Looking For Joy

Looking For Joy

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.

8 thoughts on “Looking For Joy

  1. I don’t read romance, generally, but it’s certainly an inescapable fact that even in other genres romance often is also a subplot. I mostly read nonfiction these days – biographies, history – but in thinking of the most recent books I’ve listened to, only one stands out where I don’t recall romance being much, if any, part of the plot. (See link below). I wold suggest exploring other genres, including what’s often called “literary fiction”. Perhaps some “slice of life” books? Romance is often a sideline in pure historical novels.
    https://www.amazon.com/Songcatcher-Ballad-Novel-Sharyn-McCrumb-ebook/dp/B00VGFYQB2/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1519103755&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=sharon+mccrumb+the+songcatcher

    1. I mainly only picked out romance as a genre because it’s known for having happy endings, and I’m not sure that there’s any other genre associated with it in the same way. I mostly read SF/F, but I try and branch out into the general fiction section. The main issue is that I just don’t know where to start. Literary fiction covers such a huge range of books, and unless you already know which authors to look for, it can be very difficult to find something. (I also find that the really “literary” novels, the ones that end up winning prizes and getting put on reading lists for schools, tend to be super depressing. But perhaps there are exceptions…)

  2. Aghhhh I feel so much for this post, SO MUCH. One of the biggest struggles I have with writing diversity (I mean all types too, because basically every diverse character “typically” gets plots and tropes full of tragedy in most books) because I DO write sad/stabby/broken books and like?? I don’t want to add to the negative voice but I also am really not good at writing functional books. I’m stuck in a huge bout of writers block right now because I want to write something more functional and I’m stuck. πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚ ANYWAY. I’m glad you’re wanting more happy books though and I do hope you find some/write some someday. :’) I will desperately want to read them as well as your stabby murder children.

    1. Yeah, it’s tough. Obviously there’s a difference between “books where a lot of people die and some of them happen to be queer” and a book where there’s like one queer person and they also just so happen to be the one person who dies. And part of the difference comes from making sure they’re not the only one — not the only queer person, not the only one who dies. But it doesn’t change the overall narrative of “diverse books are centred around trauma and queer teens never get to see themselves be happy”. So while a book may not be, like, a terrible harmful book, it still contributes to an overall trend.

      Bleh. I really wish I hadn’t had to give up on The Knight Shift. If I’d made it work it could’ve been a great exception to this rule.

  3. What about making one plot challenge non-romantic love? Start with a queer character who, among their various starting unhappinesses, isn’t accepted by their parents/feels vast pressure to be in a relationship when they are actually asexual/other thing that isn’t not being able to pick between two hotties; end the book with them having reconciled with their parents/achieved a resolution of their other issues without acquiring a romantic interest/found at least temporary consensus with the people around them.

    There are plenty of very famous novels that don’t have a romance element, and many of them have a plot, so you could yoink the basic plot of one of those, make one or more characters queer, add some speculative shizzle, and see where it goes.

    1. I guess my stumbling block is a symptom of my larger “all or nothing” approach to life. I’m bad at writing conflict that isn’t deeply traumatic — and while books can go to some dark places and still end happily, I’d really like to write something that doesn’t go there in the first place. Which is why I struggle with plot when writing happy things.

      However, it’s true that it’s possible to steal a basic plot and then queer it. I think maybe that’s why you get so many retellings and fairytale-inspired LGBT books — partly, people want to shape the books they grew up with into stories that represent them, and partly it’s a chance to find a ready-made plot!

  4. I can relate to this a lot as well – the LGBT fiction I write doesn’t revolve around romance, but it’s undeniably downbeat and traumatic simply because those are the kind of books I like to write (and if I ever wrote a straight protagonist they’d go through just as many horrible experiences).

    Off the top of my head, Becky Chambers writes upbeat, positive LGBTQ space opera that – although it certainly contains romances – isn’t primarily romantic in focus. Have you run across any of her work?

    1. Yeah, I’ve read a couple of her books. Some of my friends love them to the point of being slightly obsessed — I enjoyed them, but I would’ve liked more plot. I loved the character development, which felt like the focus of the book, but there wasn’t quite enough action for my tastes. That said, they’re a pretty good example of the kind of LGBTQ books there need to be more of: books where you get a whole bunch of queer characters just existing with their different identities, and it’s not a big deal.

      I’ve had characters where they had a traumatic time in early drafts and then as I edited I realised they were queer and rewrote things, but their trauma was inherent from the beginning. So yeah, I relate — I’m definitely not picking on them because they’re LGBTQ. But because there’s an overall trend in fiction to write those kinds of stories, I’d like to contribute some variation, too.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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