The classic young adult novel The Outsiders, a gritty saga about teenage gang rivalry, came out 50 years ago as of 2017, and it’s remained popular ever since. Though frequently challenged for its unvarnished depictions of violence and teen substance abuse, it’s also often on syllabuses in high school English classes.
But times have been a-changin’ since author S.E. Hinton penned the book, long beloved by misfit teens, when she herself was a high schooler in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The novel, which depicts close, caring relationships between poor and rough-around-the-edges teen boys, lends itself particularly well to interpretations of homoeroticism and submerged gay romance. Though many of Hinton’s fans are eager to read these shades of queerness in her 50-year-old story, she has repeatedly, and controversially, denied that her characters are gay ― and last week, she went so far as to claim that she was “being attacked for being hetero.”
The Hinton-vs.-readers dustup over character orientation dates back to at least October, when she responded on Twitter to a young fan who asked outright whether Johnny Cade and Dally, two of the young toughs in the novel, were secretly in love, adding that she thought it would be cute:
Hinton’s curt responses attracted outrage from readers who inferred a soupçon of homophobia in her denial:
Earlier this month, the debate resurfaced on Hinton’s Twitter feed, where her terse tone and defensiveness continued to antagonize a segment of her readers:
In her latest flood of tweets on the topic, she explicitly claimed that she felt her sexual orientation was under attack, drawing derision and anger from many:
Hinton also gestured, perhaps intentionally, toward the uproar last year over Lionel Shriver’s speech rejecting the idea of cultural appropriation, tweeting that she didn’t feel comfortable writing about gay characters because she didn’t own their experience. “There are many writers (good ones) to write from personal experience on this subject,” she tweeted at one critic.
She had at least one high-profile supporter:
Many authors, including (notoriously) Song of Ice and Fire series scribe George R. R. Martin, struggle with the strength of fan theories and the pervasiveness of fan fiction, which often take characters in far different directions than the creator intended. A similar frustration can be sensed in Hinton’s decisive smackdowns of any idea that Outsiders characters might be gay. Much like Game of Thrones, her half-century-old YA book is a magnet for amateur spinoffs; young fans have written over 9,000 stories about characters like Ponyboy, Sodapop and Johnny Cade on fanfiction.net alone. In 2012, Hinton bemoaned an Outsiders fic with an mpreg plotline.
Despite her ruffled response to the gay theories, Hinton has said that she doesn’t actually have an issue with fan fiction ― she’s even written her own, about the TV show “Supernatural.” (We’ll never read The Outsiders the same way again.)
In her flurry of tweets last week, Hinton did herself no favors with fans by framing herself as a victim and evincing knee-jerk irritation at the idea of her tightly knit gang of teenage boys being involved in gay love affairs. Ultimately, however, she insisted that she believes her readers have every right to their own interpretation ― as long as she can maintain her original vision:
It’s not exactly the J.K. Rowling approach, that’s for sure. But given that The Outsiders is halfway to 100 years old, maybe we’re all better served by focusing on the outstanding YA fiction about LGBTQ kids being published today ― and feeling absolutely free to believe, in our hearts, that Johnny and Dally were in love.