Romeo and Julian: The Necessity of LGBT+ Literature

Introduction


 

According to one of the few statistics on the number of LGBT+ Canadians 1.7% of adults aged 18-59 identify as homosexual, and 1.3% as bisexual. (Statistics Canada) There are few reliable figures for transgender, gender fluid, asexual, pansexual people, or homosexual or bisexual individuals who are outside of these age ranges. Without getting hung up on this lack of information on the LGBT+ community, what we know is that at the very least, 1,075,553 residents of Canada could read books with LGBT+ content and identify with the characters within them. However, an examination of the trade publishing market place shows a distinct lack of books with LGBT+ content written and published by those within this community. This essay will examine both the authors and publishers of LGBT+ books and argue for an increase in the number of novels with LGBT+ themes and characters that are published within Canada. From LGBT+ authors who are not writing on their community, to publishers who are unwilling to take a risk on novels with these themes, LGBT+ readers are being excluded from the simple joy of settling down with a book and seeing themselves within the covers.

For the purposes of this essay, LGBT+ content will be defined using an adapted version of Malinda Lo’s description used when generating statistics on YA LGBT+ literature, that is “a…book with an LGBT main character or that has a plot primarily concerned with LGBT issues.” (Lo, 2014). Throughout this essay I will be using the LGBT+ to be inclusive of those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and beyond who do not identify as of binary gender or sexuality including asexual, pansexual, and gender fluid individuals.

 

The Rarity and Importance of LGBT+ Fiction


 

Discussions on the importance of LGBT+ fiction are based around a core point, that readers should have access to characters they can identify with, and learn from. Author of Boy Meets Boy, David Leviathon, explains, “so much of the pain that LGBT kids go through is because they feel distanced from all of the narratives they’ve been given…they’ve been told that everyone grows up a certain way, and now their own way is diverging from that.” (Italie) Within fictional novels, LGBT+ people can see characters that live, as they do, be it with stigma or freedom and can get lost in that book as much as anybody else does. Author James Dawson cleverly articulates the difficulties in growing up without characters to identify with in his article “The Importance of LGBT visibility in children’s books”.

 

“I was unaware gay people even existed and, when puberty hit, found myself more than a little lost. I so dearly wish there had been just one book with a character who was a bit like me – just a normal teenage guy who happened to be gay. I would have especially loved one whose sexuality did not define him.” (Dawson)

Most examinations on the positive effects of reading LGBT+ literature for youths within this community are informal as it is difficult to access a marginalized group such as this. William P. Banks uses his own experiences in spreading LGBT+ content that the value in the literature comes in “the ways that we learn the language for describing ourselves into existence.” (Banks, 34). The formation of our identities within a marginalized community is based on new definitions that we choose to represent ourselves, this is an ongoing journey that literature can and should help with. There are multiple forms of media that do serve the LGBT+ community, most of which are hangovers from decades when LGBT+ works were ostracized. Traditional media such as poetry and plays and contemporary platforms like YouTube and blogs mean that LGBT+ material is increasingly accessible. However, the humble novel is falling behind. In searching out LGBT+ literature you are more likely to find memoirs and erotica, than a fictional tale. In Canada, this deficiency is prevalent because there are fewer LGBT+ authors, and only a handful of presses willing to publish them.

 

Authors of LGBT+ Content


 

Since the 80s, support for the LGBT+ community has skyrocketed and sexuality has become less of a barrier to living and working within a society that favours heterosexual relationships. These changes are also seen in the publishing industry; there are now more writers who openly identify as being homosexual or transgender and more presses who specialize in works on these themes. This increase, however, is not matched by a noted rise in fiction with LGBT+ content. LGBT+ literary awards enlighten us to the number of authors that are part of this community. The British based Green Carnation Prize, the Lambda Literary Awards in the USA, and Canada’s own Dayne Ogilvie Prize all honour authors who identify as LGBT+. The Green Carnation Prize in 2015 was awarded to Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James, and the Dayne Ogilvie to Canadian writer and poet, Alex Leslie. Examining the work of the shortlisted authors for the Dayne Ogilvie Prize there are trends in the content and regularity that LGBT+ authors are publishing. Of all the winners of the prize, only two are writers of fiction who have published works with LGBT+ themes in the last couple of years: Tamai Kobayashi’s debut novel Prairie Ostrich was published in 2014, and Farzana Doctor’s All Inclusive was released in October of 2015. From the shortlist of the prize are Canadian transfemale author Casey Plett who wrote her novel A Safe Girl to Love in 2014, and Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like the Movies published by Arsenal Pulp Press in the same year. These authors fall under the small category of LGBT+ authors who write LGBT+ content, as opposed to authors who also happen to be LGBT+. For example, Douglas Coupland is openly gay but does not write specifically for an LGBT+ audience, Marlon James too does not write novels specifically with these themes. Scottish mystery author Val McDermid, American David Sedaris, or Canadian author Nancy Richler all identify as gay but do not write specifically, if at all, on the topic. This is not to say that LGBT+ authors should not only write LGBT+ content, there is no argument that these writers should be biologically obligated to only serve one community. However, there is great importance in authors who identify as LGBT+ writing for the community, as listicle author, Ilana Masad eloquently puts it:

 

“A writer’s queerness is not necessarily the central part of who he or she is. Yet this identity did (and still does) carry a stigma, and struggle of any kind inevitably affects the way a writer writes, the way she pours her soul out onto the page, or the way he chooses to spin a story.” (Masad)

Regardless of the when or what these authors are writing, it is the responsibility of all those within the publishing industry to allow LGBT+ writers to work within an environment where this content will not potentially prevent them from being published.

 

Fear of Publishing Marginalized Material


 

The “lavender ceiling” that denies LGBT people the ability to progress in employment­–in the same way as the “glass ceiling” does for women–also applies to publishing. In an article on the Walrus, LGBT+ author Zoe Whittall discusses the difficulties in publishing gay literature, arguing “the easiest way to break through the ceiling commercially is to write mostly about straight characters, or to place your queer stories in a historical setting,” an example of the latter being Sarah Waters’ 2014 novel, The Paying Guests. (Whittall) Whittall attributes the reluctance to publish to fear on the part of publishers who are unsure how to market niche books to a wider audience. Writing on her blog, author Malinda Lo discusses the journey of publishing her “lesbian Cinderella”, 2009 novel Ash. Lo explains that she felt little resistance in publishing her book, but highlights some minor media backlash to the themes within it. Like Whittall, Lo also explains the reluctance of publishers who, when “acting like a rational player in a capitalist economy, it will probably look very hard at an LGBT YA novel it’s considering acquiring, because in a way, it has to outperform a heterosexual one in order to make money”. (Lo, 2011). In Canada, publishers such as Arsenal Pulp and Caitlin Press are willing to publish LGBT+ novels. But independent publishers are less likely to reach audiences as widely as the Big 5. Malinda Lo’s continued examination of YA LGBT+ literature released in the US shows there is an increase in publishers releasing books with gay, lesbian, or transgender content, as seen from the graph below.

2003to2014lgbtya-publishers2

Even if LGBT+ content is published, there is difficulty in knowing whether it will reach the audience it is intended for. In May 2014, Philadelphia based LGBT+ bookstore “Giovanni’s Room” closed. Journalist Steve Berman called it a “grim sign for the future of an invaluable industry.” (Berman) Berman argues that without a dedicated bookstore for LGBT+ readers to browse, they will have more difficulty reaching the books they need. Any arguments that LGBT+ books are becoming assimilated into mainstream bookstores are scoffed: “If you wanted to read a gay book — assuming you are not so assimilated that you only want to read about everyday Americans, the vast majority of whom are somewhat favorable to your “lifestyle” and enjoy laughing at fey or butch minstrel characters on television — you have to special-order the book.” In a recurring theme in this research, Berman explains that marketing is a huge issue for LGBT+ authors, “LGBT books are forced to the edges, to the shadows, despite claims of assimilation. Gay authors have to do more and more marketing to find readers. Gay publishers have to struggle with shrinking venues to showcase their titles.” Giovanni’s Room was reopened under new ownership just a few months after Berman’s article was published, but the same fear of closure was felt by Canadian indie bookstore “Glad Day”. In October 2015, Glad Day organized the Naked Heart “festival of words” as the first LGBT+ literary festival. On the necessity of a festival with this focus, CEO of Glad Day Michael Erickson explained, “there really aren’t gay and lesbian authors getting the circulation and promotion heterosexual authors get…going through book catalogues, the ratio of LGBTQ books is much lower than the ratio of LGBTQ people in the population.” (Robertson) On the basis of these authors’ arguments, it would appear that the stories are there, but publishers are unwilling to take a chance on them.

 

Conclusion


 

Novels that feature LGBT+ characters are woefully lacking in the publishing industry as a whole. They stand alongside ethnically diverse literature, and stories featuring mentally or physically disabled individuals as a stark reminder that the publishing industry should serve all of its potential readers. Awards such as the Green Carnation and Dayne Ogilvie Prizes showcase the talents of LGBT+ authors, but few of these authors are willing to write on this content, and even fewer of their novels are published. We are living in a diverse culture in which members of minority communities are widely accepted, it is time the publishing industry more fully reflected this, and LGBT+ literature is a fabulous place to start.

 

 

 

 

Sources

Banks, William P. “Literacy, Sexuality, and the Value(s) of Queer Young Adult Literatures” The English Journal Vol. 98, No. 4 (2009): 33-36

Berman, Steve. “The Slow, Tragic Death of the LGBT Publishing Industry.” salon.com. 4 May 2014.

Dawson, James. “The Importance of LGBT Visibility in Children’s Books.”theguardian.com. The Guardian. 13 May 2014

Italie, Leanne. “‘Boy Meets Boy’ Author David Levithan On LGBT Books For The Young” The Huffington Post. theHuffingtonPost.com. 17 Jun. 2014.

Lo, Malinda. “How hard is it to sell an LGBT YA novel?” Malinda Lo. 13 Apr. 2011.

Lo, Malinda. “2014 LGBT YA by the Numbers.” Malinda Lo. 10 Dec. 2014.

Masad, Ilana. “25 Queer Authors You Absolutely Should Be Reading If You’re Not Already.” Bustle. 24 April. 2015

Robertson, Becky. “Glad Day Bookshop Hosts Inaugural Naked Heart LGBTQ Literary Festival This Weekend | Quill and Quire.” Quill and Quire. 15 Oct. 2015.

“Same-sex Couples and Sexual Orientation… by the Numbers.”Government of Canada, Statistics Canada. 11 May. 2015.

Whittall, Zoe. “Queerer Than Fiction.” thewalrus.ca. The Walrus. 1 Nov. 2014.

 

 

 

 

One Response to Romeo and Julian: The Necessity of LGBT+ Literature

  1. kburckha says:

    This was a good read, thanks for doing this research. I appreciated your clear definition of what you think of as LGBT+ novels.
    Something I would add is that I think you could easily argue that these books aren’t only for the LGBT+ community. Stories that better represent more of the people around us are good for everyone to read. I think at least in young readers there is often a curiosity to learn more about people from other nationalities or cultures as well as sexual orientations. I think in marketing these books to retailers to get a larger audience and more support for novels with these themes, it is important to point that out as well. I wonder how one might collect some data on this. You mention that small press like Arsenal Pulp are willing to publish this niche of books but that the Big 5 are not. What I understand from this is that you would like to see the Big 5 invest more in this area and not be afraid to publish this material. I wonder if the small niche publishers aren’t better positioned to market these title and the solution might be to grow these presses, find them more funding (perhaps grants for this purpose?), and grow the market that they already started selling into. Provide them with the resources to make their titles more available and to get larger retailers to see the value in stocking and promoting them.
    Finally, I would have loved to see you discuss potential solutions for marketing these titles more effectively as well as perhaps how the cataloging of these titles (BISAC codes perhaps?) could help with the discoverability of novels in this area. An exploration report of the marketing opportunities for LGBT+ novels would be an interesting report to have for all publishers.
    Nice job!

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