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Young Adult Novel Authors Claim Agent Asked Them to 'De-Gay' Book; An Agency Responds

UPDATED BELOW

An interesting post over at Publisher's Weekly by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith, published authors and co-writers of young adult novels, who claim that a major book agent asked them to change gay characters to straight ones before the book would be taken on for representation.

Rachel-manija-brown Rachel replied, “Making a gay character straight is a line in the sand which I will not cross. That is a moral issue. I work with teenagers, and some of them are gay. They never get to read fantasy novels where people like them are the heroes, and that’s not right.”

The agent suggested that perhaps, if the book was very popular and sequels were demanded, Yuki could be revealed to be gay in later books, when readers were already invested in the series.

We knew this was a pie-in-the-sky offer—who knew if there would even be sequels?—and didn’t solve the moral issue. When you refuse to allow major characters in YA novels to be gay, you are telling gay teenagers that they are so utterly horrible that people like them can’t even be allowed to exist in fiction.

The authors, who aren't naming names, say the issue isn't limited to one incident:

This isn’t about that specific agent; we’d gotten other rewrite requests before this one. Previous agents had also offered to take a second look if we did rewrites… including cutting the viewpoint of Yuki, the gay character. We wondered if that was because of his sexual orientation, but since the agents didn’t say it out loud, we could only wonder. (We were also told that it is absolutely unacceptable in YA for a boy to consensually date two girls, but that it would be okay if he was cheating and lying. And we wonder if some agents were put off because none of our POV characters are white.)

We absolutely do not believe that all our rejections were due to prejudice. We know for a fact that some of them weren’t. (An agent did offer us representation, but we ended up passing due to creative differences that had nothing to do with the identities of the characters.)

This isn’t about one agent’s personal feelings about gay people. We don’t know their feelings; they may well be sympathetic in their private life, but regard the removal of gay characters as a marketing issue.

UPDATE:

An agency is now claiming that the authors reportedly fabricated this whole story to get publicity for their book.

Joanna Stampfel-Volpe,  an agent with Nancy Coffey Literary & Media Representation, says they've been outed from their previously anonymous status because the article below has received so much attention. They tell Publisher's Weekly:

Unfortunately, this rumor has reached the point where our clients and colleagues have heard from their peers that this article is supposedly about us. Above all else, our concern and responsibility is to our clients, always. And it is also to our agents.

One of our agents is being used as a springboard for these authors to gain attention for their project. She is being exploited. But even worse, by basing their entire article on untruths, these authors have exploited the topic. By doing that, they’ve chipped away at the validity of the resulting conversation.

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Comments

  1. Not to denigrate their experience, but I know a few YA book agents and they would NEVER, not in a million years, ever dream of cutting a gay character from a book. Especially in today's culture of tolerance and acceptance.

    Don't let one bad agent ruin the whole bunch.

    Posted by: Garrett | Sep 15, 2011 11:33:22 AM


  2. This was pretty much already discredited here: http://theswivet.blogspot.com/2011/09/guest-blogger-joanna-stampfel-volpe.html

    Posted by: Jim | Sep 15, 2011 11:33:33 AM


  3. An agent has an agenda - make money off an author - and they don't have the same ideals or goals as an author. No one should be surprised that a literary agent would make this request. It's up to the author to say "hell no" and force the literary agent to represent the work as it was created.

    Agents aren't publishers - never forget that.

    Posted by: Steve | Sep 15, 2011 11:42:55 AM


  4. I remember in 1990 when I was in 10th grade finding a book series by Mercedes Lackey called The Last Herald Mage that changed/saved my life in the library at my high school. The story is about a gay boy coming to terms with his sexuality. I was alone, scared, and really sheltered growing up in a pentecostal home and didn't know that other people, even imaginary ones, have or were going through what I was.

    I know this might be off topic but wanted to share that in case some other kid is where I was and wants to read a story that reflects some of the struggles that we face as GLBT people.

    Posted by: Michael | Sep 15, 2011 12:01:06 PM


  5. JIM: That blogpost is only discredits the idea that the authors are speaking about the specific agent who thought they were the ones being talked about.

    As the authors' statement above shows, they did not mention which agent told them to change the character. They also mention several other agents with whom they spoke , one of whom sounds similar to the one mentioned in the blogpost you linked to: "Previous agents had also offered to take a second look if we did rewrites… including cutting the viewpoint of Yuki, the gay character. We wondered if that was because of his sexual orientation, but since the agents didn’t say it out loud, we could only wonder."

    If the agent who wrote back to Swivet claims they didn't ask to change the gay character, then it's probably because they didn't and they weren't the agent the authors were talking about.

    It's quite strange that Swivet has decided to retract their story as not being about homophobia at all, when the authors never confirmed the identity of the agent or whether or not the one who responded is the same one they were talking about...

    Indeed, if the responding agent was very clear about why they wanted the character changed (middle school fiction = no romance for anyone, and they explicitly made it clear that they did not want to change a gay character to straight), then I see no reason to believe that the authors would make it up. They are two very different suggestions. I would believe that the authors were talking about a different agent altogether.

    Posted by: luminum | Sep 15, 2011 12:02:16 PM


  6. Its an interesting story - one I can identify with. But here's the other side apparently: Joanna Stampfel-Volpe responds to a recent PW article on LGBTQ YA: http://theswivet.blogspot.com/2011/09/guest-blogger-joanna-stampfel-volpe.html

    Posted by: NSRob | Sep 15, 2011 12:09:32 PM


  7. Ooops the update wasn't here when I originally read the story and was following the links and reading those articles at PW & The Swivet.

    Posted by: NSRob | Sep 15, 2011 12:13:23 PM


  8. Um, ANDY, I think you're far too quick to jump to the other side of this story with that update.

    Nothing from the authors' statement indicates Volpe at all. In fact,t he statement is pretty clear that there were MUTLIPLE agents they spoke with. Volpe only assumes they were the agency spoken about.

    That neither confirms nor debunks the authors' statement at all, since they could have been one of many agents and no the one in question.

    Posted by: luminum | Sep 15, 2011 12:18:08 PM


  9. I think "Yuki" is an unfortunate name for a gay character in a teen novel.

    Posted by: Dastius Krazitauc | Sep 15, 2011 12:28:19 PM


  10. It depends on the market for the book.

    Posted by: anon | Sep 15, 2011 12:37:48 PM


  11. Unless there's some other info not in these two updates, this is a weird jump of the gun for towleroad to go the other way now. At best it's a he said-she said situation. Putting what one party says as the title of a blog post here is really misleading.

    Posted by: Tarun | Sep 15, 2011 12:38:56 PM


  12. Andy- I agree with luminum. You are jumping to the other side far too quickly. First- it is highly possible the agent is not the agent in question, and second- even if it were- it becomes an issue of taking one persons word over anothers. Agencies are always going to defend their agents first. Who is to say they arent lying to cover their asses. As someone who works in children and young adults publishing- I think the authors story is quite valid, and likely did happen. I hope you will remove the part in your writing where you declare that the authors made the while thing up, when I'd be more inclined to believe this really did happen and the agency is the one lying.

    Posted by: BigBlonde | Sep 15, 2011 12:45:49 PM


  13. The authors have confirmed that the agent is indeed who they were referring to, and have said that they stand by their story: http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/genreville/?p=1533

    Personally I'm more inclined to believe the authors, but in this kind of situation I doubt we'll get proof either way.

    Posted by: JK | Sep 15, 2011 1:04:59 PM


  14. As my own update, another poster confirmed for me that the authors did indeed specify the agent and confirmed the agent's identity. I believe it was in private circles which spread around, though publicly, the identity was kept anonymous.

    I think the mods of the Swivet blog have stated that they perceive it to have become a they said/we said situation, which still doesn't allow the conclusion that it was fabricated. It could have been a miscommunication, it could have been fabricated by the authors, the agent could be lying, or both of them may have said things during the process that they didn't intend to be construed one way or another.

    But to make the claim that they DID fabricate the story for publicity? That's a pretty heavy accusation to make, one that takes the rebuttal as the actual truth, when there's nothing to support it any more than the authors' accusation that the agents are homophobes.

    Posted by: luminum | Sep 15, 2011 1:37:35 PM


  15. DASTIUS: "Yuki" is a Japanese name that means "snow", which can be given to boys and girls.

    Posted by: luminum | Sep 15, 2011 1:40:35 PM


  16. Yuki Pookie was the nickname for my cocker spaniel growing up. RIP Yukon Jack :(

    Posted by: Hollywood, CA | Sep 15, 2011 2:03:57 PM


  17. I can believe it because they will do the numbers, they will think about how many gay kids there are versus straight kids, factor in which straight kids will buy the book, and then make a determination.

    Come on! Think about it. Twilight is the worst written book in the world, horrible grammar, horribly simplistic plot, but it was a "seller" because teenage girls are the ones buying books.

    Posted by: Rin | Sep 15, 2011 3:46:45 PM


  18. Not really sure who to believe, but I think we can speak in generalities when we say that fear drives a lot of very bad decisions. I don't think for an instant that having gay characters in YA books would hurt sales to any great extent, and in many books may actually improve them, but I also don't doubt for an instant that there are agents and publishers out there who would be afraid it could.

    There's often a double standard in being "out" in the media or workplace even among those who are otherwise supportive in their private lives, because it's one thing to support something, but another thing altogether to be willing to put your name out there with the gay writer/worker/characters, resulting in a sort of discrimination that may not be intentional and, yet, nonetheless exists and is every bit as damaging as discrimination coming from the truly homophobic.

    Posted by: Ryan | Sep 15, 2011 4:34:52 PM


  19. @Ryan,

    I don't think that having gay characters in straight teen books would hurt sales. I'm saying that agents will look at a YA book with gays as the central characters and do the figures of how many sales they will make.

    Teenage girls are the ones buying YA books, and they buy them in droves. They want to read about cute boys that like girls that somehow are less than perfect and seem a whole lot like them (hello, Twilight).

    That's why Pride and Prejudice is still on the Amazon top sellers list because women want to read the fantasy.

    Would I, as an adult, read a book where the main characters are gay? Sho nuff, but as a teenage girl I wanted to read about romance, and passion and all that crap.

    If she wrote about a lesbian that might be different because there would be a slightly larger audience for it.

    As it is, it isn't straight boys or even gay boys who are buying up YA books.

    Publishers are struggling to find the next Stephanie Meyer (yawn) and they aren't going to settle for a thoughtful piece of literary fiction when they can find a book that will end up being a movie series and tons of stupid knick-knacks.

    It's not about political correctness, or homophobia. It's about capitalism.

    Do you see a lot of YA books about kids growing up in Somalia refugee camps? How about YA books where the main characters are deformed or handicapped?

    It would be nice if kids bought books about social issues as much as they do cotton candy, BS, but they don't. Hence why Stephanie Meyers is a gazillionaire now ant people like Alice Walker aren't even talked about anymore.

    Posted by: Rin | Sep 15, 2011 5:10:08 PM


  20. The agency doth protest too much.

    The authors' much more measured - and less bitchy - account sounds the more credible of the two.

    Posted by: Glenn I | Sep 15, 2011 7:54:08 PM


  21. As a gay fantasy author, seeking representation desperately, I have yet to hear from potential agents that I need to change my characters to straight. I have, however, been told by nearly every person that has read the novel that they loved it but that it wont' be successful unless I change the storyline to straight. Constantly feeling that staying true to my sexuality and my characters' lives is costing me publication gets rather discouraging.

    Posted by: Brandon Witt | Sep 16, 2011 12:02:30 AM


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