Tag Archives: Peter Cameron

That GayYA Thing

A month or so ago, while I was locked in my Editing Bunker, there was a bit of a kerfuffle in the blogosphere about the lack of gay (and lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer) characters in books for teenagers. It started off as an argument about whether a particular literary agent had asked two particular authors to remove a gay character from their book, and turned into a wider debate about the experiences of LGBTQ authors and the success (or otherwise) of Young Adult books featuring LGBTQ characters. For those who missed it, there’s an excellent summary and discussion at cleolinda’s livejournal. During the debate, Malinda Lo, a YA author, gathered some data, constructed some graphs and concluded that “less than 1% of YA novels have LGBT characters”.

So: books, teenagers, gayness and maths. How could I possibly resist adding my opinions, even if I am rather late to the discussion? So, here are some of my random thoughts on the GayYA thing:

All of my YA novels contain gay characters. I’ve never had a literary agent or publisher ask me to de-gay my writing. If they had, I’d have gone looking for another agent and/or publisher. I can honestly say that I’ve experienced FAR less homophobia in the YA publishing industry than in my previous career as a speech and language pathologist.

That’s not to say that things in YA Book World are perfect, and I was saddened to read the accounts of YA authors who had experienced discrimination when trying to get their LGBTQ stories published. I’m also wondering how much of this debate is specific to the United States, which (I think) is a more overtly religious society than Australia. The only homophobic comments I’ve seen about my Montmaray books have come from United States readers (one of them was even a youth librarian – how depressing). I know David Levithan would disagree (he made a speech* here a few years back, complaining about how backwards Australia was compared to the United States, regarding attitudes to gayness), but I actually think Australians are more tolerant. Or possibly more apathetic. At least we don’t have crazy book bannings just about every week.

In addition, I’m sad to say I have to agree with Sarah Rees Brennan’s comment about YA books being less likely to be bestsellers if they contain LGBTQ characters. As she points out, books are more likely to sell well if they get a huge push from their publishers, and publishers tend to put a huge amount of effort behind books only if a) the authors are popular already, or b) they think the book is likely to appeal to (that is, not put off) lots of readers. On the other hand, the reasons a book becomes a bestseller are often complicated and mysterious. Certainly, my books don’t sell very well, but I doubt that has much to do with the gay characters. It’s far more likely to be due to the girls in my books being more interested in giving speeches at the League of Nations than swooning over hot male vampires/werewolves/fallen angels.

I’m also dubious about the “less than 1%” statement by Malinda Lo. Her definition of an ‘LGBTQ YA book’ was fairly broad – she counted any YA book “published by a traditional publisher that includes a main character or secondary character that is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning; or a story line related to LGBTQ themes.” Even so, her list seemed to have some obvious omissions, some of which were pointed out by commenters on her blog post. (Also, why isn’t The FitzOsbornes in Exile on her list? It was published in the US by a traditional publisher; it has gay and bisexual characters; it’s even been nominated for next year’s American Library Association’s Rainbow Books list. Is Toby not gay enough? Is Simon not bisexual enough?) In fairness to Malinda Lo, she acknowledges her list may be incomplete. And she does note that “even if I double the number of titles on the list, the total percentage of LGBTQ YA will still only be approximately 1% of all YA books”. Which is very low. Although this percentage will probably come as a relief to those Montmaray reviewers who complained about Toby’s gayness – they often went on to bemoan the ‘fact’ that every second YA book nowadays contains disgusting homosexuals.

I think it’s good for LGBTQ teenagers to be able to read YA books about their lives. It’s even better if straight teenagers can read about LGBTQ lives, because that might help to decrease homophobic bullying in schools. But I also know that teenagers often read books that are (gasp!) published for adults. This is especially true for books involving LGBTQ issues (ugh, the ‘issues’ word), because until recently, a lot of those books were published as adult, not YA, in Australia, even when the protagonists were teenagers or young adults. This applied to books by Australian authors (for example, Loaded by Christos Tsiolkas and Sushi Central by Alasdair Duncan) and international authors (for example, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon).

All of this made me think about my favourite books about LGBTQ teenagers and young adults, so here are a few of them:

'Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You' by Peter CameronSomeday This Pain Will Be Useful To You (2007) by Peter Cameron

I love this book – it’s so funny and sad and wise and wonderful. I wish I could have read it when I was a teenager, because oh, how I would have related to awkward, alienated James. The novel isn’t really about being a gay teenager, any more than it’s about surviving the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York, although both of these are part of the story. As the starred review in Kirkus said, “Cameron’s power is his ability to distill a particular world and social experience with great specificity while still allowing the reader to access the deep well of our shared humanity”.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (1985) by Jeanette Winterson

A semi-autobiographical novel about a girl adopted into a Pentecostal family in a mill town in the north of England. Teenage Jeanette is forced to give up her family, her church and her community after she falls in love with another girl. It’s not as grim as it sounds – there’s plenty of humour and originality alongside the rage and heartbreak. What I really liked about this novel, apart from the inventiveness of the writing, is that it doesn’t pretend that being different is easy. It was also made into a brilliant BBC television series.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) by Michael Chabon

About the bisexual son of a Jewish gangster, who spends the summer after his college graduation getting entangled with a charming, sophisticated gay man and his self-destructive friend. I’m not sure if this counts as YA (the narrator is in his early twenties, and it contains explicit – though not gratuitous – sex), but it’s the sort of book that will really appeal to some older teenagers, and the writing is terrific.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010) by John Green and David Levithan

Mostly about a very large and very gay football player called Tiny Cooper, who writes a musical about himself, his many loves and his friends. It made me laugh and cry.

'About A Girl' by Joanne HornimanAbout a Girl (2010) by Joanne Horniman

I can’t write about this book, because it would be weird and awkward if the author, who is on my blogroll, read it. But I agree with this review.

Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) by Rita Mae Brown

I can’t claim this is a Great Work of Literature, but it’s lots of fun. Molly, a feisty beauty from a poor Southern family, fights her way into college, then gets expelled after the authorities discover she’s in a lesbian relationship with her roommate. She then goes to New York to seek her fortune and have many adventures.

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) by Hanif Kureishi

Okay, this was a film first, but the script was published (with an autobiographical essay titled The Rainbow Sign), so I’m counting it as a YA book. It’s about Omar, a gay Pakistani teenager who opens a laundrette in London during the Thatcher years, and his lover is a former skinhead, and Omar’s uncle is a drug dealer, and it’s really funny and gritty and wonderful.

More LGBTQ YA reading:

  • Daisy Porter’s LGBTQ book reviews at QueerYA
  • Lee Wind’s LGBTQ book reviews, plus discussion of LGBTQ issues, at I’m Here. I’m Queer. What The Hell Do I Read?
  • Christine A. Jenkins’ bibliography of YA books with Gay/Lesbian content, 1969-2009
  • Malinda Lo’s list of LGBTQ books, 2009-2011 (scroll down to the end of her post for the link to a downloadable pdf)
  • Alex Sanchez’s list of Gay Teen Books
  • The American Library Association’s Rainbow Books lists for 2008-2011
  • William E. Elderton’s annotated lists of gay and lesbian books for teenagers. It hasn’t been updated recently, but contains lots of Australian and New Zealand authors.
  • * The only link I can find to the podcast of David Levithan’s speech is here (scroll down to the first comment for the link).

    Dogs and Books

    If I were asked to list my favourite things in the universe, dogs and books would be near the top of the list, so I’ve been pleased to see lots of both of them about lately.

    Firstly, Inside a Dog, the website for the Centre for Youth Literature, was relaunched last week, with a new blog and loads of useful, interesting features. Go and have a look at the gorgeous photos of dogs reading books! I also liked the article about a greyhound who helps children learn to read. Children love reading aloud to Danny, because he

    “does not criticise or correct their pronunciation. He just nods and pricks up an ear, although sometimes he closes his eyes and appears not to be listening . . . Some children even show Danny the pictures as they read.”

    It reminded me of a learning disorders clinic where I used to work. My boss would bring in her good-natured poodle, who would sit on the verandah, looking adorable. I soon discovered that my students became highly motivated to finish their work if I promised they could pat the dog at the end of our session.

    I’ve also been reading about Bamse, the St. Bernard who was the mascot of Free Norwegian forces during the Second World War. Bamse was an official crew member of a ship that managed to escape the Nazi invasion of Norway in 1940. While stationed in Scotland, Bamse rescued a sailor who’d fallen overboard, and saved another from a knife-wielding assailant, by pushing the villain into the sea. The crew bought Bamse a bus pass, which hung around his neck, and he would take the bus into town by himself to round up any crew members who were late returning to the ship. Bamse would often have a bowl of beer with the men, and he was an enthusiastic goalkeeper and centre forward when they played football on deck. When he died of a heart attack in 1944, eight hundred school children lined the streets to watch his flag-draped coffin being carried through the town of Montrose, where he was buried. Of course, I cannot resist squashing Bamse into Montmaray Book Three, even though his story doesn’t have much to do with mine.

    I’ve also been thinking about beloved dogs in books, and came up with my favourite five:

    1. Roger in Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals

    My Family and Other Animals

    'My Family and Other Animals' - 2005 BBC production

    When ten-year-old Gerald and his eccentric family move to Corfu in the 1930s, they are accompanied by Roger, a woolly black dog of indeterminate breed, who causes a canine riot within minutes of their arrival. In a book full of endearing animals, Roger is one of the most lovable. As Gerald points out:

    “He was the perfect companion for an adventure, affectionate without exuberance, brave without being belligerent, intelligent and full of good-humoured tolerance for my eccentricities.”

    (Roger was also portrayed beautifully by a very clever canine actor in the recent film version of My Family and Other Animals.)

    2. Heloise in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle

    Heloise is the family bull-terrier, described at one point by Cassandra as

    “gazing at me with love, reproach, confidence and humour – how can she express so much just with two rather small slanting eyes?”

    Heloise is a loyal companion to Cassandra during her wanderings around the countryside, and even manages to get Cassandra into, then out of, an awkward situation with Simon by barking out the barn window at exactly the right time.

    3. Miró in Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You

    Miró is a standard poodle who “seems to think he is human” and watches “the simple canine ways of the other dogs with amused condescension”. His Manhattan family talk to Miró more than they talk to one another, but teenage James admits he’s often mean to the dog:

    “I say things to him like ‘You’re just a dog. You don’t even have a passport or a Social Security number. You can’t even open doors. You’re totally at my mercy.’ Or ‘Get a haircut. Put on some shoes.'”

    Needless to say, Miró is not bothered by these insults. He’s way too cool.

    4. Edward in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist

    There aren’t many dogs in Anne Tyler’s novels (I have a sneaking suspicion she prefers cats), but Edward, a Welsh corgi, rules this book. Edward is responsible for Macon’s broken leg, which forces Macon to move back to the family home. Then Edward’s unruly behaviour leads Macon to hire Muriel, the crazy dog trainer, which results in scenes that any dog owner will recognise:

    “During the course of the evening he chewed a pencil to splinters, stole a pork-chop bone from the garbage bin, and threw up on the sun porch rug; but now that he could sit on command, everyone felt more hopeful.”

    In between attacking Macon’s boss and terrorising innocent cyclists and pedestrians, Edward brightens the life of Muriel’s son and manages to throw Macon and Muriel into a very unlikely but satisfying romance.

    5. King in Anne Holm’s I Am David

    Oh, King! The most loving, loyal sheepdog in the world, who sacrifices himself to save David! I can’t type out a quote about King, because it will make me cry. Just go and read it (with a big box of tissues).

    Hmm, I didn’t plan to end on such a sad note. Look, here’s a hilarious comic about a dog with . . . um, intellectual challenges and another one about the same dog having difficulties adjusting to a new house.

    Also – don’t forget that the Montmaray give-away is open till April 5th, if you’d like to win a book.

    Top Ten YA Books

    Earlier this year, Adele from Persnickety Snark ran a poll asking readers to nominate their favourite Young Adult (YA) books of all time. The final Top 100 had a lot of predictable titles (Twilight), as well as a few books I’d thought were either adult (Pride and Prejudice) or children’s literature (Harry Potter). There were also some books that made me think, ‘Oh, why didn’t I remember to add that one to my list?’ (for example, Little Women). Anyway, here are the books that I nominated this year as my favourite YA books of all time:

    10. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
    Possibly the funniest book I have ever read. Flora decides to improve the lives of her unfortunate relatives, whether they like it or not.

    9. I am David by Anne Holm
    A boy escapes from a concentration camp and makes his way across Europe in search of his mother. Devastating, but ultimately, there’s a message of hope.

    8. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
    They live on a houseboat. Leo writes cowboy books for a living and Helen gets paid to draw gory operations. What’s not to like?

    7. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
    A fabulous adventure. Pirates, buried treasure, a marooned sailor, a brave teenage lad – and Long John Silver, one of the scariest villains ever, because you never quite know whose side he’s on.

    6. The Hole in the Hill by Ruth Park
    I nearly chose Playing Beatie Bow instead, but this book is special. A group of smart, resourceful kids get lost in a mysterious cave system in the wilds of New Zealand and discover something amazing.

    5. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
    A history of philosophy for teenagers. No, wait, don’t run away! It’s funny and exciting and very accessible, with a great twist in the middle and two terrific female narrators.

    4. The Shape of Three by Lilith Norman
    Only Lilith Norman could make ‘twins separated at birth’ into this kind of convincing, emotionally-wrenching drama. She also paints a wonderful portrait of Sydney in the 1970s.

    3. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
    One of the loveliest coming-of-age stories ever (even if I still can’t understand how Cassandra could treat poor Stephen the way she did). And it’s set in a castle.

    2. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
    An adopted teenage girl gives up her religion, her family and her whole community after she falls in love with another girl. But it’s not depressing! It’s funny, warm and smart, and a real inspiration for anyone who’s ever felt different.

    1. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron
    A teenage boy in Manhattan anxiously contemplates adult life, meanwhile managing to alienate everyone around him. Brilliant, hilarious, touching – the best book about a teenager that I’ve ever read.