I went to a talk about LGBTQ+ representation in YA books called “The GaYAgenda” tonight, as part of Cambridge’s queer history month. The talk was given by a panel: Fox Benwell, Erica Gillingham, and Wei Ming Kam.
At the end of the session the panelists were talking a bit about what they’d like to see in YA fiction: what tropes would they happily never see again? And what did they want to see more of?
One answer came up in various forms, but was put most simply by Wei Ming Kam: joy. The panel wanted to see more joy in LGBTQ+ YA books. To move away from the centrality of trauma and self-hatred and to explore queer happiness.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently.
I’ve been thinking about the fact that I tend to write dark, miserable books, and that I also like to write LGBTQ+ books, and those two facts in combination don’t really allow for happy queer characters. I’ve been thinking about avoiding harmful tropes without shying away from telling the stories I’m trying to tell.
But I’ve also been wondering if these are the stories I want to tell.
I mean, they are, but not all the time. When I was first working on the Moth Trilogy, I ended up taking a break partway through book two because I couldn’t deal with being inside Isabel’s head while the riots in Ferguson were happening, and I couldn’t write about characters who literally kill children when children were being killed in real life. (Even though that’s always happening. Sometimes it just gets foregrounded too much, you know? Like… right now.)
The book I worked on during that break was The Knight Shift, a comparatively happy and angst-free book about uni students who were (a) almost all queer and (b) modern-day knights, and none of them died or killed anyone and even the character whose family disowned her eventually reconciled with them. Sadly, I shelved that book a while ago because I realised it had some fundamental plot flaws and wasn’t worth the effort it’d take to fix them, but it was a happy book.
And for NaNo 2016 I started working on a novel that I called Happy Gay Magical Novel where my sole premise was, “I’m going to write a book about queer uni students who can do magic and nothing bad is going to happen to any of them”. But that also had plot issues — namely that it didn’t have one — and I never even finished the first draft.
So yeah, I try and write happy stories sometimes. But they’re few and far between; my ongoing fantasy project is literally nicknamed Death and Fairies because those are the main components of it. (I mean, it’s kind of a pun, because the king of the dead is a significant character, but. Still. A lot of people die.)
I gravitate towards dark stories when I write. I like making my beta readers cry, and I like pushing the boundaries of how bad a character is allowed to be before readers stop caring about them. The answer, as far as I can tell, is pretty damn awful, as long as their life sucks enough.
Yet recently in my reading I’ve been moving away from those kinds of stories. I’ve had too much existential fear and morbid dread lately, and I can’t enjoy books that trigger more of that in me. Books about grief are important, but I can’t handle them. Books about trauma are crucial, but sometimes I’m not feeling emotionally strong enough. I keep looking for happier books — but I don’t know where to find them.
And part of that is that I don’t know what a happy ending is supposed to look like.
I know how they work in romance. But for me, romance isn’t the end goal. I don’t want that. And I don’t know where to find stories that end happily without that focus. Unlike romance, there isn’t a genre dedicated to friendship, where common tropes include “happy ending”, “platonic snuggling” and “3am memes”. Maybe there should be. Maybe there’s a market out there for stories like Befriended By The Highlander where an anachronistic guy in a kilt watches Brooklyn Nine-Nine with the heroine.
I don’t know. It’s late and I’m being silly.
The point is that I’ve spent so long craving stories that made me cry that I don’t know where to look for the ones that won’t — but partly that’s also because I’m not sure they exist. LGBTQ+ stories that don’t end in tragedy are rare enough, though thankfully my “unbury your queers” shelf on Goodreads grows by the day. LGBTQ+ stories where the focus isn’t on romance are also rare (which is frustrating; I understand why it happens, but gay people have friends too). Finding happy queer stories that aren’t too fixated on romance is almost impossible.
And sure, romance is super important in LGBTQ+ fiction. Especially in trans narratives. At the talk tonight Fox Benwell said that he gets emails from trans teens asking if they’ll ever be loved, which is heartbreaking. So I understand why there’s a need for those stories. But there are also a lot of people out there for whom acceptance and happiness isn’t tangled up in romance, and it would be better found in friendship. I’d like to see more of that.
And maybe if I read a few more happy endings — maybe if I had some examples of complex and interesting plots that don’t revolve around trauma or death or apocalyptic scenarios — I’d know how to write them, and I’d never have to choose between killing my trans characters and leaving them out of the narrative entirely.
So yeah, I’d like more joy in LGBTQ+ stories. And I’d like that joy to be found in a multitude of places: yes, in fulfilling romantic relationships, but also in friendship and family and hobbies and passions and all the other things that make up a well-rounded life. I want narratives that will tell me what’s possible.
(Because honestly? I find it pretty hard to picture my own best case scenario. I don’t know what adulthood looks like when it doesn’t involve eventual goals of cohabitation with a romantic partner. I don’t know where the milestones and the goals are. I’d like to.)
And then, maybe, I’ll learn to write them too.