Earlier this year, I asked Facebook friends to leave comments if they (or those they love to read) are queer horror authors. It was a popular post. While remarks like “Me! I’m gay!” or “Heck yes! Clive Barker is my favorite!” dominated the thread, there were also several comments like this: “I don’t care about the author’s sexuality; I just want a good story.”
A good story. Doesn’t every reader of popular fiction want that? And that plea for a good story seems pretty broad-minded at first glance, doesn’t it? These readers are all about the narrative! It doesn’t matter if we writers are black or white, male or female, liberal or conservative, gay or straight! Story is queen.
Story is royally critical, no question. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum separate from the writer. Writing good fiction isn’t like baking cookies or assembling a model car kit. It’s personal. We write what we know. Our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our obsessions, our experiences . . . it’s all material for our tales. We horror writers are cutting ourselves open and spreading ourselves out there on the page.
Any given story of mine is a mix of the completely imaginary and the deeply intimate. And that’s true for any other horror or dark fantasy author in service to his or her craft. A reasonably attentive reader of my fiction could guess that I’m either queer or am thinking a whole lot of queer thoughts.
Horror is the literature of fear. And if you’re queer, and if you write fiction about your darkest fears while also doing your very best to tell a good story, a funny thing happens. Many of those readers who claimed to just care about story are now all squirmy. Sure, the plot’s exciting . . . but you made it all weird! Why couldn’t you just write a good old-fashioned entertaining story where the monsters are uncomplicatedly monstrous and the heroic guy gets the trophy girl at the end? Why couldn’t your story be straight, darn it?
All of us who write horror have to find that middle road between art and commerce. Satisfying art means striving to meet a high craft standard for our work while being true to ourselves, but satisfying commerce means producing a piece of writing that will sell. Those two goals are not mutually exclusive, but the further your writing strays from what readers and publishers are comfortable with, the more difficult it is to reconcile the two.
LGBTQ authors have made tremendous strides into the mainstream in the past few decades. But our cultural image of the average person is still someone who’s straight, white, and male, with the emphasis on straight. And that cultural default can affect publishers’ perceptions of the kinds of characters readers want to see in their books.
The only time I’ve ever argued with an editor’s request for revisions was when one asked me to straighten the female protagonist of one of my stories. This was just a few years ago, and the tale was for a horror anthology aimed at adults and teens. Here are the relevant parts of the email he sent me:
[Publisher Redacted] will have a hard time with a few issues that I think are easily fixed and really don’t have that much bearing on the story.
The second thing, and I know it is very subtle with no action, is the lesbian aspect. I don’t have a problem with it myself, but at the same time, I think you would have a stronger character if she was straight . . .
The reason [Publisher Redacted] will have a problem is (honestly) their personal beliefs, and the contracts they have with local school systems, which purchase large quantities of books.
While I appreciated his candor—it’s likely I’d had stories rejected for queer themes before but the editors wouldn’t be straight about it—my jaw was on the floor.
My story’s viewpoint character was a violent survivor; her love for her partner was the only remnant of her humanity, and that love was at the core of all her motivations. The only way my zombie-slaying, bandit-murdering, weapons-stealing protagonist would be a “stronger” heroine as a heterosexual . . . would be if queerness is a defect.
So, I wrote him back:
I’m glad you enjoyed the story. I can change the magic details, no problem there. But I have personal objections to straightening my character to make her more acceptable. I’m sad that you would ask that of me (I’m queer). Lesbian, gay, and bisexual children and teens exist (and make up a nontrivial portion of the kids who read SF and fantasy) just as black and Hispanic and Asian teens exist, and asking me to make a lesbian character straight to make her acceptable is not any different than asking me to make a black character white for the sake of a publisher who thinks black people bear the mark of Cain.
And as for the books being purchased by schools—gay and lesbian characters regularly appear in YA and middle grade books that appear in libraries and schools around the country; I just don’t see that having a lesbian character is really that unusual these days: “There are so many queer characters in YA lit now, including manga and graphic novels, that the topic doesn’t seem nearly as controversial as it once did. At conferences and conventions where educators and librarians gather, there are always sessions with LGBTQ topics. Inclusiveness is all the rage.” (see bit.ly/lo_afterellen for the whole article).
I do want to be a part of the book. I am willing to make some changes to make her orientation more subtle, but I won’t straighten her. I hope you will reconsider your request in that regard.
He wrote me back with a heartfelt apology, but made it clear that business concerns trumped everything else:
The school system orders these books for every student (in specific grades) in the county. I assure you it is a large purchase and projects are cultivated to fit into this program. The County Commission actually purchases the books . . . they have a board that approves the books before they are purchased. They are very strict. . . . [Publisher Redacted] can’t afford the projects without the County Commission purchases. Therefore, if they turn down a project, the project will not make it to the light of day.
The subtext I read was, “Don’t be difficult, Lucy. This is just how the world works. Obviously brain-fiending zombies and plagues and murder and decapitations are good clean fun as far as the school system is concerned. But a woman feeling romantic love for another woman? Heavens no! They have to think of the children!”
After my initial flush of frustration at his response, I started thinking of my own childhood. I went through my first suicidal depression at the age of twelve. If I’d been just a little more resourceful, a little less fearful, I would not be here right now. I would not have written this column or anything else.
Why was I suicidal? I felt completely isolated and unwanted and defective. I was fat. I was a nerd. I was weird in so many ways. And deep down, I knew I was queer.
Being queer was the worst. I couldn’t admit it to anyone, not even myself. Back then in that little dust-blown town in Texas, queers were at best morally weak crazy people who needed years of shameful psychiatry to straighten out. At worst, they were perverts and predators, innately evil and not really human. If someone killed a queer, well, that wasn’t what proper law-abiding folks did, but it was still doing the world a favor, wasn’t it?
I escaped into books. I could pretend to be someone else for a while, someone who mattered in their world and had amazing adventures in fabulous places. All those characters I wanted to be were arrow-straight, and mostly male. While I got temporary comfort from these novels, they ultimately reinforced the image I had of myself as being defective because I wasn’t a boy (and therefore wouldn’t ever do anything really cool) and I wasn’t like the other girls, either. Not at all. I was something else, something nobody wanted around. Something that probably didn’t deserve to be alive.
So when I hear someone tell me that characters have to be heterosexual to keep them fit for younger readers? I’m hearing that person tell me that the world was a right and proper place when it made me want to commit suicide before I’d even turned teen.
If I’d had queer female protagonists in my books? They would have been signs that there might be a future where I belonged and could be happy. I’d have still had plenty of problems as a fat nerdy kid who consistently failed to perform her gender correctly. But I’d have felt I deserved to breathe air.
Despite my self-loathing, I didn’t kill myself. A decade later I escaped to a college town that tolerated gays and lesbians. Life got better. Eventually I came to grips with my own queerness. I wrote hard, and earned myself a career as a professional horror writer.
Being a pro writer is as integral to my public identity as my sexuality is to my private identity. And when you’re a pro, you make the sale. When an editor who’s offering you hard cash tells you to change something, you change it.
Even if it means you wouldn’t be able to look your twelve-year-old self in the eye.
Even if it means you can’t really look your grown-up self in the eye, either, because you just erased your own existence from your story. For six cents a word.
But this is America, and while story is queen . . . business is king. So I did the best I could: I made the queer aspects of the character as subtle as anything you’d find in a 1950s film hiding in the celluloid closet. The editor accepted my rewrite, and life went on.
The good news is that since then, I haven’t had another editor reject a story for containing queer characters or themes. For instance, Jason Sizemore operates Apex Publications from Kentucky and frequently calls himself a hillbilly. Despite the socially conservative climate in his state, he’s supported LGBTQ authors and he originally published my Stoker-winning queer tale “Magdala Amygdala.”
So, publishers who want to be allies and see the value in publishing diverse voices are managing to do that just fine. Hopefully before too long we’ll be living in a world where other publishers’ beliefs (whether about religion or reader expectations) and County Commissions across the land aren’t keeping queer characters out of books and limiting the scope of human stories that readers get to choose from.
And then, we can all be sure that it’s really the story that matters.
Spread the word!