This post was written by me and Sherwood.

The unnamed agency in our previous post has chosen to present their perception of the exchange. We confirm that it was the agency we referred to. We stand by every word we wrote in our original article.

We did not wish to name them, because we preferred to focus on the larger issues. We did not spread rumors about them, and we don't know who did.

This is why we went public: After the initial exchange a month ago, we spoke in private to a number of other writers, without mentioning the name of the agent or agency. There was an overwhelming response of "Me too!" Many other writers had been asked by agents and editors to alter or remove the minority identity of their characters, sometimes as a condition of representation or sale. Sometimes those identities had been altered by editors without the writers' knowledge or permission.

That response, and posts like Malinda Lo's recent statistics make it clear that the problem is much larger than a couple of writers and one specific agency.

We urge you all to continue focusing on the bigger picture.

Discussion is welcome but abuse and name-calling is not. Please do your best to be civil.

ETA: Since several people asked: I do have an agent for my nonfiction, Brian DeFiore. He's great. The work Sherwood and I do together is very different from what we both do solo, and we wanted an agent to represent us as a team.
If any of you have time and have been following Yes Gay YA, can you please do me a favor?

1. Go through the comments to the Genreville article, and pull links to particularly notable comments, with a note saying what they are. In particular, we'd like direct links to all the comments from authors who experienced similar problems with agents or editors.

ETA: [personal profile] tool_of_satan did the Genreville comments. Thank you!

2. Link me to particularly notable/interesting articles and blog posts. Again, we're particularly interested in others with similar experiences.

3. Ditto, with Twitter. Any kind of general summary of notable Twitter conversations would be great.

Thanks!

This is for a follow-up article Sherwood and I will be writing, probably next week.
I've been Boing Boinged, and Tweeted, and received a great many wonderful, supportive messages. Thank you, and please forgive me if I'm a little slow to respond to messages over the next few days. I have been deluged.

More importantly, people are speaking out about their experiences and feelings. Please don't let this be a one-time moment of passion, but follow up with substantive action.

I personally commit to making a special point of buying, reading, and reviewing YA sff with protagonists who are LGBTQ and/or people of color and/or disabled, over the next year and into the years to come. (An annotated list of YA sf/fantasy with main or major LGBTQ characters is available here, with links to Amazon. An annotated list of YA sf/fantasy with protagonists of color is available here, with links to Amazon. Part I: Author surnames from A – L. An annotated list of YA sf/fantasy with protagonists of color is available here, with links to Amazon. Part II: Author surnames from M – Z.)

What do you plan to do?

ETA: I really like this agent's non-discrimination statement, from Eddie Schneider on the Jabberwocky Literary Agency website:

"Special note:

Since it still needs (and may always need) to be spelled out, please note I will happily consider queries by persons, or featuring protagonists, of any race, color, creed, religion, national citizenship/origin, gender or sexual orientation, disability, age, or physical appearance. Further, I will not attempt to editorially limit the presence of characters in any of the above in order to sell a project, and will support any client who feels discriminated against by a publisher or editor because of such status, in the hopefully unlikely event that this might occur."
rachelmanija: (Default)
( Sep. 12th, 2011 12:29 pm)
Sherwood Smith and I have a post up at Genreville, about how an agent offered to represent a YA novel we'd written on the condition that we make a gay character straight or remove him from the book.

I have copied the post here for the benefit of people who'd like to discuss it here. However, please note that Geneville offers a form of pseudonymity which I cannot replicate. If you are a writer who has been pressured by agents or editors to change a character's identity, you must go to Genreville to tell your story pseudonymously!

We thank everyone who has supported us in this matter, and helped us come to the decision to go public. It was not an easy decision, and your support was invaluable. We also give special thanks to Rose Fox for offering us a platform, to Mme Hardy for line-editing our post, and to Tanuki Green for hosting the book lists.

If you want to Tweet this, the tag is #YesGayYA.

Note to new commenters: Please be civil to each other, and please do not insult or label people based on group identity, as opposed to individual actions or beliefs. ("All LDS/Muslims/Christians/etc are homophobes" is not okay. "Homophobes are ruining America" is okay.)

Say Yes To Gay YA

By Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

We are published authors who co-wrote a post-apocalyptic young adult novel. When we set out to find an agent for it, we expected to get some rejections. But we never expected to be offered representation… on the condition that we make a gay character straight, or cut him out altogether.

Our novel Stranger has five viewpoint characters; one, Yuki Nakamura, is gay and has a boyfriend. Yuki's romance, like the heterosexual ones in the novel, involves nothing more explicit than kissing.

An agent from a major agency, one which represents a bestselling YA novel in the same genre as ours, called us.

The agent offered to sign us on the condition that we make the gay character straight, or else remove his viewpoint and all references to his sexual orientation.

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.

After we thanked the agent for their time, declined the offer, and hung up, Sherwood broke the silence. “Do you think the agent missed that Becky and Brisa [supporting characters] are a couple, too? Do they ever actually kiss on-page? No? I’M ADDING A LESBIAN KISS NOW!”

This Is Not About One Bad Apple

This isn't about that specific agent; we'd gotten other rewrite requests before this one. Previous agents had also offered to take a second look if we did rewrites… including cutting the viewpoint of Yuki, the gay character. We wondered if that was because of his sexual orientation, but since the agents didn’t say it out loud, we could only wonder. (We were also told that it is absolutely unacceptable in YA for a boy to consensually date two girls, but that it would be okay if he was cheating and lying. And we wonder if some agents were put off because none of our POV characters are white.)

We absolutely do not believe that all our rejections were due to prejudice. We know for a fact that some of them weren’t. (An agent did offer us representation, but we ended up passing due to creative differences that had nothing to do with the identities of the characters.)

This isn't about one agent's personal feelings about gay people. We don't know their feelings; they may well be sympathetic in their private life, but regard the removal of gay characters as a marketing issue. The conversation made it clear that the agent thought our book would be an easy sale if we just made that change. But it doesn't matter if the agent rejected the character because of personal feelings or because of assumptions about the market. What matters is that a gay character would be quite literally written out of his own story.

We are avoiding names because we don’t want this story to be about one agent who spoke more bluntly than others whose objections were more indirectly expressed. Naming names can make it too easy to target a lone “villain,” who can be blamed and scolded until everyone feels that the matter has been satisfactorily dealt with.

Forcing all major characters in YA novels into a straight white mold is a widespread, systemic problem which requires long-term, consistent action.

When we privately discussed our encounter with the agent, we heard from other writers whose prospective agents made altering a character’s minority identity – sexual orientation, race, disability— a condition of representation. But other than Jessica Verday, who refused to change a character’s gender in a short story on an editor’s request, few writers have come forward for fear of being blacklisted.

We sympathize with that fear. But we believe that silence, however well-motivated and reasonable from a marketing point of view, allows the problem to flourish. We hope that others will speak up as well, in whatever manner is safe and comfortable for them.

The overwhelming white straightness of the YA sf and fantasy sections may have little to do with what authors are writing, or even with what editors accept. Perhaps solid manuscripts with LGBTQ protagonists rarely get into mainstream editors’ hands at all, because they are been rejected by agents before the editors see them. How many published novels with a straight white heroine and a lesbian or black or disabled best friend once had those roles reversed, before an agent demanded a change?

This does not make for better novels. Nor does it make for a better world.

Let’s make a better world.

What You Can Do

If You’re An Editor:
Some agents are turning down manuscripts or requesting rewrites because they think that the identities of the characters will make the book unsalable. That means that you, who might love those characters, never even get to see them.

If you are open to novels featuring LGBTQ protagonists or major characters, you can help by saying so explicitly. When agents realize that LGBTQ content does not lead to a lost sale, they will be less likely to demand that it be removed.

The same goes for other identity issues. If you are interested in YA fantasy/sf with protagonists who are disabled, or aren’t white, or otherwise don’t fit the usual mold, please explicitly say so. General statements of being pro-diversity don't seem to get the point across. We ask you to issue a clear, unmistakable statement that you would like to see books with protagonists or major characters who are LGBTQ, people of color, disabled, or any combination of the above.

If You’re An Agent: If you are open to manuscripts with major or main LGBTQ characters, please explicitly say so in your listings and websites. Just as with editors, simply saying “we appreciate diversity” could mean anything. (In fact, the agent who asked us to make our gay character straight had made such mentions.) You can throw the gates open by making a clear and unmistakable statement with details. For instance: “I would love to see books whose characters are diverse in all or any respects, including but not limited to gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, and national origin.”

If You’re A Reader: Please vote with your pocketbooks and blogs by buying, reading, reviewing, and asking libraries to buy existing YA fantasy/sf with LGBTQ protagonists or major characters. If those books succeed financially, more like them will be written, represented, and sold. Your reviews don’t have to be positive – any publicity is good publicity. Review on blogs, Amazon, Goodreads, anywhere you yourself read reviews.

An annotated list of YA sf/fantasy with main or major LGBTQ characters is available here, with links to Amazon. Please bookmark this list for reference – it will continue to be updated as new books are released.

Characters of color/non-white characters are often also relegated to the status of sidekicks in YA sff, and are depicted as white on the covers of the few books in which they do star. Please vote with your pocketbooks and blogs to support novels in which they are protagonists.

An annotated list of YA sf/fantasy with protagonists of color is available here, with links to Amazon. Part I: Author surnames from A – L.

An annotated list of YA sf/fantasy with protagonists of color is available here, with links to Amazon. Part II: Author surnames from M – Z. Please bookmark these lists for reference – they will continue to be updated as new books are released.

The usual protagonist of a YA sf/fantasy novel is a heterosexual white girl or boy with no disabilities or mental/neurological issues, no stated religion, and no specific ethnicity. Reading and reviewing novels whose characters break that mold in other ways would also be a step forward.

If You’re A Writer: If you have had a manuscript rejected because of the identity of the characters, or had an agent or editor request that you alter the identity of a character, please tell your story. If you want to use your real name, comment here, or leave a link to your own blog post. If you want your name to remain private, you can publish your story here under a pseudonym, verified in general terms by Rose Fox. (Such as, “I verify that the author of this comment is indeed a published YA author.”) You can also comment with complete pseudonymity.

Instructions for commenting pseudonymously are here.

If You’re Anyone At All: Please link to this article. If enough people read it and take the suggestions, enormous and wonderful changes could take place.

Who We Are

This article was written by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith. Rachel Manija Brown is a TV writer, poet, and author of the memoir All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India. Sherwood Smith has published more than thirty fantasy and science fiction novels, including the adult fantasies Inda and Coronets and Steel, and the YA fantasy Crown Duel. Together, we created an animated TV series, Game World, which we sold to the Jim Henson Company.

Our YA post-apocalyptic novel, Stranger, remains unsold.

ETA: To be clear: Sherwood and I were trying to find an agent specifically for our co-written works, which are quite different from what we write solo. My agent for nonfiction, Brian DeFiore, is not the agent in question!
While driving with my Mom in the sleepy, touristy beachside town of Carmel, we were approaching their picturesque Fisherman's Wharf when we came alongside a small group of men picketing its parking lot.

They wore white shirts and red capes, and played bagpipes. Their picket signs read "PROTECT TRADITIONAL MARRIAGE" and "NO GAY 'MARRIAGE.'"

I rolled down the window and stuck out my head.

Me (berserk): "GAY RIGHTS!!!! GAY RIGHTS!!!! GO GAY MARRIAGE!!!!! GAY MARRIAGE YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!!!!!"

("A well-reasoned, persuasive argument," remarked [livejournal.com profile] oyceter when I recounted it to her later.)

Caped homophobes: "FUCK YOU!!"

Mom: "BABA BABA BABA STOP!!!"

Apparently I had shrieked loudly enough to attract the attention of the car in front of me, which slammed on its brakes. I slammed on mine. As we parked, next to an SUV with McCain bumperstickers ("I bet it belongs to the bagpipe gay-haters!" I exclaimed. "I oughtta key it!" "Revenge only hurts the revengeful one," said Mom.) Mom scolded me for temper and lowering myself, and informed me that I had just proved that anger causes fenderbenders.

Me (still foaming at the mouth): "And those bagpipes! What an ironic choice of instrument. Putting that phallic pipe in their mouth... Sucking and blowing on that long, hard, rod... Squeezing and caressing the bag (isn't that slang for scrotum?) while they suck on that pipe just like a hard, fat cock..."

Mom: "DON'T TALK SO LOUD!!!"

Indeed, a group of tourists had fallen in behind us and were taking great interest in our conversation.

The next morning I read in the local paper that the caped homophobes were not local, but an anti-gay group of "lay Catholics" from Pennsylvania, who were making a 30-state anti-gay tour and had chosen Carmel because they had a friend there they could crash with. It also quoted a local woman who had grabbed a rainbow flag and, accompanied by her father, staged a counter-demonstration.

"One doesn't expect to see that sort of thing in Carmel," she said. "It was like the Hitler Youth!"
.

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