does it matter who writes queer stories?
There is a storm brewing in young adult fiction. A new book on the AIDS crisis has furthered debate around who should get commissioned and paid to tell certain stories.
I’ve never been ashamed of my love of queer YA (young adult) fiction. And, given that according to a 2012 study, over 55% of YA books are being bought and read by adults, it seems many others aren’t afraid to admit that they, too, are drawn to books that are written for and marketed at those in their late teens.
While in 2018 much of YA it is still centred on magical queens, dystopian societies and so many love triangles (sometimes involving vampires and werewolves), in the past few years, the genre has diversified by way of representation and inclusivity -- most notably for LGBTQ characters. Just last year, YA novels were published that explored bisexuality, asexuality and the complex makeup of our sexual identities. This year saw one book, Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, adapted into the first gay teen movie produced by a major movie studio, Love, Simon. Queer YA literature is blooming.
The contrast between the progressive character diversity often found in these LGBTQ novels and the state of the market is another matter. In fact, many of the most successful LGBTQ novels have been written by cisgender, often straight, women. This came to a head when, last week, it was announced that YA author Helene Dunbar’s latest novel had just been purchased by a publishing house. The book, Blood Makes Noise, is a coming-of-age story set in New York in 1983. It follows 16-year-old Michael, a gay teenager, who is growing up “under the looming storm of the AIDS crisis” when “information is scarce, rumour is abundant, and sex and fear are becoming intertwined”.
"To understand the level of vitriol directed at a book that won’t be published until 2019, you need to understand the level of fanaticism and the dedication to inclusivity that now exists in YA."
Helene’s novel sounds like an important step forward in LGBTQ literature. If YA novels about the AIDs crisis do exist, there are probably only a handful of them and none, in my mind at least, are from the perspective of a gay teenager balancing their sexuality and growing up during what was a deeply hostile and threatening period in history. However, that didn’t mean there was unanimous celebration when Helene’s novel was announced.
“There’s a big conversation happening on YA Twitter about a book that just sold, written by a cis white woman, about a 16-year-old gay boy navigating the AIDS epidemic in 1983,” YA author and singer Simon Curtis wrote on Twitter. “And consequently, a further convo about female authors profiting from the ‘trend’ of gay boy books, while actual gay men writing YA are seemingly shuffled to the sidelines.”
“Each and every person involved in this book should be ashamed,” wrote Jay Elliot Flynn. “A woman profiting off the stories and experiences of gay males during the AIDS epidemic is despicable, and I hope this entire project burns to the ground.”
To understand the level of vitriol directed at a book that won’t be published until 2019, you need to understand the level of fanaticism and the dedication to inclusivity that now exists in YA. It follows a campaign started in 2015 that advocated for “Own Voices” in YA. The concept is simple, really; rather than majority-group authors -- cisgender, male, straight, white, abled -- writing books from the perspective of marginalised groups, own voices encourages the publication of diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group. It’s a conversation that, over the past five years, has steadily gathered much traction and intensity, with Vulture, in 2017, labelling the fraught debates and online drama surrounding representation as “toxic”. And now this is all knocking at Helene Dunbar’s door.
“When a straight person is telling a gay story, they're almost always telling that for a straight audience through the ‘straight gaze’." – Lev Rosen
For Adam Sass, a YA author, the announcement of Helene’s book falls into the trend of cis women who write male/male fiction having their novels prioritised over ‘own voices’ authors. “As well researched the book may be and as wonderful a writer as Helene is, I think this is something where you're seeing a blind spot emerge,” he explains. “When you're not part of an own voices community and you're writing about that community as a guest in that space, you really have to be looking out for your blind spots and asking yourself the questions: Can you write about this? Absolutely. But should you?”
This trend of outside voices writing queer books is something that gay YA author Lev Rosen, whose book Jack of Hearts and Other Parts is set for release later this year, argues comes with good intentions. “But at the same time, when you write, your first audience is always yourself,” he adds. “So when a straight person is telling a gay story, they're almost always telling that for a straight audience through the ‘straight gaze’. That's what a lot of people feel uncomfortable with. Our stories haven't yet been told to us in YA. We're just getting our footing and already it feels like straight people are coming in say, 'Let me tell this story to the straight people first and then you can tell your own story to a gay audience.' Meanwhile, we would like to be able to tell our own stories.”
There’s also historic reasoning behind the volume of cis, often straight, women writing and publishing gay stories. In fan fiction communities dating back to the 70s, women were the predominant authors of slash fiction -- that is fiction where two, usually male, characters are reimagined as having a sexual or romantic relationship. Writing in her 1991 book Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth Camille Bacon-Smith argued that writing homosexual fiction allowed women to express themselves sexually and emotionally in a patriarchal society that so often oppresses female desire and sexuality. Adult romance fiction, like slash fiction, allows for the same sort of sexual expression. And as a genre, YA is very similar; romance, especially romantic comedy, is a staple. It means the number of women writing (and reading) male/male romances is high.
“There are so many agents and editors fighting to change this. I would be remiss without saying times are changing, but they need to change faster." – Kosoko Jackson
Still, according to Kosoko Jackson, whose debut YA novel A Place for Wolves is due next year, YA has one fundamental difference. “YA has an inherent purpose that other genres don't have,” he explains over email. “That is, to do no harm. YA books are sometimes the first time that a young person sees themselves represented. It's why we call YA ‘Windows and Mirrors’.” What Kosoko argues is that the prominence, and often preference, of non-own voices publishing stories about marginalised people endorses an idea that authentic and truly representative stories do not matter. “That’s the problem,” he adds.
Publishing is not immune to the pressures of business; like any other industry it needs to make money in order to thrive. What becomes apparent talking to these three authors is the blindness that publishers and agents exhibit when faced with multiple marginalised narratives. “In publishing, people often lose deals because their books are too similar to something that’s already out there,” Adam says. “So [Helene’s book] could create a situation where people would find it highly unlikely that a gay writer or a queer writer could follow this with a book on a similar topic.” Kosoko adds that this is even more precarious when you bring intersectionality into the mix. “It's hard enough publishing stories as [part of] one marginalised group,” he says. “Try to do something intersectional and publishing acts like you've asked them the meaning of life.”
All three authors cite the prevalence of male/male YA over female/female YA. There are also a very small number of trans stories and stories about people with disabilities. Likewise, more work could be done to have a variety of stories featuring people of colour, especially queer people of colour. “There are so many agents and editors fighting to change this. I would be remiss without saying times are changing,” Kosoko says. “But they need to change faster. People shouldn't wait for that ‘breakout book’ to then justify buying others. Because what if that breakout doesn't come for 15 years? How many intersectional youths had to grow up not seeing themselves because it wasn't, as publishing says, ‘financially feasible’? Everyone deserves to be seen.”
I reached out to Helene Dunbar following the announcement and online pushback of her novel. While she didn’t answer the questions I sent over, she did write a letter of sorts. In it, she explained that she grew up during the AIDS crisis and that her book, Blood Makes Noise, will draw on her experiences. She adds that she reached out to activists from the time and that her research was “triple-checked”. “I highly value own voices and understand that writing outside of my own personal experience brings with it additional risks, but I hope that over time, this book is judged on the merits of its story-telling and characters and research and message, rather than on my gender and assumed sexuality,” she wrote. “I also understand this is part of a necessary discussion in publishing about the many voices that have been historically underserved and undervalued and one that rightfully needs to continue as long as it takes.”
Helene, for her part, isn’t really to blame for the contention that has arisen. Her novel, clearly, comes from a place of experience and compassion. Instead, what queer YA writers and readers are finally starting to do -- as they are in other arts industries -- is to demand more and advocate for themselves. And like with those arguments in other industries, there shouldn’t be a blanket ban on outside voices telling queer stories. Instead, as Adam suggests, there should be “ more own voices, not only own voices”. “Part of me would never say that they can't write those stories,” Lev echoes. “But part of me also feels like we need to give an opportunity to LGBTQ authors to tell these stories first. Because it feels like, right now, editorial, editors and publishers just aren’t thinking about that.”
YA is popular because of the “windows and mirrors” it provides, not only for young people but for adults, too. It makes these books incredibly personal to the readers. It’s why, as a community, people care so vehemently about representation and own voices, and why these conversations feel emotional. It’s because they are. Publishing, like the rest of the entertainment industry, needs to wake up and realise that people are here, queer and they have their own stories to tell.