You may have already seen my latest Sparkle Project post in which I touched on this but I think it definitely requires further discussion. A few days ago, YA author Jessica Verday announced that she was no longer a part of the Wicked Pretty Things anthology, edited by Trisha Telep, because she was asked to change the gay male relationship at the centre of it to a male-female one. I was disgusted, as were many of my fellow torch bearers on The Book Lantern, and blogged my disappointment, laying blame with the publishers. Later on, the editor of the anthology, Ms. Telep commented on Verday’s post, taking sole blame for the action, and her comment said a lot about this world:
Oh dear. Might as well give you my two cents. Not that it really matters but... Don't take it out on the publishers, the decision was mine totally. These teen anthologies I do are light on the sex and light on the language. I assumed they'd be light on alternative sexuality, as well. Turns out I was wrong! Just after I had the kerfuffle with jessica, I was told that the publishers would have loved the story to appear in the book! Oh dear. My rashness will be the death of me. It's a great story. Hope jessica publishes it online. (By the way: if you want to see a you tube video of me wrestling a gay man in Glasgow, and losing, please let me know).
There are so many things that are wrong with what she said and the sad thing is, I think they’re more common misconceptions than I’d like to believe they are. Is something automatically more explicit because it has gay content in it? Is gay romance ‘alternative’, making heterosexuality the only acceptable form of love in fiction for teens? Do gay teens not read romance or something? My anger only heightened when I found out that this supposed explicit content boiled down to three kisses. Apparently the unseen fourth kiss was the final remaining horseman of the apocalypse.
But Ms Telep’s casual ignorance aside, I can’t help but think what this says about romance in literature right now, not just YA. There seems to be this default mode for almost everything in life, that of the straight white person, usually a man, and this form is the widely accepted default form of human, because everyone can relate to the default mode. (This is also an argument I’ve heard mentioned for the differences in male and female writers – men write characters for everyone but women can only write ‘women’s issues’.)
In YA, especially the paranormal side of things, the biggest selling books and most famous series are populated mainly by white straight people and the romances at the centre of them seldom feature people of colour or LGBT relationships. This isn’t to say they don’t exist but they certainly don’t get the same level of coverage as the other books. The gay characters and characters of colour tend to be relegated to being just the best friend. Of course we need this sort of visibility in fiction and this is one of the areas where YA is highly progressive, but often these depictions verge heavily into tokenism, where the character’s only defining attribute is their sexuality (the worst example I can think of off the top of my head is P.C. and Kristin Cast’s House of Night series, where the token gay best friend constantly squeals and giggles and is described as not really being a guy because he’s gay. Nice.)
Why is the default mode the right mode? It isn’t and we all damn well know it. There’s absolutely nothing stopping us from relating to people and situations different from our own other than silly preconceptions and our own cowardice. Yet this silly assumption that we only want pretty white faces and so-called safe romances remains in almost every field of entertainment. Why are there no out gay leading men in Hollywood? (I’d say Neil Patrick Harris is the most famous but he’s not a top billing superstar of blockbusters like Will Smith - also one of the few instances of a black actor getting superstar treatment – and Sir Ian McKellen is more of an ensemble actor in blockbusters than the main man.) Why are black and Asian supermodels always described as ‘exotic’? Would Twilight have sold as well as it did if Edward was a woman? Why should gay characters be defined solely by their sexuality?
Hannah Moscowitz wrote a blog post asking a lot of these questions and raised many good points. The world’s a wonderfully varied place and it’s certainly not black and white, yet our YA is still heavily populated with the same pretty white faces falling in love with other pretty white faces of the opposite sex. Books with characters of colour and LGBT teens are also more likely to be labelled ‘issues’ books, where the plot revolves around the character’s sexual or racial identity. There are some fantastic books about these subjects but why must they be the only ones for such characters?
In real life, I’m not defined by my sexuality, it’s merely incidental to who I am as a person. We need more of these books on our shelves (and we shouldn’t have to trick readers into buying them by misrepresenting covers, like the infamous first cover of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, the recent paperback editions of Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix or the original cover for Jackie Dolamore’s Magic Under Glass. The UK cover of Malinda Lo’s wonderful book Ash also fails to mention the gay romance which I think does it a disservice.) We need more representation of the variety in life – and we need to do it right - because if we continue to accept the default mode these horrible stereotypes are allowed to flourish and turn into something even uglier than they already are.