When authors Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith wrote a young adult novel called Stronger and started to query agents to try and get the book representation, they expected some rejections — it’s a tough business after all. What they didn’t foresee was being told by one agent that if they just deleted the fact that one of the five main characters is gay and has a boyfriend they would greatly improve their salability.
Fortunately, Brown and Smith decided to take a stand and say no. They’ve now written about their experience along with a rallying call to not let this keep happening.
Rachel replied, “Making a gay character straight is a line in the sand which I will not cross. 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.”
The agent suggested that perhaps, if the book was very popular and sequels were demanded, Yuki could be revealed to be gay in later books, when readers were already invested in the series.
We knew this was a pie-in-the-sky offer–who knew if there would even be sequels?–and didn’t solve the moral issue. 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.
LGBTQ teenagers already get told this. They are four times more likely than straight teenagers to attempt suicide. We’re not saying that the absence of LGBTQ teens in YA sf and fantasy novels is the reason for that. But it’s part of the overall social prejudice that does cause that killing despair.
We wrote this novel so that the teenagers we know–some of whom are gay, and many of whom are not white–would be able, for once, to read a fun post-apocalyptic adventure in which they are the heroes. And we were told that such a thing could not be allowed.
The pair are keen to stress this isn’t a problem of one rogue agent but, they believe, an endemic issue that this one agent was at least willing to be blunt about.
Agents are in the business of marketing books to publishers and in Young Adult fiction it would appear that a sizable proportion have decided this means white, straight, gender conforming, fully able bodied protagonists that adhere to conventional relationship types and don’t stray too far from those lines are what is needed to secure those elusive contracts. But at what cost? This is the question Brown and Smith explore in some depth in the Publisher’s Weekly post above and I recommend you read it in its entirety.
Now, the authors freely offer that they do not believe all their rejections were a result of agent prejudice, but they do wonder how many times manuscripts have been returned with an ask to delete LGBTQ elements, and potentially how many authors desperate for a sale — because this is a tough business with little reward — have, with a heavy heart, done so. The authors say they’ve spoken to many writers who have been faced with that choice, so this is not an isolated case by any means.
Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith have offered a list of several things that you can do to try and combat this problem. The list applies if you are an avid reader or, alternatively, if you yourself are a writer or agent. Their chief ask is that readers vote with their wallets and consider browsing this list of LGBTQ books and perhaps making a purchase or two. That’s just one item on their list. Click over to see the full thing here.
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