five character points-of-view (POVs). Our second bit of editorial feedback was that at least two POVs, possibly three, needed to be cut. Did one of these POVs include the gay character in question? Yes. Is it because he was gay? No. It’s because we felt there were too many POVs that didn’t contribute to the actual plot. We did not ask that any of these characters be cut from the book entirely. Let us repeat that, we did not ask that any of the characters in the book –gay or straight—be cut from the book. Also, we never asked that the authors change any LGBTQ character to a straight character.
The post links to a very thoughtful analysis and roundup of all subsequent discussions by Cleolinda Jones. She focuses in on some of the key issues namely: comments may have been misinterpreted, prejudice can exist without homphobia, and there is a subtle difference between rejecting a manuscript because you think the content is wrong versus rejecting a manuscript because you believe enough people think that the content is wrong that it won’t sell.
From my perspective, I sincerely hope that this was all a misunderstanding. That indeed the agents did not think the multi-POV was working (I’m getting a little weary of multi-POV myself), but did not make this clear enough to the writers. That they really were working to make it the best book possible (not necessarily the most marketable). Because the other two options are just depressing. Either this blatant prejudice exists, or Smith and Brown were lying.
Cynics have implied the latter, saying that Smith and Brown were just trying to drum up publicity for a book they were having trouble selling. Such a tactic exploits a real problem, and in doing so, minimizes it. And, as Malinda Lo’s number crunching proves, LGBTQ is indeed underrepresented in YA fiction: less than 1% of YA novels have LGBTQ characters.
So I think it’s time we take a step back from the particular incident, and instead refocus on the perennial issue in children’s literature: the lack of diversity. The problem has been identified, so now what are we going to do about it? Can it really be as simple as what Jones suggests?
publishers need to put out books about all kinds of people, and readers need to let publishers know that they will buy them. And they need to not let fear stop them, because YA saves, and kids need these books.
I hope so.