My Twitter feed was all-abuzz today about a post from a rightfully angry YA editor, who’d just heard that certain agents were telling their author clients not to submit diverse books. (Books celebrating non-standard POVs, characters, and situations, regarding race, creed, gender identity or sexual preference.) Or to submit certain kinds of diversity, and not others. (ie ‘Gay male’ is hip, but ‘transgender’ might not be.)
Which is understandably a huge, heartbreaking issue especially in YA fiction. Teen and YA readers of all groups need to know they are welcomed and represented by the literature aimed at them.
Younger authors likely haven’t developed the fuckitall filters that us old fogies grew over a lifetime of being told ‘do this, don’t do that’. In many cases we slowly learned we were better served by going off and doing that advised-against thing anyway. Most of us splatted against a wall of indifference, but some of us became superstars.
I know a little something about agents telling me they just didn’t think they could shop a certain book of mine.
It’s happened to me several times, twice from agents I knew personally. In my first case, the agent was a bit rattled by representing heterosexual erotic romance, not to mention gay male romance stuff. (Even though I know damn well that agent has a star client who did manage to sneak in some of Teh Gay. But the client did it by making the main gay character into a villain. How 1950s conformist…but hey, I’ve done the same, mea culpa.)
In other cases, my manuscript itself was plainly Not Ready For Primetime even though I thought it was. And several agents, including my amazing current agent, told me so in no uncertain terms. So I trunked my opus and worked on other, better stuff. I came back later to the opus and found out the agents were right: that book really sucked. I stopped making excuses for it, and started trying to rebuild it the right way.
So here’s where I get back to that Twitter feed from today. We need to make certain, amid all the anecdotes and outrage, that agents are ‘gatekeeping’ otherwise brilliant books from already-signed clients out of the market just because of diversity issues in those manuscripts. And only because of those diversity points.
I’ve been assured that yes, some agents are doing this. We saw a little of it a few years ago, with an agency asking for LGBTQ main characters to be recast as heterosexual, or at least downplayed.
I’m not happy to hear about this latest agentfail. If a writer has done their absolute best to craft a killer book with diversity as key component…yeah, then I want to know the agent or editor who sidelined it. I want names, so I can maybe avoid those agencies and publishers…and help warn other authors about them.
But at the same time, I understand the agent’s and editor’s POV, too.
They’re business people, after all. It’s easier to say ‘no’ upfront than to invest time and money into a solid manuscript, while fearing that every good independent and Big Five imprint is going to say, ‘Um, nope, too weird, our readers aren’t ready for this.’ We readers can celebrate social changes both incremental and startlingly-swift. But dollars, not social responsibility, are what drive media offerings.
When publishers and agents figure out that diverse books make money and loyal readers – and maybe that will take a LOT of diverse authors going to self-publishing – those gatekeepers will jump happily on the bandwagon.
In the meantime, it is not ‘diverting the issue’ to talk about quality in diverse manuscripts.
Topical issues should not be excuses for an author’s sloppy writing and lackluster plots, just as technical incompetence should not be an excuse for great ideas and poor execution in the visual arts. Not in YA fiction (although gawdamighty, YA fantasy blockbusters have disheartened me in the last few years!) Not in Adult *any genre*, but especially in science fiction and fantasy. SFF has been a touchstone for the strange, the weird, and the diverse, for all of its several-hundred-year history.
The socially conservative Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies of the recent Hugo Awards debacle would surely cheer every time an agent or editor quietly censors submissions, to keep out all those icky, problematic diverse books about people who are likely not white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon descendants with middle-class problems. (Yes, I know there are Puppies who are none of those groups. That’s another blog post.)
There’s a larger, even more dangerous issue here: the all-too-human tendency to favor affinity groups over strangers, the known mediocre over the unknown brilliant. We make excuses for the things we love, and look for fault in the things we fear or hate.
There’s an all-or-nothing component in affinity loyalty, too. A minor critique is often taken as a deadly insult and call to arms.
On both the right and left sides of many social debates, we in the middle are not allowed to criticize the flaws of the more-partisan, for fear of the accusation of cultural, economic, or religious discrimination.
If I were to name three or four dreadfully predatory and/or incompetent vanity publishers right now, I would get savaged by the very authors those presses prey upon.
These authors have adopted this narrative: ‘I tried commercial publishing and got rejected, or I was afraid to try. Here’s this publisher, who believes the same things I do, uses the same memes and themes I do, and presents themselves as part of my culture. Sure, they’re asking me to pay lots of money to get published…but at least they’re here for me.’ (So are prosperity gospel preachers, sub-prime mortgages, and online payday loan scams, for a shocking number of the same groups within a population.)
In similar fashion, ‘outsiders’ of any stripe are not allowed to ask if a diversity-themed manuscript was rejected or censored because it was diverse, or because it simply wasn’t good writing. We even get dragged into pointless wrangling over the definition of ‘good writing’.
Hint: it’s like porn. You’ll know it when you see it. No matter its voice or origins, great writing drags you dancing into its world, until you really no longer see the words. Anything less than that experience is not, typically, great writing.
So, yes, we can talk about diversity and censorship, on many levels. Discussion is great, since it focuses attention on the real problem of diversity in books. But readers, agents, editors and writers also need to encourage the best possible diverse writing…or we all risk being called out for our insincerity and favoritism.