Speculative fiction and LGBTQ leads—where, exactly, do these two meet?
But before we get into that, some background. According to “#AmReading,” which did some research into book sales and trends by genre (1), the top five selling genres for the big five publishing houses are Literary Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Children’s, Non-Fiction, and SciFi/Fantasy in that order. The interesting find was that for indie publishing, which continues to increase in terms of its participation in the book world, the genre sales came back much different: Romance represents 66% of the genre sales, followed by SciFi/Fantasy, Non-Fiction, and Mystery/Thriller. As an added bonus, #AmReading reported that LGBTQ+ books have had a 200% increase in their sales.
These results mean that speculative fiction has a big sales percentage, from both the large publishing houses and indie publishing, and that LGBTQ+ audiences are increasingly hungry for written work reflecting themselves.
Yet, despite these increases, it remains difficult to find speculative fiction—science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction—that features main characters who just happen to be LGBTQ+ and exist within the plot without their sexuality being the plot.
LGBTQ+ individuals have existed forever, and in the context of speculative fiction like sci-fi & fantasy, where the author is building a new world for the story to exist in, there is certainly no reason why LGBTQ+ individuals would not also exist. So why, then, are LGBTQ+ protagonists so hard to find in these genre works?
An easy answer may be the breakdown of LGBTQ+ genre sales, where Contemporary Romance and M/M are by far the largest percentage of both books written and books purchased. It’s safe to say that writing M/M Contemporary Romance, then, is a smarter strategy for authors hoping to find a large, eager market. But what about readers who enjoy the excitement of science fiction, or the immersion of history, or the adventure of epic fantasy and still want to be able to see themselves in these stories?
Malinda Lo, through the website “Diversity in YA,” has spent several years watching and tracking LGBTQ+ books that are published through the Young Adult genre as the primary category. According to her research (2), in 2014 and counting only books with a primary or main character who is LGBTQ+, there were 47 LGBTQ+ YA books put out by mainstream publishers. She then broke those books down by genre and came up with the following: 51% Contemporary, 36% Science Fiction & Fantasy, and 9% Non-Fiction, with Cross-Genre and Historical both taking half of the remaining 4%. Lo herself has written several books that are genre-first, and LGBTQ+ second.
Statistics on other genres prove to be harder to find. Barnes & Noble has a category on their eBook website of “LGBT Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror” which lists only 208 books (though it is unclear how many books also exist and have simply not been categorized as such) and does not guarantee that it is a protagonist who is LGBTQ+ rather than merely a side character. And as Kelly Dickinson at “The Hub” wrote in 2014, “Speculative fiction has remained a fairly white, cis-gendered, & straight world for a long time. The fact that there seem to be more dragons and robots than LGBTQ+ characters in fantasy & sci-fi novels is shameful and disheartening, especially to the genres’ LGBTQ+ fans.” This is still true today.
More and more mainstream authors seem willing to add in LGBTQ+ side characters, but there are still too few who allow their protagonists the same freedom. It’s possible that this lack of representation is coming from the big publishing houses, who are perhaps still wary of publishing LGBTQ+ works, but from the data provided by Hurley above, the LGBTQ+ market and readership is rapidly growing, and it seems that publishers would know the same. Is it the authors, then, who delay in giving LGBTQ+ individuals the starring role in genre works? And if so, how can we, as those who crave LGBTQ+ led speculative fiction, prompt more authors to lean in that direction?
In speculative fiction, particularly with fantasy and science fiction, one of the first steps to creating a story in the genre is to build your world: your society, your culture, and your fantastic elements, whatever they may be. Then may come the main plot events and the principle characters, both good and villain, and the structure of the story’s arc. By the time so much of the world and plot are pinned down, would changing a protagonist’s orientation, identification, or sexuality really alter what came before it?
I would argue that it would not, and that adding in diverse characters enriches narratives rather than detracting from them. In genres where many twists, reveals, and secrets have already been done before, what better way to refresh ideas than doing them in a more diverse and varied way? If you can take the main plot of your favorite speculative fiction novel and change the protagonist’s sexuality or identification, and it does not alter the plot’s trajectory or the end goal, then why do all the main characters need to be cis-gendered and heterosexual? The answer is that they don’t—and they shouldn’t be.
Perhaps the best way to express our desire for change in the makeup of speculative fiction is to both read those works that do feature LGBTQ+ protagonists and to write more of our own. By buying and supporting works that are genre-first and LGBTQ+ second, we can establish in publishers’ eyes that there is a market for this, and that we do deserve to see ourselves in speculative fiction works, be it science fiction, fantasy, or historical.
1-Hurley, A. D. (2017, February 25). Publishing A Book? Genre Makes A Very Surprising Difference In Book Sales. In #AmReading. Retrieved from http://www.amreading.com/2017/02/25/publishing-a-book-genre-makes-a-very-surprising-difference-in-book-sales/
2- Lo, M. (2014, December 10). 2014 LGBT YA by the Numbers. In Diversity in YA. Retrieved from http://www.diversityinya.com/tag/statistics/
3- Dickinson, K. (2014, June 19). Is This Just Fantasy?: LGBTQ+ Speculative Fiction. In The Hub. Retrieved from http://www.yalsa.ala.org/thehub/2014/06/19/is-this-just-fantasy-lgbtq-speculative-fiction/
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