I am honoured to have Jane Eagland back here on the blog for Once Upon a Bookcase. Back in 2009, Jane wrote guest post for Sex in Teen Lit Month regarding sex in her debut novel Wildthorn (liked below) which I have reviewed earlier today. Today, she's back to write about something she mentioned in that post, how her editor wanted her to change the sexuality of a character in her next book, Whisper My Name.
In my first novel Wildthorn, set in 1876, the heroine, Louisa, falls in love with another girl. This is not the main thread of the plot—the story is centred on Louisa’s incarceration in a lunatic asylum and the question of who has done this and why. As I explained for Sex in Teen Lit Month, the decision about Louisa’s sexuality didn’t come from any desire to tackle an ‘issue’ or make a point, it just seemed to arise quite naturally from exploring Louisa’s character—it was who she was.
In my second novel, Whisper My Name, the main character, Meriel, has a close relationship with another girl. Again it seemed natural that this relationship might develop and become more than a friendship, but my editor wasn’t keen. The reason she gave was that it would make this story too similar to Wildthorn.
In every other way the two stories are very different. Whisper My Name involves spiritualism and messages that appear to come from beyond the grave. And there are hundreds of novel in which girls fall in love with boys and no one complains that that makes them similar.
I suspect that the real reason she wanted me to change the story was that she didn’t want another ‘lesbian’ novel. She was keen that there should be a love story but she wanted Meriel to fall in love with a boy. Perhaps she thought that a novel depicting a conventional love story would have a wider appeal ie sell more copies.
Anyway I dutifully introduced a boy for Meriel to fall in love with, but by the time I’d finished the novel, that editor had left and the new editor didn’t find the love scenes convincing. This didn’t surprise me in the least—I’d found them difficult to write and I didn’t believe in them myself.
The only thing to do was to take them out and re-write some of the story. It was frustrating to have wasted my time, but at least the finished novel was more as I’d originally conceived it. But I think I was still affected by the unspoken message that it wasn’t a good idea to write about love between two girls so though it’s hinted at, I didn’t make it explicit.
All this happened four years ago and, looking back now, I regret that I didn’t question the first editor more. I feel that I wimped out, though I can see why I did. The editor was new to me and I hadn’t met her (I never did!) As this was only my second novel and I wasn’t a well-known author, I didn’t feel that I was in a position to assert myself.
I think now that the book would have been better, stronger, if I’d had more courage and followed my instincts and not given in to pressure. But if I had, and the first editor had stayed, she might not have taken the book and it would never have been published.
This experience has left me feeling thoughtful. If what happened to me is not unusual and I’m right about the reason for that editor’s reaction then it suggests that, owing to commercial pressure, publishers are more interested in novels that reflect the norm.
The result is a vicious circle in which people who are different are being deprived of books that reflect their lives and the majority are not being presented with the whole spectrum of human experience, but only having the norm reinforced.
This is a great pity. Novels allow us to engage sympathetically with experiences that are far different from our own. The more we are presented with such experiences the more likely we are to understand them.
Novels could be a powerful tool in overcoming fear and prejudice. But only if they are there for people to read them.
Thank you, Jane, for such a fantastic guest post! What an insight! Isn't this just infuriating?! Chime in with your thoughts, and be sure to check out Jane's website, Wildthorn and Whisper My Name.