Thursday, September 15, 2011

essential update on the Rachel Brown and Sherwood Smith story

The Swivet [Colleen Lindsay]: Guest blogger Joanna Stampfel-Volpe responds to a recent PW article on LGBTQ YA

All worth reading, but if you're feeling lazy, read this:
Because this piece was printed in PW, I felt safe in assuming that the facts of the story had been checked. In the spirit of righteous indignation, I retweeted the story. Almost immediately I was contacted by several well-respected agents - a couple of whom had already read and rejected the manuscript in question, based on the same editorial concerns - who called into question the facts behind the blog post. I later discovered that not only did I know the agent in question, but that this person was actually a dear friend of mine, someone who most certainly wasn't homophobic. The more I learned about this incident, the angrier I became at myself for reposting it and inadvertently hurting someone whom I respect and admire as a colleague, and whom I care about personally as a friend. This story has now moved beyond the book community online into the mainstream press; every new media outlet that picks up the story is a further insult to this agent's reputation; for that, each and every one of us who helped spread this story should be ashamed.

As a queer woman and a former agent who has happily repped - and sold! - YA with LGBT themes, I think we need to step back, take a deep breath and look at an important fact, one that hasn't yet been discussed.

FACT: Both these writers already have their own agents. At least one of those agents reps YA books. So what does it say when the respective agents for both these well-established writers advise them to find a different agent for the book in question because neither of them wanted to rep it themselves?

It tells me that homophobia was most likely not the reason that this book has thus far not found representation.

Any agent looking at this manuscript - knowing full well that these two writers already had their own respective agents who did not want to rep the project - would see this as a giant red flag and approach the book with a very critical editorial eye.

Does there need to be a conversation about lack of diversity in YA? Yes. Is this the incident to hang it on. I don't think so.
ETA: Two more good pieces (of, I'm sure, many):

How hard is it to sell an LGBT YA novel?

De-gaying YA | Dystel & Goderich Literary Management \

ETA 2: I made another post about this: cult logic at #yesgayYA: Rose Fox, Rachel Manija Brown, K. Tempest Bradford.


  1. Oh man, that sucks.

    I think I can see how the original posters could have come away with a perception similar to what they posted about, though. Then, throw in a little artistic license and talk about how it FELT rather than how it WAS and leave everyone anonymous so you're not actually accusing anyone specific of these things, you know, just to get the discussion going. As a service. It's really a GOOD thing, right?

    Well, not so much, alas. I can see how you'd get there, though.

    Then it blows up like this and you look like an asshole, and it looks like you're finding *ism under every rock.

    This is basically what failers do, only much more shrilly :(

  2. littlebbob, yeah. I left this comment at that post: "Thank you for this. From the beginning, something about Rachel and Sherwood's story smelled wrong. I believe they were honestly saying what they believed, but they misinterpreted what they were told. It's just a thing humans do, as any flamewar shows."

  3. Worth noting, the original authors are standing fast, with responses posted on their personal blogs which are fairly disingenuous.

    After reading the response, my read now is that they knew exactly what they were doing, and they deliberately inflated the issue (a little) and refocused the some details (a little) to create a fictional but "could have been true" explanation for why they couldn't get their novel represented. They are now busted, have decided to dig in their heels and try to face it down.

    Sadly, at least part of what's going on here is probably that their novel sucks.

  4. The failers are out in the comments over there, of course, trying to turn this into "even if that's what you said, you're still homophobic because one of the characters who's POV you mentioned cutting was gay (even if the others weren't), and of course a gay romance is fine in a middle-grades book (even if you wanted the straight ones cut too.)"

    One thing is for sure, there will be no discussion of diversity in YA while there are labels to be slapped around. (Not that discussion amongst authors and agents is going to do much. . . one of the links in the article to Malinda Lo's blog piece, "How hard is it to sell an LGBT YA novel?" sums up the whole issue pretty well for me.)

  5. I've left a couple of comments for Sherwood, who I like despite her identitarianism because she tries to be inclusive. Rachel was a friend, but she chose her path. Still, I don't think either of them is lying here. I think circumstances are pushing them further and further into believing the problem with the the world in general and publishing in particular is that it's controlled by straight white American men.

    I strongly suspect their book has problems. I had gay kids sharing a room in Elsewhere, and gay superheroes kissing in "Secret Identity." The first were supporting characters, but the second were protagonists. Neither was ambiguous and both were published as YA. No one protested.

  6. Emily, just so no one misunderstands (yeah, like that's possible on the internet): I do think it's an important discussion. I don't think failfandom is capable of having it.

  7. "I believe they were honestly saying what they believed, but they misinterpreted what they were told. It's just a thing humans do, as any flamewar shows."

    *snerks and pats the top of your head to put out the fire.*

    This would be Drooling Fan Girl, having issues with the blog not letting me post under my lj account.

  8. It's just another he said/she said argument. No way to know if either side is being honest in their assertions since it isn't possible to get any actual evidence of anything.

    On a side note, I did recently read a "middle grade" book published in 2010 that had an adoptee from China point-of-view character whose father divorced her mother so that he could go live with his friend Richard, though. (No icky adult kissing, of course. That would be totally out of place.) So I'm willing to hazard a guess that diversity isn't really dead in children's lit even if this tells me nothing about YA science-fiction.

  9. Hey Will, this post:

    contains a pretty long list of quotes from authors who go hit with a de-gay hammer in some form or another (although it's interesting to note that in many cases either they would up selling the work all gayed up, and in at least one other case there were "hints" of a desire to de-gay but nothing overy).

    Anyways, I think the list is a pretty good resource and starting point for 'does de-gaying actually happen?'. The post itself comes down on the side opposite mine, but seems to be pretty well put together anyways.

  10. serial, I don't think either side gets anything by lying, so I'm comfortable sticking with misunderstandings all the way down.

    littlebbob, that's a good one. What's tricky is that just as there's more to Rachel and Sherwood's situation than first appears, they may be more to those stories, too. On the other, there must be some homophobes in publishing, though that still seems odd to me, because publishing is like theatre, a business that attracts gay folks. But since there are homophobic actors, there must be some homophobic folks in this biz, too.

  11. serial, your point is valid, but how do you explain the bestsellers on the lists of gay YA f&sf?

  12. How do they compare statistically with the number of non-gay YA f&sf on the bestseller lists? Obviously, if every gay YA f&sf book published made it onto the bestseller list (or even a very large percentage of them did) then not publishing them would be economically stupid. I doubt that's the case, though.

    Note that, in order to create a bias, the publishers don't need to be convinced that there's no money in books with gay protags. Only that there's enough less money that they should be focusing in other directions most of the time.

    So, for instance, if they think that the usual consumers of gay YA f&sf are going to be a minority of their readers, they might decide to publish some other manuscript instead on the grounds that most books don't make it onto the bestseller list anyway, but it would still be nice to make some money.

  13. (Identity politics actually encourages this kind of thinking, by the way. If people will only want to read about characters who are similar to themselves, then the most money would be in writing that reflects the majority culture.)

  14. serial, a truth about publishing that you may've noticed with Hollywood: If something's a success, it'll be imitated. No one ever says, "That was enormously profitable, but I'm sure we can't make any money with something else like it."

    That said, the bar may be set higher for works that are perceived as having niche markets.

    And, that said, the bar may be set lower: A company might decide they need a gay YA f&sf book and buy one that seemed good enough for what they needed. These things often work both ways and sideways, too.

    Full agreement about identitarianism encouraging ghettoization.

  15. True enough. That's why Harry Potter resulted in so many magic school fantasy novels and Twilight resulted in so many vampire romance novels. (Although, I think both of those went somewhat beyond just being bestsellers.) I just haven't seen a similar trend with young adult gay science-fiction yet. Maybe next year.

  16. serial, gay ya f&sf doesn't have its own shelf (and if it did, people would rightly complain of ghettoization), but there are some mighty popular books on this list:

  17. The house teenager says books with gay characters are pretty hard to find, that page of books notwithstanding. (And how many pages could I fill with Harry Potter wannabes, I wonder.) She's mostly into adult-ish paranormal romance rather than YA at this point, though, so I've probably read more of the books on their list than she has.

  18. Well, I pretty much was talking capitalism. *laugh*

  19. I'm probably going to regret posting this not anonymously, but here we go:

    I sometimes agree with you regarding the excessive shrillness of what you call failfans, but I think you're mistaken in this case.

    I've known Sherwood for a while and she does not strike me as someone who would just make up a story like this. I don't know Rachel Manija Brown very well, but again I have no reason to doubt her. Besides, Sherwood is most definitely not a "failfan". Not sure about Rachel, because I don't read her journal. Nonetheless, I suspect that "failfans" would have named names, because naming and shaming is part of how that community operates.

    There are some people from the "failfan" community lending support in the comments, including your personal nemesis coffeeandink, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a genuine issue regarding GLBT characters in YA. Considering that that community rallies around social justice issues, it would be very odd if they did not show up to lend support. And the issues the so-called "failfans" address are real, even if the methods and rhetoric are problematic at times.

    And why should we necessarily believe the agent, especially since the agent's post came across as unpleasantly passive aggressive - dare I say "failfan-like"? Besides, this is not the first time we have seen passive aggressive behaviour from literary agents of late - see the Kiana Davenport case.

    Finally, no one is disputing that there is YA fiction with GLBT characters. But the figures collected by Malinda Lo and others suggest that GLBT characters are underrepresented and that the numbers of YA books with GLBT characters published has declined sharply in 2010. This may be due to economic reasons and to publishers panicking because of the economic crisis and the alleged death of print. It may be preemptively giving in to pressure - the religious right is a force to be reckoned with in the US and YA publishers depend on school library sales, etc... where controversy is bad for business. It may be that publishers don't see a whole lot of GLBT books, because these are never submitted because the received wisdom is that such books don't sell. Whatever the reason, the figures suggest that less GLBT YA is being published now than in the past and Sherwood's and Rachel's experience would seem to confirm that.

  20. Cora, no worries. Have you read my latest on this, failfandom: cult logic at #yesgayYA: Rose Fox, Rachel Manija Brown, K. Tempest Bradford?

    I saw people whose feelings were hurt by failfans during Racefail. The agent's response was no different.

    I completely agree that Sherwood wasn't part of Racefail, and that it's right to be concerned about this issue. I'm trying to focus on the folks whose efforts to make things better only make them worse, or allow them to take credit for things they didn't do.

  21. I keep focusing on the bestsellers rather than the midlist books because publishers notice what sells well. If there were no gay YA f&sf bestsellers, I would agree that publishers are probably showing a bias.

    But publishers love money. They want more of what's selling. That's just how capitalism works. Anyone at a major publisher can name the books that they don't like, but they keep them in print because they make money so they can publish books that they do like.

    So I think the low percentage of GayYAf&sf has to be more complex than what's being offered by the Usual Suspects.

    I do think the people arguing that there's a difference between a gay novel and a novel that has gay characters are right. Publishers probably do have a prejudice against books that are about being gay, because they think those books will only sell to people with a streak of gay activism. But books with gay characters? Again, see Black and Clare and Co.

  22. I like this 'cause it does try to get at numbers:

    But it's a start, not the whole picture. How the percentage of gayYAf&sf rejected compares to straightYAf&sf rejected, I suspect no one could know, unless someone in an agency has been keeping records for years. Anecdotal evidence (including my own) is only good for talking points.

  23. (Oh, sorry, that should be F&SF LGBT Young Adult heading. I left the fantasy and science fiction out. Tsk.)