If you’ve been in the blogosphere and Twittersphere today, you may have heard about this article, which told the story of two authors who were told by an agent to “straighten” their gay characters. The authors, Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith, weren’t sure if the agent in question had a personal stance on LGBT people, or if the decision was about LGBT characters who, in his or her opinion, might have been marketing liabilities. After you read the article, and this blog post, please check out the #YesGayYA hashtag on Twitter. Agents, editors, and authors who write and accept LGBT characters have been saying some very reassuring things over there. (While I have yet to contribute to the hashtag, let me just say that I am one of the agents who seek out LGBT characters!)
This introduction is my way of talking about a larger issue. It’s one that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Like the authors of the article, let me just repeat that I do not know, or even assume, that the agent’s political or religious beliefs affected their decision. I choose to believe that the agent thought straight characters would gain a larger audience, which is a little sad and misguided, but it’s not sinister or even homophobic. Still, I think it warrants the question, should someone’s personal politics affect their business choices?
Like I said, I’ve thought about this before today, and to me the answer is no. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to assume, based on things I say in real life and online, that writers are aware I’m a liberal. It’s part of my personal belief system, and while I try to keep it at bay in a professional setting, things do slip out. I don’t ever want to get into a political discussion on my blog because that’s not what it is for, so allow me to explain why I bring this up.
Sometimes I get queries that have agendas. And sometimes writers will query me with them because they think I share their desire to spread that agenda. I don’t. I never will. It’s true that I wouldn’t feel comfortable representing a book whose purpose is to promote a belief I don’t share – particularly if it’s one I feel strongly about. However, there are other queries that clearly have an anti-Republican stance, and the fact these writers think I’d want to spread that stance is insulting. On the other side of it, some projects might even have a story about a specific “liberal” cause I personally believe in, but I have absolutely no interest in perpetuating something so overt. These types of books are sometimes called “issue books,” and plenty of agents represent them. They even seek them out. But those books make me uncomfortable most of the time because it’s hard to talk about a specific issue without choosing a side. Good fiction, in my opinion, should come without political motive. When a story is good, the reader will interpret their own meaning from it. One person’s cautionary tale is another person’s happy ending.
There have been books I love – even projects I represent – who have characters who think in a way I do not, or have underlying themes that aren’t always in keeping with my personal philosophy. It’s an important part of this business to know what will offend vs. what might be disagreeable. If the hero of your story happens to be a religious man who thinks marriage is between a man and a woman, then he can still be a hero to me even if I disagree with him. However, if your story is about a religious man who tries to stop a gay marriage law from being passed in his home state, then to me he is no longer a hero. It’s a fine line, but it’s there.
If you’re ever in a situation – and hopefully you’re not – in which an agent or editor tells you to change a character in a way that fundamentally alters that character’s livelihood, then don’t be afraid to ask why. If they claim a marketing standpoint, then go do market research to try to prove them wrong. Or look for other agents and editors who might think differently. (Note: I mean look to see if they exist. Don’t leave your agent on the spot.) If it seems unanimous that the agent might have a point (or mostly unanimous since nothing in this business ever is), then try to consider their suggestion.
But if you think the agent or editor is imposing personal politics on you, then you have every right to reject them. If they aren’t willing to compromise their morals, then you shouldn’t be the one who has to.
The article I linked to is sad, but it doesn’t speak for all of us. I think most agents and editors do put aside personal politics for the greater good. Stories are what matter. Writers are what matter. Readers are what matter. If your work speaks to readers, we will find a way to work with you.