Friday, August 20, 2010

Taboo or not taboo

I'm your typical wannabe-writer. I'm 25 and have dabbled a lot but am working on my first novel (it is up to 50,000 words so far). I still have a long way to go. My question is this: are gay characters too taboo to publish here? I'm painfully aware that lesbians in general are under-represented in popular culture and this is even more true in Australia. Is there even a chance that an Australian could get something that is gay (dare I say?) literary fiction published? As a second question, how short is too short? Things I've read say not to even bother with less than 70,000 words, others suggest 60,000.

The question is not whether or not the subject matter is taboo - it's not. The question is whether or not there's a large enough market for it for a publisher to take on gay-themed fiction in this country - and there's not. It's nothing to do with anyone's social sensibilities or lifestyle choices (after all, we work in The Yarts); it's purely about the amount of units they can shift.

The majority of book buyers, and readers, in this country are women: straight or straight-identifying women - that's just statistical, I'm not at all implying anything better/worse by that. The straight sheilas tend to want to read about men who want to have sex with them (or fictional versions of them - heroines). The gay blokes don't want to have sex with them, ergo they make bad heroes for straight-sheila stories. Just look at romance fiction: arguably the biggest-selling genre around the world, absolutely killing it on the e-book front, and no gay heroes in sight. So publishers go where the money is. A gay hero would necessarily be in a story largely written for gay men, and that's a smaller audience. James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room is one of the most sublime pieces of fiction ever, but you'll never hear it - or him - being whispered of in the same breath as, say, Norman Mailer, and it's probably just because not as many people were aware of the novel at the time it was released. (And if you've never read any Baldwin, you simply must - Another Country is almost unbearably beautiful.)

As for lesbian stories - well, same thing. The audience for lesbian stories is mainly lesbians, and that's a statistically small group. Straight women don't mind a bit of a lesbian storyline in their otherwise straight saga - the same way straight women like The L Word because it's about girl world, not just lesbian world - but they're not likely to buy a story that's written purely for a lesbian audience. First, because there's no straight-male hero who may want to have sex with them. Second, because escapism is a powerful motivator for reading stories and it's hard to escape into a world that is so different to your own in terms of how relationships work. There's a reason why Rita Mae Brown isn't as well known as Barbara Taylor Bradford, and it's not because BTB is a better writer.

The good news is that the United States market is big enough for everyone. So query agents there. I'm not saying it would never happen in Australia, just that it's statistically unlikely.

As for your word count: your story is as long as it is. There is so much talk about word count but, really, the story is what it is. Write it first, revise it, revise it again, then see how many words you have. Less than 50 000 isn't a good idea; over 120 000 probably makes it look like a fantasy novel. But please don't let word count dictate what your story is going to be.


Rebecca said...

Thank you very much for your response. It was most helpful. I'll keep plugging away and turn my eyes to the American market.

Anonymous said...

I think this reply underestimates the Australian industry (and Australian readers) a little. As I understand the question, we're not talking about mass-market, hugely popular fiction (Barbara Taylor Bradfield), or about 'genre' fiction, but about 'literary fiction'. I know these labels are all rather dodgy, but there is a real distinction in the market between best-selling commercial fiction - which often does rely on fantasy and escape, and on the reader's ability to identify with the main characters - and 'literary fiction', which doesn't rely nearly so much on this, and which might only need to sell three or four thousand copies to be considered a success. I honestly don't think most readers of this sort of fiction would be put off by gay or lesbian characters or themes, provided the book provides the other things they're after in good fiction - i.e. compelling plot, beautiful writing, thought-provoking situations, etc. In fact, I find the suggestion that women only (or even mostly) read fiction for the sake of sexy escapism pretty insulting. Some kinds of fiction obviously provide this (and that's fine), but far from all. Plenty of 'literary fiction' published in this country deals with unconventional relationships well removed from most readers' own experiences. And plenty of 'literary fiction' doesn't focus on romantic relationships at all.

That said, apart from 'The Monkey's Mask' by Dorothy Porter, it is hard to think of many lesbian characters in recent Australian 'literary fiction', so perhaps I'm deluding myself. But plenty of successful books feature gay male characters - Christos Tsiolkas, anyone? When we're talking about 'literary fiction', I don't think it's fair to suggest that only gay readers will buy or enjoy a book with 'gay themes'.

KT said...

I think that a lot of great stories center around a taboo, romances even more so then most. If you get a chance read Soul Mate by Ronald Lewis Weaver, it managed to make it the issue without destroying the book. Its actually compelling.