So, most of you have already seen Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith's post, Say Yes to Gay YA
, in which they describe how an agent offered them representation for their YA novel on the condition that they either make a gay POV character straight or remove his POV from the book. I'd been intending to make a post about this myself, except that I hadn't thought of much to say beyond, "Really? Shit like this happens in 2011?" and perhaps to witter a bit about my current thoughts on the sexual orientation of characters in my current work-in-progress. (One of the major male characters may be bisexual. I'm not entirely certain at this point if I as the writer haven't figured out his sexuality or if he as the character hasn't figured out his sexuality.)
But now Colleen Lindsay has posted a guest post by Joanna Stampfel-Volpe, who claims to be the agent in question
. And the way she tells it, she asked for the character's sexuality to be toned down because she wanted the book to be revised to target the middle-grade market, which meant that everyone's sexuality needed to be toned down; and she suggested cutting down on a couple of the POV characters, because there were too many POVs.
I'll admit, there were enough simple factual discrepancies between Brown and Smith's account and Stampfel-Volpe's that my first thought was that maybe she wasn't actually the agent in question. However, Sherwood Smith has confirmed that she is
So, now we're left with something that illustrates one of my favorite intellectual obsessions: that human communication is complicated. The gap between what one party thought they said and what the other party heard is huge. On the one hand, it's worth noting that just because Stampfel-Volpe presents very plausible seeming editorial reasons for the requested revisions, doesn't mean that bias wasn't a factor. In this day and age, bias, particularly unconscious bias, usually cloaks itself as a reasonable objection. Just as an analogy, if you look at employment discrimination against women in technical fields, female candidates are rarely explicitly rejected because they are female. They get rejected because there's some minor gap in their technical skills that would be overlooked if they were male, or because they just don't seem like good personality fit with the rest of the team, or whatever.
On the flip side, authors obviously have tremendous psychological incentive to dismiss criticism of their work by attributing it to bad motives. Neither Brown nor Smith are noobs at this writing business, so I wouldn't expect them to fall prey to this kind of thing easily, but we all have our blind spots and bad days.
All the parties involved have asked that people focus on the bigger and important issue of gay representation in YA fiction rather than taking sides. But since the whole question of "How is it that there is so frequently a gigantic gap between what people think they say and what other people hear?" is a recurring obsession of mine, I had to comment on that aspect briefly.
As for the bigger issue: Write stories with gay characters. Read stories with gay characters. Talk about
stories with gay characters. Have I missed anything?Edited to add
: as confirmed in the comments over on swan_tower
's excellent post on the subject
, Joanna Stampfel-Volpe was, in fact, not the agent in question, but works at the same agency and, I guess, was privy to the discussions to some degree. Which...well, let me put it this way - if it's easy to deceive yourself about your own motivations, it's even easier to put the best possible spin on the words and actions of a colleague whose professional reputation you're defending. I'm now more certain than I was before that Stampfel-Volpe is telling the truth as she understands it, but much less certain that her account really reflects what happened during those discussions.