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So, most of you have already seen Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood… 
15th-Sep-2011 11:26 am
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.
15th-Sep-2011 06:50 pm (UTC)
Malinda Lo's Statistics Post is informative and telling, I think.

Also, I'm really not a fan of Colleen Lindsay's "These authors already have agents, and they aren't repping the book, so clearly it's sub-par and wasn't rejected for reasons of bias!" argument at the end of the guest post. Frankly, that reads far too much into the other agents' decision not to rep the book, which might well be based on not having the right contacts, personal tastes, or any number of other factors that don't have anything do with the manuscript's inherent quality or saleability.
15th-Sep-2011 07:04 pm (UTC)
That stats post is very interesting. Thank you!

And, yes, I didn't much care for Lindsay's closing remarks either. I understand that she knows the agent in question, and probably has informed opinions about her literary judgement and level of homophobia or lack thereof, but it felt like an attempt to just end the conversation by saying, "Well, the book sucked anyway!"
15th-Sep-2011 09:01 pm (UTC)
I also read a rather compelling post (linked from the yesgayYA hashtag) written by an author who has pointed out that it's not just internalized biases by agents and editors, but also potentially authorial self-censorship in excluding minority (LGBT+ but also POC and PWDs) principals in their stories.
15th-Sep-2011 10:36 pm (UTC)
I'm sure that authorial self-censorship plays a role in both conscious and unconscious aspects. Certainly in my own writing, while I always had a certain amount of racial diversity in secondary characters because that just reflected the world that I've always lived in, my protagonists tended to be straight, white, and able-bodied just because that was my default reflex, even for some time after I'd become very aware of under-representation of minority characters in fiction.
(Deleted comment)
16th-Sep-2011 03:39 am (UTC)
Having recently had something similar happen between RL friends...yeah. We'll probably never know. It's like being in Rashomon, except Toshiro Mifune isn't going to show up to sort it all out. (Pity.)
16th-Sep-2011 04:09 am (UTC)
It is a pity - Mifune would have this sorted out in no time.
17th-Sep-2011 04:45 am (UTC)
All these seem to be good people, so I'd think a misunderstanding is more likely than dishonesty on either side.

The authors might have taken something as being a gay issue just because they were very conscious of gay issues; we don't have to think they are over-sensitive about anything else.
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