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 (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 (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).