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Gay in YA, and the Circle of Suck

There has recently been an online debate that has sprung up between an agency and two authors, discussing the issue of deleting a gay storyline in a book. I am not going to go deeply into it, though there is a great summary of it here, with further excellent points made here. This issue is a super-contentious one, likely to make anyone involved in the discussion indignant, angry, upset, liable to misread, and feel many other feelings. I will say that I do not believe the authors would lie about this, for their own gain or any other reason. I also think that there may have been a misunderstanding since it's a fraught issue, and that the agent may well have just been trying to improve the book: lots of points-of-view are fun to write, but trickier to sell to a reader, and it's very easy to clutter up a story.

But I think that 'let's think of a way to keep the gay storyline, because there are too few of those around' should be a thing to consciously keep in mind.

The important thing is this: that the world often involves a Circle of Suck.

This is the most important post made about this subject. It is WAY more important than my post. There are facts and everything.

This is a hugely important fact for people to know: Less than 1% of YA novels have LGBT characters.

Characters. Not protagonists--characters. There should also be more protagonists than there are. But really--characters?

You may notice that art is not really holding up a mirror to life here.

This is a glaring example of the Circle of Suck.

The Circle of Suck goes a bit like this. Society is set up so life is often homophobic, sexist and racist. Not to say life is a never-ending round of pain unless you're a white straight guy. Life is often just fine: but things can--not all the time, but very, very often--be that little bit more difficult, in lots of different situations. There are more roadblocks as one tries to go on one's merry way. (And they are REALLY different roadblocks, and combined roadblocks if you're, say, a gay lady of colour.)

It's generally a bit harder to get published with a book that has gay characters or characters of colour. (Ladies are mostly seen to be a necessity... because without them things start looking a little gay... but how ladies are treated in stories can be pretty troubling.) It's a bit harder if you have both, or the characters of colour are gay. It's a bit harder to get published with gay characters who are ladies than if they were gentlemen. It's a bit harder to get published if you are gay or of colour.

So, overcome roadblocks, get published by one of the big publishers, fantastic! Except now it's harder to sell the book. There are loads of roadblocks after publication, too, many of which publishers cannot control. Book fairs sometimes won't carry the book, which hurts sales. Libraries sometimes won't carry the book, which hurts sales. The marketing department gives the book less money, and fewer people hear of the book, less sales. The art department gets less money for the cover, and the cover's less good and people are less likely to pick it up. Walmart and Target are much less likely to carry the book: fewer sales. Barnes & Noble are less likely to carry the book: much fewer sales. People think 'oh my gosh, I just want entertainment, not issues' or 'But kids shouldn't read books with...' and they don't buy or read the book. And if due to all or any of these roadblocks, the book doesn't sell--it's harder to get publishers to buy or promote another. All of this stuff combines, all of this stuff feeds into each other, and forms the Circle of Suck. There's never any one thing you can point at, and it feels much more difficult to do something about, and business is business/people have a right to choose.

I was talking about art holding up a mirror to life earlier: art should. Not in the sense of 'every book should have way more characters than is easy to keep track of, include lots of boring bits, and have characters say "Ummm" and then think of something funny to say later.' But it shouldn't make the world smaller and less awesome by having fewer ways to live, and ways to love, than the real world does. That makes books suck more, and writers suck more, and the world suck more.

What to do? Give up on traditional publishing? Online publishing is awesome, but there's the fact not everyone has ready access to their own computers, and if everyone facing the roadblocks gave up, there would be even fewer of these books accessible in, say, libraries.

Urge people to buy and libraryify more books with more diversity? Sure, and it's great and it helps if they do, but that doesn't solve the problem of fewer books with diversity being published, promoted, or in shops. So as well as readers: marketing departments should do more, bookshops should do more, editors should do more, agents should do more, book fairs should do more, bloggers should do more, writers should do more.

How can I make this happen? Er... I can't, and definitely not with a blog post. No one person, or one agency, or one publisher, can. I can write books with more diversity (and hope they are published), blog about this (like so) and buy and librarify books with more diversity. Editors can try to buy more, and not edit it out when it's there, and agents take on more, and bookbuyers (the people who get books on shelves at bookshops) buy more, and readers read more. Everyone except readers and bloggers still have to make some money or--you know, find a different job, which is not ideal, but they also need to think about lessening the Circle of Suck.

For those interested in buying and librarifying, there are lists here:list of YA sci-fi and fantasy books with major LGBTQ characters list of YA sci-fi and fantasy with characters of colour, authors from A-L and from M-Z.

These lists are awesome and I am glad to have them, but there's more Circle of Suck stuff to come. Here is a thing: my books are on those lists. I am glad to have them there. I do my best not to contribute towards the Circle of Suck, and wish to do better than that in the future, as I Learn, Grow As A Person, Become My Best Self and (please world, oh please) get smarter.

But if I wanted the Very Best Feminist books, and someone told me 'oh, these books by these dudes, they're awesome.' I'd be like... 'I'm sure they are, buddy, but... Dudes do not have the day-to-day minute-by-minute experience of what it is like to be a lady that--ladies do. No offense, dudes! You can know a lot about being a lady! You can and often do write great ladies! But--you're not going to be my go-to here.'

Day-to-day minute-by-minute experience is the most likely to be right. I'm straight (I say this with the qualifier that sexuality can be a moving target, labels can be dicey things, I'm not saying I've never questioned, I'm amending this should I fall for a lady, but currently I get the fewer-roadblocks-experience of being straight) and I'm white (no qualifier needed there). I do not have that experience. I can and do try anyway, but there were fewer roadblocks to me getting published, and I am more likely to mess up.

On finding the go-to books with less messing up: Authors who do have the day-to-day minute-by-minute experience do know better, and are more likely to get stuff right. So a quick, absolutely not-exhaustive, list of YA (mainly but not all sci-fi and fantasy) LGBTQ authors or authors of colour, and those who are both, who I have read and whose books I highly recommend: Malinda Lo, Cindy Pon, Scott Tracey, Alaya Johnson, David Levithan, Perry Moore, Coe Booth, Kimberly Reid, Saundra Mitchell, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Dia Reeves, Swati Avasthi, Marie Lu and Kendare Blake.

On messing up: It's much easier to criticise the presence of something than its absence. For instance 'One of the gay ladies in Buffy the Vampire Slayer died!' is more remarkable than 'There are no gay people on The Vampire Diaries.' (So I don't get corrected, I know that in The Vampire Diaries Caroline Best Character on Television Queen of My Heart Forbes has a gay dad, but we haven't seen him, and there was a gay guy who was vampire-hypnotised into sexy times with ladies, but... you can all see the problems there. And yes, yes I think I could win a Vampire Diaries trivia quiz.) You can see one of these things and not the other. I'm not sure what the solution is to not seeing absences, because that is one of the major things that helps along the Circle of Suck. I suppose I just try to be aware of it, as I try to be aware of the whole Circle of Suck. Uh--constant vigilance?

So--fewer sales, and more being criticised. Criticism is a good thing: nobody agrees with all their criticisms, but it all makes you think more, and that leads to less messing up, and messing up less in the future is the goal. Also, criticism means readers can avoid books that contain particular areas of suckiness that really get them down. But at the same time, it does always smart to get criticised, and you always want to get less of it. Trying to break out of the Circle of Suck is difficult. But being a better writer of better books is more important. So to all the people who have ever told me (or just said around) that these elements of my books could use improvement--well, that sucked for me to hear, and thank you. For those who will tell me in the future--please feel free to do so anytime, and thank you in advance.

The Circle of Suck lives inside everybody's heads. I know it lives in mine. Everything I'm saying about books goes about ten times over for movies, and the moving pictures, they are hypnotising.

There's no easy solution to the Circle of Suck.

I'm not much for 'my gracious, think of the children!' but in this case I think it's important to do so. YA is read by many adults, but it's also read by, you know, quite a few teenagers. Books are massively important to me now, but they were even more important back then: the books I love the very best and mean the most to me, the ones I imprinted on like a baby duck, were books I read back then. There should be a consistent effort, by everyone involved, to get books for people to stumble on, on bookshop shelves and library shelves and online, that say 'loads of different people can be heroes/awesome/have adventures'--that show themselves there, whoever they are, because that can mean a lot, and other people too. I do think that through this consistent effort, the Circle of Suck will end somewhere down the line, and I hope that it will suck less soon.

Note to This Post: Reading over this, I did not figure out how to talk about disability as well. But--could use way more representation, too.


( 85 comments — Leave a comment )
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Sep. 23rd, 2011 01:59 am (UTC)
Sarah... right now my life is made of suck and your well written post distracted and entertained me mightily. Would you mind if I pimped this on my journal so that more people can see.

Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:02 am (UTC)
Yes, all posts free for linking, and glad you'd like to. And I hope life gets better soon!
Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:06 am (UTC)
This might be the single most fabulous blog post I've ever read. (And I've read an awful lot.)

Thank you for this. All of it.
Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:14 am (UTC)
Thank you for reading! I think Malinda Lo's is unquestionably the best post, but I was like 'Well, I cannot seem to post on anything else without sharing--that I have a desire to talk about this--and maybe to be told I suck--and also to warn people off buying my books in a way...'

I am a riddle wrapped in an enigma even to myself, but I did want to do it.
(no subject) - ricklipman.blogspot.com - Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:41 am (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:08 am (UTC)
So much <3 for this post. So much. Especially this:

But I think that 'let's think of a way to keep the gay storyline, because there are too few of those around' should be a thing to consciously keep in mind.

And this:

I'm not sure what the solution is to not seeing absences, because that is one of the major things that helps along the Circle of Suck. I suppose I just try to be aware of it, as I try to be aware of the whole Circle of Suck. Uh--constant vigilance?

Constant vigilance is a good start. Eventually it becomes a habit. Ten years ago I was not prone to look at a group of people and evaluate it for homogeneity. Now I look at, say, this photo:

and my brain doesn't really need any prompting to sit up and go "Wow, no one in that photo is not an affluent, relatively able-bodied older white dude".

Our subconsciouses are very strongly influenced by culture, and that makes them frequently untrustworthy even when we are consciously in favor of diversity. (This is why I really balk at character-focused writers who say things like "But when this character walked into my head he JUST HAPPENED to be a straight white guy and I can't make him be what he's not!". Maybe not... but you can consciously invite people who aren't straight white guys to also walk into your head, and into your books. And if you have trouble doing that, go broaden your horizons and learn more about people who aren't straight white guys so a more diverse range of characters can have an easier time JUST HAPPENING to show up in your brain.) So yes, constant vigilance, and getting in the habit of looking at any grouping of people--characters in a book, authors working with a publisher, panelists at a conference--and asking "What do all these people have in common? Can we find one or two people who don't share that trait and still legitimately belong in this group? Once we find them, can we put some effort into bringing them in and making them at least as prominent as the others?".

Edited at 2011-09-23 02:09 am (UTC)
Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:43 am (UTC)
Good thoughts all. I am a very strongly character-focused writer who can't account for most of her process myself, and... Lord knows I get it wrong all the time. But it does get easier to spot the more you look.
(no subject) - rosefox - Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:48 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ZMarriott - Sep. 23rd, 2011 01:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - shveta_thakrar - Sep. 23rd, 2011 06:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hellmutt - Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:09 am (UTC)
Well said.
Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:33 am (UTC)
Thank you!
Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:12 am (UTC)
I don't have much of value to add, but I think your point about 'imprinting' on books as a teen is very interesting.

One of my favorite reads when I was in middle school was the Last Herald Mage trilogy by Mercedes Lackey, which featured a gay protagonist. Before this, I hadn't given a single passing thought to gay characters in fiction.

These days? I'd buy any book with LGBT characters in a hot minute. They're infinitely more interesting to me than books with straight characters. I grew up to be a ferocious advocate for LGBT rights, and it's something that permeates many of my world views, and I don't think that mental shift would have happened if I hadn't stumbled across the right books as a teen.

I agree that there should be more LGBT YA fiction. I think it's important for LGBT kids to read about character like them, and I think it's important for straight kids to read about LGBT characters in a positive light. I know it had a huge impact on me.

Thanks for the interesting post! It's given me some good food for thought.
Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:24 am (UTC)
See, that trilogy I read I think in my early twenties, and it wasn't my cuppa, but I was told once by a room full of people that it changed and maybe saved their lives. So in a way Mercedes Lackey changed my life too, because that was the conversation I came away from with the feeling 'This is worth doing even if you mess up. (Try really hard not to mess up.) (You will mess up.)'

But: yes on the mental shift. I had a bunch of mental shifts because of fiction. To badly paraphrase Terry Pratchett, part of me is everyone who ever wrote a book that changed the way I think...
(no subject) - oligomer - Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:35 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - funwithrage - Sep. 23rd, 2011 06:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - arathe - Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:42 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - quiet000001 - Sep. 23rd, 2011 08:05 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sarahtales - Sep. 23rd, 2011 01:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:22 am (UTC)
You are a woman of valor. And a mighty fine writer. I shall go take notes on my gay science and magic ladies in Victorian England story now.
Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:29 am (UTC)
Delia hurray! 1) Huzzah gay science and magic in Victorian England! 2) Thank you very much and 3) Is Changeling YA or MG, because it is shelved in MG in the UK and Ireland but... we are a wayward folk, who recklessly shelve things willy nilly... so I wanted to check with you, and if it is YA, may I pop you onto my list?
(no subject) - deliasherman - Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:47 am (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - bredalot - Sep. 23rd, 2011 03:00 am (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:31 am (UTC)

Also, other out (and good!) authors: Val McDermid (Mystery), Tanya Huff (Fantasy) and her so, Fiona Patton (Fantasy).
Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:52 am (UTC)
It was very hard, to grow up without characters like me: who looked like me, came from a place like me, and especially characters who maybe, sometimes, liked people regardless of gender like me.

When I was a kid, I wanted more than anything to fit into a mold-- blonde, peppy, loved by everyone, white, straight, normal. I can't be the only kid who felt that way. I can't be the only adult that still feels that way, sometimes, like a little poisonous voice in the back of my mind, even though I'm very confident in myself and in my life.

There are wonderful books out there, with all sorts of people in them, but not enough. It shouldn't be a battle, to find a book with p.o.c. or people who are heavier, or people who maybe don't even know what their sexual orientation is. it shouldn't be a battle, and no one should tell an author there isn't a MARKET for that, because there IS. THERE IS. I'm here. I have a voice. I count. I'm not alone. I know I'm not alone.

Thank you for this post-- it was a really interesting read :) I appreciated the links, too.
Sep. 23rd, 2011 03:01 am (UTC)
It absolutely shouldn't be a battle, and I'm so sorry you grew up without those characters. Feeling normal is enough of a battle without media being against you, too.

Thank you for reading! The links, smarter people than me, so I wanted to spread them. ;)
Sep. 23rd, 2011 02:55 am (UTC)
I'm always astonished at how you manage to write so openly about such sucky & contentious topics with such neutrality and such optimism. I'm just really impressed, and I love your clear-eyed hopeful view of the world (or, well, at least the one you show through posts like this). Thank you.
Sep. 23rd, 2011 03:07 am (UTC)
I'm very glad you liked the post! It is easier for me to be optimistic, because I haven't had to face lots of these roadblocks--and most of those I did, I got to choose. I'm really lucky, I know that, and even I have had days when I am like 'to the devil with everything! I hate everybody! I'm going to go eat worms.' (But those days I try not to blog. ;))
Sep. 23rd, 2011 03:36 am (UTC)
Thank you.
Sep. 23rd, 2011 03:53 am (UTC)
Oh that is quite good--well said.
Sep. 23rd, 2011 04:07 am (UTC)
(So I don't get corrected, I know that in The Vampire Diaries Caroline Best Character on Television Queen of My Heart Forbes has a gay dad, but we haven't seen him

Erm... you need to see tonight's episode.

*runs away*
Sep. 23rd, 2011 05:06 am (UTC)
I was coming here to leave this same comment! Lol.

Also: love your icon, taraljc!
Sep. 23rd, 2011 04:28 am (UTC)
This is a really fantastic post. I just had a discussion about writing queer characters tonight that left me a little flummoxed. I try to think, hey, does this girl's love interest have to be a boy? does this character have to be white? Sometimes maybe they do, but oftentimes they don't. I just think it's important to to consider it, and to try, even if it means risking getting it wrong.

Also, I <3 Caroline.
Sep. 23rd, 2011 04:33 am (UTC)
Thanks so much for this wonderful post. You rock. Hopefully we'll see more presses publishing more diverse YA soon.
Sep. 23rd, 2011 05:06 am (UTC)
As a bookseller and captain of the YA ship, I live in hope for those days when people ask me for these books. *plots themed displays*

It makes me very proud that YA is where these incredibly important discussions are happening--proud of my beloved genre, and of those work to make it an even more awesome place.
Sep. 23rd, 2011 01:01 pm (UTC)
Me too. I love YA! I wish I could be more worthy of it, but, for the future!
(no subject) - sarahtales - Sep. 23rd, 2011 01:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
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