Diversity Isn’t for Historical Romance

I’ve been around in Romancelandia for a while. My young adult and “new adult” years were spent devouring romance novels and reading romance blogs, so I have a very long memory of the controversies and conversations du jour stretching back to at least 2005. So I was quite chagrined by a new Op-Ed on SBTB about the lack of diversity in historical romance. Not because the OP doesn’t have a valid argument, or that the rallying cry is not true. I was chagrined because this is an old conversation that has historically ended up with tons of comments and reaction pieces (yes, irony!), but little action. Just look at these old Dear Author posts from 2007 and 2008:

Racism in Publishing

Does Romance Need the Rooney Rule?

Solutions for Greater Equality in the Romance Market or We Can Haz Help?

(I’m linking to DA because they were the primary hub for this conversation a decade ago)

The reactions to this topic are better than they used to be–there was real angry resistance to “being forced” to read diversely back in the day–but why are we still having this conversation? And still at the 101 level?

But after reading through some of the comments, it hit me that a new generation of romance readers are coming to the genre and are looking around, wondering how their reading suddenly turned mostly–if not all–white. Now, I certainly don’t think that YA and MG are a bastion of diversity and even representation, but kidlit readers today have more to choose from than me! All I had was Addy from the American Girls, Jessie in the Baby-Sitters Club, and whatever black character was thrown into a “Very Special Release” of Sweet Valley.

Kidlit writers also have more space to write themselves (their children, their aunts, their parents, etc) into the narrative; it’s pretty much encouraged from editors, agents, booksellers, bloggers, reviewers, and readers (Sadly, romance editors and agents do not gush over #ownvoices and diversity as much as the kidlit community in those MSWL tweets).

But as readers and writers age up and seek reads that reflect their experiences and continue the pleasure of presence they found in their kidlit, they are going to bump up against the intensely segregated and marginalized adult fiction world. Which is why we have this recent Op-Ed.

Romance needs to take a hard look at itself to ask why it doesn’t feel the need to champion diverse voices in the manner of the kidlit world.

Why, ten years later, new readers are saying the exact same thing as new readers a decade ago.

Why the landscape of the genre doesn’t appear radically different than what it looked like in the past, despite claims it’s progressed from the 70s and 80s.

Why, despite the positive response to the WNDB campaign, the action in the romance genre stops mostly at Twitter retweets and comments on blog posts like the one at SBTB.

#RWA17 Panel Ideas

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I probably won’t be able to make it to an RWA conference until 2019 in NYC (since *fingers crossed* my grad school will be on the east coast). That said, since I can buy recordings after the conference ends, I have a few ideas for what I’d love to listen to:

1. Building “Ah Ha!” Romantic Moments – those ooey-gooey bits that make your stomach flutter and doubles your rooting for the protagonists to get their HEA

2. Structure and Scene – best tips for writing romance with nonlinear structures (flashbacks, flashforwards, epistolary, etc)

3. Deconstructing Romance Shorthand – why do we use and reuse certain descriptions to say X character is Y (e.g. the red-headed heroine is always feisty), and how can we complicate this in our fiction?

4. Religion in Romance – how do Inspirational and non-Inspirational Romance writers view the function and form of faith/spirituality in romance?

5. World-building in Historical Romance – not about historical accuracy, but the choices each individual author makes with their research to build their own version of Regency England, and other settings.

6. Literary/Cultural Critique of the Genre – I want to hear from romance authors trained in critique talk about romance novels and romantic fiction through the ages (nudge Emma Barry nudge)

7. Debate over the HEA/HFN – this always seems to be a point of contention for non-romance writers. I want to hear a discussion about what it is, its essential function in romance, how different authors approach writing knowing that the HEA is always endgame, if they’ve ever struggled with characters who wouldn’t ride off into the sunset.

8. Promotion and Collaboration in the post self-publishing World – how author relationships have adapted to today’s market. Groups, anthologies, co-authors, etc.

9. Add yours here!

Books, Prose, and Conversation

Archibald J. Motley Jr., Black Belt, 1934
Archibald J. Motley Jr., Black Belt, 1934. Oil on canvas, 33 x 40.5 inches (83.8 x 102.9 cm). Collection of the Hampton University Museum, Hampton, Virginia. © Valerie Gerrard Browne.

One thing I’ve been pondering as I work on two different MSS is the hows and whys of social change, and how people of the day responded to them. Looking back at the Harlem Renaissance, or even the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement in Edwardian England, we can easily pinpoint this style happened in this year because of XYZ. We are able to say “Important Writer/Artist was saying this to another VIP here after ABC.” It’s all very self-conscious of the past and whose work we consider influential and game-changing, but what was the every day life like for the people in the thick of modernism?

I finished Everybody Behaves Badly by Lesley M.M. Blume last week, and was left incredibly curious about Hemingway’s belief that he was going to change literature with his first novel. Was his assurance more than simple arrogance and self-congratulation? Was 1920s society really clamoring for something new and different? What if his book bombed? (There are plenty of now-forgotten modernist novels published at the same time)

Since my primary WIP is set during the Harlem Renaissance, I’m reading copious amounts of poetry, essays, short stories, fiction, plays, and artwork produced by the leading figures of the New Negro Movement, not simply for research but to understand the conversations between their creators. I am also listening to blues and early jazz, and reading newspapers to find connections between the creatives and the common people in Harlem since, after all, the movement was dominated by the educated, somewhat financially secure Harlemites.

But in general, I’m trying to figure out the actual conversations of my characters as they move through the 1920s. Would it be pretentious, precious, and self-conscious for them to espouse what was going on right now? (And the swiftness with which new ideas are exchanged in 2016 is something to consider when reflecting on the speed of the past) Would over-awareness seem like info-dump? Would holding too much back make the characters formless and opaque?

I’m still working on this.