Saturday, October 22, 2011

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


Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

What a challenging question! The gospel is offensive because Christ is a stumbling block (see 1 Peter 2:4-8).

But at the same time we don't need to be offensive in the way we approach others. Paul spoke to countless groups and sometimes near riots broke out, but sometimes he was invited back to explain more. Was he the issue, or his message?

It seems to me, we must go about writing so that our stories are not offensive in that they are not shoddy -- in any element, including theme.

If we craft our stories well and someone is offended by what the story says, then so be it. I don't think we should write to please our culture or write to avoid displeasing them.

I can't help but wonder, though, if editors and agents will be as broad-minded about Christians as they are gays.


sally apokedak said...

It's a delicate balance, I think. The gospel will offend. It offends emergent Christians who say that God the Father is a cosmic child abuser if he put his son to death for our sins. It offends people who don't want to obey.

But I'm afraid that much of the offense I've given in my life has not been about the gospel but about me trying to police my neighbors.

D. Ann Graham said...

There are many arguments about what is appropriate, what is moral, and even the really ridiculous one: what kids are buying. But, to be honest, one merely has to look at the effects on the generations themselves to get the truth. In the last century, the "gatekeepers" of children's literature were conservative, moral Christians. In this one, they have been liberal minority groups without any morals. A quick look at the differences between the young people (and schools) of fifty years ago, and today, doesn't just speak for itself, it shouts.

It is naive for us to think that two philosophies so vitally opposed to each other will do anything but promote their own agendas in an industry as subjective as publishing. This can be easily proven by a short walk down the YA isle of any bookstore. In my opinion, it isn't quality that bars Christian perspectives from the arena, but rather the age-old battle between good and evil.

But I also believe that God is raising up writers (and other industry leaders), even now, who are brave enough to get back in the fight. Because children believe everything. What they read becomes part of their life experience in their formative years. And writing for them is a battle for lives… no matter what anyone says.

Another great post, Sally. You've struck nerves.

Heather said...

I never think of "not offending" publishers when I write, but then again I don't have a book published yet, either!

Looking at this from another angle--I've made a conscious decision NOT to query agents who represent not only "religious/Christian/spiritual" books, but also represent LGBT fiction. I figure it's diametrically opposed to my worldview, and they're not going to "get" my overall mission with my novels, anyway. I want an agent who is on board with what I'm trying to do w/my crossover-type writing.

Way to "take the bull by the horns," Sally. We certainly don't need to set out to be offensive, but our message is bound to be sometimes, b/c so is the Bible itself. We need to try to "become all things to all men," without becoming all men in the process...if that makes sense.

sally apokedak said...

D. Anne, I understand what you're saying, but I think I have to disagree when you say the gatekeepers today have no morals. They don't hold to biblical standards of moral behavior, but many of them are moral by the world's standards. Many of them won't steal or lie. Many are trustworthy friends. I know what you mean by "no morals" but this is what I mean when I say I'm trying not to offend. I'm a sinner and if I say they have no morals, I'm going to offend because some of them are more moral than I am if we go by outward appearances.

I also agree that each side is trying to promote its own agenda. But I read and enjoy books written by nonChristians, and I think that nonChristians can read and enjoy many Christian writers. I don't like books where all the Christians are made to look like drunken, wife-beating hypocrites, and I suppose gay people don't like reading books where all the gays are depicted as child molesters and promiscuous druggies.

I guess that's what I mean when I say we might want to take a care about giving offense. I don't want to get to so caught up in preaching against some sin that I forget to write something that will delight my readers.

sally apokedak said...

Heather, yes, that makes perfect sense.

Aimee L. Salter said...

What a fabulous post! I'm so encouraged to see a balanced, mature, voice of reason in this debate.

YesgayYA, YeschristianYA, YesEVERYKINDofYA because God loves ALL the children, no matter their race, creed or sexuality.

YES to writing good books on real topics - whatever topics those may be. And Yes to letting the world see authors who love God AND love all the other children in His creation.

Who can believe God is love when those who claim to love Him don't love others?

You made my heart joyful :)

Abby Gaines said...

A thought-provoking post, Sally, thank you very much. I must admit, I assume there would be a bias against Christian characters in secular YA. Maybe I'm not trying hard enough to write an irresistible book!

Katherine Hyde said...

I think we need to write the truth as we see it without regard to whom it may offend. The truth will always offend those who don't want to see it; that applies to all kinds of truth, not just the ultimate truth of Christ. On the other hand, the truth also draws to itself those who are open to hearing it--which might even include some secular agents and editors.

PatriciaW said...

I've mulled over this post for a few days. I was struck right away by your comments re: Christian represntation in YA (and all other genres, I think). I agree. We have to write good books, so much so, that whatever the editors predilection, the books will sell themselves.

I disagree with D. Ann's comment, mostly because I found it a bit offensive, but I think I understand what was intended. "Liberal minority groups" is such a loaded phrase and can mean so many things. Minority as in small subsets or minority as in groups separated from the whole by race, ethnicity, gender, and yes, sexual orientation?

It does seem that there used to be more a sense of a singular morality that all Americans subscribed to without regard to social grouping, and that that has faded away. I think this is what D. Ann was getting at. If such a morality has disappeared, that surely affects everything from the books we read to how we interact with others on the street.

But if I think about the YA books I read growing up, they touted what we might call Christian values in a subtle, less direct way than many want to see today. I'm not sure I ever recall a character talking much about their faith or certainly not being told much about their faith by a narrator, although the characters acted in ways that were in accordance with the principles I learned growing up at home and in church.

Which way is best? I'm not sure since we have characters very visibly Christian in today's books, yet our society seems as much, if not more, troubled than in days past.

sally apokedak said...

Thanks for mulling and commenting Patricia. You bring up an interesting point. In decades past movies and books maybe didn't need to spell out the gospel lessons so clearly because we lived in a biblically literate society. Now people don't recognize biblical language, phrases, or precepts. Maybe that's why so many writers feel the need to preach.