Cabral: Missing: queer authors

Emilio Cabral, Op-Ed Contributor

Every avid reader has a book they fell in love with before it became popular. For me, it was Casey McQuiston’s debut novel “Red, White & Royal Blue.” When I pulled it from the shelf of my local Barnes & Noble in 2019, I was expecting a coming-of-age story made palatable for straight audiences. Instead, the book was a beautiful exploration of a Latinx man’s bisexual identity amidst a few international relations disasters. It was unmistakably and unapologetically queer. 

Unfortunately, stories like “Red, White & Royal Blue” — written for queer people and by queer people — are the exception, not the rule.

For example, let’s take Becky Albertalli’s debut novel “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.  It tells the story of Simon, a white teenager who is struggling with coming out to his friends and family while at the same time falling for a stranger he has only spoken to through emails.

Its film adaptation was the first mainstream teen romantic comedy to feature a gay lead. While Albertalli is a bisexual woman, many queer people didn’t see themselves represented in a narrative that tried to pander to both straight and queer people. The problem with “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” is that it attempts to make blanket statements about being a gay man when its protagonist — and his liberal family — is only representative of a small, privileged portion of the community.

Stories like this are endemic in an overwhelmingly straight publishing industry, and instead of books written by queer authors, readers are treated to queer stories and characters written by straight authors. Rick Riordan, the author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, is a high-profile example of this.

Riordan is a beloved young adult author largely because of his commitment to writing diverse characters, and he was one of the first to highlight queer protagonists in an industry that was slow to do so. But what is often ignored in the well-deserved praise that Riordan receives is his status as a straight, white man. He was able to take a “risk” and portray queer characters because his place in the industry was secure. As a straight, white man he can take risks and he’s a more palatable option than an up-and-coming queer author.

Still, it’s worth noting that Riordan has recently recognized his responsibility to uplift queer writers when telling these stories. His new series based around the queer characters he introduced in earlier books is being co-written with Mark Oshiro, a queer, Latinx author who will be able to help Riordan tell a more authentic story.

However, this is not to say that I believe authors should only be allowed to write characters with whom they share identities. Zadie Smith — an English novelist, essayist, and tenured professor at New York University — puts it best in her 2019 essay for The New York Review entitled “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction.” 

The essay rebuked the idea that the only way writers can create meaningful and moral fiction is to have an autobiographical connection with a character. 

Instead, Smith puts forth the idea that fiction is centered around poet Emily Dickinson’s fascination with presumption. Smith explains presumption is not about an author assuming that their representation of a character is correct, but rather about daring to create a connection between the grief, joy and experiences they as an author have felt and the feelings of their character. Essentially, the heart of fiction is about comparisons. Writer and character. Reader and writer.

But we have to understand that fiction doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Books with queer protagonists and storylines that have been watered down — either by their straight authors or for straight audiences — are not just annoying, they’re harmful. By only portraying the version of queer identity that straight readers and audiences are comfortable with, these books reinforce an existing system. This system refuses to acknowledge the complex lives and identities of trans people, non-binary people, queer people of color, and more.

I have read wonderful queer stories written by straight authors, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t wondered what the story could have been if it were written by someone who was queer. It’s not just about nuance, it’s about the meaning behind the book. 

In a perfect world, writers would be able to presume as much as they want. But in a world where the canon of literature itself is inherently exclusive and violent, we can’t continue to pretend that there is not a difference between a straight author writing a book with a gay protagonist, and a straight author writing a book centered around their idea of the queer experience. Especially when the industry is still overwhelmingly devoid of queer authors.

If we want queer stories, why not let queer authors write them?

Correction: A previous version of this story misrepresented Albertalli’s sexual orientation. The Daily regrets this error.

Emilio Cabral is a Weinberg Sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.