Writing and getting published is hard for every writer, but queer writers face unique challenges in the publishing industry. Ryan Vance, editor of the e-zine The Queen’s Head and The Island Review, is here today to discuss some of the challenges he’s faced as a gay man in the writing community.
What challenges have you personally faced as a queer writer?
I’m queer. It informs my experience of the world, and the stories I go on to tell, and those stories have as much worth as any pre-existing norm I might have unintentionally adopted.
It’s worth stating from the outset that as a cis white male, I’ve experienced fewer challenges in life, never mind writing, than most. But still, one thing I struggle with is allowing myself to be queer from the outset. My story ideas often arrive as concepts first, characters second – which I suppose isn’t too uncommon for science fiction – but unless the concept explicitly deals with queer themes, I find myself automatically plotting with straight characters, and extremely binary monogamous straight characters at that, before remembering they’re not the sort of characters I want to write.
For the longest time I thought this might have been internalised shame, but really I think it’s just a consequence of living, writing and especially reading within a culture that’s predominantly straight. Even the most progressive societies still understand queerness as the alternative or other, which I suppose is understandable, even at times something to be proud of. But that bias inevitably filters into the fiction I read, which in turn informs the way in which I think about fiction. As a result, unless forewarned, I’ve never approached any fiction, mainstream or genre, expecting to see queer representation up front. Unless that representation is the entire point of the story to begin with, I only expect queerness to be present as subplot, background or secondary at best – never central, or in depth, or accurate and relatable.
So at the idea stage of a project, I often have to “correct” myself, remind myself queer characters are not just an option, they should always be my default option. I’m queer. It informs my experience of the world, and the stories I go on to tell, and those stories have as much worth as any pre-existing norm I might have unintentionally adopted.
Have you ever felt pressured to ‘normalize’ your writing to appeal to a broader audience and how did you handle that?
Sci-fi is a niche, and queerness is a niche, so queer sci-fi becomes a niche squared. Trying to break into an industry that loves its pigeonholes, that’s a hard sell.
I’ve definitely been advised more than once to try writing airport thrillers rather than queer dystopias! And to diversify my voice by occasionally writing a ‘straight’ story. But I’d be reluctant to directly attribute either position to anti-queer sentiment. It’s more an understanding of what the market wants, and how that intersects with expectations of success. Sci-fi is a niche, and queerness is a niche, so queer sci-fi becomes a niche squared. Trying to break into an industry that loves its pigeonholes, that’s a hard sell.
I suppose I’ve handled this reality by downsizing how I define success. And that’s where this becomes an issue. Sure, it’s egotistic for any writer to expect bestseller lists and megabuck book deals, because so few writers of any kind achieve that sort of success, but that sort of recognition is even less likely for queer writers just because of who they are, the stories they need to tell, and where that places them in regards to the industry, and the money.
Then again, as I already believe there’s not enough queer representation in my favourite genre, I feel a duty to redress that balance. And if I only satisfy the desires of a small, committed audience, that’s awesome too – because I am that audience, and I know how much it means as a reader to see myself in the fiction I love.
Do you feel supported by your local writing community? If not, where do you find support?
Absolutely! I was born in Northern Ireland but for the last twelve years I’ve lived in Glasgow, which has a fantastic queer scene – small, but cosy – and Scotland, of course, has a strong literary history. The two combined make for a very rich, very supportive community, and a formidable queer writing network, especially in recent years. In 2014 Freight Books published the second anthology of Scottish LGBT writing, edited by Zoë Strachan, who was the first writer-in-residence at the National Museum of Scotland; Carol Ann Duffy was Britain’s first openly queer poet laureate; Jackie Kay’s our current makar. There’s also some great up-and-coming writers, in Kirsty Logan, Paul McQuade, Elaine Gallagher, Jenni Fagan and Shane Strachan, to name just a few.
One cheering thing about queer Scottish writing at the moment is it’s noticeably dominated by women, particularly women who aren’t afraid of working with genre fiction, which is great! I genuinely find that encouraging on so many levels. But the comparative lack of queer male Scottish writers is also curious, and difficult to explain quickly without resorting to sweeping generalisations about masculinity and male queerness in Scottish and British culture. There’s much between those two concepts that goes unquestioned which still needs to be unpacked and understood. When your community is so supportive of women and their voices, though, you quickly realise it’s always been a delicate balance between men getting involved, and men hogging the limelight. I do hope, though, we’ll find a way for the current Scottish lit scene to encourage more queer male writers without sacrificing the support it’s increasingly showing towards other, historically marginalised voices.
What are your goals as a writer?
I want to inject sci-fi, speculative fiction, magical realism and the trashier, weirder end of the spectrum with unabashed queerness, and I want to tell queer stories that don’t automatically assume queerness exists on the periphery, or that there’s only one way to be queer. There’s so much to be explored still, in what it means to be queer while the meaning of the word both expands to include new understandings of identities while becoming a less important identifier for others. The pressures of navigating and creating in a heteronormative society inevitably warps how those of us who don’t meet those expectations see ourselves, but I like to think the world-warping possibilities of genre fiction allow us vital mental space to see ourselves both as entirely real and entirely unreal, too.
Thank you for joining us Ryan. You can find Ryan’s work online via the links below.
The Queen’s Head – a print and online zine of speculative and weird fiction and poetry (editor).
The Island Review – an online haven for island folk (fiction editor).
Gold Stars available in the Out There anthology.
The Cowry House available in the Dark Mountain anthology.
Bran is the author of The Jeweled Dagger, Masquerade, The Silver Peacock series, Savior and the free-to-read Corsair and Corsetteer series. They live in a little house in Southern Missouri with their three nerdlings, one aging dachshund, and four cats. You can find Bran on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Patreon, Instagram, Pinterest and their website branlindyayres.com.