Two YA novelists discuss the gender politics of literature’s biggest growth industry
John M. Cusick (JC) is an editor at Armchair/Shotgun and literary agent specializing in YA books. His first novel, Girl Parts is available from Candlewick Press.
Laura Goode (LG) is an essayist, poet and author. Her first novel, Sister Mischief, was released by Candlewick Press on July 12.
JC: So why did you start writing YA?
LG: Because somebody told me I could make money doing it.
JC: That was smart.
LG: One of my friends had some success with YA, and her agent wanted to build his list. I was finishing my MFA in poetry when I ran into him at a party. He asked if I ever thought about YA and I was like, “Yes! [hand clap] I think about it all day every day!” Lying. Total lies. But three months later, I had an agent and I came around to the idea. Plus, I had the lesbian rapper idea…badabing badaboom.
JC: Do tell.
LG: I like to call Sister Mischief the world’s first interracial gay hip-hop love story for teens. In that way it’s a mélange of, like, all the hot topics of the moment, but I think it was important to have an authentic lesbian love story at its center. It’s interesting—LGBTQ YA is emerging right now but it’s still largely male-dominated. When I started out, I didn’t see many female coming-out stories, or stories that move past the coming-out event. I wanted to operate from a starting point that my main character would know already that she’s gay, and disclose that in the first chapter so the narrative could move forward as a love story from there.
JC: The observation you’ve made about gay YA being mostly male-dominated is interesting. Especially since when we’re talking about YA, for the most part we’re usually talking about girls.
LG: It’s strange, because YA is a market—both in terms of authorship and readership—that’s completely dominated by women. A friend once pointed out to me that most lesbian love stories for teens seem to end with one party dying or going straight. I rifled through the catalogue in my head, and I was like, “holy shit, you’re right!” What’s with that disturbing tragic convention that the sapphic love story just never ends well in literature? Throw two gay girls in the mix and brace yourself for disaster and shame and death! I’m curious—what’s the agent side to this?
JC: There’s a phenomenon in the YA market that we call “issue books.” Ones like “Oh, I’m anorexic—” “My uncle touched me—”
LG: “I cut myself—”
JC: Exactly. Issue books are understood as ipso facto limited—so if something has an issue in it, editors and publicists are likely to pigeonhole it as an issue book. What I like about the way you’re describing your book is that it seems to me you’re just telling a story, you’re trying to make it enjoyable, even though it’s about something that could potentially be marketed as something that’s “hot button.”
LG: I wish it were being marketed as more hot button! But yeah: I hear what you’re saying and I do think that trend is shifting in a good way—like, to make those stories like a little bit more complex and nuanced and less like “this is a public service announcement for anorexia. If you or someone you know is starving—” Y’know, like that type of thing. But I think that’s still a pretty prevalent trend. There was that Wall Street Journal article, I want to say three or four months ago, and it was just talking about, like, the darkness of YA, and how—It was sort of written from the POV of a disturbed mother who was like, “Why does every book my child picks up have sex and drugs and cutting in it?!” And like, “Why are we poisoning the minds of young people!?” I feel like that kind of sparked a debate about exactly the issue that you’re talking about.
JC: There was also an article about gay YA, about agenting these sorts of books. Agents—telling their clients to unqueer—
LG: To write straight?
JC: Yeah, to write straight characters.
LG: Which is terrifying! And so not my experience.
JC: And not mine at all… That doesn’t make any sense to me. I think that, to give those agents a big grain of salt, which I don’t know if they deserve, I’m wondering if they were trying to avoid that issue book stigma.
LG: Or being categorized as GBLT literature, which is segregated from other literature. Which happens immediately!
JC: And then, you suddenly have a smaller market, and whatnot. And I think that’s problematic.
LG: It is a pretty fierce and dedicated market—Like, as someone who is newly a GBLT author, I kind of have to exploit that advantage, but it’s frustrating to be pigeonholed so quickly. Especially because, like, I’m marrying a guy—I’m one of those obnoxious label-free people, so throwing on the queer mantle and, like, flying the fag flag is a little uncomfortable and disingenuous for me.
JC: Well, I think when you’re writing about anything that falls into any kind of minority, so to speak, there’s the bogey of authenticity. I could write a book about a space alien plumber, and no one’s gonna ask me—
LG: “Why do you care about this so much?”
JC: Exactly. If I go and write a story about someone of a different—from the point of view of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, well then suddenly it’s “oh, but it’s not your story!” Or is it? It’s as if you can only tell those stories if you have literally experienced them.
LG: Right. Do you think that has something to do with, like, the sort of liberal arts mandate of subjectivity?
JC: I think in this situation it’s almost the inverse; it’s the much more crass reality that marketing a book breaks down into categories—reducible to one line: “Well, what is this book?”
LG: “It’s the interracial gay hip-hop love story for teens!”
JC: If there’s a one-legged Asian lesbian crime fighter in it, they’re gonna hit that note as hard as they can, because that’s what’s going to sell the book. So they ask themselves, “Is it really a mystery? Or a queer book?”
LG: It’s like, you don’t really choose which angle you get to exploit, but you have to figure out what it is and then market it yourself. And yeah, if it’s the one-legged crime fighter, then that’s the market you’re tapping, and that’s already been churned for you, and you better run with it because you’re probably not gonna change anyone’s perception of it.
JC: That’s what’s interesting when writing for teenagers. You can try to change what an adult thinks, but they’re more or less set in their ways. But kids are looking for what to believe, and how to understand themselves. I have a sister who’s 13 years younger than I am. I ask myself, “If I was writing something to her, what would I want her to come away with? What would I want her to be influenced by?” I want to tell kids: You’re not who you date, you’re an individual person. Treat people well. Sex is something that can affect the way you feel, and something to be taken seriously. But it’s also not the most important thing in the universe. It’s important that you think about what you say when you talk to teenagers.
LG: We inevitably have to discuss Twilight.
JC: Oh, don’t get me started! One of my biggest problems with the Twilight books is that they put forth a twisted point of view on sexuality. Unintentionally. It’s like people say about Star Wars, it’s an accidental masterpiece. Like George Lucas doesn’t really—doesn’t know what he’s doing but he just kinda—he got all the tumblers lined up and it worked perfectly. I almost feel that way about Twilight, because I think that Stephanie Meyer was writing a book about not having sex, and it came out as a book that is…
LG: That is incredibly sexy?
JC: Incredibly sexy. But I don’t think that was her intention. I think that there are some really unfortunate politics in that book. About Bella, and how she is just everyone’s object, y’know, she has no agency whatsoever; she’s always being fought over, or saved.
LG: I think that that’s kind of the salient fact of its appeal? It’s a sexy book with no sex. And it accomplishes this sort of non-subversive subversion, which is that the sexual—the erotic center of the novel is not Bella’s resistance to Edward, which would be kind of the traditional model, but rather Edward’s resistance to Bella, which is predicated on his saving her.
LG: So, it’s like he has to save her by not having sex with her because if he…enters her secret chamber, then she will self-destruct. And, like, what appeals to a 13-year-old girl more than that?! That this sexy, like, burning guy would love nothing more than to have sex with you, but can’t, and loves you too much to violate you!
JC: That’s like, wow!
LG: It’s kryptonite! Especially given that the girls that are the primary audience for these books…they’re reading to try things out, to experiment. But safely, through fantasy.
JC: Yes! Well, I think that most current YA books really speak to that and fulfill that need. I mean this is YA, this is why first-person present tense is so prevalent. We want to sit as readers, or young teen girl readers want to sit completely inside that character’s shoes, and, through her, sort of live out both the tragedy of her life, and also the amazing successes and triumphs. It’s—
LG: Like falling in love.
JC: I attribute Twilight’s success in part to one thing—those characters are so sincere. They take themselves so seriously. And Twilight came out during a time, and I think this time has sort of flagged a little bit, during a time where every single YA character was incredibly sort of—
JC: Disaffected, yeah, yeah, and ironic, and a total poser. “I’ve seen it all, oh Mom, you’re drinking, oh Dad, you’re such a dork, no one gets me”—it’s all just steeped in irony, which I think is how kids seem to adults, ‘cause that’s the front they put out, but that’s not how they feel. I think that when you’re young, you take yourself so seriously—
LG: So seriously!
JC: You notice things, and they have such an impact. Every little thing is so dramatic, and that’s how those Twilight characters behave, they’re so unironic.
LG: Well, they really commit to it, too, y’know? Like, in order to be that self-serious you really have to believe in it, and they totally do.
JC: On the topic of sincerity, on the need for more irony-free YA, that’s partly what I wanted to do with Girl Parts. I mean, it’s very different from Twilight, and there are no vampires. But in one of the scenes, which was really important to me, one of the main characters, David, the asshole character—well, he’s a player, he’s gotten around, but eventually he gets to have sex. It’s right after he’s dumped the protagonist, Rose, and in his rebound mode he runs into his old girlfriend and they go back to her place and they end up having sex. But it’s a disaster, physical sex with a girl, it’s not doing it for him. They’re in the dark, and he’s—his whole sexual life has been built on porn. So just to get off, he needs to imagine pornography. And it was important to me to write that scene. Because I think, here’s a character that does not know what he wants. He thinks he wants to have sex with this girl, but really he doesn’t. And when it’s done, she gets up, she gets in the shower, and David finds himself thinking, “this is it!” When he gets home and he’s going to bed, he’s thinking “I feel great.” But it’s a pose. He didn’t get what he wanted; what he actually wanted was some sort of genuine intimacy. And I think that as far as men are concerned, that felt—I mean it wasn’t an autobiographical moment, but it was a very personal moment. This is where I think men are not being written for, in YA, the phenomenon of guys who in fact truly don’t want to just fuck everything that moves.
LG: Well, I think that intimacy is a very subversive concept in literature for guys. And, for me anyway, I think porn makes you question what you want. Or perhaps expand what you want.
JC: Not me. I found it really calcified my interests. I imagine that I tried different things for about six months in high school. Followed by 17 years of basically the exact same thing over and over again.
LG: Huh. But backtracking just a little bit, I wanted to ask you about your book. It seems like a pretty bold move to write a YA book aimed at boys specifically?
JC: It’s interesting. My book has always sort of waffled back and forth between “Is it a boy book?” or “Is it a girl book?” I mean, I didn’t have that in mind when I wrote it, a gender thing, one way or the other. It’s been marketed actually as a girl book, for the hardcover, and then it’s been—the cover’s been sort of boy-ed up for the paperback. Which I think is interesting. I mean, anyone with any sense markets a YA book to girls. Period. Boys don’t buy YA books, for the most part.
LG: Why not?
JC: Because they’re reading adult books. Y’know, they jump from very young books to Michael Crichton, and what not.
LG: I think it’s kind of a Catch-22, though, because, do they do that because that’s what they truly want, or do they do that because there actually isn’t that much good YA literature available that’s marketed to them?
JC: I’m not exactly sure. I think that if there were a market someone would be exploiting it. I think it goes a little bit deeper that that. I think that there is, like—bookishness has a feminine stigma to it. You don’t see a lotta young guys with books.
LG: But man, did I wanna make out with them when I did!