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what will grayson, will grayson means for the gays

April 20th, 2010

So, last week I learned that If I Stay hit the New York Times Children’s paperback bestseller list at #4 its first week out. This was delightful—and I might add, surprising—news.

But when my editor sent me an early PDF of the list, there was something else that caught my eye that made me even happier, and no, I’m not bullshitting here. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan debuted on the New York Times Hardcover Children’s list at #3 (right behind The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, which David Levithan, who also works at Scholastic, edits–oh, the irony!).

WGWG’s success made me happy for a number of reasons. For one, the book is, as John Green might say “made of awesome.” It is a wonderful, hilarious, touching, wacky story of two guys named Will Grayson, who meet by chance about midway through the book and are inextricably linked, by their common names and by an irrepressible character/force of nature named Tiny Cooper, who is described as “the world’s largest person who is really, really gay, and also the world’s gayest person who is really, really large.” The book ends with a musical that is as good as the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical, which is saying something for something that exists only on the page. The book is also edited by my editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, who I love, and any win for her thrills the bloomers off me (now you know, I wear bloomers) and is published by my peeps, Dutton/Penguin.

But, my happiness goes beyond that. Now look, I don’t keep a running tally of every book that has ever hit the NYT list, but based on my informal survey  there has never been a YA book on the list about gay romance where the GAYNESS wasn’t the point of the story. And, sure, there’s gay romance in WGWG. will grayson (the depressed will; you know he’s depressed because his chapters are all in lower case) is gay and (MINOR SPOILAGE) has an online fling, a romance with Tiny Cooper and yet another budding romance by book’s end. Tiny Cooper’s myriad romantic entanglements are on the page here. But you know what? So is Will Grayson’s totally halting and melty romance with a fabulously sardonic girl named Jane.  It’s all part of the tapestry—gay, straight, whatever.

And that’s what makes this book so special. And that’s what makes its insta-success so noteworthy—and so hopeful. Because I think that teen readers just don’t give a crap. Gay romance, straight romance, they’ll take it, so long as it’s well-written. Same-sex marriage? Yawn. No big deal. You think I talk out of my behind? I have some research to back me up here. One recent study from The Girl Scouts, no less, found that six out of ten teenagers support same-sex marriage. Another study puts that percentage as 75 percent of teens supporting gay marriage.

Contrast that with:

Or with the Defense of Marriage Act, which says that states don’t have to honor marriages (i.e. same-sex marriages) performed in other states and defines marriage as between a man and a woman, or ballot measures like California’s Prop 8 that undid a constitutional amendment allowing same-sex marriage, or the blowhard culture warriors like the (thankfully former) Senator Rick Santorum who use homosexuality as wedge issue. Santorum charmingly compared homosexuality to polygamy, incest, and bestiality, among others.

Politicians in Congress can argue about the “threat of gay marriage” to the institution of marriage (which so cracks me up; have these guys seen the straight-people divorce rate?) But teenagers, for the most part, aren’t buying these tired arguments. These are kids who grew up in divorced homes watching Will & Grace (a TV sitcom, where the gay guys never got any action and the romance was mostly platonic and usually between the queeny guys and their fag-hags BFFs, and in retrospect, and next to a book like WGWG, looks like a minstrel show).  These are teenagers who aren’t scared of gay people because they know gay people. They might even be one. Or have been one for that phase in sophomore year.

Teenagers are always more open-minded than the rest of us, but I think with this generation, these Millennials, it’s particularly true. During the 2008 presidential election, much was said about how these guys were post-racial, color-blind in a way that old farts aren’t. Techies always like to talk about how they are also platform-agnostic (they’ll watch a movie on a computer, a giant screen or an iPod). And it looks like they’re also post-sexual? Okay, that doesn’t sound right. Post-homophobe? Somebody invent a good word. But as far as same-sex relationships go, it’s like, don’t want one? Okay, don’t have one. But mind your own beeswax if some other same-sex couple wants to get married or adopt a kid or make out in the mall.

That’s why I think Will Grayson, Will Grayson isn’t just a wonderful book, but dare I say it, a cultural milestone. It portends a future in which the demographic arc changes and with it the prevailing attitude. I bet if there’d been YA novels back when interracial marriage was illegal, we’d have seen a score of novels about interracial couples before that tied started to turn, the YA equivalent of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? Teens are always on the vanguard.

I imagine we’ll see a lot more books like YGYG as the tide shifts, though I don’t know if we’ll ever get one quite like this. There may be two Will Graysons but there is only one John Green and one David Levithan and the stars like that only align every blue moon.

But that’s why I cheered for the book hitting the list. I’m happy for John, David, Julie, Will and Will, and  Tiny and for the millions and millions of teens out there who’ll read the book and get the implicit message that a gay romance is a lovely thing, but it’s becoming a commonplace enough occurrence that it no longer gets its own book; it has to share the page with all sorts of other romances. Yeah, you lose some exclusivity, but that’s the catch in becoming normalized. Isn’t that what the struggle has been about? Acceptance? It’s all over this book. And the #3 slot on the list only formalizes that. Gay relationships? Controversial? That is so 1990s!

Also, in that future, ugly hateful signs like those favored by the wingnuts of the Westboro Baptist Church (the one above) will be replaced with signs like these, courtesy of peaceful and inventive protesters in San Francisco. When the Westboro clan showed up with their God Hates Fags signs, the counter-protesters showed up with signs like these—proof, that, as David and John, show, humor always prevails.

Peace, out!

  1. I need to read this book. Everyone is reading it and this (brilliantly written) post has convinced me that I need to do.
    That last picture made my day, and it’s 9 o’clock in the morning.
    That’s saying something, I’m sure. :]

  2. I also love David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy – it should be on a shelf at every middle & high school library.

    Your comments about interracial marriage reminded me of the 1965 book My Sweet Charlie by David Westheimer, which is sadly out of print (used copies are available on Amazon). I read it in high school, and it’s one of those books about tolerance that, like I’m sure WGWG will for so many, has stuck with me for years.

  3. Gina, thanks! Is this a book about interracial relationships? I was trying to find one from the early 1960s but ran out of reporting steam. Of course, my all-time favorite book is To Kill A Mockingbird and it’s all about racism and tolerance and touches on interracial sex (the rape accusation) but I wondered if there was some equivalent to WGWG. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? was the best I could think of.

  4. I’m currently reading WGwg and I love it! Excellent post, and I’m so happy that it’s doing so well!

  5. I totally agree with your post. I loved WGWG!! Another great book is Saints of Augustine by P.E. Ryan.

  6. I love this post. I love that you used the phrase “Mind your own beeswax.” And I love you!

  7. Love that last picture!!!!!!!!
    BTW, nothing about gay relationships, but I don’t want to see anyone making out in the mall. I just want to buy my crap and get out. ;-)

  8. Great blog post! I love this book, and think you bring up some really excellent points.

  9. I love this post, and I love Will Grayson, Will Grayson. I actually have a question: I’m writing a research project (and eventual thesis) this summer about the increasing social liberalism and modern religion found in YA literature. I was just wondering if I could quote from this blog post in my research paper. Would that be okay?

  10. Yay for John and David!! Loved WG, WG and so happy for its success!!

  11. Great review, this is all so true. I loved that since the two Wills were equally-main characters, their respective romances were equally important in the story. David’s will did have to deal with awkwardly coming out to his clueless friends (the quote “Are they gay too?” “Only if you’re a warlock.” had me DYING), but his mother’s reaction couldn’t have been better. And I also loved John’s Will’s whole “Is Jane the gay part of the gay-straight alliance or the straight part of the gay-straight alliance?” at the concert. He didn’t care whether she was gay or not until he realized that he liked her and he wanted to know if them dating was within the realm of possibilities. Oh, and I loved how it showed a very very gay guy and straight guy can be 100% platonic friends.

    Also, about the book being “about gay romance where the GAYNESS wasn’t the point of the story” it kinda reminded me of Maureen Johnson’s amazing book The Bermudez Triangle in that respect, which is about 3 best friends, two of whom end up dating each other. But that third best friends has never been into girls and has plenty of boy problems to deal with. The gayness was more central to that book than it is to WGwg (Also, I’m pretty sure it didn’t make the NYT Bestseller list), but it handles the subject of teens being gay and teens being straight and teens being not-quite-sure what they are very well, just like WGwg did. Only with girls this time instead of boys! ;)

  12. I loved this post. This perfectly explained what I tried to tell my mom about a year ago. It’s not that being gay doesn’t matter, it’s just not the most scandalous thing anymore. You explained it perfectly.

    John Green is my favorite author and I highly recommend anyone who is interested to check out his youtube channel. (http://www.youtube.com/user/vlogbrothers)

  13. This article is great. It’s true that WGwg does feature gay characters, but that’s not what it’s about. This book is about love and the various forms that love takes, learning to love yourself, romantic love, but most importantly, the love between friends. For me, the book really culminated with John’s WG’s speech “Since when is the person you want to screw the only person you get to love?” It’s place on the best sellers list is well deserved. DFTBA.

  14. Theresa:
    You’re welcome to quote but do bear in mind that this is a blog post and not a meticulously researched academic paper or anything so it’s just me being hopeful and optimistic with a few bits of research to back up my opinion. But by all means, quote away!

  15. Gayle, thank you so much for doing an entire post about such an important issue and great book. It is really, really appreciated.

  16. WGWG is an amazing book! I pre-ordered it and read it in like a day! When asked what it was about I forgot to even mention that tere was a gay couple in it. When the person asked because she had heard about the book I told her that that wasn’t what the book was about. It is about friendship as you said and the depressed WG and Tiny being gay was just a part of their characters. Just another personality trait. I love the picture at the end! As john and nerdifghters like to say, Don’t forget to be awesome! (DFTBA)

  17. Excellent post, Gayle. I can’t wait to read WGWG. I had the pleasure of meeting David Levithan at Books of Wonder. Great guy!

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