Reviewed by Bookgazing
For a while now, there’s been some online discussion about whether “the coming out novel” has had its day, and whether modern readers need stories where characters ‘just happen to be gay’. The conversation has been heated: partly because every aspect of LGBTQ representation is so important; partly because straight people have phrased their contributions to this discussion sloppily, and partly because the LGBTQ community is a supportive entity but not a homogenous one. For every reader who feels publishing decisions are limiting the development of LGBTQ literature, there is a reader who desperately needs the particular coming out story an author has just written. Sometimes those readers are even the same person.
Readers should never shy away from asking awkward questions about corporate ideology if publishing houses (and the overall publishing landscape) seem determined to only produce coming out stories. And LGBTQ critics rightly pay careful attention to which LGBTQ stories, and coming out stories, get the backing of publishers and the public. All critics and readers should be calling for more LGBTQ YA to be published, and for a great diversity of stories within that publishing output, because these forms of criticism are extremely necessary in order to ensure YA avoids reinforcing the narratively toxic danger of the single story.
At the same time, because coming out can be such an important part of life, it feels like there is a great deal of individual desire for novels that deal with specific journeys towards coming out.
Becky Albertalli’s debut novel, Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda, is a good example of a story which deals with coming out without flattening the individuality of its protagonist. By concentrating on making Simon’s story highly individual Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda joins the ranks of a great many LGBTQ YA novels which are moving away from the idea that it’s possible to create a representative “coming out novel” and towards the idea of contributing to an ever growing coming out canon full of diverse stories about all kinds of experiences.
Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda centres around the friendship (and eventual love story) between Simon and a boy called Blue. Simon and Blue go to the same Alabama high school but both only know each other by their online screen names. Simon and Blue haven’t come out to anyone but each other, except anonymously on their school’s Tumblr. Problems arise when Simon’s classmate Martin finds one of their e-mail conversations, and begins to blackmail Simon, pushing him to manufacture situations where Martin can hang out with Simon’s new friend Abby.
Coming out is loaded with consequences for Simon. He knows he will face a significant amount of homophobic hassle (although not outright violence) at school. And then there’s his dad who is often casually homophobic for “comedy” reasons. While Simon knows he’ll probably have his dad’s support, his father projects a weird atmosphere that makes Simon less comfortable coming out to his family. However, unlike gay protagonists of very early teen novels, Simon doesn’t fear coming out because he might be attacked or disowned, and he isn’t ashamed of being gay. The central conflict of the novel is Simon’s desire to keep coming out, and Martin’s attempts to blackmail him, within his control. He fears that if Blue finds out that Simon left his e-mail open for anyone to find that Blue will disappear and never contact him again. He is also generally concerned about losing control of a moment as important to him as coming out.
This is where Albertalli’s novel shines. Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda emphasises that while there are outside prejudices that discourage Simon from coming out to the people who assume he is straight, he has also chosen not to come out yet because he isn’t quite ready. By embedding this distinction into the novel Albertalli gives Simon a strong sense of control, and reminds readers that while coming out is often pushed upon LGBTQ people by straight society LGBTQ people can also claim coming out as an act of agency. Furthermore, LGBTQ people should always be safe and able to come out when they choose to, and their agency should never be stripped away or undermined for the sake of curious straight minds. Coming out may no longer be seen as ‘a big deal’ in the real life straight circles that wonder ‘who cares’ about celebrities like Ellen Page coming out but, as Simon reminds readers, what straight people think isn’t really relevant:
And you know what? You don’t get to say it’s not a big thing. This is a big fucking thing, okay? This was supposed to be—this is mine. I’m supposed to decide when and where and who knows and how I want to say it.
Control is a key theme of this novel. Many of the characters struggle with the level of expectation placed on them by well meaning family and friends. Simon is necessarily private about his relationship with Blue but he’s also closed off about other aspects of his life because he worries his parents or sisters will make his changing interests into a ‘big deal’. As it turns out, his sisters are beset by the same problem. While his family is very loving they’re also obsessed with hiding perfectly ordinary aspects of their lives in order to avoid having to justify themselves. The story lays out how other people’s expectations can be constraining, and how having to explain the rationale behind every move you make can be exhausting. And this theme chimes with Simon’s feelings about the awkwardness of having to come out:
But I’m tired of coming out. All I ever do is come out. I try not to change, but I keep changing, in all these tiny ways. I get a girlfriend. I have a beer. And every freaking time, I have to reintroduce myself to the universe all over again.
Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda is a smart novel that attempts to show the complexity of human emotions and experience while glossing its whole story over with a good heap of teenage fun and sweet romance. The front cover suggests it’s ‘The love child of John Green and Rainbow Rowell’ but to me it reads more like David Levithan joined forces with Rita Williams-Garcia.
Albertalli’s novel includes a cast of special, carefully defined family and friends who are key ingredients in making Simon’s story whole. The specific interests of these characters and the particular details of Simon’s high school setting all contribute to make Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda a singular novel; distinct and memorable because of its individuality. Readers will go away with a strong connection to many of the side characters like Nora, Abby and Cal even though Simon and Blue are the stars of the show. This attention to detailed contemporary world building feels reminiscent of Leviathan’s seminal LGBTQ work Boy Meets Boy.
Albertalli’s novel also reminds me of Rita Williams-Garcia’s work. Both writers are determined to make it clear that the secondary characters are people not props. Simon’s friends and family are allowed to have feelings which conflict with Simon’s needs. These characters never become cardboard villains or simplistic lessons the reader has to slog their way through. And yet the novel is also careful not to fall into the trap of providing false balance. In an impressive move, Albertalli manages to conjure up some interest in Martin, the boy who eventually outs Simon in a fit of anger, while also making it clear that Simon is under no obligation to forgive him. The final scene involving Martin was extremely well played.
The world hasn’t reached a place where coming out is always an easy ride free from fear. It is however becoming a world where authors reflect and imagine a variety of different coming out experiences which are miles away from the misery of early LGBTQ YA. Blue and Simon do eventually meet and real life proves just as romantic as online. It’s exciting to think of Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda joining books like Boy Meets Boy, Empress of the World, My Most Excellent Year and other LGBTQ books on library shelves, and to imagine what else might join them next.
Becky Albertalli, Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda, (Penguin: London, 2015) 9780141356099, 202pp., paperback.
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