A few days ago, I linked to a piece by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith about an agent’s request that they remove or straighten a gay protagonist from their book.
Their article didn’t name the agent or the agency, but today Joanna Stampfel-Volpe at Nancy Coffey Literary & Media Representation came forward (on a site hosted by agent Colleen Lindsay [edit: former agent]) to say that she is the one in question, and furthermore, that “there is nothing in that article concerning our response to their manuscript that is true.”
[Another edit: Joanna Stampfel-Volpe is speaking on behalf of the agency, but herself is not the agent involved in the incident. I apologize for the misreading, which managed to persist through me reading not only her post, but a vast number of comments on both rachelmanija and sartorias‘s journals. Ironically, I’d have less editing to do if I’d stuck with my original draft, where I started out referring to “the agent,” without a name. But then I decided that if I was doing the authors the courtesy of calling them by name, I should do the same for the agent. My error, and I am editing the remainder of this entry to fix it.]
Brown and Smith stand by their original article.
So this has just turned into a case of “they said, she said.” Which has, naturally, made many people leap to conclusions on one side or the other: “Oh, I knew that story sounded fishy from the start; clearly the agent is telling the truth” or “the agent is a lying homophobic liar.” Since it’s doubtful anybody has a recording of the phone call where all of this went down, actual proof is hard to come by. I do think, however, that it’s possible to apply logic and draw at least a few tentative conclusions.
First of all, Brown and Smith didn’t name the agent or agency, and specifically said they didn’t want this to be a witch-hunt against one person; lots of other people have come forward with stories of similar things happening to them, and the statistics on queer representation in YA support the idea that publishing has a problem with non-straight characters (and non-“mainstream” characters in other respects, too: non-white, disabled, etc). The overwhelming focus of their post was to call out for agents, editors, readers, and writers to try and reduce the barriers against diversity in the genre.
Stampfel-Volpe chose — presumably with the permission of The Agent In Question (hereafter TAIQ) — to identify the agency publicly, and both she and Lindsay spend most of their focus on TAIQ and the writers, rather than the larger issue; they accuse Brown and Smith of “exploiting” her. They do call for general diversity as well, but in the end, you can kind of play bingo with that post; for example, Lindsay says TAIQ is a friend of hers, and not a homophobe. Note that the post on Genreville explicitly said TAIQ may or may not entertain personal feelings of homophobia; Brown and Smith don’t have any basis for judging that. You don’t have to hate gay people to contribute to the ways in which they get silenced. It can happen even if you like them, because that’s how institutionalized prejudice works.
Second, there’s the question of why the agency responded publicly. Apparently rumours have been flying behind the scenes, people asking whether TAIQ was the one. There was nothing in the original post, or any public follow-up that I’ve seen, which could possibly have produced those rumours. This creates two immediate possibilities: first, either Brown or Smith gossiped privately before Stampfel-Volpe took it public, or second, that other people have had similar experiences with TAIQ, and speculated based on those experiences.
We can’t answer this one; tracing those rumours to their origin is a lost cause. But as a data point, I offer up this: nowhere, publicly or privately, have I seen Brown and Smith provide a single detail, other than that it was a female agent at an agency that has repped a bestselling YA dystopia, that could have given away TAIQ’s identity. (And yes, I have plenty of evidence to back up both those claims.) This doesn’t disprove the gossip theory, but it does give a data point against it. As for the other, I have no evidence either way. I’m open to other possibilities as well.
Finally — as some people have noted on Stampfel-Volpe’s post — there may be a middle ground here. As I said before, institutionalized prejudice works in less-than-obvious ways. It’s possible the conversation could have been phrased in a way that TAIQ did not see as reinforcing homophobia, which nevertheless could be heard that way. Without the exact words, we can’t judge for ourselves. But I will say, for my own part, that I have a hard time believing this was, from the agent’s side, purely an issue of craft, and not of the marketability of queerness. If the pov in question “didn’t contribute to the actual plot” (Stampfel-Volpe’s words), then how could that be solved by making him straight? If she didn’t actually suggest making him straight — if that’s a misinterpretation — then how could Brown and Smith have subsequently heard anything that could be misconstrued as “if this turns into a series, later on you can show that he’s gay”? And how could the misunderstanding have persisted past Brown saying his sexuality was a moral issue she would not back down from?
Looking at it logically . . . the only thing I can conclude is that either Brown and Smith are outright lying — maybe as a publicity stunt, because they haven’t yet found representation for the book (as various people have begun to accuse them of, over on the agent’s rebuttal post) — or the agency is trying to do very inept damage control for an incident that was, in its outlines if not every detail, more or less like the Genreville post describes. As you can probably guess from my analysis above, my money is on the latter. Is that based partly on personal knowledge of one side and not the other? Sure. I know the authors; I don’t know the agent. I judge them to both be experienced professionals unlikely to manufacture a hissy fit because one particular book hasn’t sold yet. But even without the evidence I’ve seen and you haven’t: one side was careful not to make this personal, and the other side was not. One side offered summaries of what both parties said in the conversation; the other omitted the authors’ responses from their summary. Heck, one side had two people involved, and the other had only one. I know people’s opinions can reinforce each other, but there had to have been a moment where Brown and Smith spoke to each other after the phone call to share their opinions. I’ve heard nothing to suggest either of them started off by saying “I’m not sure that’s what she meant,” and was eventually talked around to the other’s interpretation. If their interpretations matched up from the start, that’s at least a minor form of fact-checking.
When all’s said and done, though, my real conclusion: go read the Genreville post again. Skip the parts about the agent; read the parts about the difficulty in getting non-straight, non-white, non-“mainstream” characters through the filter of authors’ brains, agents’ judgement calls, editors’ purchasing power, bookstores’ support, and readers’ inclinations, all the way to the public eye. That, more than any one book or agent or incident, is the part that matters.
Due to ridiculous amounts of spam (months after and unrelated to this incident), I have locked comments on this post.