Not too long ago I read Suki Kim‘s article “The Reluctant Memoirist” in The New Republic. In the article, Kim, an investigative journalist who spent six months posing as a teacher at an evangelical university in North Korea—culminating in her 2014 book Without You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite—voiced her frustration at having to promote her nonfiction work as memoir. Her essay struck a chord.
A decade ago, I published an erotic memoir Under My Master’s Wings with Nexus Books, a BDSM-themed sub-imprint of Virgin Books, itself owned by Random House. And because Nexus sells fiction mostly to straight (white) dudes, my nonfiction book about my time spent as the personal slave to a gay-for-pay stripper was marketed accordingly. Which means that my experience as a genderqueer chick—a biological female who identifies as a gay man—was marketed as a story of heterosexual lust. At the time I didn’t protest. Indeed, I was just happy any publisher would take a chance on a first-time author. Yet, it was disheartening to have my true essence subjugated to marketing concerns. Though I was never asked to participate in any straight-girl charade, I still chafed at being “sold” as an object of desire to cisgender, hetero males when in fact I’d written the book from the POV of a boy in thrall to his master. Surreally, I found myself completely alienated from my own gay, male relationship.
I did what I could to control my own narrative. I reached out to gay publications on my own. (I even went so far as to send a copy to my hero, John Rechy.) And while my efforts probably did little to boost sales, just the simple act of taking my voice back freed me from any lingering resentment. And this, perhaps, was my greatest takeaway from reading Kim’s essay. Sexism—and anti-queer bias—in publishing exists. I get it. But sometimes the most effective remedy is to pick up the proverbial sword, put down the pen, and do rather than write.
What Kim’s essay sidesteps is that publishing is an industry, plain and simple. While relating a phone call in which she argued that her book was “no Eat, Pray, Love” (to which her agent replied, “You only wish”) may be revealing, the dozen-word sentence before this exchange is actually the more telling. “I later learned that memoirs in general sell better than investigative journalism,” Kim writes.
Indeed, a quick glance at the Goodreads list of New York Times nonfiction bestsellers in 2014 (the year Kim’s book was published) reveals that five of the top ten moneymakers were female-penned memoirs, including Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Hard Choices. Only Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt and Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap cracked the double-X glass ceiling with their investigative journalism.
I get that Kim is questioning the whole notion of marketability. Perhaps if more female investigative journalists were sold as such their names would be as recognizable as that of Taibbi and Lewis. But publishing, like Hollywood, is a risk-averse industry. The comic book sequel will get the green light every time. So the real question becomes, why would Kim’s publisher not jump at the chance to market her book as memoir? What Kim doesn’t truly acknowledge is that corporations don’t see writers as journalists or memoirists, men or women. She’s a dollar sign. That’s it.
Similarly, if my publisher could repackage me to be sold to a straight-male, market-tested demographic, why would they advertise my book as genderqueer? In truth, I’m part of a marginalized community that has been sidelined for most of literary history because we’re assumed to be of little interest to the general paying public. For proof, look no further than Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge—perhaps the quintessential novel of queerness—promoted mainly as a satire when it hit shelves in 1968. Or even Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, sold more as a peek into San Francisco’s underground culture than a celebration of our rainbow family. This is how gay-male-identifying, biological women become straight chicks. Investigative journalism morphs into emotional memoir. Or as Michael Corleone would put it, “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.
For in the end, marketing has no bearing on the intrinsic value of a book. It may even have unintended positive consequences. I’ve no doubt that many straight folks stumbling upon Vidal and Maupin were unwittingly exposed to queer experience for the very first time. How many fans of female memoir broadened (no pun intended) their definition of investigative journalism after reading Kim’s male-bravado-less exposé? After all, audience expectation does nothing to alter the work itself. Words remain the same on the page regardless of who’s reading them. It’s the readers themselves that are thrillingly vulnerable to change.