Sunday, October 09, 2011

Diversifying Books for Teens: YesGayYA and Beyond

by Andrew J. Peters

Is censorship of gay content a persistent practice in the publishing industry?

This is the charged debate that blew up when Publishers Weekly put out the September 12th article: "Authors say agents try to 'straighten' characters in YA." Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith say an unnamed literary agent offered representation for their young adult novel, on the condition that they remove references to a character being gay, or delete his point-of-view entirely.

Two days later, young adult author Malinda Lo, also of the Diversity in YA project, published an article on her blog examining publishing trends for LGBT young adult titles. While noting that the number of titles has grown over an eleven year period, her research showed—outrageously—that less than 1% of traditionally-published books for teens have LGBT characters. Lo generously included titles with non-point-of-view and secondary characters.

One day later, Joanna Stampfel-Volpe of Nancy Coffey Literary Representation wrote a guest blog on The Swivet to rebut Brown and Smith's Genreville article and accuse the authors of privately leaking the name of her agency, and the agent in question (who isn't actually Stampfel-Volpe, and remained unnamed). She said the situation was a publicity stunt by Brown and Smith that exploits the issue of diversifying young adult literature, in order to find representation for a book with which her agency had several editorial issues—none of which involved 'straightening' the character in question.

Several young adult authors—Scott Tracey and Jessica Verday, for example—have come forward to share their challenges trying to sell LGBT-themed stories. While the Brown and Smith v. Coffey fracas has become a case of she said/she said, the incident launched the Twitter hashtag #YesGayYA and a cascade of blogs and discussion forum threads calling for more diverse portrayals in books for teens.

The intersectionality of institutionalized racism and institutionalized heterosexism has, appropriately and importantly, come up in the discussion. We have a legacy of 'whitewashing' and a legacy of 'straightwashing' literary characters; and stories about people of color who are also LGBT face double jeopardy.

So how do we diversify traditionally-published literature for young adults?

There's a basic capitalist approach: work with market dynamics; get more readers to buy books that feature underrepresented communities; and dovetail on the "break-out" books that pave the way for similar stories.

The challenge here is how to drive sales when the target readership is a small part of the market. Underrepresented stories are primarily embraced by underrepresented people, who may face economic disadvantage on top of cultural oppression. For LGBT teen readers, there's a unique cog in the market-driven works. If they're not out to their parents, or their parents are homophobic, or ambivalent about LGBTs, their parents aren't going to buy them an LGBT-themed book.

The capitalist approach can lead to niche markets for "multicultural" literature, or the labeling of underrepresented stories as "issue" books. In contrast, books about straight White people have the privilege of being immediately embraced as "mainstream" and "books for everybody."

Another pitfall is that market dynamics can create pressure to broaden book appeal so that stories will be more palatable to the mainstream. Unfortunately, representations of minorities that are palatable to the mainstream are often comfy, cultural stereotypes: the suffering immigrant, the sassy gay sidekick, etc.

A more sophisticated approach is education and advocacy, which may incorporate numerous strategies, to name a few: creating resources and organizations to raise understanding and awareness; exposing censorship and defamation; providing support for authors who are writing good portrayals, i.e. grants, awards; in addition to the capitalist method of increasing book sales.

From a social justice perspective, there's more potential benefit for underrepresented communities since education/advocacy takes into account the interaction between political equality and cultural equality. As groups gain political status, their cultural products gain status as well. As their cultural products gain status, political status is promoted.

By acting as a watchdog on the publishing industry, education/advocacy also provides a critical analysis of diversity. It's not enough that X number of books with underrepresented characters come out each year. What are those books like? Do they regurgitate cultural tropes and clichés?

I'm clearly a fan of education/advocacy, but the weakness here is that its methods may not have much of an impact on traditional publishing. Evidence of its success requires inferring a causal relationship. As more initiatives, organizations, and media have come out to promote diverse young adult literature, more desired titles have been published. Yet still, the number of those titles is tiny, in the case of LGBT books for teens: 11 out of 4,000 young adult books published in 2011.

The last approach I'll consider is the small press/self-publishing model. I combine, gingerly, small presses and self-publishing because within the cause of diversity, they tend to share the same underlying beliefs: (1) traditional publishing cannot meet the needs of diverse authors and readers; and (2) real change requires giving disenfranchised communities the authority and the means to create their own cultural products.

Small presses and self-publishers claim the advantage of not being tied down to the rules and expectations of the market-conscious, risk averse traditional publishing world. They have greater artistic freedom, potentially leading to more realistic and varied portrayals of diversity. Indeed, Malinda Lo's research shows that the largest proportion of LGBT young adult titles (30%) are put out by small presses like Foglight and Alyson. Self-published titles are not included in Lo's stats, since there's really no mechanism for counting them. The spike in self-publishing through venues like Amazon could be an indication that there are a sizeable number of culturally diverse books coming out through this mechanism, perhaps comparable, larger even?, than those published traditionally.

While it's tough to argue against a grassroots approach vs. the "top down" traditional publishing strategy, the challenge is sustainability. The small press model returns modest profits to publishers and modest advances to authors. Self-publishing requires aggressive and innovative marketing plans that go beyond the skills and resources of many authors. There are success stories like Amanda Hocking's paranormal young adult series, but there's no comparable reference for books with LGBT or other kinds of underrepresented characters. Aja Romano's "YA Publishing Industry De-Gays Books: What are the Options" poses an interesting perspective.

"I realize this is a pretty radical, maybe even laughable idea that I’m proposing–that if writers can’t make a living getting their voices out, autonomous and untouched, then maybe there are more important things than being able to profit in traditional, direct ways from those books. Maybe putting representative characters out there, any way you can, is more important than upholding a failing institution and being able to make money from it. Maybe I’m helping to put queer characters in the mainstream right now, just by doing what I’m doing and queering existing canons in front of a small audience of several thousand people. Sure, it’s not much–but it’s definitely not nothing. And it’s more something than someone who sticks with traditional publishing and then has their book de-gayed."

I think all three approaches have utility and can be used in combination to diversify books for teens. Readers need to buy more books to have an impact on traditional publishing. Education and advocacy are critical in order to raise cultural status. Small presses and self-publishing empower underrepresented authors and readers, and place needed pressure on traditional publishers to pay attention to our interests.

Andrew J. Peters' short fiction has appeared in Ganymede and Wilde Oats. He recently completed a young adult fantasy THE SEVENTH PLEIADE, which is about a young gay prince who becomes a hero during the last days of Atlantis. A 2011 Lambda Literary Foundation Fellow in Genre Fiction, he writes from New York City where he is a social worker for LGBT youth. For a description of his projects and a blog about queer media and fantasy, visit:

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