Ever since the idea for the novel I’m currently working on first sprung to mind, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. Not so much the YA books, though (which, let’s face it, I should probably get around to reading because I know very little about the other books in my genre), as it is the criticism of them. Knowing what my main problems with (what I’ve read from) the genre is, I thought it’d be interesting to see what others’ were. Not so much to tailor my novels around it as to, y’know, just satisfy my Inner Judgmental’s curiosity. (I.J. loves to hear people complain about stuff.)
For those of you who might not know, people’s problems with this genre are plentiful, and while some are downright silly, there’s a vast amount of them that aren’t, and they’re made even less so due to YA’s intended demographic (yes, there are older readers, but the target audience is adolescents and young adults (which, by the way, Wikipedia doesn’t see fit to think is the same, so neither will I. We all know Wikipedia is never wrong)). Considering how crucial a time those years are, I understand the concerns voiced by those who wish these novels had more diversity in them – racial and social alike. Knowing how much of an impact Harry Potter had on its generation (granted, not a YA book to begin with, but there’s no denying it went there eventually), and Twilight on the one that followed, I understand why some wish that there were other role models to find in those novels than the white, heterosexual ones we’re presented with.
I’ve got a document called Food For Thought in the folder reserved for things for my novel. In it I’ve collected a multitude of quotes I’ve stumbled upon since embarking on this YA novel of mine, and one of my absolute favourites is one by Amber Benson, who played Tara Maclay on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For those of you who don’t know, she’s one half of a whole that was the first proper lesbian whole on US television (or so Wikipedia says, and we all know I love good, ol’ W). This is what it says –
‘I got letters from girls saying that I changed their lives and I met people who would cry about it, and that had such an impact on me. You don’t realise what an impact television has on people. But when you get letters from young girls saying, ‘I came out and I have a girlfriend now because of you’, it’s great.’
It’s a quote I’ve kept because I think it’s inspiring. It’s a quote I’ve kept because it’s a nice reminder of how something that to some people seems like a tiny thing – a girl liking a girl instead of a boy – can be a big thing for someone else. Being the straight girl that I am, I could never imagine the (potential) qualms of having to (and do shoot me if this is a horrible phrasing (mind you, I’m foreign and mean no harm)) come to terms with being in love with someone of the same sex in a society that generally thinks of girls as liking boys and boys as liking girls, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t there, those people, with those worries, those fears, that confusion. When I read the above quote, what I see more than anything is a platform. One that, yes, on the bigger scale was important because Joss Whedon here treated a relationship between two women as equal to that of one between a woman and a man (though let’s be honest – it did take several seasons for them to be able to kiss on-screen and, I’m fairly certain, even longer than that for them to do something that even remotely resembled sex), but, more importantly, on a much smaller and more individual level handed every girl who needed someone to relate to, someone to take those first steps with, someone whom they could do that with, because not only did Joss Whedon have a relationship between two women on his show – he had one girl’s transition from ‘into guys’ to ‘into girls now (too?)’. A transition met, in turn, with both accolade and concern, as some believed that ‘Willow’s lack of panic or self-doubt when she realizes she is in love with Tara [made] her the best role model a teen could ask for’ whereas others felt that Willow not identifying herself as a lesbian (she tells Buffy that the Oz situation is complicated because of Tara, thus indicating that she has fallen in love with the latter) was a failure on her (or, maybe more correctly, the show’s) part.
Which kind of brings me to one my personal concerns: how to satisfy these critics?
First off, let me make one thing abundantly clear – I will not be tailoring my novel to suit anyone’s preferences apart from my own. I know what my story is, I know what I want to say with it, and I stick by that. Does this mean I won’t be doing my homework? No. Last night saw a lesbian character make her way into my novel. As a result, a character who was, until then, straight suddenly turned bi, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a bit intimidated by both their sexualities. Partly because, within the confines of the novel itself, the character who just turned bi is one of the major(er-ish) ones (meaning she is of great importance to my main character), but also because it’s one of those things where, if you do it, you want to do it properly. Especially when you’re straight.
It took me less than a day to do my first searches and read-throughs of what a bisexual thinks it means to be bisexual. Non-scary stuff thus far, and I admit that I feel very encouraged to go about it the way I initially intended to, which is the Joss Whedon way – treating it like any other relationship (only difference being that the B’s and L’s of this relationship will undoubtedly be addressed at some point). Because, surely, the love part is the same, no? I mean, love is love, after all.
Why then the mention of the critics? Undoubtedly because of the lack of LGBTQ characters in YA literature, which has left some LGBTQ writers asking where they are. As far as my novel goes, they’re (finally) there. Neither is a main character, mind you, which I know some of said writers have also complained about – them being degraded to secondary characters (those so-called sidekicks) – but in the interest of being honest, genuinely honest, and maybe casting some light on why we may not include them as much as they should be included (at least, this is the reason I know I have erred on the side of caution), it very much comes down to the importance of them, as contradictory as that may sound. Because, as mentioned earlier, if you do include them, you have to do it properly. Not just because there will be LGBTQs out there, reading it, critiquing it, but because, with a YA novel, odds are that your words may just fall into the hands of someone who needs them to be the right ones, real ones – their ones.
Which brings about what I suspect might be one of the issues: the worry. Because I do worry about whether or not I can provide that – their truth
in lack of a less cheesy word. I worry about whether or not I can pull it off, because I’d want to be able to do that, and splendidly, too, I may add, if I finally went there (regardless of main character or side-kick status).
That said, I am curious as to which is worse: a YA novel void of LGBTQ characters, or one that has them, but less good ones (think: stereotypes)?