Over Memorial Day weekend, I attended WisCon, the feminist science fiction convention, in Madison, Wisconsin. I did a couple of panels there, including one called "De-Gaying and Whitewashing: What Publishing Trends Mean for Writers." Here's the program description:
Can radically feminist and anti-racist works survive the “gate-keeping” process? Is there room in the mainstream for works that dramatically challenge the status quo? In the past year or so, the twitto-sphere has been abuzz with hashtags like “YESGayYA” and “YASaves”. Articles about the “de-gaying” and whitewashing of YA literature have raised people’s ire and ignited a volleying of retorts from writers and reviewers/agents/editors. Let’s talk about some of these perceptions in publishing and what they might mean for writers, particularly those who want to challenge commonly held notions and beliefs.
At the beginning of the panel I wrote down something that Andrea Hairston said that I think is very important. She asked us to focus on how we can make change without making blame.
I believe that when we start pointing fingers, people shut down. But if we think about how we can make change without blame, we are more easily able to think about moving forward and opening up.
I found Andrea Hairston's charge to make change without blame to be both an inspiration and a relief. I do want to make change. Even though the representation of LGBT teens in YA has broadened and become more complex in recent years, there still aren't nearly enough of these stories in the world. But I'm also not comfortable with blame. It skirts too close to shame; it bleeds right into hate. And I don't believe that shame or hatred are necessary when it comes to making positive change in the world.
In terms of LGBT issues, if someone has clearly done something homophobic, then I believe it's appropriate to point that out. But too often we rush to judgement when instead we should slow down and consider the broader context. ((I am guilty of this too! It's something I have to struggle with every time the opportunity to judge arises.)) That broader context — in the case of LGBT media in the contemporary United States — is a society that is highly heteronormative, and heteronormativity, though related to homophobia, is a trickier and less black-and-white issue. (Last week during my YA Pride interview with author Emily M. Danforth, we discussed heteronormativity and its impact on publishing LGBT books. I highly recommend checking out Emily's comments on the subject!)
I believe (especially after the interview with Emily) that heteronormativity is a much more pervasive problem within the publishing industry than homophobia. And combatting heteronormativity requires different tactics. It's about changing the underlying system; changing people's perceptions of what "normal" is. These are big, difficult things to do, but I think it can be done … one person at a time.
During the panel, we discussed some things that could be done to make change. How could we get more books published with LGBT characters or characters of color? ((I'm going to focus on the LGBT aspect here, but I think some of these techniques can apply in cases about race as well.)) Here are some of my suggestions:
If you're a writer who is writing a book with LGBT main characters, you might be afraid that your books won't be accepted by the publishing industry, or that you might face homophobia. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Get over the fear. It can be hard, but you have to get over the fear and write that book anyway. One way you can get over the fear is to become involved in the LGBT community, online or in your own town. One thing that helped me get over my anxieties about trying to publish a lesbian retelling of Cinderella was working at AfterEllen, where I could see every day that there was a big, hungry audience for stories about lesbians. The audience does exist. Don't let anyone tell you it doesn't. ((Plus, straight people can read about gay people. The reverse happens ALL THE TIME.))
- Write your best book. Getting a book published is really, really hard, regardless of whether or not there are LGBT characters. Work on your writing. Work on it some more.
- Keep in mind that not every book is meant to be published by a mainstream commercial publisher. Some "radically feminist" works will never fly in an industry build on centuries of sexist tradition. That doesn't mean there isn't a place for your book, but it may mean you have to think outside of New York publishing. And there is a wonderful array of small presses out there. Additionally, as Neesha Meminger pointed out during the panel, making the decision to self-publish is totally an option; it is not "giving up." It may be the right decision for some.
- Be realistic about the mainstream publishing industry. I get the question, "Did you have any problems publishing your LGBT novel?" all the time. My answer is always "no," though I know that some authors have had problems due to the gay content in their books. What this means, though, is that authors have different experiences when it comes to publishing LGBT novels. Ten years ago, I bet 99% of authors would have said "yes" to that question, but today, in 2012, that percentage has decreased. What that means is that things have changed and continue to change. As I said during the panel, the door for LGBT books may not be wide open, but the door is definitely cracked open, and we have to keep pushing on it. Your job (or your agent's job, because if you're looking to be published by a mainstream publisher you should really have an agent) is to find allies within the industry to support your work. There may be some openly homophobic people within the publishing industry, but there are also lots of super gay-friendly folks. You need to find those people. If you encounter those who say "I can't publish this because of the gay content," you do not need to accept that. Those aren't the people you want to work with, anyway. Find people who are on your side, and they definitely do exist.
- Don't give up.
PUBLISHERS AND INDUSTRY FOLKS
We talked a little bit about the publishing industry side of this issue during the WisCon panel, and though I can't speak to the day-to-day specifics of working in publishing since I don't work in publishing, I have a few optimistic suggestions for how industry folks can help make change. ((Full disclosure: My novels are published by Little, Brown, and I've worked with various other publishers for anthologies I'm in. Overall, I've had very positive experiences with publishing regarding LGBT content, especially with Little, Brown. My suggestions aren't meant to disparage any of my publishers; they're general suggestions for the industry as a whole.))
- Speak up when you hear others making assumptions or judgements about a book based on heteronormativity or homophobia. This is the very important work that allies do.
- Support the LGBT-focused books that are being published. They can't get to their audience if the audience doesn't know about them, and if the audience doesn't know about them, they won't buy them. If the books aren't bought, that won't set a good precedent for future acquisitions. It's a vicious cycle.
- Continue to acquire LGBT-focused books!
- Remember that there is definitely an audience for LGBT-focused books. Have you been to a Pride march lately? It's June, and New York Pride is next weekend. See how many queer people there are? That's your market. And don't forget: Straight people can read about LGBT people too.
The number one thing readers can do to change the system is to buy, borrow, and support books that include LGBT main characters. You can do this with your wallet or your library card, and by recommending those books to your friends. You can do this by going to bookstore events that feature these books and showing booksellers that there is an audience for them. You can also do this by blogging about LGBT books or posting your reviews on Goodreads or Amazon.
These are simple things, but they may be the most convincing to publishers, because I think there is a broad perception within the mainstream publishing industry that books with LGBT characters have limited appeal to the public. This despite the fact that authors such as John Irving, Adrienne Rich, Sarah Waters, and Armistead Maupin have become literary superstars. These authors all published books for adults, but there is no reason that teenagers would be less accepting of LGBT characters than adult readers. In fact, surveys show that younger people are much more supportive of same-sex marriage than older people, and are much more likely to know someone who is LGBT. I think it's clear that young people — those who read YA — would similarly be more accepting of LGBT characters and story lines than many adults. ((And let's face it: the people who typically challenge or want to ban books with LGBT-focused story lines are adults, not teens.))
The point here is: Readers, you are the audience for these books. I know you exist because many of you write to me. But publishers don't get my email. The one sure way they will know that you exist is if the sales figures prove it.
In 2012, of course, social media can also enable you to be heard, though nobody has quite figured out how to quantify the weight of Facebook Likes or Goodreads reviews (although plenty of people are trying). Do that too, if you can, or if you can't afford to buy books. But the hard truth is that we live in a capitalist economy, and if you can put your dollars behind these books (or encourage your library to do so), that will be the support that is most easily heard by the powers that be.
In the end, I think that making change must be a group effort. Every individual has a chance to contribute to making change. And even though it sometimes seems as though changing the status quo takes forever, there has been so much change even within the last 15 years. That change came from individuals taking action, bit by bit, day by day. Don't give up!