As promised, this week I am going to tackle controversial topic of lacking LGBTQ representation in young adult literature.
Last week I addressed the lack of diversity in YA novels in terms of ethnicity and race. I talked on how my own desire to read characters who are like me was actually limiting my betterment as a YA critic and instead making me an ignorant reader. I’m trying to change that. In order to confront the lack of LGBTQ representation in YA lit I’m going to first outline my own difficulties in locating LGBTQ based characters and novels in the North American mainstream market.
Two of the issues that I have noticed while shopping for YA lit is that good LGBTQ based literature is either written buy a handful of the same authors or is borderline unavailable. In this, presence is huge. Truthfully, you could go to Google (or to Goodreads especially) and type in “Popular YA LGBT Books”. Doing this will provide you with a list of 411 novels.
“WTF are you talking about Mackenzie? There are tons of YA LGBTQ books out there! All you did was search and you came up with over 400!”
Let me break this down.
I’m not here to toot my own horn, but I am in the bookstore a lot. And while (like I addressed in my last post) I may not buy specific novels
if they do not relate/apply to me, I do see the books in the store(s). And I remember them. So of this list of 411 books, the books that I recognized numbered in 31. That is 7.54%. Moreover, the authors of note that were featured near the top of this list featured by Goodreads – meaning that a group of people “shelved” that specific book enough times to place it there – were authors who wrote more than one of the books on the list. They were authors like Patrick Ness, David Levithan, Rainbow Rowell, and Alex Sanchez.
With that being said, you might be thinking – “Who cares if you only recognized 31 books Mackenzie. There are still another 380 LGBTQ books on the list. Why is recognizing them so important?”
The reason I put so much weight into my own ability to recognize pieces of LGBTQ lit boils down to presence and marketing. In the publishing world there is something called the Big Four. The Big Four is the top four English based publishing companies consisting of HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, and Hachette Livre. Of the 411 books featured on the Goodreads list, less than half are by the Big Four publishing houses. That means that the majority of the other books on the list are either published by indie publishing houses or they are self published. Because indie publishing houses and self-published products are generally smaller and have little funds to market their wares, the probability of those books physically making it to large bookselling corporations (like Chapters Indigo) is slim to none. While they may be featured as available online for purchase, customers are less likely to buy online as opposed to in store due to additional shipping and duty charges. All of these factors contribute to the lack of representation among LGBTQ YA novels in store.
With all of this being said, there has been some progress made in the online market of LGBTQ bookselling. In the Canadian market, Chapters Indigo has a whole category of their site dedicated to pieces of adult and YA fiction that revolve around LGBTQ themes (if anyone is interested in perusing their inventory you can follow this link here). While this is all fine and dandy, the inclusion of LGBTQ characters and themes in YA lit is also of particular importance. Of those 411 books on the Goodreads list, the reader has no way of telling which novels feature a LGBTQ protagonist and which books are only on the list because they have a LGBTQ secondary character. One of the ways that authors and agents “pitch” books to be published is by playing the “diversity” card. By including LGBTQ secondary characters, the book can claim diversity while not dealing exclusively with LGBTQ content. While LGBTQ characters are still being represented, they are still being marginalized and treated as accessories to more heterosexual based lit. A YA series that slightly dapples in this is Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments.
This series includes two male characters, Magnus Bane and Alec Lightwood, who fall in love with each other.
Look guys a homosexual relationship how exciting!
“Mackenzie, you bitch. Stop with your sarcasm and strike-through type. You aren’t funny. What about Cassandra Clare’s The Bane Chronicles? Doesn’t that count for something?”
snarky little naysayer. Yes they do. They do count for something. But when you factor in that Clare’s City of Bones was published in 2007 and The Bane Chronicles was published in 2013, why did it take so long for Clare to publish a novel that featured an openly gay protagonist? Further, Clare wrote a prequel trilogy to City of Bones titled The Infernal Devices before The Bane Chronicles was published. If the desire for a story that highlighted a gay protagonist was strong enough to have a book published, why did it take 6 years?
(Although I do bash Clare here, I want to make it clear that any piece of lit that gets people reading is a good piece of lit. But still,
Clare’s writing isn’t very good).
I’m going to leave this post with a question for my readers. Despite what I have written thus far, I haven’t addressed why it is specifically important for YA to include LGBTQ subject matter. Why is this so? I know the answer, but I want to see what my readers think.
Until next time, happy reading. 🙂
*Allison from the blog feminist ramblings texted me after my initial publishing of this post to bring up a critical problem with my article. Her point offers a deep analysis of my writing and I totally agree with her. If you read the whole post, you’ll note that I talked on how LGBTQ characters are marginalized in pieces of lit that revolve more heavily around a heterosexual protagonist. She mentioned the importance in pieces of LGBTQ lit to not be published solely to just be published. It is crucial that they are written with meaning and honest/well intent. Because proper LGBTQ YA lit is so far and few between, and is only becoming more relevant now, it is important that if a heterosexual based novel does include accessory LGBTQ relationships properly, that they are commended for it. I want to clarify. I don’t want to belittle Magnus and Alec’s relationship, because it is a fantastic one. It is more so the way that the other characters in the novel (Clary, Jace, etc.) treat homosexuality in favor of heteronormativity that isn’t so great. In the first essay I wrote for this blog, I wrote about how the way Clary insinuates that Simon is gay comes across as a “mean spirited joke”. For clarity, you can look up that post here. The way that homosexuality is dealt with by the other characters in the text is what is in more need of confrontation in this particular novel.
*Another disclaimer. I am aware that not all the characters in Mortal Instruments are characters who favor heteronormativity over the rights of LGBTQ characters. When Alec comes out as gay he does inspire many Clave members to ‘come out of the closet’ so to speak. It is more of the way that the main characters deal with their relationship that I am questioning.