Lena Nottingham never imagined that her fanfiction would become a published book.
A few years ago, I met Lena through YouTube’s messenger system. Although we live thousands of miles away, we’ve kept our friendship strong through texting and communicating with each other via social media. One day, I stumbled upon one of her tweets stating that the book she had written was going to be published. I excitedly reached out to her, and she sent me a copy in the mail.
I devoured the story, not knowing it was originally a piece of fanfiction until after I finished reading. Lena informed me that her book, Yellow, had risen to #11 in the fanfiction website Wattpad's ranking of most popular fanfictions.
Now, I’m sure you’ve all probably stumbled upon some fanfiction before. Perhaps you’ve heard of After, the Harry Styles fanfiction that became so popular it became a New York Times best-selling book and landed a movie deal. Teens love to read about celebrity relationships, whether fictional or non-fictional; therefore, it was no surprise to me that Lena’s excellent writing resulted in her fanfiction rising to popularity.
However, one factor of Lena’s novel truly sets it apart from the rest: It’s centered around a romantic relationship between two girls.
We almost never see books with an LGBTQ+ lead blowing up the charts. The Young Adult book genre truly lacks stories with LGBTQ representation. Even if books contain LGBTQ characters, they are often small supporting characters who don’t garner a lot of heavy focus. But if Lena’s novel can reach over 4.2 million reads on Wattpad, shouldn’t LGBTQ novels be dominating the YA charts?
In my opinion, yes.
The problem is not that LGBTQ writers don’t exist. The problem is that book-sellers and promotional companies are still shy about advertising and publishing their work.
“I think the reason my stories got so popular was probably because I was writing lesbian romance plotlines—not erotica—and that caters to an audience that is so starved for any form of content. You see this in the way fandoms latch so strongly onto a character they suspect to be gay, and how lesbian characters/couples gain such a cult-like following," says Lena when I asked her about the topic. "There's very little representation for LGBT persons in television, film, and literature. Some of the top-selling books in the Gay/Lesbian category on Amazon are heavily sexualized erotica. Gay men were given space in film and television before gay women were, because their oppression isn't gendered in the way it is for women. On Wattpad, it's a feat for a lesbian fanfiction to get a couple million reads, while gay male fanfiction regularly garners over 10 million.
"I've navigated the space for years now and the way it operates still confuses me. I'm on Twitter/Tumblr every day, I see just how massive and powerful the young [queer female] audience is, and yet I still feel that there's no piece of film, television, or literature that is made for them—which is crazy, because you think the money-hungry execs would see how big of an audience they could capitalize on.
"As for literature, it's quite funny how much I scoured the internet looking for lesbian novels when I first came out as gay. It's sparse. Sitting here, I can only think of about three or four books that I've read that deal with lesbians or lesbian couples. I'm still starved for more stories that I can see myself in. I think that's why the idea of "shipping" two female characters is so commonplace in the community—because we're forced to conceptualize our own couples. We have to make that space because no one else will do it for us. It's a community that is so starved for representation that it searches for gay subtext in all the media it consumes, because it's so desperate for something. That's why even a lesbian side character [with one minute of screen time] on a television show can gain the attention of the entire community. That's why there's people who pick apart Virginia Woolf's writing and history because of her suspected lesbian affair. That's why bad fanfiction written by a 16-year-old can gain millions of reads. It's wild.”
As somebody who grew up addicted to reading, I can only imagine how impactful a novel featuring an LGBTQ+ main character could’ve been in helping my younger self feel more comfortable with my developing identity and sexuality. Like Lena, I believe there is an audience for this type of content—an audience that is deprived of books and other media featuring lesbian characters.
When I asked if she was working on other LGBTQ novels, Lena told me, “I write gay characters—but [I] don't base a character around their sexuality. I want to represent a community but never want to speak for everyone. I've had really young kids message me that I was their first encounter with any kind of LGBT+ writing. That's a scary responsibility for me. I also worry about becoming known for being a ‘lesbian author’ who writes lesbian stories and [having] my future work reduced because of that. So much of the stuff I'm working on now transcends that. That's why so much of my push as a writer is just for normalization.”
As a director currently working on a webseries with lesbian characters, I completely understand this fear. The webseries follows my personal experience living in a very religious community, and oftentimes I worry that my story—which shows a community’s hatred towards a lesbian character—may lead young LGBTQ viewers to feel further ostracized. However, as Lena said, I cannot speak for everyone. We both can only tell the stories that we have personally faced—mine just happens to not have a happy ending.
This is why a greater number of LGBTQ writers are neccessary to create great LGBTQ content. Everyone has their own personal experience, and the more writers publish their stories, the more perspectives will be showcased.
If you want to read Lena's work for yourself, you can purchase her debut novel on Amazon, as well as her new novel, From the Ashes. Lena also recommends The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth and Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta for anyone looking to read more LGBTQ novels this winter. Regardless of what kinds of stories you're into, keep supporting LGBTQ writers and creators. I truly believe that a revolution in LGBTQ representation is happening as we speak.