(Thanks to Justine for pointing this out.)
My friend David Levithan gave a terrific, impassioned speech when he was in Australia last month, talking about the importance of courage when it comes to choosing what books to place on the shelves in schools, libraries, and bookstores. David was talking specifically about books for kids that deal with homosexuality, pointing out that for many people, homophobia is the last “acceptable prejudice” (an oxymoron if ever there was one).
It’s a great speech — and short, only about ten minutes — so I encourage you to give it a listen if you make your living in any way with books. Hell, I encourage you to give it a listen if your only connection to books is that you read them — it will make you think about what ends up on your shelves and why.
Sadly, what he says is applicable in the U.S. The speech was given in Australia, but you can find plenty of communities in the States where the clock has rolled back to the 1950s and beyond vis a vis gay rights. A couple of years ago, my ex-wife found herself embroiled in a controversy for putting the book And Tango Makes Three on the shelf in her elementary school library. Why? Because it’s about two male penguins who adopt a baby penguin.
Yeah, the county where she worked (the same county I grew up in, the same county that banned Carolyn Mackler‘s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things) is so reactionary and so homophobic that the idea of two male birds raising a baby bird terrifies them. (I joked at the time that the issue wasn’t homosexuality — the powers that be were just afraid that kids would mimic the penguins and start wearing tuxedos at too young an age…)
I also want to take a moment and talk about what the speech meant to me personally. I’m not used to talking about things like this in public, so forgive me if my fingers stray to some odd words or turns of phrase on the keyboard.
Of fiction, David says at one point, “In the right hands, it doesn’t just entertain — it’s meaningful. It says, ‘You belong.'” And he’s right. The best fiction does this regardless of subject matter — it finds its audience and brings that audience into the light.
And that’s actually why I changed what my third book was going to be.
If you go here, you’ll see that my third book is titled Hero-Type. Assuming someone wants to buy it, it’ll be my follow-up to Boy Toy. But originally I was going to write an entirely different book. About a gay kid in Brookdale who doesn’t come out of the closet. He’s too afraid. He sees how other out kids are treated and he decides, “That’s not for me.” It was going to be about the summer where he’s on vacation and is able to truly be himself for the first time…and what it’s like to come back to Brookdale — and the closet — after that.
But you know what I realized? I realized that I’m not the guy to write that story. My intention in coming up with the idea was to grab a straight audience by the scruff of the neck and force it to realize the price of its own intolerance. But here’s the thing — what message would it send to the gay audience?
I’m not a big fan of self-censorship. I don’t induldge in a lot of hand-wringing, thinking, “Oh, but what will people think of me/the book/the character?” And those of you who’ve followed this blog know that I hate the idea of writing at an issue.
But in this instance I realized that my whole point could be obscured far too easily. Far too many people could read the book and come away from it with the idea that staying in the closet is the good thing, the sane thing.
This is a topic, a story, and an audience that deserves the very best. Like David said, homophobia is the last bulwark of “socially-acceptable” idiotic, unreasoning bigotry and hatred. It’s not that I’m afraid. It’s just that I’ve realized that I lack the perspective to do it justice.
Does this mean I’ll never write that book? Well, I never say never. But David’s speech made me realize that I made the right decision a year or so ago when I decided to write Hero-Type. Better one less book on this topic than one that does its audience a tremendous disservice.