Only Spinning Forward: On the Commercial Viability of LGBTQ Literature

- | 10

Gay is the new vampire. Everywhere in YA fiction, boys are kissing boys, girls are sidling up against the captains of their swim teams, and queer kids are getting cute. It’s wonderful. YA books with LGBTQ themes and characters, written by straight and by LGBTQ authors, are winning critical acclaim and they’re selling.

A super short list of great recent YA LGBTQ books might include Emily Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, everything by David Levithan, The House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson, Some Day This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron, and The Vast Fields of the Ordinary by Nick Burd.

While some of YA LGBTQ lit’s appeal might be its current sociopolitical relevance, most of its appeal is simply that this is our world now. We live in an era where, year by year and state by state, our lives are becoming fully integrated into mainstream American culture. “There’s no question,” says Emily Danforth, the author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, “that there are generations now of teen readers ready for these books. It feels more normal—and that’s a problematic word—if you’re 14 to have queer friends and talk about sexuality in a way that is very different than it was 15 years ago.“ Not to mention, there’s a universality here: All teens, regardless of their orientation or identity, are working out what it means to be sexual beings, with the confusions, desires, and pressures that entails.

Yet there’s a tremendous disconnect between what’s happening in the YA marketplace and what’s going on with adult fiction. This is true across genres, for both literary and commercial books. While there are some well-known LGTBQ writers like Michael Cunningham, Alice Walker, Armistead Maupin, Edmund White, and Dorothy Allison, there aren’t many. In fact, these few writers feel more like the token exceptions that prove the rule. Overall, mainstream LGTBQ adult fiction is non-existent, even in 2014.

But why, especially when contrasted with the YA boom, is this the case? On first thought, we might attribute the differences in popularity to demographics, to generational perspectives, with all the statistics showing that younger people are more likely to be gay friendly than older folks. Perhaps straight teens are cool with the LGBTQ experience in a way straight adults simply are not? When thinking about these differences, author and writer for The Huffington Post Kergan Edwards-Stout said, “Younger people in general seem to be much accepting of LGBT issues and people and approach life a little more globally. I think older audiences tend to be closing themselves off, instead of expanding.”

Unlike the static adult audience, the YA audience is dynamic. Every six years or so, the next mini-generation of teen readers emerges, with new interests, references, and cultural trends that can be tapped into. However, with a 2012 study showing that about 43 percent of YA readers are adults (primarily between the ages of 18 to 44), this demographic explanation alone doesn’t suffice. After all, if so many adults are willing to read YA fiction with LGBTQ themes, why aren’t they also reading adult fiction with LGBTQ themes in comparable numbers? We need to look at deeper distinctions to help us understand this disparity between the YA and adult marketplaces and understand the ongoing exclusion of LGBQT writers.

There is a thick history here where writers with non-dominant identities (LGTBQ writers, writers of color) are isolated into their own genres. That is to say, if you’re gay, you don’t write “fiction.” You write, “Gay fiction.” This still holds true. Novels like The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud or The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, which feature gay characters, are fine, but novels with actual LGTBQ protagonists written by an actual LGTBQ authors are likely to be relegated to their own audiences, genres, and bookstore shelves. These books often aren’t seen as marketably mainstream.

First, there’s the cultural element to consider. There may be cues in LGBTQ novels and stories that straight readers “don’t get.” Fictional LGBTQ characters sometimes inhabit spaces that are unfamiliar to straight readers. There are the gay bars, lesbian hang-outs, and…queer poetry readings? While we can talk about these occasional unique cultural differences, this isn’t really it.

Because there’s the sex. And sex, as any reader of Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munro, or Philip Roth will know, is a constant of contemporary fiction. Where would our literature be without heterosexual adultery as a convenient plot device? And the thing about gay sex is that it can be “a bother,” to use Kergan Edwards-Stout’s euphemism, for straight readers. Which is to say, two same-sex teens kissing in a YA novel may be acceptable to a predominantly straight audience. But two dudes blowing each other—or engaging in anal—is, well, a touch “too gay.” From a commercial perspective, the nitty gritty of LGTBQ relationships is often still seen as unpalatable and other.

Aside from sucking generally, this dismissal of LGBTQ artwork has personal resonance for many LGTBQ readers and writers, including me. A couple years ago, an agent told me via email that my first manuscript was, in a sense, “too gay.” The agent’s exact words were, “this is America, after all, where a million soccer moms will read 50 SHADES OF GREY, but wouldn’t touch a book that is far less graphically gay than that one is graphically straight (or so I hear, anyway).” That concluding parenthetical aside—“(or so I hear, anyway)”—is perfect and speaks to the lowest common denominator of audience acceptability. It’s as if the liberal, cosmopolitan agent is shrugging, What can you do about the tastes of the heterosexual hoi polloi?

Though exuberant gayness certainly wasn’t the only thing that made my first manuscript not commercially viable, I was struck by the straight-up-ness of the agent’s assessment: Gayness, like actual gayness (versus the unremittingly pleasant kind you might encounter through Modern Family, Ellen, or a David Sedaris audiobook), well, it just doesn’t sell. This issue, when compounded by the well-documented gender disparities in publishing, is exacerbated for lesbian, trans, and queer writers for whom the intersectionalities of their identities mean they are even more likely to be excluded and ignored.

Of course, this isn’t anybody’s fault per se, which is exactly the point. You can’t blame agents for not representing LGBTQ adult fiction because they think it won’t sell to publishers, since the publishers are pretty convinced it won’t sell to readers. It’s a form of cultural exclusion that isn’t unique to publishing. There are few out Hollywood actors, for example, and fewer still mainstream movies with LGBTQ protagonists (unless they die vis-à-vis AIDS or driving off a cliff a la Thelma & Louis—my gosh, it’s 2014, and the two most mainstream gay movies are still Brokeback Mountain and Philadelphia.)

Which isn’t to say there aren’t amazing LGBTQ adult books (and movies) created every year. Caleb Crain’s splendid 2013 novel Necessary Errors proves how well-crafted prose, engaging characters, and beautiful language can capture any audience. And as YA author Nick Burd wrote in an email interview, “I like to think that all readers dive into books willing to encounter people and situations that are foreign to them. But I guess that’s slightly wishful thinking.“ Still, LGBT books for adult audiences, especially those containing a fair bit of sexual congress, face significant barriers. Luckily, there are smaller presses like ITNA, established earlier this year by Christopher Stoddard, the goal of which is to publish off-beat books, all of which so far feature gay, occasionally transgressive themes.

With all these factors to consider, it benefits us to look at the burden of “relatability.” When the notion of “relatability” is discussed, this burden is usually placed on the cultural object, on the book or movie. Audiences, we’re told, are drawn in by relatable characters, relevant stories, and accessible prose. But this should be a two-way street. Readers need to challenge themselves, to expand their own definitions of what they find relatable, to break free from provincial mindsets where the sole purpose of art is to provide a mirror, not of life, but of readers’ own lives. We need to explode the established notions of relatability. All the LGBTQ writers I talked to or emailed with conveyed this idea in some way or another.

What’s clear is progress, even if it’s slow, is being made. Research by YA author Malinda Lo, building on the work of Christine Jenkins, shows consistent growth in publication of YA LGBTA novels going back all the way to 1969—with the biggest gains occurring since 2004. These teen readers, with their broadening notions of relatability, are growing up, growing into adult readers. Hopefully, soon they will be eager to share in more adult LGBTQ stories, ready to embrace a world that only spins forward.

Image Credit: Pexels/Markus Spiske.

The Common Core Vs. Books: When Teachers Are Unable to Foster a Love of Reading in Students

- | 23

How did you develop a love for reading?

Ask George Saunders, Barry Hannah, or Andrea Barrett. For each of these writers, their love for reading was realized in a K-12 classroom. For Maya Angelou, it’s thanks in part to Miss Kirwin, a “brilliant teacher” at the George Washington High School in San Francisco. For John McPhee, it’s thanks in part to Olive McKee, an English teacher he had for three years. Of course, you don’t have to look to lauded authors. Most readers, writers, and book-lovers can point you to a moment in their educational journeys where a love for reading was inspired in them by a passionate K-12 teacher.

However, the ability of schools and teachers to foster a love for reading in students is under assault in today’s educational climate. We live in a time of high-stakes accountability, where quantifiable metrics, namely standardized test scores, are used to judge students, teachers, and schools. Now, we are faced with the Common Core, new standards in Math and English Language Arts that are sweeping the nation. Incentivized by billions in federal grant dollars, 45 states are adopting the Common Core, with some states rolling out their implementations over the last two school years and other states waiting until next school year.

With these new standards come new tests, namely the Smarter Balanced assessment and PARCC, which are expected to take up to 10 hours for students to complete every year, starting in third grade. These tests will dominate students and teachers’ lives and turn many engaging classrooms into test prep zones. This myopic focus on testing places an extraordinary burden on students and teachers — such an extreme focus detracts from students’ educational experiences and greatly impedes schools and teachers’ ability to foster a love for reading in all students.

This should matter not only to students, parents, and teachers, but to publishers, writers, readers, and booksellers across America. If we want reading to flourish as a pastime and a serious pursuit, schools must be able to devote the necessary time and resources toward reading for pleasure.

You can probably think back to a time in school when you were introduced to something new. Maybe it was a concept in science class or a way of solving problems in math. With this new knowledge came a mix of recognition and surprise, the delight of learning. For many readers, a book passed along by a kind English teacher or eccentric history teacher carried with it this delight. In this sense, K-12 teachers are agents of intellectual excitement. A vibrant teacher can ignite students’ curiosity and enthusiasm in immeasurable ways. Especially for students who don’t have access to many literary resources at home, the classroom is the place where the world of books is brought to life. Educators can pass along their love for reading by introducing students to great books and by being sources of passion, creativity, and spunk.

In her Paris Review interview, novelist Andrea Barrett talks about her difficulties in high school, how she used to skip class and was a “horrible student.” Yet there was one person who stood out, a 10th-grade English teacher named Mrs. Williams. Mrs. Williams gave students “an extensive list of really good books to read” and then asked them to journal about their reading experiences. Soon, Barrett was reading more than she ever had before. “Mrs. Williams,” Barrett says, looking back, “was important to me in ways I didn’t understand for years.”

This is a relatable feeling. The lasting ramifications and reverberations that result from the guidance of our teachers — these people who, at the time, may have seemed silly, ridiculously strict, overly enthusiastic, and unbearably old — are hard to quantify. Yet many of us have been shaped in tremendous ways by these teachers who took the time and extended themselves, these teachers, like Mrs. Williams, Miss Kirwin, and Mrs. McKee, who went above and beyond and brought reading into our lives. Booksellers everywhere should be sending these teachers thank-you cards. These are the people who are inspiring the next generation of readers and book-buyers in America.

It’s worth thinking about what a young Andrea Barrett would have made of an English classroom that was strictly aligned with the Common Core and geared solely toward preparing students to get high scores on standardized tests. Instead of reading novels hand selected by her teacher, Barrett would read the same informational texts as every other student. Instead of being able to journal about her own ideas, Barrett would complete multiple-choice questions, each of which related directly to a Common Core standard. This is not the kind of environment that can foster a love for much of anything.

While we do not know what the full effects of these new efforts to standardize education will be, it’s clear that success on these Common Core-aligned tests will shape learning and teaching in many districts, because these tests will be a primary metric by which districts are judged. This will greatly influence what’s happening in our classrooms. Simply put, the more instructional time K-12 teachers have to spend preparing students for high-stakes tests, the less time teachers have to foster a love for reading in students.

This is not only a question of classroom time, but also of students’ perspectives. When books are seen through the lens of test prep, they lose value. Texts are turned into word searches, where students’ singular goal is to find the correct answer. If reading is treated merely as a way to extract the necessary information — rather then as an activity worthy in and of itself — our literary culture will be greatly diminished. “The most significant kind of learning in virtually any field,” writes visual arts teacher and Stanford professor Elliot Eisner, “creates a desire to pursue learning in that field when one doesn’t have to.” This definition of learning — of learning that is transformative, of learning that galvanizes our minds for a lifetime — is what should be driving our discussions, instead of the current focus on more and more high-stakes tests, where standards are geared toward establishing uniformity of thought among students and where creativity and individuality are neither valued nor encouraged.

If this current trajectory continues, the next generation of Americans will spend more time in school prepping for high-stakes tests than they will reading books or engaging in lab work or doing much of anything else. It seems likely that this, in turn, will have an impact on the number of active readers in America, a number that is already in noticeable decline. If we want our schools to be transformative places, if we want students to develop a deep love for reading, then we must understand that the most fundamental parts of an education are those that cannot be easily quantified through standardized tests.

At a time when so many external groups and special interest forces are involved in education, it’s important that the voices of book-lovers echo in our classrooms. Publishing houses should provide more free resources to students and schools. Local writers should find ways to collaborate with K-12 teachers. We should all advocate for a public education that engenders a love for reading in students.

Thinking of writers — George Saunders, Maya Angelou, and Andrea Barrett, just to name a famous few — who have been influenced by their K-12 teachers, it’s worthwhile to contemplate how they would have experienced today’s high-stakes testing climate. Would they still have developed a rich love of literature? Can such a love flourish in an environment where student achievement is reduced to standardized test scores? What is at stake, in this debate over education, are the lives and minds of the next generation of readers, writers, thinkers, activists, and academics in America. At some point, we have to ask how many students have already been turned off by today’s educational priorities? We have to wonder how many stories have already been lost.

Bonus Link: The Problem With Summer Reading

Image Credit: Flickr/albertogp123