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Field Trip Friday Special Edition: #YesGayYA

The Backstory:

Early this week, the Publisher's Weekly Genreville blog, written by Rose Fox, posted an article by authors Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown entitled "Authors Say Agents Try To 'Straighten' Gay Characters in YA." The upshot of their complaint:
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.
The ensuing discussion was mostly supportive. Much of it took place on Twitter using the hashtag #YesGayYA. Author Scott Tracey, whose debut Witch Eyes features a gay protagonist, wrote two blog posts about the controversy: One encouraging readers to put their money where their mouths are, and another clarifying his thoughts on related issues. Brent Hartinger wrote from the perspective of someone who's been writing gay YA for ten years, as did Robin Talley. Rick Lipman said "to be shocked by this is a point of privilege."

Agent Sarah LaPolla discussed the interplay of business decisions and personal morality, and Malinda Lo broke down the numbers on LGBTQ YA published in the US. She also answered the question "How hard is it to sell a gay YA?" back in April.

The controversy was picked up by the Guardian, and in slightly more snarky form by io9.

Sherwood and Brown made a point of not naming the agency in question, but reportedly, rumors began to swirl behind the scenes, claiming Nancy Coffey Literary and Media Representation was to blame. So many clients and colleagues contacted the agency about the accusations that on Thursday, agent Joanna Volpe posted a rebuttal at Colleen Lindsay's "The Swivet," saying:
[T]here is nothing in that article concerning our response to their manuscript that is true.
As a footnote, Lindsay had this to say:
In the spirit of righteous indignation, I retweeted the story. Almost immediately I was contacted by several well-respected agents - a couple of whom had already read and rejected the manuscript in question, based on the same editorial concerns - who called into question the facts behind the blog post. I later discovered that not only did I know the agent in question, but that this person was actually a dear friend of mine, someone who most certainly wasn't homophobic.
Rose Fox posted an excerpt from Volpe's statement, with the comment that she'd offered to post the entire thing with some changes, but Volpe decided to take it elsewhere. Fox also gave the authors' reply, which was also posted on their own blogs (Smith's here, Brown's here).
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.
Both parties are urging the industry to focus on the larger issue here: LGBTQ fiction.

But of course few people listened. So here we are.


As always, there are three sides to every story: one, the other, and what really happened. The only people who know the gospel truth are the people who sat in on that phone call. I'm not claiming any scenario as "the real story" or trying to determine guilt; my goal is just to round up the discussions in one place with as little commentary as possible. 

So what do we know? Aside from the claims made in the articles at Genreville and The Swivet, we know that homophobia happens. I don't think I need a link to back that claim. In publishing specifically, we know authors have been asked to "straighten" characters before, or told their gay main character would be a hard sell. We also know books have been banned for LGBTQ content. There are approximately a thousand more links I could toss in, but Cleolinda Jones did a great job of illustrating the challenges that LGBTQ lit faces.

However, we also know the agency's rebuttal was posted by Colleen Lindsay, an ardent supporter of LGBTQ fiction. We know the agency represents authors who publicly self-identify as something other than straight, and authors that post about LGBTQ-related issues, and books with LGBTQ characters (some of which are not published yet and cannot be linked to).*

Other than that, all we have are the following opinions.

This is all a big misunderstanding.
Agent Jennifer Laughran doubts either party acted maliciously. "I don't disbelieve anyone in this case," says an anonymous commenter. "(I)t sounds like a trainwreck of miscommunication, and the agency, being the entity of power in the dynamic, bears the brunt of the responsibility for the miscommunication." Kelly McClymer disagrees, saying perhaps the authors, who seem well-versed in the dynamics of privilege conversations, should have clarified: "Anyone who has ever confronted codespeak (of any kind, not just anti-gay) this way knows what happens next: a complete denial. However, at that point, this particular agency team may have been able to better explain the reasons to turn YA to MG that didn't have anything to do with LGBT characters."

Volpe's post was accusatory and derailing.
"This response leaves the high ground right about here: 'One of our agents is being used as a springboard for these authors to gain attention for their project. She is being exploited,'" commented author Scott Westerfeld. "The post by Rachel and Sherwood was extremely carefully framed as being an industry-wide problem. The response here has been reframed as a personal attack on Rachel and Sherwood," says commenter Jonquil. "Given that they did not name your company or the agent, how is [the agent] being exploited?" asks commenter Gretchen. "While I'm happy to see a response from the agency, particularly one so supportive of YA diversity," adds commenter Jinian, "I don't think the evident assumption of bad faith on the authors' part is warranted."

The agency won't admit a misunderstanding was possible.
Many were disappointed that even the post's title seemed defensive. "(I)f you agree that there's a chance of miscommunication here, given that you can't read another person's mind/intentions by internet however much it might seem possible," said commenter N.K. Jemisin, "and given that Rachel and Sherwood have made every attempt to stay on the 'professional behavior' side of the ledger... is this aspersion on their intentions necessary? It doesn't make you look good, by comparison." Another commenter pointed out that "(p)art of the problem with anti-gay sentiments is that they aren't always an intentional thing. That's the thing about privilege: When you have it, you don't know it's there until you examine it."

The agency is exaggerating the harm done to its own reputation. 
"I just want to point out that from a random observer-- not an 'insider'-- perspective, nobody's reputations were trashed until this post was made," said one commenter. Another responded, "As another (different!) outsider, I'd like to point out that the identity of the agent in question was essentially an open secret due to the rumor mill; that Joanna's response specifically mentions the numerous calls and emails from those who knew she was the one accused; and that to discount the power of the rumor mill in the tight-knit, borderline incestuous publishing industry is foolhardy."

Several commenters claimed that because they hadn't heard the rumors online, the agency's response wasn't justified (and y'all know you laughed at the self-proclaimed "nosy" person). But commenter Julie Particka says, "Rumors in high school didn't get started because they were blasted over morning announcements either. The writing community isn't so large that the authors telling a couple people couldn't eventually get back to Joanna. Too many people wanted to know who the agent in question was--that's how stories get spread."

Meanwhile, commenters on the authors' blogs have referenced locked posts made by the authors in advance of their PW article; Swan Tower refers to "evidence I've seen that you haven't." Obviously these conversations could be completely innocuous, but some see the mentions as proof that rumors were being spread. To be fair, commenters are also claiming to have secret knowledge supporting the agency. (Swan Tower also points out, per Lindsay's request, that Volpe is not the agent in question, but merely speaking for the agency, and that there's "a lot of telephone going on, which isn't helping matters at all.")

The book just wasn't up to par-- that's why the authors had to find a new agent. 
"I'm not clear," commented Jim C. Hines. "(I)s the comment toward the end taking a shot that 'Obviously, the *real* problem is that their book sucks!' from Colleen or from Joanna?" Later, he adds, "(Y)our comment reads -- to me -- as a pretty clear slam on the quality of the book in question, based on the fact that these two authors chose to look for a different agent who could represent them both equally."

Lindsay responded, "It's not a cheap shot. I was pointing out something that agents actually take into consideration when looking at a book under these circumstances. If both of these writers' agents felt that the project was not marketable as is, then there are most likely problems with the manuscript, problems that can range anywhere from having a bloated word count to too many POVs for a kidlit story." Agent Michael Bourret also read and passed on the book in question for unrelated reasons.

Lindsay later clarified for commenters that cutting a POV is not the same as cutting a character, and that "(m)iddle grade works best with one POV. Five POVs in any work of fiction is an editorial nightmare." Another anonymous commenter pointed out, "I don't know how you missed it, but the authors said they were also (or maybe it was instead, I don't have the link open) asked to remove references to said character's sexuality. 'It can be told to the readers in the later novels!' You know what that sounds like? It sounds like making the non-heterosexual characters invisible. Again."

People need to study up on the conventions of middle grade literature.
"Maybe it's just me," says commenter David D., "but 'The first bit of editorial feedback we gave was that they change the book from YA to middle grade, which would mean cutting most of the romance entirely' doesn't really fit with the statements supporting YA literature and diversity within it. If writers want to write YA work with the attendant emotional and narrative complexity...why not first facilitate that rather than suggest a direction that strips those things away?"

This is the one place I'm going to blatantly state an opinion: Just because the authors want to write a YA with complexity doesn't mean they have. Voice is tricky to get right and tricky to edit, and it behooves authors to play to their strengths-- it's possible the agent saw a potentially good MG voice and encouraged it.

Other commenters saw the suggestion of removing romance from MG as an excuse to de-gay the story, but it's a suggestion often made for writers in that age group. "My agent has asked me to change one of my novels from YA to MG and to remove the romance, but there were no gay characters involved," explains an anonymous author. "The story was simply more marketable as MG, and my agent thought it a good direction to take my career (because of how flooded the YA industry has become). It's very possible (there's no way to know really) that Ms. Smith's and Ms. Brown's novel was simply better suited to MG in terms of character arcs, world building, and plot, and Ms. Stampfel-Volpe [sic] simply thought it would be an easier revisions (and eventual submissions) process than trying to keep the book as YA."

(For more on YA versus MG, start here.)

The authors have a bad case of sour grapes. 
"While some are suggesting that it's just as bad to take what the agent says at face value, I honestly doubted the complete veracity of the original post," says commenter Michelle. "There were quite a few facts missing, as well as accusations that seemed overblown and inaccurate. ...(A)fter analysis of both sides, I'll simply refer to Occam's razor."

"I've followed both these authors' blogs for a very long time," says an anonymous commenter. "Just last week, Sherwood Smith was publicly bemoaning the lack of quality YA sci-fi. When I first read the genreville article, I was most shocked to see the genre in which they were writing. It didn't at all match what they've been saying about the apparently poor state of young adult, or young adult dystopians. Something about the story rang false to me. It felt calculated." (I assume anonymous is referring to the Brown's recent posts about how tedious and one-dimensional YA dystopians are, and their general disappointment in YA science fiction.)

Similarly, Josie R. on the DGLM blog said, "Meh. The writers wrote a book that needed fixing. They didn’t want to hear it needed fixing, so rather than fix it, they climbed on a soapbox, cried about how mean agents were to gay characters, and let everyone’s righteous indignation soothe their egos." In another comment, Lindsay said: "Framing the entire discussion around an incident which appears to be nothing more than two overly-sensitive writers reacting to editorial criticism they didn't want to accept is a bad idea."

The authors are out for publicity.
The authors themselves refer to the affair as "a publicity blitz."

Everyone loves to demonize the gate keepers.
An anonymous editor commented: "This kind of tantrum from authors is not rare. Throwing agencies and publishers under the bus has become a bit of a game online, and people seem all too willing to get their hating in guilt-free. It seems to base itself in this idea that authors are these innocent underdogs and agencies are corporate shills. This view is ignorant of the industry reality."

No really, let's focus on the real issue here.
"In a way, I'm glad it opened up the larger conversation about diversity in mainstream YA, though. It's one that's needed to happen for a long time," says teen commenter Maggie Desmond O'Brien. 18-year-old Ali Marie also has a level-headed look at the controversy. (I love that teens are a voice of reason here.)

"To me, the salient point is not the specifics of this particular interaction, the identity of this agency, or who said what and why, or if this agency has a bias against queer characters," commented Deborah J. Ross. "The point is that this censorship-by-gatekeeper happens all the time. If not to these two writers, then to many others. ...We should be looking for ways to work together toward that goal, as allies and partners, not pointing fingers." Polenth Blake also warned that focusing on specific people draws the discussion away from the actual problem.

Jane at Dear Author probably comes closest to summing up my thoughts: She's concerned about the tone of the agent's post, but thinks the book "sounds like a hot mess." The end result: "It’s a classic case of she said / she said with some dangerous oil on the fire... It all gets away from Malinda Lo’s excellent point. Less than 1% of YA books feature LGBTQ teens."

"(T)hese teens have no authors and no characters against which to mirror themselves, to investigate their identity safely or to feel they’re acceptable in the world," says the anonymous counselor at Child Therapy and Mental Health. "Without such a model, we will continue to see young people in our therapy rooms who struggle to know if they are mad, bad or simply gay. Diversity in publishing is a very real pre-requisite to good mental health."

One good thing to come of all this: Many publicly affirmed their openness to gay YA, including agents Janet Reid, Kristin Nelson, Amy Boggs, Suzie Townsend, and Kate McKean, as well as editor Navah Wolfe. (Please note many of these posts were written before NC Lit's rebuttal.)

Finally, I'd like to repeat Scott Tracey's paraphrased call to put your money where your mouth is: Buy the LGBTQ books that do exist. Money talks. Insert other financial cliche here. Or better yet, insert Tanuki Green's fabulous list of YA sci fi and fantasy with major LGBTQ characters. Check out the comments on "The Forgotten B in LGBTQ Fiction." Subscribe to blogs like "I'm Here, I'm Queer, What The Hell Do I Read?" or Gay YA, which has the Ultimate Gay Reading List.


I'm keeping comments closed here, because Colleen is doing an admirable job moderating at The Swivet, and I don't envy her the task one bit. You can also head over to the Absolute Write forums, where they have an active discussion about it, or to the authors' individual blogs.

*I have read that Reisz's work includes LGBTQ characters but have not read the books myself.

Disclaimers: Three YA Highway bloggers are represented by Joanna Volpe. Two more are represented by FinePrint, which is not officially connected to NC Lit, but does share a suite and other connections with them. FinePrint is also Colleen Lindsay's former agency.

While I have tried to keep this round up as neutral as possible, I will also say that I've corresponded with agents at NC Lit before and like them a great deal. I do not know Smith or Brown. 

Any opinions not cited otherwise are my own and do not represent the opinions of anyone else at YA Highway or their respective agencies, nor my own agency.
Kate Hart

Kate is the author of After the Fall, coming January 24, 2017 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A former teacher and grant writer, she now owns a treehouse-building business in the Ozarks and hosts the Badass Ladies You Should Know interview series.

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Item Reviewed: Field Trip Friday Special Edition: #YesGayYA Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kate Hart