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Only Spinning Forward: On the Commercial Viability of LGBTQ Literature

By posted at 6:00 am on June 19, 2014 10

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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.

covercovercoverA 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.

covercoverThere 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.)

coverWhich 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.

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10 Responses to “Only Spinning Forward: On the Commercial Viability of LGBTQ Literature”

  1. Edward Champion
    at 8:37 am on June 19, 2014

    There are more than six million copies of Armistead Maupin’s TALES OF THE CITY books now in print. Samuel R. Delany’s DHALGREN, published in 1975, sold over a million copies. E. Lynn Harris, whatever you think of him, was openly gay and sold extraordinarily well in the 90s and the early noughties. Alison Bechdel’s FUN HOME is a commercial and critical musical hit on Broadway. The great and impeccable Alan Hollinghurst, who you did not mention, became a bestseller and an award winner with THE LINE OF BEAUTY in 2004. For many decades, adults have been very “cool” with LGBTQ fiction. And the sales statistics, some of which I have mentioned and none of which you have used at all in this essay, tend to back this up. There may be a side issue on whether general readers are interested in idiosyncratic or outsider perspectives, but that problem is shared just as much by other subcultures and groups. Writers, on the whole, are marginalized, if they are even known at all. But as John Banville recently declared in The Guardian, “Every writer who’s worth anything has about 2,000 readers.”

  2. Michael Travis
    at 3:34 pm on June 19, 2014

    Thank you, Mr. Champion. I had the same sort of reaction when reading this article. (I have to admit that I had forgotten about Dhalgren, which is indeed very sexually explicit). Since at least WWII there has been good and sympathetic fiction reflecting the lives of LGBTQ people–many of whom were openly gay as well. The Gallery by John Horne Burns is an example. Others include Angus Wilson and James Baldwin. NYRB is going to reissue Totempole this fall, a book that was first published in the 60s, about the same time as Isherwood’s A Single Man. Iris Murdoch’s The Bell is another fine example. More recently we also have David Plante (The Catholic is a personal favorite), Andrew Holleran and Gary Indiana. Michael Bronski’s Pulp Friction is a good place to explore some of this early material.

  3. Ilana Masad
    at 12:00 am on June 20, 2014

    Both Mr. Champion and Mr. Travis have a point – there are critically acclaimed novels “for adults” that involve LGBTQ characters and perspectives. Yet they are often men – male authors and characters who are male. Patriarchal issues are pervasive in the queer community as well as everywhere else, and unfortunately Ms. Bechdel is a rarity. “Fun Home” was incredibly successful, yes, but it was also an innovation in terms of genre and it touched both younger and older readers alike in that it addressed a wide variety of themes beyond being queer – and the real revelation of the book is not about Alison but about her father. A male-centric viewpoint once again.

    I am not saying that books written by and about queer men are bad, nor am I saying there should be fewer of them. I just think that it’s interesting that there has yet to be a truly inspirational YA or adult novel (not memoir, like Bechdel’s, but a fictional novel) about a queer woman, a trans* person, or someone who is genderqueer.

    But more importantly than the gender binary issue is the fact that we still, unfortunately, lump authors who write about gay characters into the “LGBTQ Writer” label. Michael Cunningham for one has shrugged off that label and escaped it entirely. We don’t call Virginia Woolf a “queer author” even though she was and her themes often revolve around gender and sexuality as well as many others.

    I do not have any conclusive answer to how we can solve these issues of diversity, which extend far beyond sexuality and gender, but they are important to be aware of and think about. And, hopefully, we will watch them change in the coming decades.

  4. Germane Jackson
    at 10:27 am on June 20, 2014

    No novels about queer women? What about Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt?” which sold millions in the early fifties? I’m sure there’s some patriarchal criteria it fails, but still. Not to nitpick, but that seems like a pretty large omission.

    Also, Woolf and Cunningham are merely two examples of a multitude of writers who have successfully written about gay characters and gender issues without getting the “LBGTQ” label. Two other modern examples: I seem to remember Archenemy Franzen’s The Corrections devoting about 1/3 of its content to a lesbian character. And Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh at least partially concerns a young man’s homosexual/bisexual awakening. I realize these depictions of gay characters are probably not ideal, but in general I disagree with the assertion that mainstream authors can’t/don’t write about gayness without being ghettoized.

  5. justaphotographer
    at 9:31 pm on June 21, 2014

    I would say the most prominent mainstream queer film of recent years is not Brokeback (let alone Philadelphia) but The Kids Are Alright.

    It’s a problematic example due to its rather conservative values (and the lesbian-sleeps-with-a-man trope without which a movie about gay women evidently can’t get funding) but a queer made success nevertheless.

    There are a number of best-selling queer female writers working in fiction right now. Emma Donoghue, Ali Smith, Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson all address same-sex experience (though of these only Waters does so both consistently and explicitly – hasn’t hurt sales as far as I can tell and she has a huge straight female readership). Donna Leon does it obliquely in her mega successful Venetian mysteries.

    The equivalent mainstream gay male authors would be Colm Toibin, and as someone has mentioned, Michael Cunningham. Some choose gay subjects, some don’t, but their sensibilities always inform the work.

    While I generally agree with the gist of this article – it’s difficult to sell mainstream publishers on explicit gay sex, etc. – I find it strange that the author overlooked these names or willfully ignored the progress they represent. Are these authors just not ‘gay enough’?

  6. Lukas Neira
    at 2:53 am on June 22, 2014

    This article is very informative and interesting–but as a gay man, the first sentence is utterly offensive. There are ways to convey the meaning of that sentence without using that specific phrasing, but I would further argue such a direct analogy is akin to objectifying a complex, real-world identity as a simple plot device (and equating it with a widely derided plot device at that). I’m not about to hold a grudge against the millions by allowing it on their site, but it still is aggravating.

  7. J. Nelson Leith
    at 4:49 pm on June 22, 2014

    To play Devil’s advocate, has anyone ever surveyed LGBT readers to ask them, if they had the option, whether they would prefer to primarily or even solely read fiction wherein the protagonists were LGBT? A lot of this might be that *most* readers, gay or straight, simply prefer an easy identification with the leads. Respecting preference, what a concept!

    To insist that readers “challenge” themselves is just inane. Readers are under no obligation to do any such thing, and demanding they do is more likely to result in defiance than compliance to some imposed political counter-norm.

    As an illustration of principle, all of the politicized hype over Brokeback kept me away from the film for years, not because I have a problem with gay leads but because I have a problem with being preached at about my own guilt by association as a straight person, which is the barely concealed subtext of much of this strain of analysis and advocacy. I don’t read books or watch films to learn my lesson about what a bad bunch of people I belong to, thanks.

    After the hype had faded, I stumbled across Proulx’s anecdote about her barroom inspiration for the original tale. Intrigued, I watched the film and was utterly charmed by what was not so much the grand statement about prejudice that lecturing activists had played it up to be (which, however, Crash certainly was) but rather a touching and tragic story of star-crossed lovers who were clearly overwhelmed by desire and cared deeply for each other. As a straight man, there was no “challenge” in the story itself, not even the raw lust in it, once the political finger-wagging had died away.

  8. Germane Jackson
    at 11:30 am on June 23, 2014

    J. Nelson Leith,

    While I take issue with some of the assumptions and assertions in this article, I can take it on faith that in a vacuum LGBTQ readers, on the whole, identify more readily with LGBTQ characters. I agree that readers are under no obligation to challenge themselves, although reading about gay characters/romances/sex in 2014 shouldn’t pose that much of a challenge, it seems to me. Why the scare quotes around “challenge,” too? Isn’t one of the benefits of good art to challenge and broaden our empathetic range?

    Also, you seem to be taking the default position that any piece of art that doesn’t feature white hetero characters is either preaching at you, or casting white hetero characters as villains. This is both oddly defensive and also an example of the kind of reflexive white hetero privilege, a taking for granted of one’s cultural centrality and the need for it to be respected, that makes people want to cast white dudes as well, villains.

    But I totally agree with you about Crash–that movie is garbage.

  9. Stephen Diviani
    at 1:39 pm on June 25, 2014

    And then there is Proust…………….

  10. Anna
    at 7:10 pm on July 14, 2014

    Thank you!

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