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Revising Homophobia: “Straightwashing” in YA

September 20, 2012 by Kiersi

Lesbian Romance by Made Underground

Lesbian Romance by Made Underground

I had started preparing some long-winded post about the troubles with revising my upcoming novel with RainTown Press, Devil’s Fire (renamed from Fire & Brimstone), when I stumbled across this Guardian article: Stranger, a young adult novel with a gay hero, acquired by publisher–after an unnamed agent refused to represent it unless the hero was “straightened.”

Naturally, the pair of authors (Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija, both previously published) were taken aback at the request, and summarily refused to do any such thing. It’s not a novel about the gay experience or homophobia, like Lauren Myracle’s Shine, which was surrounded by some controversy after it was gently shoved off the National Book Awards list of finalists (it’s a book about a gay hate crime–up to you to decide if it was removed from the list to “preserve the integrity of the award” or to please particular parties, but I’m a bit of a conspiracy theorist). Stranger, on the other hand, is a dystopian novel, that just happens to feature a gay hero–one of many narrators telling the story.

And suddenly, the reason why an overwhelming percentage of 2011’s YA books featured straight white girls becomes clear: some books and stories are getting “straightwashed” (as much as whitewashed) before they even make it to the printed page.

So, okay. I can grasp the concept that this agent may have requested the “straightening” of Stranger‘s gay hero to increase marketability. Selling a book is a literary agent’s job, after all–but what about the publishers? The editors? Where does a literary agent get the notion that he or she cannot sell a book if it features gay characters?

I really like Jessica Verday, as one of the editors responsible for The First Time YA short story anthology and as the author of a number of fine YA novels. Last year, the editor of Wicked Pretty Things (another short story anthology) asked Verday to straighten her love story so it would be more “acceptable to the publishers.”

Verday refused and withdrew from the anthology. The editor later commented on the post that she, in fact, had been mistaken–the publishers were excited about the idea of publishing a boy/boy love story.

This makes me wonder what’s really happening here: is it pure homophobia, or simply marketing ignorance? Are agents and editors just assuming that publishers want nothing to do with gay characters when that isn’t the case at all?

No verdict yet. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens with 2013’s cast of YA books. My hunch is that, as Smith and Manija put it, “readers vote with their pockets.” Like Myracle’s Shine, young adult books including gay, disabled, and non-white protagonists will continue to sell well–and perhaps the YA market will start resembling a little more closely the world we actually live in.


8 Comments »

  1. I think books should reflect the real world and the people in it. I welcome all kinds of characters and stories. But, I guess you’re right. We’ll just have to wait and see what 2013 has in store.

  2. It is confusing, and troubling. In all actuality, I think literature is the place to move forward in all matters of diversity. Readers are much more accepting, hungry for knowledge, adventurous, and open to possibility than viewers, usually.

    • Kiersi says:

      That’s a really good point. There are many more things readers will accept in books than on the screen. Well, I see it as our duty as writers, then, to push the envelope a little 😉

  3. It’s a shame that editors and publishers are starving readers in certain areas. As a YA writer, I don’t think we should be pressured into “straightening” characters. YA stories are all about diversity and life experiences. We are certainly not doing a good job when we are leaving certain characters behind, because someone thinks it’s morally wrong to include them.

    • Kiersi says:

      It really is a shame. You’re spot on–I think these two ladies did right by refusing to straighten their hero. I’m sure more of us will be pressured to do such a thing and we will just need to resist, too. 🙂

  4. julietwilson says:

    that’s really weird (and very sad) – surely there are enough successful novels out there with gay characters to prove that it isn’t marketing death to include gay characters in a new novel….

    Juliet
    http://craftygreenpoet.blogspot.com

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