Thursday, September 22, 2011

On Speaking Up and Speaking Out

I'm late to the party here, sorry. I blame the day job.

About a week ago, an article in Publisher's Weekly made waves in the blogosphere. A pair of writers with a novel, Stranger, were told by an unnamed agent that they had to either remove or "straighten" a gay character before he would represent them. They blew the whistle on PW, cited a few other instances to make the point that this is not an isolated incident, and then argued that this indicates that YA is too white-bread.

If you follow stories like this, by now you've heard a dozen or so bloggers crying out about what a horrible thing this is, an offense against tolerance, free speech, an author's right to write whatever they want, etc.. I don't necessarily disagree, but rather than repeat what they've all said already, I'm going to play devil's advocate.

First of all, note the sequence of events recounted: after the agent proposes the change, the response from the authors is an emphatic "no way", saying that the matter is "a moral issue." After some further attempts at discussion, the authors curtly thank the agent for his time and hang up the phone. You can read whatever motives you want to into the agent's argument. In fact, any motives you have to be read into him by you, because the authors never though to ask why this was such an issue.

But who cares, it's a matter of principle, right? Well, maybe. Consider that perhaps the agent was giving them a kind of Old Hermit's Test. Maybe what he really wanted to know is "how will you react when someone takes issue with your work?" When the editor asks for changes, will you be amenable to discussion, or turn up your nose at anyone else trying to tell you how to write? When some Amazon reader gives you a poor review, how likely are you to make like Anne Rice and chew them out publicly? Are you going to be a brilliant and cooperative client, or a client who is brilliant but very difficult to work with? This could have been an opportunity for the authors to demonstrate grace under fire. Instead, they give a rather confrontational answer, refuse to discuss the issue, and hang up. And the agent probably thinks, "Well, I dodged a bullet there."

A bit too fairy-tale for reality, perhaps. But regardless of the agent's motives, it's clear that both sides of this little spat are better off without each other. Politics or morals has nothing to do with it. Communication does. The agent/author relationship is just that, a relationship, and they have to be able to talk to one another. The authors in this story demonstrated a stark unwillingness to listen, immediately going on the defensive when changes were proposed. They decided it was a moral issue, put their feet down, and made no effort to understand their agent's point of view. That is not the sign of a healthy author-agent relationship.

But even disregarding a Trickster-Mentor act, there are a number of reasons the agent could have wanted a gay character removed or made straight, some of which would boil down to good writing practice. Maybe, for example, there's no readily-apparent reason for the character to be gay. For example, take Andrea Cremer's Nightshade: Calla's friend Mason is revealed to be gay early on, and in a clandestine relationship with another character, Neville. They met in a support group, which at least one other character also attended. All of this is woven into the plot and very important to the story. It informs the attitudes, priorities, and relationships of all three characters throughout the rest of the novel.

On the other hand, in the sequel Wolfsbane, we're introduced to a lesbian couple, and their sexuality hardly matters. Their relationship becomes apparent when we see them kiss and wave off some teasing from mutual friends. Twenty pages later, with little further development for either, one is dead and the other spends the rest of the book in mourning off-page. Both characters are irrelevant to the story.

When you put a minority character in your story, there's a right way and a wrong way to do it. The former example is the right way. The latter is the wrong way. Putting a character in the story for the purposes of diversity only to have her accomplish nothing can send the unseemly message that they don't matter at all, even when present. Like the metaphorical black dude who dies right at the start of the movie, as savvy audience members groan. And yet, if you've read the Nightshade books, you know exactly why it happened. While an excellent writer, Andrea Cremer overstuffs her stories. Both books present the readers with piles upon piles of characters, backstory, history, and so forth. There's simply not enough pagespace to properly develop everything, so the less important stuff gets pushed aside or cut entirely.

The saying among authors is "murder your darlings." You may be absolutely in love with that scene, that plot twist, that character, but if it's not contributing to the story, it has to go. Keeping a character around just to make them an irrelevant token minority serves no purpose whatsoever. Whether or not this is the case with Stranger, I can't say. I haven't read it. But the authors mention that a number of agents have recommended cutting the gay character with no explanation, and that the story itself has five viewpoint characters. A number of book bloggers I follow have trouble dealing with just two viewpoint characters in a book. Perhaps the real problem here is that there's too much going on and the gay character's story just happens to be the weakest?

Finally, consider another reason that the agent might have had problems: the character in question may be a flaming stereotype. This happens a lot with minority characters, sometimes not by intent. Often an attempt to bring diversity to the cast will backfire when the author instead falls back on cliches and shortcuts, revealing his true ignorance. I'm currently reading a book called Lunatic Fringe, which was pitched to me as a lesbian werewolf story. Early on, the main character gets involved with a sorority of lesbians who are strongly feminist, openly flirtatious with each other, and live, essentially, as a polyamorus commune. In other words, they represent every obnoxious porn cliche about lesbians. In this case, it seems intentional -- I haven't finished the book, but the author is clearly setting them up as hypocrites with delusions of their own importance -- but I can easily see a reader who doesn't get that throwing the book across the room and cursing the author's name. If an attempt to show a group respect winds up being disrespectful, it's not working and better to cut.

So, what was on this agent's mind? I don't know, and neither do these two authors, because they never asked. And there's some irony for you: They throw about accusations of ignorance when they themselves jumped to conclusions and hopped up on their soapbox to talk about under-representation and author's rights. The author does have the right to write whatever he wants, but that right is tempered by a responsibility: to make it the best story he can. Criticism can be hard to take sometimes, but it is far better to listen to your critics then to stamp your foot and declare something a moral issue on which you will not budge. After all, if you don't find your critic's argument convincing, you can always discard it after hearing it. But to off-handedly dismiss ideas you find disagreeable as the fruit of ignorance is evidence of your own ignorance. A writer is much better served by an opportunity to understand what he is doing wrong, thereby learning how to write better. And for this, we need a question, "Why?", rather than an answer, "No." Speak up before you speak out.

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