Sarah Rees Brennan is the author of THE DEMON’S LEXICON TRILOGY and can be found online at: www.sarahreesbrennan.com
So, let us discuss the most common fake fictional world of all. It doesn’t involve vampires or werewolves. It involves – well, rent a majority of mainstream movies and you can see it. It’s a world where everyone is a certain way – white, straight, able-bodied – and the really important stories are always a guy’s.
There mayyy be people who aren’t white, straight and able-bodied around in this world. I believe they live on the Isles of Issuelandia, and they are very seldom allowed onto the mainland where the adventures are at.
This is a fantasy world we’ve all been shown a million times over in our lives, so many times it’s had an effect on all of us, whether we know it or not. But most of us, if we stop and think about it, can put our experience of the real world up against the fake default-this-way world we get shown, and say ‘Whoa, these pictures are kind of different!’
So on one level this is a crafting issue. The fake default world is a more boring one, offering creators less chance to be exciting and interesting. Loads of people like a romance with conflict, or confusion: in Perry Moore’s Hero, the hero has a crush on a mysterious masked man, and the fact he’s gay and doesn’t know how to tell his macho superhero father is another layer of trouble for him and his already-troublous romance. Loads of books are about identity: in Holly Black’s White Cat and Red Glove, Cassel Sharpe doesn’t know if he’s a good guy or a bad guy (he’s inclined to think bad), he doesn’t know what his real surname is because his whole family are lying alias-using magical conmen. And he looks like a PoC: people speak to him in different languages, confidently, on the street. But he’ll never know about that, either: another layer for his fruitless noir-y search for identity.
On another level it’s a moral issue. It’s not just that it’s more interesting: it’s important not to exclude people, it’s important to represent everyone. As a nerdy book-loving (though not quiet… nobody will ever tell you I’m quiet) girl, I was able to see people like me in books, even if there was nobody quite as nerdy and book-loving in my real life. (For all the nerdy book-loving girls out there: Diana Wynne Jones’s House of Many Ways really rang my recognition bell. You’re welcome.) That was good for me, in a way I didn’t even recognise until years later. I don’t think any writer wants a reader to read their book, and think: ‘Well, I’m not there. Guess I’m on the Isle of Issuelandia. Oh man, not again. Kind of like always going to the Isle of Wight for your holidays. We never get to go out clubbing in Spain.’ It is wrong to banish people from the mainland!
It’s amazing to see people responding to the break with the default world. I remember having a room full of people tell me that Mercedes Lackey’s Vanyel trilogy changed their lives. I’ve read people saying Holly Black’s Tithe or Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat changed the way they read, or wrote, or saw the world. I’ve had gay guys and girls at signings telling me, hey, awesomely done, you made us happy. (One gay couple who yelled out ‘Go Team JAMIE!’ during a discussion of teams, always makes me smile to remember.) My favourite fanletter, in all the world, was about me saying no to magically curing my disabled character Alan. And once off the Issuelandia Isles, readers who do conform to the default will see that characters who don’t can be fun and lovable, and will love them and want to see more of them.
So, the books are better and readers will love them! Why not do it? you may cry. Well, the second bit is debatable: in fact you will get much more harshly critiqued for reasons I will discuss anon, and moreover: because you will pay for it.
Some libraries won’t carry you. Some bookshops won’t, either. You might get banned. None of this might happen, but parents might whisk the book out of teens’ hands. I’ve had people tell me they wanted to buy my book, or order it at the library, and they couldn’t because of their parents. Saddest for the teens who can’t get to the books they want to read. But sad also for the writers whose sales, and thus whose chance to write the next book, suffers too. (That said. I loathe book piracy. I find it gross that people think it’s okay to for them to benefit from someone else’s work, who feel that person shouldn’t benefit from their own work, as if it isn’t work or isn’t important. But if there is a teen who wants to read mine, and who can’t get them because of their parents by any other means… Go ahead. Don’t feel bad. Your need is greater than mine, and you have my blessing, and all my good wishes for the future.)
Recently there’s been a big hue-and-cry over a YA anthology called the Wicked Pretty Things anthology, in which author Jessica Verday was asked to change her gay love story to a straight one. She said no, retracted the story, and said why on her blog. Many other authors took back their stories in protest, which made me very proud of my genre, and the anthology has been cancelled.
I will say this: the editor of the now-defunct Wicked Pretty Things anthology I know a little, and she’s always been lovely to me. She edited a story I had with an intersex character in it, and let me keep hir. She also obviously in this case defaulted to the fake-default-world, and we’ll never know why: maybe on her own, but very possibly because someone hinted to her, or flat-out told her, that she had to.
Which doesn’t make the whole publishing house bad, either. (Gosh no. The same publishing house is coming out with an anthology called Truth & Dare, which I am in – but more importantly, which Saundra Mitchell’s in with a gay main character, and Emma Donoghue with a gay romance.) It’s just that publishing isn’t a monolith. There are always going to be people who support breaking away from the default, and always going to be people who are against it, and you’re always going to have to deal with the mix. Unfortunately, it does just take one person to create a problem you have to deal with. Jessica Verday had to take her fight out in public, in the same way Justine Larbalestier had to when the girl on the cover of her book was a different race to the heroine inside, but let me assure you: everyone who ever breaks away from the fake default world has had private fights.
Said little fight I had – I will note, not with my editor for the Demon’s Lexicon books, who has always been solidly supportive. Another author, who wrote one gay romance which went fine, and sold well. And then in her sequel she had a steamier gay romance, and despite her awesome sales, the publisher flatly refused to publish it. The story ends well. She got another publisher. But it is not a pleasant thing to have happen to you! Another writer, who had her gay characters deleted from her screenplay. These problems always, always happen, at some point. It is exhausting to deal with them, and fight against the fake default.
I have one friend (and I swear, these are all authors I know, and true stories, and not secretly me – I’ll tell you when it’s me) who had gay characters in her book. Editor took them out. She put them back in. Editor took them out and took issue with her for her naughty ways. She swallowed hard, and put them back in. The book went out with them in.
Almost the first review we saw of the book online said ‘Huh, not enough gay, what gay there was, was problematic…’ And of course, that’s what the person thought, so they were right to say it! But holy Methuselah on a bicycle, after all the author had been through to get it out there, it was hard to read.
Another author I know was slammed for showing a girl feeling shame after an assault. And of course, no girl has a reason to feel that – but some girls do, and they deserve books to say you do feel it, and yet you have nothing to be ashamed of. And yet, the critic has a perfect right to say she felt uncomfortable with it, too. I’ve been dinged (see, told you I’d tell you when it was me…) for having a gay character be too stereotypical because he once wears a purple ‘LOCK UP YOUR SONS’ t-shirt his sister gave him to annoy a homophobe. Made me sad, especially considering the fact I had a little fight on my hands getting to keep my gay kiss in the same book. But people have to be free to call out stereotypes as and when they see them!
People are always going to criticise stuff. People are critical beings! I myself constantly criticise books, movies, and the existence of bananas on this earth. And people notice books that stray from the fake default world more, and are more critical of them, because we are all so accustomed to the default that stuff that’s not-default is very noticeable. Besides which, nothing should be exempt from criticism, and it is important to call out offensive things in fiction.
So this will always happen, until the world changes. If you write anything that’s not the default, you will pay for it, because of publishers or readers or both.
I’ve seen the white-straight-able-bodied attitude be criticised, but I haven’t seen specific books be criticised as examples of that attitude, for the simple reason it’s much easier to criticise something that’s present than to criticise the absence of something (since no book can contain everything). It’s easier to be invisible to the audience – to go the white, straight, able-bodied route, with the focus on dudes and their dudely charms.
And some of those books are great. And I am a big fan of dudely charms, in general! But it has got to a stage where I will read a book that is otherwise good, and note it has the fake default, and I’ll feel a lingering sense of disappointment. I’ll never know if it was a consciously or unconsciously made safe choice – or just how the book turned out – or anything, really. No reader can know what the writer was thinking. All they have is the book, and their own conclusions.
Which is why I’ll add that I don’t like hearing ‘oh, some of my characters are gay, but I just didn’t mention it, it’s not germane to the plot.’ It’s disingenuous to pretend that the fake default world doesn’t exist, and that people won’t assume. It’s disingenuous to say it, if there are a bunch of heterosexual characters whose straightness was germane to the plot! I believe that it’s said in all good faith, and of course it’s nicer to hear than ‘Gay people in MY world, certainly not’ but hearing it (and I have heard it, oh gosh, at least twenty times from different writers) always saddens me. Put it in the book. All most readers will ever have is the book. The book is the important thing: the book could change a life, if you do it right.
And if you don’t believe that, why be a writer at all?
I always think of something I heard Karen Healey (Guardian of the Dead, heroine’s best friend is asexual) say at a panel once, talking about doing something that she knew would limit her audience and thus cost her money/potential future deals: ‘But then I thought, well, the cost of that is a lot less than the cost of thinking less of myself as a human being!’ (This is a paraphrase. Karen Healey probably said it a lot better!)
You will get pushback. And you won’t get praised. But it’s worth doing because it’s worth being a better human being, and a better writer
And maybe, the world will change, and it won’t be as hard for you, and–even better–it won’t be as hard for other people. Maybe, just a little, you’ll have helped.
Take a tiny hammer to the fake default world, and take the consequences of doing so. It’s not easy, but it is worth it. For more on authors interested in doing so: www.diversityinya.com