Thursday, September 15, 2011

Guest blogger Joanna Stampfel-Volpe responds to a recent PW blog post on LGBTQ YA

Joanna Stampfel-Volpe is an agent with Nancy Coffey Literary & Media Representation, where she primarily represents picture books, middle grade and young adult fiction.
On Being Used, the Lack of LGBTQ Characters in YA, and Why It’s Important to Work Together

by Joanna Stampfel-Volpe

It is imperative that Young Adult literature reflects the diversity of our world.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Which is why conversations like #YesGayYA (on Twitter), and posts like Malinda Lo’s “How Hard Is it to Sell an LGBTQ YA Novel?” are so important. This is a topic that should be discussed, and brought to everyone’s attention. We (as peoples of the publishing industry—authors, agents, editors, booksellers, etc) should be working together to promote diversity of all kinds to readers.

Two authors this week published the article “Say Yes to Gay YA” on Publisher’s Weekly’s blog Genreville.

It describes the experience an author-writing team had with an agent who told them that he or she would offer representation if the authors would either make a gay male character straight or cut him from the book all together. Though this may have happened with previous authors and agents, this time it is completely untrue.

We had read the manuscript, and had spoken to the authors to learn more about the story. Later, when this article was posted, we discussed in-house how awful it was they'd had to go through this.

Then we got a surprising call from an agent friend who had heard that this article was supposedly about us.

Initially we thought it was just an unfortunate rumor. 

Then the emails started pouring in

Did we know what people were saying about us?
Why were they saying this?
This can’t be true!

Well. It isn’t true.

Let me repeat this: there is nothing in that article concerning our response to their manuscript that is true.

We spoke with the authors on speakerphone in our office, and the conversation we had with them was very different than the experience they describe.

The first bit of editorial feedback we gave was that they change the book from YA to middle grade, which would mean cutting most of the romance entirely (for both the straight and gay characters). The book included five character points-of-view (POVs). Our second bit of editorial feedback was that at least two POVs, possibly three, needed to be cut. Did one of these POVs include the gay character in question? Yes. Is it because he was gay? No. It’s because we felt there were too many POVs that didn’t contribute to the actual plot. We did not ask that any of these characters be cut from the book entirely. Let us repeat that, we did not ask that any of the characters in the book –gay or straight—be cut from the book. Also, we never asked that the authors change any LGBTQ character to a straight character.

We suggested this editorial feedback, because it’s our job, the initial step of the ongoing author/agent dynamic.

The authors felt differently, and that’s okay. It’s a business, but it’s a creative one. And it’s vitally important that an author and agent be on the same creative page. We have these conversations precisely so we can see if our vision aligns with the author’s before we offer representation. Since it didn’t in this case, we did not offer representation, though the authors of this article say we conditionally did.

Unfortunately, this rumor has reached the point where our clients and colleagues have heard from their peers that this article is supposedly about us. Above all else, our concern and responsibility is to our clients, always. And it is also to our agents.

One of our agents is being used as a springboard for these authors to gain attention for their project. She is being exploited. But even worse, by basing their entire article on untruths, these authors have exploited the topic. By doing that, they’ve chipped away at the validity of the resulting conversation.
And it’s a conversation that should be had.
So let’s continue this conversation, and let’s base it on the truth, which is:
There are not enough mainstream books that depict characters of diverse race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and physical and/or mental disabilities.
Changing this starts with the readers. Scott Tracy has a great post about this on his blog. If more people buy books with these elements, then publishers will want to publish more of them. Sounds simple…yet, it’s not so simple.

How do we reach the readers who are looking for these types of books? And more importantly, how do we reach the readers who aren’t specifically looking for them?

We would love to start this conversation. It is one that our agency believes in and feels strongly about. Let’s discuss.
- Joanna

Note from Colleen: When the PW blog post was first posted, I was asked by several people to retweet the piece help to spread the word. Because this piece was printed in PW, I felt safe in assuming that the facts of the story had been checked.

I made the mistake - as so many people have - of conflating PW with the blogs that are hosted on PW.

In the spirit of righteous indignation, I retweeted the story. Almost immediately I was contacted by several well-respected agents - a couple of whom had already read and rejected the manuscript in question, based on the same editorial concerns - who called into question the facts behind the blog post. I later discovered that not only did I know the agent in question, but that this person was actually a dear friend of mine, someone who most certainly wasn't homophobic. The more I learned about this incident, the angrier I became at myself for reposting it and inadvertently hurting someone whom I respect and admire as a colleague, and whom I care about personally as a friend. This story has now moved beyond the book community online into the mainstream press; every new media outlet that picks up the story is a further insult to this agent's reputation; for that, each and every one of us who helped spread this story should be ashamed.

As a queer woman and a former agent who has happily repped - and sold! - YA with LGBT themes, I think we need to step back, take a deep breath and look at an important fact, one that hasn't yet been discussed.

FACT: Both these writers already have their own agents. At least one of those agents reps YA books. So what does it say when the respective agents for both these well-established writers advise them to find a different agent for the book in question because neither of them wanted to rep it themselves?

It tells me that homophobia was most likely not the reason that this book has thus far not found representation.

Any agent looking at this manuscript - knowing full well that these two writers already had their own respective agents who did not want to rep the project - would see this as a giant red flag and approach the book with a very critical editorial eye.

Does there need to be a conversation about lack of diversity in YA? Yes. Is this the incident to hang it on? I don't think so.

My two cents.

Edit to add on 9/28/11: If you get a chance, you should read this amazingly curated post by Cleolinda Jones over at Livejournal. She has put together an exhaustingly-thorough compilation of pretty much everything related to the original PW post, Joanna's rebuttal, some great conversations on Twitter and links to more great blog reading. Also, YA Highway sums things up rather nicely here, with pointed commentary where relevant. I think it's probably the most balanced view of the whole situation.

Edit to add 10/10/11: Comments for this post have been closed. I don't have time to keep checking to see if there are comments floating around somewhere in the moderation queue. (Actual day job here, folks.)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

When we remember that Tuesday...
Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs

The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now; in the sounds of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest editions.

All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.
-- E.B. White, Here is New York (1948)

Shortly after the awful events of what some of us now simply call "that Tuesday," a small gallery on Prince Street in SoHo opened up its doors and began to invite ordinary New Yorkers to contribute their photographic memories of that day. What first began as a small community art project soon blossomed into an amazing historical document of one of the worst days in American history, a physical - and virtual - library of images captured by ordinary people on an extraordinary day.

The gallery space soon began to draw crowds and groups of people queued up for hours to get inside to look at the photos. It was almost as though it became a necessary pilgrimage; to see what others had seen, to be able to compare the experiences of these strangers with the events that had shaken your own world, to compare, to confirm that yes - this thing really had happened.

And the mixture of the people who stood on line was just as amazing. German tourists standing next to dust-covered firefighters who were using their precious free time to witness this unusual grassroots outreach, before turning around and climbing back atop the pile of rubble twelve blocks to the south. Weary Red Cross workers on their way to pick up supplies. Groups of young children with their teachers. A band of Buddhist nuns who stood and prayed outside the gallery for hours. Actors. Stock-brokers. Janitors. Chefs. Homeless men and women. All standing together to witness one another's memories.

The exhibit ran through the beginning of 2002. The gallery began printing and selling the photos, donating all proceeds to the Children's Aid Society. By Christmas Eve, the gallery had sold more than 30,000 prints. A book was produced. Eventually a comprehensive website was created, where every photograph was archived and made available to the public. A video archive of oral histories joined the photographic archive online. The original exhibit toured the United States for nearly a year.

And it grew and grew and grew.

This project - called Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs - is still available online in its entirety.

As we prepare to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I implore you:


It is raw.

It is unforgiving.

And it is, frankly, one of the greatest visual arguments against ever making war on other human beings that I have ever seen.