This is a story that starts and ends with unapologetic queerness.
I grew up around it, with two knee-jerk liberals for parents and a deeply blue school district with a Queer Student Alliance that was not only allowed but embraced. In my favorite TV shows and books, I always obsessed about hypothetical same-sex couples. I had friends who fell across the spectrum of queerness. I myself turned out asexual.
Oh, I’m Tessa, by the way. Did I mention that? This is the “about me” section, so I should probably mention it.
The point is that it was fine, it was all fine. Boys like boys, girls like girls, sometimes there are no girls or boys involved, and it’s fine. This sort of laissez-faire attitude towards love and sexuality was, as it tends to be, fine in principle with almost everyone, but fine in practice with much fewer.
I started writing when I was about eleven. I stopped sucking around late high school. I got good around college. I began my publishing endeavors around the time I got my BA from Virginia Commonwealth University (go Rams!).
I had written this book that I really liked. It was set in an original fantasy universe, with what I hoped was an interesting twist of gods that interact with those that worship them. I thought that maybe it was good enough to publish. I didn’t think at the time when I started querying literary agents that the fact that the universe was packed full of same-sex couples would hinder it in any way. After all, gay marriage had recently been legalized in the U.S., and attitudes were changing. I queried it as a mainstream fantasy novel.
And I got a lot of bites. Lots of agents were interested by the premise, and I fielded a lot of requests to read the manuscripts. But one after the other, all those excited letters of interest came back with rejection, and I began noticing a theme: all of them loved the writing, the world, the characters, but none of them were sure it was MARKETABLE.
MARKETABLE, as I slowly, painfully learned over the course of almost two years worth of querying, was a code word that meant heteronormative. None of the agents would have admitted it if I’d asked, of course, but when they said, “the story isn’t MARKETABLE,” what they meant was “GAY STUFF DOESN’T SELL.”
Or rather, gay stuff not about being gay doesn’t sell, because romance was not by any stretch the primary driver of the plot. There was a romance, between the lead male character and a male god, but it was much more a metaphor than it was as real love story. Silas did not talk about being in love with another man. No one did. It was a nonissue in the story. Within the universe, same-sex relationships are absolutely normalized.
And apparently that was what made it not MARKETABLE. Straight people-oriented softcore gay torture porn (e.g. Brokeback Mountain, The Danish Girl, or even something along the vein of Boys Don’t Cry) gets a National Book Award and an Emmy award-winning movie adaptation, because apparently straight people love to cry about the plight of queer people, but a story about a same-sex romance that is in no way burdened by its same-sexness is apparently not MARKETABLE.
There was one very brief moment in which I considered maybe just swapping Silas for a female character and bypassing the issue entirely. I’m sure it would have made it much more MARKETABLE. But right before I crossed that bridge, I whined about it on tumblr, and the response I got was overwhelming.
Overnight, I was flooded with hundreds of messages of support, gushing about the blurb, requests to read it. And suddenly, I realized something: my book is marketable, just not in the way a heteronormative industry wants it to be.
There is a huge and growing group of people who are desperate for representation in media, who want to see a love story between two men that doesn’t revolve around how gay they are. They want to read about gay people having adventures and solving mysteries and growing as people, and maybe even about how they save a fantasy world from demons and a capricious god.
I’m glad I didn’t change Silas into a girl. I didn’t start writing the book thinking about why both he and his love interest were men, and I don’t intend to worry about it for a moment longer.
So that’s the story of how I started my endeavors in self-publishing. If mainstream literary agencies don’t consider it MARKETABLE, then more fun (and more royalties) for us.