Thursday, 22 September 2011

Being Gay in Teen and YA fiction -- Savita Kalhan

Over the last few weeks I keep coming across the story of the two American writers, Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manja Brown, who were asked by their agent to either remove gay characters from their YA books or to ‘straighten’ them. The story first appeared on the Publishers Weekly Genreville blog, but the authors, although happy to discuss what they were told to do by the agent, refused to name them. The name of the agent ultimately came to light, but they subsequently refuted the story put forward by the two authors.
There seems to be several sides to this story. Was it a case of two over-sensitive writers being unwilling to change/rewrite a book that wasn’t up to scratch? Or was it the agency who felt that gay characters in YA just don’t sell books? From a publishers point of view, a book with gay central characters is going to have a very limited market compared to one with heterosexual characters. From their perspective, that’s not homophobia, that’s just a question of numbers.
The whole issue is still out there. Soon enough, discussions about what really went on, or might have gone on, or what it was all really about hit Twitter with: #YesGayYA. Many of the commentators felt that the real issue here was the censorship practised by the gate-keepers. We’re talking about the States here, not the UK.
As far as I can tell, and from personal experience, gate-keepers here are very much kept in mind when teen books are published in the UK. The reason why I had to remove a few ‘hells’ and other minor expletives from my book, which is aimed at teens, was because it was felt that librarians wouldn’t approve. I don’t think the same is necessarily true of YA fiction with a slightly older readership. 

In Malorie Blackman’s Boys Don’t Cry, the younger brother of the central character is both black and gay. Malorie has said that she has had a positive response to this.
Have other writers had a similar experience to Malorie, or have there been problems? And is the divide between what’s deemed acceptable in teen lit and in YA lit becoming wider?

Or is it that better-known writers are afforded more latitude??


  1. James Dawson has written a much more in depth guest post, "Diversity Matters", on Tall Tales and Short stories blog. You can read it by following the link -

  2. A very good subject to raise Savita. My feeling is that the gatekeepers are more concerned about expletives and overt sexual content for the under 13s. But from the kind of books being published today - I was thinking of Honor Killing by Bali Rai - I feel that books about those more outside the mainstream of society, are more and more accepted in the UK. Personally if I had a story I wanted to write featuring a gay or lesbian teen, then I would write that book.

  3. I agree, Miriam, I would write that book too. Lucy Coates has also just blogged about the Gay YA Debate, on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure. Unfortunately I didn't get the chance to read it until now, but it generated 67 comments, and is well worth a read.
    It just shows what a huge subject this is and how strongly people feel about it.

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