Books should represent reality, not heterosexuality

by Beacon Staff • October 6, 2011

By: Alessandra DiMonda

While books can be contentious, they don’t usually incite as much interest as Ashton Kutcher’s alleged infidelity or Snooki’s recent meltdown in Florence. In the past few weeks, however, the literary world has been alight with controversy.

The debate centers around two authors and their publisher. While the facts remain murky, co-authors Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith claim to have received an offer for their latest young adult novel from Nancy Coffey Literary and Media Representation. They allege the agency made the offer with the condition that they remove all references to the sexuality of a gay character or cut him out completely.

The agency claims they asked for multiple characters to be cut in order to tighten focus on the plot.

Other authors have had similar experiences to Brown and Smith. Author Nicola Griffith fired her agent who she claims objected to the main character of her award-winning novel emSlow River/em being a lesbian. She claims her agent said it wasn’t a “selling outline.”

Scott Tracey, author of emWitch Eyes/em,  wrote on his blog that he was urged to make a central gay couple in the novel heterosexual, or to turn his book into  a “buddy comedy”

instead of a romance.

While these authors declined to name the publishing houses who attempted to straightwash the books, many of them perservered to have their books published with LGBTQ characters intact.

However, the fact remains that published young adult novels with LGBTQ characters are few and far between. There’s a mistaken belief that gay characters are prevalent in fiction. This may be due to the uproar of right-wing Christians and their frenzy to point out anything that goes against their heteronormative culture. It could also be because of  the overwhelming popularity of emGlee/em and the mania over “Klaine,” its star gay couple.

Whatever the reason, this misconception disappears with research.

Consider the numbers. Christine Jenkins, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, put together a list of novels published in English that included LGBTQ characters. Between 1969-2009 only 318 books included an LGBTQ person either as a main or ancillary character. According to the American Libraries Association, of the approximately 5,000 young adult books published in 2010, only 11 included an LGBTQ character. That comes out to less than one percent.

Art is not exactly imitating life here.

The literary community needs to step up. It’s time for authors to include more gay characters, and for publishers to be willing to publish books with LGBTQ characters.

The amount of published works doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality of what is being written and rejected, or thought up and not written due to fear of being turned down. And the rejection, I believe, comes from one source: the publishers who are afraid the book will be harder to sell.

Including a gay character might make libraries or bookstores less willing to buy the book, which affects sales. The marketing department may be given less money so the cover is unattractive or advertising nonexistent. The book is seen as less appealing to a mass audience and might not sell as well. For these reasons and more, LGBTQ characters are underrepresented.

Emerson students are in a position to change that. It’s not a secret that Emerson’s writing, literature, and publishing program is highly visible. Students want to work for major publishing houses, become editors, or write the next great American novel. These positions of power that Emerson students aspire to are crucial for society because they allow those people to influence the makeup of our literary world.

When you become an editor or an author, remember the world around you. Consider the diverse landscape seen at Emerson and write some LGBTQ characters. Take pride in our school’s inclusive nature and reflect that in the literature you produce for our society.

Anyone thinking this isn’t an important issue needs only to consider that homophobia is still widespread in America. Last year, gay teen suicide was so prevalent that an entire campaign was created to tell people It Gets Better. Audience members at a Republican presidential debate booed a gay soldier just last week for asking about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The National Conference of State Legislatures notes more states in the US allow marriage between cousins than between members of the same sex. It’s 20 to eight, if you were wondering.

Homophobia in the US is eroding, but at a painfully slow rate. One writer can’t change this fact. Neither can one editor or one publishing house, and, at the end of the day, publishing houses need to make a profit. We need a consistent effort to include LGBTQ characters in novels. We need books for people to read that have gay characters going on adventures, falling in love, and dealing with life’s ups and downs that reflect the lifestyles of the people reading.

The written word has the ability to touch innumerable people. Although Emerson has no lack of access to gay culture or LGBTQ people who break stereotypes, not everyone lives in an environment as inclusive as our own. And if those people saw LGBTQ characters portrayed as interesting, funny, loyal, and sensitive, they might learn that deep down, we’re all the same. Regardless of sexual orientation we are fundamentally connected through being human and having wonderful or terrible things happen to us.

When people see their lives reflected in fiction, they respond positively. It gives them someone to look up to, someone who they can think about when bad stuff happens, as it inevitably does. We need characters who are flawed. Characters who admit when they’re wrong and stand up for themselves when they’re right. Who will fight for what they believe in or fight for love. Characters who are achingly real, relatable, and strong.

We need role models for the future LGBTQ’s of America, and the writers of Emerson have a chance to make a difference.

emAlessandra DiMonda is a junior political communication major. DiMonda can be reached at alessandra_dimonda@emerson.edu/em

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