LGBTQ Representation in YA Lit

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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.

immortalinstruments6booksThis 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?”

Well, yes 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.

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10 thoughts on “LGBTQ Representation in YA Lit

  1. Okay let me just say that your edit’s to this post and your shoutout to me are both wonderful!!!! I am going to clarify where I was coming from though! I still think your analysis stands I just thought that since it was mentioned it did deserve clarification. Also, since I talk about Shadowhunters every week this series is currently on the brain! And Cassie and her writing definitely deserve INTENSE analysis.

    As we know, I enjoying tearing Cassie apart where she deserves it. But I’m struggling with how to talk about this series in this way (probably because I haven’t reread them in years)! Don’t get me wrong, Alec in the book series definitely is ignored a little bit too much for my personal liking, but I think that it’s important to note that his journey to self-acceptance and living an out and open life mirrors the social commentary Cassie is making in the novels. All of which come to a head in the fifth book of the series. (I think honestly part of why I get a little reluctant to think of Alec and Magnus’ relationship as marginalized is because of how Cassie makes this connection)

    What I find more troubling is that even though Clare actually presents us with two characters, Alec (even though the books lack a depth in terms of his family relationships and most specifically Jace), gay, and Magnus, bisexual (this is also never handled badly and his relationship with Camille is referenced many times) the series in other places propagates heteronormativity and homophobia.

    It may actually be worse that this series has Simon, Jace and Clary react in really gendered and homophobic ways littered throughout the series, SINCE one of the main characters is an extremely repressed boy.

    I may be getting a little too technical though because I know you did delve into these exact issues in your first post. I think ultimately marginalizing these types of stories is what you’re alluding too, right? Like the fact that it isn’t Clary who is gay, or Jace or Simon, and that the story sometimes can seem as an undertone? I think I know where you’re coming from with this so don’t take my attack to heart I just think the discussion of the way Cassie writes honestly is an endless pit, but I do think there are nuances. I am (as you know) the first person to criticize honestly anything she does but I always have a hard time with this series and the queer community because weirdly I find her attempt at representation to actually be quite nuanced in comparison to the rest of her heavy handed approaches to social issues!

    I do want to move away from that though and suggest a few books that I have read that I think handle a lot of issues in the queer community quite well!

    Firstly The Raven Cycle series by Maggie Steifvater! The series is focused on a group of friends and really delves into the POVs of each, and one of them is gay and there have been hints at another of the main characters being bisexual. I found Steifvater was really was able to create characters who were interesting, whole and compelling while also allowing for representation.

    Over the summer I also read The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. It’s a retelling of the story of The Iliad from Patroclus’ point of view, and explores the relationship between him and Achilles. It starts when they are young boys and leads up to the Trojan War. Very well done.

    A few others I know of are: Born Confused – Tanuja Desi Hidier, The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chobsky, The Foxhole Court – Nora Sakavic, and as much as I HATE recommending this: Will Grayson, Will Grayson – John Green & David Levithan (is it bad I hate /both/ of these authors? We might have to talk about this at length later though let’s be honest).

    I’m soooooo sorry for this terribly long comment girl, but I love the questions you’re raising and I think the discussion especially in regards to Cassie’s work can honestly be talked about for so long in so many different ways and we all know I talk too much!

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    1. Al! Never an attack! If anything its the readers of my blog like you who I try to appeal to/interest. Steifvater, Chobsky, Green, and Levithan were all on that Goodreads list and were all books that I mentioned (although I didn’t outline those books in the post to save space and time and to maintain reader interest). I do agree with you in that Clare’s work is a little tricky to completely categorize as one thing or another because some things are done well and some are shit. Thank you for clarifying your comments because a phone call can sometimes only tell so much, especially when we are both giggling. 😛

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      1. LOL I literally opened the goodreads list the moment I published this comment (OOPS I was too preoccupied with my personal vendetta against Cassie), but I definitely thought they were worth mentioning since they did make an impression on me! I think also the fact that were talking about almost this exact thing 4 days ago and our discussion here mimics our real life conversations perfectly! Keep doing you girl! I’m definitely so glad that in this weird community of YA lit you are bringing up these issues and I can’t waaaaaiiiiittt to continue talking about all the YA books we can get our hands on!

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  2. A good touch to talk about publishers here, as they and the money that surrounds our world are often forgotten about in such talks. Reality is a harsh mistress.

    That said, I’m reminded of the character Daja that I mentioned on your last post, and really, of most of Tamora Pierce’s books in general. Generally speaking, there are a lot of secondary characters that are some manner of LGBTQ (arguably more than is statistically likely but that’s besides the point), but very few if any protagonists are. (Spoiler alert) Daja technically discovers that she is a lesbian, but that’s only in a later book where she is -technically- not the main protagonist. Still, I think, as you said in your edit, books that acknowledge and show such relationships and people, even if on the sideline, are good to have–not every story should centre around such topics, but they can still acknowledge them in a positive manner.

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  3. Well done. For the record, I think your strikethrough text is effective.

    I feel so old … I usually just read a book, finish it and read another book. Some of the blogs in our online class (within and outside of our group) won’t let me do that anymore 🙂 I am grateful for the awakening.

    I search for “LGBTQ fiction” on Amazon, Chapter and Goodreads. I am not sure what is a good number of responses so I just sifted through the titles.

    Let me ask you this with no attitude other than asking; if you were the publisher with the company spreadsheet on your screen, financial backers watching and your performance/employment determined by sales/profits, would you publish more LGBTQ authors? Is there a market there?

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  4. Hey Frank! I think there definitely is a market! As North American mainstream society becomes more progressive and ‘liberated’ so to speak, there is more and more interest in literature that is representative of more than the “old white guy” demographic. People don’t know what they like until they try something new. If LGBTQ relationships were sensationalized and marketed the exact same way that heterosexual relationships were, could you imagine the reaction? All of a sudden, the people who had been silent for so long would have a piece of lit that they could relate to, one that represented them and their interests and beliefs.

    Moreover, I think that more YA LGBTQ lit needs to be incorporated into curriculum. Why are we always reading the most terribly dry jargon filled lit written by old white guys 100 years ago? In my opinion and from my own experience in highschool, kids today are less likely to read because the reading material that is offered to them is dry, difficult, and mundane.

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    1. “Old white guy”. I think I am influencing your choice of words 🙂

      It would be interesting to see a marketing of focus group report for that subject matter.

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  5. I definitely appreciate a more prominent presence of homosexual characters within the world of literature, and this is especially beneficial when the presence stems primarily from fiction geared towards young adults, individuals who are just beginning or are in the process of uncovering their own sexuality along with other biological aspects. Having these characters portrayed in such a normalized fashion is also extremely helpful in solidifying more positive perceptions of these groups within society, and establishing more accepting attitudes towards these groups from younger and more impressionable readers. I personally find that a homosexual character (their sexuality at the very least stated) being placed within a scenario that does not center around their sexuality itself is just as effective, as it paints them in a light of other literary protagonists, not to say that they are not interesting and are therefore formulaic, I merely mean to say that they are then treated or perceived how all other fictitious protagonists are thus reaching a certain level of equality.

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    1. “I personally find that a homosexual character (their sexuality at the very least stated)”

      Are you saying to just mention their sexuality for the sake of mentioning it?

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      1. I apologize for the poor wording. What I mean to say is that having a character of a particular sexuality that is established in some sense (though not just as a passive statement, my mistake), in a story in which the sexuality of the character is not a central focus is an effective method to positively portray these characters.

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