What about gay books?

‘Thank goodness we’re all heterosexuals here,’ sighs Patrick Ness in his Guardian review of Steve Augarde’s book X Isle. (Spoiler warning, in case someone reads Patrick’s review and wants to read Steve’s book later.) And he goes on to say:

‘Gay teens read books, too, having a bit more reason than most to seek a safe and private world, and how miraculous it would be for them, just once, to read a mass-market adventure story where their absence isn’t greeted with relief. —  How refreshing it would be for gay teens – and, incidentally, straight teens, too – to read a twist that reverses expectations in new ways, rather than the usual Shakespearean ones. It’s time, perhaps, for certain old plot devices to be buried with a fond, but firm, farewell.’

I have to agree. I probably wouldn’t have minded Steve’s plot device (similar to Meg Rosoff’s in What I Was), but I can see where Patrick is coming from. But then, maybe it’s not so much what Steve or anyone else might have done with their plots which matters, as the simple fact that there are not a lot of gay YA books around.

In fact, I’m struggling to come up with any at all, other than Jacqueline Wilson’s Kiss. When I read I don’t compartmentalise story lines in my mind according to sexuality or skin colour. I’m not absolutely certain how I categorise books, now that I think about it. More like I do people, I expect. Nice people, awful people, bores, etc. Things that don’t depend on them being black or white or wealthy or badly educated or anything else like that.

So, I think ‘good book’, ‘couldn’t-wait-to-put-it-down book’, ‘book of the century’ or ‘OK, I suppose’. That kind of thing. If it’s got interesting relationships or sex or whatever I’ll mentally file it away as such.

Patrick is right, though. As long as being gay is seen as a problem or as a minority thing, there will be a captive audience waiting to read about themselves. And it wouldn’t hurt for others to read about it as well. But my own experience from blogging about Aspie books in the belief that it would be useful for ‘the others’, only to find that it was the Aspie readers who were desperate to find reading suggestions, shows that you can’t necessarily predict what anyone needs. Most of us would like to find someone we can identify with in fiction, whether it’s sexuality, disability, race or just simple stuff like being fat, clever, shy or something else, which for the ‘sufferer’ takes on disproportionate dimensions.

We don’t need more books about the hardships of being rich, beautiful, popular or terrific at sports. Vampires have recently had plenty of publicity for their special handicap, so maybe it’s time to cast a wider net?

To get back to gay books; who best to write them? It’s tempting to say those who are gay, but I have no idea if that’s right, and I don’t know how many gay authors there are. And of course, if you are gay, it’s a bit boring to feel that you therefore have to sit and compose one gay book after another. But it’s the ‘write about what you know’ thing, isn’t it? On the other hand, lots of authors write excellent portraits of someone the opposite sex from themselves, and writing about something new or different is supposedly the skill of a professional writer.

The other question is; can the market cope with gay novels for young readers? I suspect the publishers would find it hard, as might the buyer from the large chain. What about the grandparents? Or the school librarian, who should know better, but who worries about upsetting the parents. But the thing is, we have a generation of quite young children who have watched Doctor Who, and perhaps even Torchwood, who know all about Captain Jack, as well as John Barrowman, and who find it totally natural.

Not all authors want to ‘come out’, and I can see that there may be special issues perceived both by authors of young fiction and their publishers, if the author makes their sexual orientation known. So, maybe not ‘write about what you know’, for fear of upsetting customers?

But then, how do we ever go forward?

(I’d like more fiction about boring, short, fat girls. Preferably with really good looking boyfriends. Or girlfriends, to be non-sexist.)

53 responses to “What about gay books?

  1. I think if a book deals with ‘Love’ well, the problems, the joys then it will be of interest to gay readers. Because that’s what it’s about, isn’t it? Being in Love? perhaps that’s why the vampire books took off. Forbidden love. I think books about about being ‘gay’ are like books about being ‘black’ ‘disabled’ and so on. Difficult to get the tone right without sounding patronising or as though we are tick boxing ‘issues’ off. Write a good story, have a range of characters in it. That’s the key I think

  2. I wasn’t really talking about a need for more “gay” books (most of which are unreadable rubbish, because they pay all their attention to the “gay” and almost none to the “book”). What I was talking about in X Isle was the tedious old trope of a boy liking another boy who eventually turns to – phew! – have been a girl all along.

    Setting aside the social issue for a second, modern story-telling on its own deserves a better twist. But it is, I think, important to remember what it feels like to be a certain kind of teen reader and never see yourself anywhere.

    In the Chaos Walking books, Todd’s adopted parents are two men. He never mentions they’re gay (because he’s never known any different), but teens ask me ALL THE TIME to confirm that they are. And they’re really excited about it, too, like they figured out a really cool secret.

  3. ‘Not all authors want to ‘come out’ – but you don’t have to be gay to create gay characters, do you. Being gay, black or disabled isn’t an ‘issue’, it’s a normal, natural part of life.

  4. I haven’t read X Isle, so of course I need to be cautious here, but in general my view of ‘tired old tropes’ is that it’s perfectly acceptable to use them if they’re used well. Ness tends to criticise plot as a separate entity, whereas I see it as the framework on which the real work of fiction is built.

    In addition, I really don’t care to play the PC game.

  5. That was a bad title, really, wasn’t it? Didn’t mean gay books as being only about homosexuality. I just meant that you can have a character or two who just happen to be gay.

    But on the basis that people write about what they know, it could be that sexuality is more ‘automatic’, and you don’t stop to think of the alternative.

    In this day and age I wonder if there should also be more about bisexuals, which is not as strange or unusual as people may believe.

  6. I agree with you, Ann (and Anne), though it is hard to take a solid position either way, isn’t it? It’d be fantastic if there were a great gay novel (or two) for teens, but it’d have to be a good novel first, which is the hard thing for any writer of any subject.

    You don’t want to preach, because who wants to read that? You also don’t want characters who seem like tokens, but you DO want to reflect the real world. These are teens who watch Skins and Glee, so maybe novelists are falling behind a bit.

    All I really think is important is that teen writers, especially good ones like Augarde, just push their imaginations a little harder and not settle for the usual. Not only does that occasionally have inadvertent results (like implicitly telling gay readers they’re not welcome here; imagine if the hero had a crush on an Asian girl but then there was a huge sigh of relief that in fact she only had a deep tan?), but doing something different, something unexpected, would make a better story all around. Which is what any reader of any age wants.

    By the way, I’m putting my money where my mouth is on this. I wrote a story for “Losing It”, the Keith Gray-edited anthology on teenage virginity coming out his summer. Mine’s called “Different for Boys” and might be on point.

  7. Patrick, you just did what I often do, which is exchange one scenario for another to see how it feels. The Asian girl or the tanned girl is a good one.

    That anthology sounds good. Which publisher?

    And I’d really been hoping people would remind me of all the great books featuring gay characters I’d forgotten, because my mind went particularly blank when I wrote this post. Linda Newbery has just reminded me that two of hers have got good gay characters. Both The Shell House and Sisterland provide what we’ve been looking for in this discussion. Well worth reading, if you haven’t already.

  8. It’s on Andersen Press, and has me, Keith himself, Anne Fine, Melvin Burgess and I think 4 others. Could be interesting.

  9. Yes, I was just thinking of The Shell House, and of The Traitor Game too.

  10. There’s also, (says she, publicizing herself, )my ‘silent snow secret snow’ though that is now out of print and no one even remarked on the gay character…a MAIN character…when it came out first in 1998.

  11. This is a clear sign of bookwitch brain shrinking. I have read these books, for goodness sake. I knew I needed help.

    Thank you!

  12. Aidan Chamber’s Dance on My Grave (1978, I think) is a great and serious book, with gay characters; in his book The Toll Bridge, there is incidental same-sex attraction and in the award-winning Postcards from No-Man’s Land, characters are bisexual. Only in the first book is the sexuality part of the book’s plot or identity. Brothers by Ted van Lieshout deals with coming out (and sibling identity and death), and Centre of my World by Andreas Steinhofel (pubd. Andersen Press). As well as the Linda Newbery and The Traitor Game already mentioned. There are other books out there as well. But completely neutral, incidental commonalities like Todd’s upbringing in Patrick’s books are good things too.

  13. Forgot to mention one of my favourite books ever – Aquarius by Jan Mark – which carries a partial plot-line of same-sex attraction and unrequited love. That’s 1978 too and winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.

  14. Yes, the great Aidan Chambers – glad someone has mentioned his books.

    Didn’t Dumbledore turn out to be gay?

    I’m not sure I agree that most readers want something unexpected and different from a story, although no doubt many writers wish that they did. You can see from reading something like Amazon reviews that a lot of people like to have their expectations and prejudices confirmed, rather than challenged, and get accordingly outraged at books that don’t fit their expectations. That’s why I guess books are flagged immediately as ‘gay’ or ‘black’ or ‘fantasy’ or ‘romance’ etc etc.. so as not to take people by surprise. Which I think is a great pity…

    (I’m writing a book about a short, fat, boring girl! Although naturally I don’t think she’s boring at all)

  15. @ lily – yes, he did, although ‘only’ in a talk that Rowling gave after the books were all finished.

    That’s another dimension in fact… on the one hand, there’s writing ‘the great gay novel’ for teens and preteens (the nearest thing I came into contact with was Sweet Valley High: Amy’s True Love – boo!), and just as importantly on the other, there’s making gay/lesbian, bi and indeed trans characters part of the fabric of the protagonists’ world. There are far far fewer books like that than there ought to be…..

  16. I have two gay vikings in my book Troll Blood. Nobody has ever noticed.

  17. I’m sure I did, Katherine. Just remind me who they are…

  18. Boy Meets Boy, David Levithan.
    When I wrote What I Was, I was writing about gender — how you can be a boy without being a boy; how you can be a boy and not feel like a boy. How you can fall in love with someone without knowing who they are — or who you are, yourself. For a brief moment I wondered if someone might think it was a phew! she’s a girl! ending, but then I thought, nah, no decent reader will think that.
    Right, Patrick?
    I do agree that more good books with gay characters would be nice (as opposed to gay books) — and if anyone mentions Sarah Waters I might have to shoot myself.

  19. p.s. Very good and thoughtful post, witch.

  20. Anthony McGowan

    The one truly attractive character in The Knife That Killed Me is gay, though he does get a knife in the guts for his trouble. A critic friend subsequently pointed out that even generally sympathetic portrayals of gay characters often end in their death (can’t remember the other examples now). I suppose Patrick’s saying it would be nice to move to a position in which sexuality is no longer an issue, just one of those background facts about people, like hair colour or musical taste. But then that might annoy some gay friends of mine who are convinced that being gay is the single most important thing about them and of universal significance and interest …

  21. Anthony McGowan

    Oh yes, another vote here for The Traitor Game by BR Collins – brilliant, brilliant book.

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  24. I’m amused by all the writers who mention their own books in this discussion. There’s a smugness to all this that I find disturbing, which is why I prefer to leave it to my readers to decide how I view gender.

  25. And the two angels in His Dark Materials.

    Lee, it would be ridiculous not to mention our own books because this is a blog to do with writing not plumbing.

    That’s we read it. That’s why we know about writing.

  26. Smugness WILL be tolerated. Anyway, I don’t think it’s smug. It’s simply a natural way to sell yourself and your books. If I can make anyone rich by appearing here, I’ll be very happy. And I’ll want a cut. Don’t forget.

    And I’d say as many books by other people are getting a mention, as own books.

    Yes, Anne, the angels were great.

    And The Traitor Game is particularly apt in this discussion, I think.

  27. Anthony McGowan

    Well, Lee, that was probably the single smuggest statement I’ve come across in 2010 – but the year is yet young so I’m sure you’ll be able to beat it.

  28. Wow! 29 comments. Hot topic. All I’ll add is an addition to the point about gay writers perhaps being reluctant to be seen as ‘writers of gay fiction’. I saw an execrable TV discussion of Sarah Waters’s book ‘The Little Stranger’ (which I adored); the pundits didn’t care much for it, and one suggested that maybe as this was Waters’s first ‘non-gay book’ that it was understandable that she’d lost her way a bit. So one can certainly understand the fear of being pigeonholed, when one is dealing with idiots like that.

  29. Oh no, Nick! Now Meg will have to shoot herself. How could you?

    I’ll obviously have to do gay sex more often…

    Anthony – the year is young, as you said. Maybe Lee was just taunting you?

  30. I’m someone who grew up queer many years ago without a single character in a single book to light the way, but might I just say: there are quite a few gay books for young adults, or at least books young adults get their hands on, but so many of them are the same book written over and over and badly.
    It’s the same coming out story over and over. Can we move on? Can we leave the coming out story where it is, let people read the old ones (you tell me the difference between Rubyfruit Jungle and Tipping the Velvet – besides the outfits) or even just the good ones (please) and start writing books about the world as it is now. Young people don’t relate the same way to the gay community anymore, straight kids have queer friends, everyone pashes everyone for fun sometimes, and that world is not in many of our books (notable Australian exception, Loaded, and even that is 90s).
    That means the real world and its relationships including friendships are not fictionally represented for YA readers – gay or straight or bi. Yes, it’s an unconscious bias on the part of authors as well as a very conscious bias by publishers. TV is over it. The web is over it. Even movies are sorting it out.
    Can we just get over it too please?
    (I’m sorry I mentioned Sarah Waters. Don’t anybody go shooting themselves – especially not MR)

  31. I love David Levithan’s Boy meets boy. Read it and smile.

  32. Criticism I can take on the chin, but what kind of ‘reviewer’ publicly gives away the entire plot of a new book just to make a feeble (and wholly inaccurate) point? An unprofessional one.
    It’s probably equally unprofessional to respond, but now that the book has so effectively been spoiled what’s to lose? And let’s be clear about that mealy-mouthed disclaimer. Saying ‘you might want to look away now’ is a sure way of getting people to lean in a little closer…
    Baz’s heterosexuality, if indeed he is heterosexual, hardly affords him any sense of ‘relief’ (phew!). In fact he’s left feeling confused and uncertain – not an unusual state to be in at his age.
    The book doesn’t hang on the sexuality of its characters, rather the question arises simply because of the desperate necessity for one of the characters to assume a disguise. Some readers, mostly female, have seen through that disguise and some, mostly male, have not. I take it as a compliment to my writing that girls have tended to recognise a girl when they see one, and that boys have tended to accept things at face value. Interestingly my gay male readers – yes I do have quite a few (phew!) – seem to have been largely unaware of the subterfuge.
    I wrote a book called Celandine a few years ago, in which the central character was gay, and I suppose was preparing myself for some sort of reaction simply because, as has been pointed out, there are so few gay characters – particularly female ones – in children’s literature. To date I’ve not seen or read a single comment on Celandine’s sexuality. Again I take this as compliment. I made no big deal of it in the writing, just as I make no big deal of it in real life.

  33. See what happens when a bookwitch jumps on her broom and heads North and forgets to lock her blog door? A fight breaks out.

    Steve, I haven’t read your book but I’m with you on the spoiler point. I reviewed for years and, difficult though it is, there’s always a way to make a point without spoiling the plot for the reader. I was aghast that almost all the reviews for my last book revealed the entire plot. Well, thanks guys, I thought. (Oops, sorry, Lee but I didn’t actually mention my title!) Yet anyone who attempted to do that with any of the Potter books would have been skewered at the point of a very sharp wand.

  34. great discussion happening! todd’s two dads in ‘the knife of never letting go’, when i’m talking about this book to customers in my bookshop, always make people go ‘his dads?’ though it isn’t always a negative reaction they do always have to check!
    there have been a couple of great aussie books out lately with gay characters: lili wilkinson’s ‘pink’ is very funny and sweet. joanne horniman’s newie ‘about a girl’ is a luscious and beautiful read. i love david levithan’s books (not that he’s australian, wish he was) from ‘nick and norah’ to ‘boy meets boy’ and his soon-to-be-released ‘will grayson, will grayson’ (co-authored by john green).

  35. I’ll never go away ever again. Being out of internet reach is certain to invite mayhem.

    Lovely to see you here, Steve. I’m hoping it’s Patrick rather than me you are annoyed with? To be honest though, if I’d read his ‘look away now’, I would have done, for a book I wanted spoiler free. I wish it had been an option for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas when the Guardian reviewed it. No warning at all.

    There are clearly lots of ‘gay’ books around. But maybe not enough. Perhaps Patrick was really harking back to his own youth when he said what he said?

  36. Thanks for this post. Have you heard this speech given by David Levithan? I just listened to it for a class, and I think it’s particulary relevant here.


  37. Oh and I forgot, we see what we want to see in our characters. Oh the queer imagination. When I was growing up, I was convinced Pippi Longstocking, followed by Jo March and many others, were lesbian in spite of any evidence to the contrary. So I have to say, never mind your boy-really-a-girl genre, the biggest shock of my young life was the end of Little Women.
    Don’t worry – we do make the best of whatever we can get, even when we don’t have access to delights by the likes of Lily Wilkinson or David Levithan.
    We now have a whole world of books free from homophobia and full of possibility, and that is an amazing thing in itself.

  38. Of course I’m not annoyed with you, bookwitch. This is a great site.
    But I am annoyed. Any book that has narrative surprises in store lays itself wide open to spoilers, and that’s a risk that writers take when it comes to reviews. But usually it’s a low risk. Professional critics, whatever their standpoint, will refrain from spoiling the potential pleasure of readers.
    Patrick gives away everything that happens in X Isle (thanks, pal) but doesn’t tell us what the book is actually about, or what lies at its core. Clue: it’s not gender-specific sexuality. The presence of one desperately frightened girl hidden amongst the lads is not a lost opportunity to pander to some spurious gay agenda. It’s just what happens, necessary for her and necessary to her character.
    The book is about murder, what it takes to become a murderer, and whether such action can ever be justified. It poses serious questions about morality and guilt, both individual and collective. It looks at the nature of tyranny, hierarchy, and religious fanaticism.
    And yes, the book is also about love and friendship, the smudgy territory that lies between the two. But there’s no gay action. What a pity. If only I’d removed that annoying girl character we could have had yet another boy instead…
    This isn’t entirely Patrick’s fault. The current practice of asking authors to review another author’s work might be cost-effective (hey, we don’t pay much, but you get to promote your own book!) will too often lead to either back-slapping or back-biting. Either way it’s a damaging exercise.
    Good writers don’t necessarily make good critics. I’m sure I’d do a similarly bad job on one of Patrick’s books, if it ever came my way.

  39. Okeydokey, lest we get carried away, here’s the actual review:


    It is, readers might be surprised to learn, a pretty positive one, saying a number of nice things about Steve’s book (and Steve himself) with plenty of quotes that can (and almost certainly will) be used on the paperback. I give full and fair warning about the spoiler, and I don’t really see Steve’s target audience (or mine) as big readers of the Guardian Review. I also only revealed the spoiler (something I hardly ever do) for the reasons stated in the review, which I believe are good ones.

    I don’t blame Steve for his reaction, not a bit. I know the sting of bad reviews (even though this is not, in fact, a bad review), and am all for him having right of reply here, not a problem at all. (I must confess, however, that before reading “X Isle” I’d not heard of Steve or his back and therefore had little motivation to either slap or bite it.)

    I gave a good review to a fun book but was disappointed by an over-familiar twist (I would have said the same things if it had all ended up being a dream, for example). Faced with the same book and knowing the discussion to follow, I’d write the same review. I still believe the issues raised are important.

    In the meantime, read Steve’s book. It’s apparently “a strong tale, well told” and “a surprisingly upbeat story that boys should like.” Or so says the Guardian, anyway.

  40. There is already a link to the review on my second line. And I warn anyone who clicks on it that there is a spoiler, while feeling that my blog post works without reading Patrick’s piece first.

    As for who reviews books in the Guardian, or elsewhere, I’ve been given the impression that it’s ‘names’ that makes readers bother reading them. And Patrick is a name. Do they test people first, before handing out review tasks?

    Thank you, Steve! I have a feeling you were once behind the Norwegian monks on YouTube…

  41. Fair enough, Patrick. You’ve stated your opinion, and we’ll agree not to get carried away.
    But I hope bookwitch will allow me to post a counterbalance to that opinion, in a review that gives us plenty of detail without compromising anyone’s enjoyment. Here’s Joy Court, writing for School Zone, where X Isle was Book of the Month. School Zone is a great reading resource for parents, teachers, and pupils alike – well worth a look.

    Librarian’s Book choice.

    ‘This book is a complete change of genre for the author known for the Various trilogy. In contrast to the world of fairies, this is a quite outstanding example of a dystopian future novel and the most realistic flooded world scenario that I have come across. In a way, that is the smallest of its virtues. The novel’s real strength is in the portrayal of adolescent boys and their interactions as individuals and the portrayal of group dynamics. These are very real and recognisable young men and it is how they react to the pressure and terror of life on X-Isle, and the ways in which the horrifying and evil adults delight in a policy of divide and rule, that is so gripping and thought-provoking. This is a dark and brutal place and understandably, most inmates are brutalised by it, but the book is ultimately uplifting. The boys come to realise they can be stronger together and eventually work to overthrow the regime. This book would make a worthy comparator to Golding’s Lord of the Flies and generate some fascinating class discussion. Although it would appear to have most appeal to boys, everyone will enjoy the sheer quality and readability of the language and the depth of psychological perception as well as the fast paced narrative and immaculate plotting of this unforgettable read.’

  42. Steve; surely all publicity is good publicity? However irritated you are by contemporary reviewing techniques and by reviewers “missing the point”, surely from the perspective of a professional author it’s only good that people are talking about your book?

  43. Pingback: Här ska det bråkas « Bookwitch på svenska

  44. Wow! I should have checked back here sooner. I love a good dust-up.

    @ Anthony and Anne C. and all those who think it ridiculous – or even smug of me – to mention smugness, well, I’ll stick by my view that some of you imply that you do it better than Augarde – and yes, Patrick N., that includes you. Frankly, I prefer a bit more humility about one’s own work.

  45. A wise and ancient literary editor once told me that a review is always much more about the reviewer than it ever is about the book. The professional trick is to try to make it seem as if it’s actually about the book…

  46. Oh no, I’ve been found out! I go on and on about me, and then I mention the book title in the hopes it will look better that way.

  47. But that’s what we like!

    I didn’t mean you, bookwitch – well, not in particular. Anyone who has ever read a book and had an opinion on it is guilty as charged. So that’s all of us, right?

  48. Hi Ian. This thread is long over, but just to quickly respond: the notion that ‘all publicity is good publicity’, is perhaps OK in celebrity-world, but no, I don’t believe it’s true of literature.

    And bookwitch, I wasn’t behind the monks on YouTube, but I did think it was funny and so I posted it (twice!) on my blog. Here’s the link for anyone who wonders what we’re talking about: Modern Technology

  49. What about My Side of the Story by Will Davis? Sprout by Dale Peck? I loved those for both the coming-of-age aspect and the love of language. I get it they teeter on the ‘gay book’ rather than ‘book with gay character’ brink – but frankly, I think that’s rather insider-incestuous talk. It’s easy to get caught up in a writerly bubble.

  50. Pingback: Going for the Gold Sunday Links « Bib-Laura-graphy

  51. It’s absolutely essential that gay books are sought out and included in each and every library. It is no real secret I believe that an unusually high percentage of young ‘disadvantaged’ read: homeless youth today identify their sexuality as something other than heterosexual. Each and every person that turns a blind eye to a real responsibility for the acceptance and celebration of difference plays a role in perpetuating this. It is a fact that equality is still a struggle today; if you believe not then I’d suggest you have no experience of our everyday lives. Of course, there are many, many individuals and organisations promoting resources in LGBTI(Q) communities today but what about a real ‘mainstreaming’ of these? I could have done with some accessible models in my youth so that I did not feel so very alone and I’m sure that the transitions taking place will continue for some time yet. Chely Wright, the first Out American Country Singer, has just released ‘Like Me’. I suggest this might be a good read for younger people, together with their slightly older parents, some of whom may themselves still be needing role models. It’s a fallacy to assume that many of us have not been married and given birth to our own children in such a strongly hetero-normative society. That is to say nothing of the desire to label ‘straight/gay’ and the battles individuals identifying as ‘bisexual’ for instance face. Hasn’t Kinsey already covered a lot of this ground?
    If these comments seem at all strange to anyone reading then perhaps your experience has been a different one. Good. Difference and it’s celebration is entirely the point. And noticeably absent in most western libraries today.

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