October 24, 2016
S.E. Hinton hasn’t the faintest idea where you got all these gay interpretations of The Outsiders
by Liam O’Brien
Now that authors are on Twitter, we have entered into an unprecedented age of fan theory. Whereas in the pre-microblogging days of furiously typed LiveJournals and other platforms about which you’re a little embarrassed for pouring your soul into (guilty), you were forced to share cultural and artistic interpretation among like-minded fans, you can now send your theories right to the source.
Which is why it was inevitable that we would see the following interaction take place:
@MrCadeWinston No. Where is the text backing this?
— S. E. Hinton (@se4realhinton) October 17, 2016
This is author S.E. Hinton talking about her seminal work, The Outsiders. As described by E. Alex Jung of Vulture:
The characters Dallas and Johnny Cade… are street toughs, and Dallas, the coolest, baddest-ass greaser of them all, is especially protective of Johnny, who comes from a home filled with abuse, alcoholism, and neglect. Was this a gay relationship that couldn’t be explicitly rendered as such back when the book was first published in 1967?
Hinton says no, in what becomes an especially uncomfortable series of Twitter interactions. While claiming multiple times that she intended no gay subtext when she wrote the book at age nineteen, she manages to take a swipe at enthusiasts, and just generally act as though she’s been taken extremely off-guard by the entire topic, stating,“I never set out to make anyone feel safe.”
Which is somewhat believable, assuming Hinton doesn’t spend her time being exposed to Tumblr or other places where you might find aggregated lists of YA books with queer themes. And while it’s unfortunate how this has played out, I can understand Hinton’s reaction to what she considers a radical interpretation of her signature work.
On the other hand, asking authors to clarify subtext, or to imagine for the reader what goes on outside of or beyond the text, is extremely risky fan behavior, because it can easily lead to a kind of chain reaction of disappointment and cognitive dissonance that tarnishes an otherwise treasured connection with a work of art. It’s like they say: never tweet your heroes.
But that’s the risk you take being part of a fandom. Maybe you don’t appreciate the fact that J.K. Rowling won’t let Harry Potter rest. But like it or not, that’s her (financial and artistic) prerogative, and all you can do is ignore it. So if your connection to The Outsiders is dependent on how it defined gayness, whether or not Hinton intended as much, then this might be a disappointing development. But you could also choose to value your own interpretation over Hinton’s intent, and thus preserve the text’s value to you.
Of course, this opens up entire graduate theses’ worth of questions over the supremacy of post-publication canon as dictated by the author versus the value of transformative work/fanfic/slashfic etc etc etc. Which we won’t be going into here. But suffice it to say, The Outsiders is still pretty damn queer. In my opinion.
Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.