Authors voice fury at Russian publisher cutting gay scene from novel

Author VE Schwab ‘devastated’ after discovering a storyline was cut without her permission in Russia, where LGBT books are regularly shrinkwrapped

VE Schwab’s Shades of Magic series follows the story of the magician Kell, a “traveller” with the ability to move between four parallel versions of London. Acclaimed and bestselling – in the Guardian it was called “a compelling, swashbuckling read” – the fantasy trilogy features a diverse array of characters, from the gender-fluid pickpocket Lila to the bisexual prince Rhy. However, Schwab was horrified to learn last week that her books aren’t quite so diverse in Russian translations, where her publisher excised a scene about the romantic relationship between two male characters.

“The Russian edition of Shades of Magic has been my favourite. This week I learned that they redacted the entire queer plot w/out permission,” she wrote on Twitter to her more than 50,000 followers, describing herself as “positively devastated”.

“I was absolutely horrified,” she continued. “Wouldn’t have known if not for a Russian reader who read both editions. Publisher in total breach of contract.”

Schwab’s novels have run foul of Russia’s so-called “gay propaganda” law, a 2013 ruling which bans the spreading of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors. In June, the European court of human rights found that the law “reinforce[s] stigma and encourage[s] homophobia, which is incompatible with the notions of equality, pluralism and tolerance inherent in a democratic society”. Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson said at the time that the Kremlin would study the ruling.

It is now common practice for foreign novelists writing books containing LGBT characters and stories to find their work shrinkwrapped in plastic and given an 18-plus rating in Russia, in order to comply with the law, which brings fines for individuals and organisations who break it. Schwab’s Russian publisher, Rosman, took a different approach: cutting a flirtatious scene in the second novel in the series – in which two male characters are reunited after three years apart – down to just a few lines. Rosman did not respond to questions from the Guardian, but told Russian press that “we only did this so that we wouldn’t violate the ban on gay propaganda for minors … but we kept the romantic plotline as a whole”, the Moscow Times reported. The Guardian understands that the author and the Russian publisher are currently working together to resolve the issue.

Policemen approach to check a passport of a gay rights activist standing in individual picket in St.Petersburg, Russia, Wednesday, April 4, 2012. His poster reads: “In this library there are also books by gay and lesbian writers. Their works are a part of the world culture”.
Policemen approach to check a passport of a gay rights activist, St.Petersburg, Russia, 4 April 2012. His poster reads: “In this library there are also books by gay and lesbian writers. Their works are a part of the world culture”. Photograph: Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

Schwab was backed by her fellow novelists after revealing the details of the change online. Patrick Ness called the move “completely unacceptable” on Twitter, adding: “I’m wrapped in plastic but I’m there”, while Victoria Aveyard, author of the Red Queen series, said on Twitter that she was investigating the Russian translations of her own books. The American novelist David Leavitt said: “I understand VE Schwab’s anger and distress and join her in condemning the Russian law in question in the strongest possible terms on behalf of all writers.”

Translators said that Russian publishers were struggling to find a pathway between wanting to release lucrative foreign work and avoiding fines. “It’s the first time I’ve heard of an entire storyline being removed from a novel, but I’m aware of it only because the original, English-language author found out about it. It’s hard to say how much of this is actually going on,” said the translator Anne Marie Jackson. “That said, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Russian publishers are simply steering clear of any work with gay themes that could bring down the wrath of the authorities.”

The propaganda law itself was roundly attacked by free speech organisations. “Once the Russian government introduced the illiberal restrictions on the way LGBTQ content can be packaged and sold, it was inevitable that authors would find that their freedom of expression curtailed, as has unfortunately happened to VE Schwab,” said Robert Sharp at English PEN. “The aim of this law is to discourage diversity in publishing, and it has turned Russian publishers into censors. This ill-conceived law is harming Russian culture and should be scrapped.”

Sahar Halaimzai at Pen International agreed, calling the law “effectively state-sanctioned persecution of an at risk minority”.

“We have seen time and again the way this insidious law encourages discrimination, homophobia, transphobia and violence. It reinforces stigma and violates peoples’ right to free expression, among other things,” said Halaimzai. “We reiterate our call on the Russian authorities to repeal its homophobic legislation, end discriminatory practices and fully respect every person’s right to freedom of expression.”

  • This article was amended on 16 August, to correct the genre of Schwab’s book series. It is fantasy, not young adult fiction.

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Alison Flood

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