< Teen Fiction Shies Away from Gay Characters

Transcript

Friday, October 07, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Rachel Manija Brown is co-author with Sherwood Smith of a post-apocalyptic teen novel called Stranger. It's a popular genre, but the book can't find a publisher, they wrote recently in Publisher's Weekly, because, they believe, one of their main characters wasn't – well, marketable. Seems like the nightmare of conformity that is high school has its analog in publishing. Brown gave me a brief plot summary.

RACHEL MANIJA BROWN:

Society has rebuilt itself as a series of scattered frontier towns, and a lot of people have mutations. We kind of thought of it as X-Men in the post apocalyptic Wild West.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

[LAUGHS] And it’s told from the the perspective of five characters. So who are they?

RACHEL MANIJA BROWN:

Five teenagers: Ross who's the stranger who comes to town, and he has found a very precious book, which a lot of people are after; Mia Lee who's a mechanical genius who’s very shy and quiet; Jenny who the teacher of the one-room school house and she also has a second career in the town's military; Felicite, who’s the daughter of the mayor and kind of a spoiled brat; and Yuki who is not really from the town. He was rescued from a shipwreck of a aircraft carrier that came from Japan.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And Yuki is the character that was consistently unpopular with people that you are trying to sell this book to. One agent was particularly blunt.

RACHEL MANIJA BROWN:

Yes, we had an agent say that she really liked the book. She had, uh, one minor note, and then she would like to take it on. And her one minor note turned out to be that she did not want Yuki to be gay.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

You and your co-author Sherwood Smith said thanks, but no thanks.

RACHEL MANIJA BROWN:

We actually got in kind of an argument about it. We explained why we felt that it was important to have gay characters in teenage novels, uh, basically because a lot of teenagers are gay and why shouldn't they have the opportunity to see people like themselves having post-apocalyptic adventures and romance, like the straight characters do.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And this wasn't an isolated incident?

RACHEL MANIJA BROWN:

It turned out that it was not. A lot of people we spoke to had had similar encounters with agents or with editors who had asked them to change the sexual orientation of a character.

After we wrote the article, an author, Malinda Lo ran an analysis of all the YA books released in the USA over the last ten years, and she found that less than one percent had any gay or lesbian characters. And that's not just protagonists, that's even supporting characters – less than one percent.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So you and Sherwood Smith co-wrote a piece in PW, Publishers Weekly about what had happened to you, and you drew quite a response. There was somebody who wrote that an editor had taken it upon himself to change the sexual orientation of a gay character. The author put up a stink and the character was reestablished as he was originally presented.

RACHEL MANIJA BROWN:

Yes, and that actually also happened with the racial identity of characters. Someone had a very similar story in which, uh, all the racial identifiers had been removed, after the book had been sold.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Do you think that publishers and editors and agents are homophobic, or – or do you think that this is fundamentally a marketing decision?

RACHEL MANIJA BROWN:

I don't think they’re homophobic in the sense of “I hate gay people,” uh, definitely not. But socially, we are a homophobic society, and that influences people's decisions, even if they are not personally homophobic.

And yes, I do think they think it's marketing, but the fact is books with gay characters don't get a big promotional push. Maybe if they did, some of them would succeed.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

You made a conscious decision in this article not to name names, but don't you think that maybe some outing might be appropriate?

RACHEL MANIJA BROWN:

In this particular case it's a bit of a moot point because the agency actually came forward of their own accord –

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Ah-ha!

RACHEL MANIJA BROWN:

- and said we were lying.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

What?

RACHEL MANIJA BROWN:

Yeah. Uh, they said we were lying and it was a publicity stunt and they did not have that conversation with us.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Wow!

RACHEL MANIJA BROWN:

Yeah, which is why people don't want to come forward [LAUGHS] because they’d become the target of a lot of accusations.

Uh, but the reason we didn't out them in the first place, is because it’s not about one agency, it's about a systemic problem in publishing.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

After that agent hung up, Sherwood remarked about two supporting characters that seem to go unnoticed.

RACHEL MANIJA BROWN:

[LAUGHS] Oh yeah, that was funny.  Well, so – so Yuki is the character who got all the attention because he’s pretty major. But there's these two girls, Brisa and Becky, who are supporting characters, and they have a little romance going on in the background. After we hung up at the agent, we kinda looked at each other and Sherwood said, you know, they didn’t mention Brisa and Becky, do you think they somehow missed that they’re a lesbian couple? Maybe they just think they're really good friends.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Rachel, thank you very much.

RACHEL MANIJA BROWN:

Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Rachel Manija Brown is the writer of nonfiction and fiction. Her book, co-written with Sherwood Smith, is called Stranger, still looking for a publisher.