In praise of bait and switch

Perhaps you’ve seen the post on Publishers Weekly, “Authors Say Agents Try to “Straighten” Gay Characters in YA.” If you haven’t, go read it. It says many important things, including this: “Forcing all major characters in YA novels into a straight white mold is a widespread, systemic problem which requires long-term, consistent action.” Acknowledging the problem is crucial. And I also appreciate the excellent What You Can Do section, with specific actions for editors, agents, readers, and writers.

I’d like to suggest another action for those in the position of recommending books to others — librarians, teachers, booksellers, bloggers, writers, agents, and anyone else who finds themselves regularly consulted about what to read — Consider multiple vectors of identification.

I talked about vectors of identification in one of my responses in Colleen Mondor’s What A Girl Wants blog series; #3: Representing All The Girls. Permit me to quote myself:

Some types I’ve identified with: smart kids, nerds, fat kids, queers, bohemians, tomboys, sophisticates, theater people, musicians, writers.

They could be different from me in any number of particulars, as long as there was one vector of identification. When I was in love for the first time, I identified with every fictional lover. And I remember reading a book about slavery in third grade, shortly after I’d dislocated my knee. When I learned that if you were a slave and you got injured, you’d still have to keep working, my knee throbbed. I can’t recall the book’s title, but I identified so strongly with that detail that to this day, I can make myself flinch just by thinking about it.

I was talking about it then in relation to characters, but vectors of identification — or to use a more common, market-y term, “appeal factors,” apply to plot, setting, and tone as well. So for instance if you happened to be recommending Empress of the World, instead of saying, as I often do, “It’s about two girls who fall in love at a summer gifted and talented program,” you could say “It’s about a bunch of nerds and the hijinks that ensue when they’re all cooped up together for the summer,” or “The main character overanalyzes everything,” or “It’s about the first time you make friends that aren’t connected to your hometown.” You get the idea.

And sure, you could call this approach bait and switch. But if the bait means a reader connects to a book they otherwise never would have opened, I say it’s okay.

ETA 9/16: Boy, did the reactions to that piece (not mine, but the one I was responding to) take a lot of swerve-type turns. I like this summary of the developments since I wrote the above.

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  • Twitch
    September 14, 2011 at 12:51 am

    Would people call those alternate Empress pitches “bait and switch”? ’cause my first thought was, “but those are all true. That’s all in the book.”

    I love the concept of “vectors of identification” – through the lens of that idea, something became clear to me just now.

    One of my favorite assigned-high-school reads was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I’m white, so I couldn’t directly relate to the discrimination the protagonist suffered through, but I definitely connected with his frustration and confusion, as well as his drive to understand the outside forces that shaped his life and his struggle to carve out a space for himself.

  • Sara
    September 14, 2011 at 7:36 am

    Twitch, I think there’s often an expectation that when you’re talking about a book with any “non-mainstream” (aka not in the straight white mold) elements, you’re always going to emphasize those elements.

    If you’re operating with that framework, you don’t say that Will Grayson, Will Grayson is about identity in the Internet age, or how friendships shift, or what it’s like to be close to an extroverted performer who transforms his life into art — no, it’s about two guys with the same name, one gay, one straight! I think there’s an unspoken assumption that if you’re reading anything with “non-mainstream” elements, it’s either because you somehow ‘need’ it to reflect an aspect of your identity, or because you are earnestly Educating Yourself About Diversity.

    So you’re right, it’s not bait and switch in the strictest sense, because the ‘bait’ is all there in the story too — but if you’re coming from a place where you have that mental framework that defines narratives by the ways in which they do or don’t reflect the dominant culture, you could feel like it’s a bait and switch.

  • Francisca
    September 14, 2011 at 9:37 am

    Bait and switch suggests you offer one thing but provide another instead; the instead part isn’t happening here in the vectors of identity. Instead (sorry) this approach acknowleges that there are many asons to read any book and that different readers may identify with different aspects of any book. (that would be the advisor’s role to help the reader clarify what is important right now).

    Thanks, Sara, for reminding us all that good fictional characters don’t have a single identification thread; great characters come with flaws, quirks and gifts for the reader; it may be the reader who decides which details fall into which category of attributes.

  • Lee Wind
    September 16, 2011 at 7:26 am

    It’s a great point Sara – that books, like characters, and like ourselves, are more than ONE thing.
    Can’t wait for our panel at kidlitcon!