Whistleblowers or Writers

It seems we can’t go but a few months at a time without a new drama in the YA lit world. A few months ago we had the YASaves hashtag on Twitter.  (Emily, over at Redeemed Reader wrote a thoughtful post on the topic for banned book week, entitled The Lord Saves.) But the latest in the YA Twitterverse was the hashtag YesGayYA.

The short story is that two YA authors said an agent offered to represent them if they cut a character or changed him from homosexual to heterosexual. The authors refused and set out to blow the whistle alerting us all to a huge problem in the YA publishing world: agents and editors censoring authors who want to write about gay characters. The agency in question denies this happened. I won’t bother to fill in all the details. If you Google it, you’ll pull up all the info you could want.

I have done a series of articles on the subject of homosexual characters in YA novels already, and I don’t want to try to encapsulate that here. It’s a huge issue. What I want to talk about here is the lack of Christian characters in YA literature. Why are Christians underrepresented and what should our response be? Should we start a Twitter campaign with a YesChristianYA hashtag?

In response to the whole YesGayYA flare-up, an agent with Dystel & Goderich, Micheal Bourret, who happens to be gay, said:

Publishing has to be one of the least homophobic businesses around. The percentage of gay agents, editors, and other publishing professionals is much, much higher than the population in general (no matter which statistic you’re looking at), and people are fairly liberal.

Hold on to that thought for a minute.

In 2008 I went to an SCBWI conference in California. LA had an earthquake a few days before the conference, and the emcee, after introducing the fifty-or-so publishing professionals on staff, said something like, “If we have the big one this weekend, we’ll wipe out children’s publishing. Almost everyone in the business is here.” She was exaggerating a little, but probably not by much.

A few months later, at another general market children’s writing conference, a young editor said she had told her boyfriend that she didn’t feel important. He was in banking and he met powerful people from all over the world and worked with the world’s economies. She was just editing children’s book.

He asked her, “How many children’s editors are there in the world?”

She thought there might be a few  hundred, worldwide.

He said, “You are small group of people and you are the ones who decide what all the children in the world read. I’d say that’s pretty important.” (Hitler would have agreed. He said, “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.”)

Maybe one reason Christian characters are all but absent, then, is that the children’s publishing industry is made up of a small group of people who are mostly not traditional, conservative Christians. If that’s so, that doesn’t mean there is some conspiracy to keep Christians out of YA books. It simply means that people will publish books they like as long as they can make money doing that. We don’t need a YesChristianYA campaign, in other words. No one is censoring Christians.

Jim McCarthy,  another agent at Dystel & Goderich, who wants to see literature from underrepresented voices (and by underrepresented he means “racial, religious, ethnic, or sexual minorities”) posts about balancing integrity with a need to pay the bills, and suggests that if he can make money from a book he doesn’t much like, he’ll probably represent the book, as long as it’s not offensive to him.

And here’s one last quote. This one from author David Levithan, who is gay and is an author with gay characters in his books, and who is also an editor with Scholastic. Responding to the YesGayYA deal, he says:

Most of the agents and editors I know in YA publishing, myself included, are eager to bring a diversity of good voices to our literature, LGBT and otherwise.

Hmm. Note to self: Put less energy into complaining about the poor state of affairs in the YA world and expend more energy writing great books.

Look at it this way: If I’m an editor I’m predisposed to like books with Christian characters and to dislike vampires and schools of witchcraft and wizardry. How can a writer get me to buy a book with a boy-wizard, then? The book will have to be really well-written and it will also have to be not about glorifying witchcraft but about glorifying virtues I love, such as courage and sacrificial love.

What do you think? I’m sure Christians can write books that will make money and books with good voices. But should we have “not offending publishers” as a goal? Are we compromising if we set out to write books that don’t offend? Is being offensive to the world a requirement for Christian writers?

Sally Apokedak has mellowed with age and is trying to be less offensive, with varying rates of success from day to day. Because she firmly believes that speaking to children is one of the most important things we can do, she writes for young people. 

Her short works have been published in various magazines, including Highlights for Children, and her YA novel The Button Girl is currently being reviewed by publishers. She is represented by Reclaim Management and she blogs about young adult novels at sally-apokedak.com.