Friday, September 16, 2011

The Great Gays in YA Controversy: A Summary

Who will rep the next
Will Grayson?
If you happened to be on another planet this week, you missed the Great Gays in YA Controversy bubbling away in the blog-and-twittersphere. I won't go into the gory details: You can read the original article from the Publisher's Weekly blog. The gist is this: Two authors argue that an unnamed agency tried to "straighten" their gay characters as a condition for representation. They further argue that a sort of subtle intimidation operates within the system to discourage YA authors from writing gay characters.

You can check out agent Michael Bourret's two cents on the subject (he also passed on the novel). And then the unnamed agents outed themselves, under a bit of pressure. Agent Joanna Volpe, speaking for the Nancy Coffey Agency, was one of the people who allegedly tried  Conversion Therapy on said gay characters.

Volpe says the agency wanted the novel revised from YA to Middle Grade, and two (or maybe three) of the viewpoint characters cut. The authors demurred. Finally, the authors have responded to Volpe's response.

Some gay YAs make
it through the gantlet
Hoax? Or misunderstanding? Lies? Or Counterlies? Anybody with any sophistication knows that the "truth" in matters of the heart (and this controversy certainly qualifies) is as complexly layered as an English trifle. 

What will come of this controversy, I hope, is a public reckoning on the subject. I truly feel for all the parties. Publishing is a business, and as Bourret points out, novels with gay protagonists just don't sell as well as their straight counterparts (I seriously doubt if this is true, though, for novels with secondary gay characters.) But gay teens need to see themselves represented in fiction. All I can say is, it's a brave soul who jumps into this fray.

Nancy Coffey agents wanted authors Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith to revise their manuscript from YA to middle grade. I find this baffling -- to do that, they'd have to excise all the sexuality, of course, but to my mind Middle Grade is to Young Adult as Apples is to Oranges.

And then, another secret, selfish, thought was wriggling around in my brain. You mean, Nancy Coffey Agency thought the novel needed THIS much work, essentially an entire rewrite, and they were STILL willing to consider it? With me and all my hopeful sisters and brothers out here, madly polishing our WIPs to tatters? Seriously?

And then I banished that thought, as unworthy.


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  2. Hi Gail!

    As a Young Adult author who has definitely encountered this issue I just wanted to comment.

    When I was searching for an agent to represent my Young Adult, paranormal/espionage novel featuring a gay male protagonist, I had an agent tell me that, while they loved the novel, the voice, the story, etc., Young Adult novels were primarily purchased by heterosexual females and basically, no one was going to buy my book (I guess they believe that gay teens/adults don’t read and that heterosexual females are too narrow-minded…sigh).

    I received other similar rejections before I was fortunate enough to sign with my fantastic agent that I met at an SCBWI Conference. But even after my novel went on submission and started getting rejections from editors, I could tell by the tone of some of these rejections that the same attitude of exclusion was pervasive. I’m definitely not saying that ALL the rejections were because of the gay “Issue,” but I truly believe that this factored into a good deal of them.

    While that novel didn’t sell, the novel I wrote after that, a Young Adult Post-Apocalyptic story also featuring a gay male protagonist and supporting gay male character, called THE TORCH KEEPER, did sell, and will be published by FLUX Books in early 2013.

    I feel very fortunate to have an agent and editor that appreciate diversity! But I also feel this erroneous viewpoint that somehow having a gay main character in Young Adult literature is a liability to sales is very disturbing and must be eradicated, and will do my part to see that it is.

    I've posted more at length about this on my own blog.

    Thank you!

  3. Thank you, Gail and Steven, for bringing this "issue" into the light, where it needs to be. I, for one, am happy to read about ANY character who is interesting and absorbing, thank you very much.

  4. I'm now following you on Twitter and I've subscribed to your blog. Great blog!
    Fellow M-G/YA Campaigner

  5. Appreciated Steve's experiences in the comments. Whatever the layers of truth, it has highlighted once again the need for authentic gay protagonists in YA and, dare I say it, in MG to be accepted by agents/publishers. On a positive note, some agents have already come forward to clarify in writing their openness to represent such novels.

  6. I was sort of on another planet (vacation in the Black Hills with spotty internet service). I've been reading through the links and appreciated Steve's first hand experience with this.

  7. I'd seen the original controversy, but not the agent follow-up. That is a very interesting point about a manuscript needing that much work, yet the agent is willing to rep them. All I can guess is that the concept and writing are really terrific.

  8. Very interesting subject indeed. We should welcome diversity not take it away. Thank you for bringing up that subject to us.

  9. Many thanks to Steven Dos Santos for his informed and thorough comment here, and if you haven't read his complete blog post, please hie over there and do (Steven has posted an unbelievable letter he received from an agent): I have a feeling this issue is going to come in for a lot of chewing over in future.
    @Joanna, you are right -- I know Kelly Sonnack from Andrea Brown Lit Agency said very clearly, in response, that she would love to see gay characters in YA submissions.

  10. @Jennifer, thanks so much. I was away for the weekend and I've got some catching up to do, but I will definitely pass this along. : )