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!

Where Do We Go From Here?

wheredowego

Much has been said about For Such a Time by Kate Breslin. I haven’t read the book, nor do I plan to, so I will direct you to the thoughtful, sometimes painful responses to the book from Katherine Locke, Rose Lerner, Sarah Wendell, K.K. Hendin, Abigail Nussbaum, Kelly at Instalove, Jackie Barbosa, Janine & Sunita at Dear Author, Ros Clarke, Laura Curtis, Emily Jane Hubbard, Joanne Renaud, and…I’m sure I’ve probably missed more. The Twitter conversations are vital as well.


My thoughts have circled around “What next?”.

The book and the responses to it have gone fairly international, with many mainstream news outlets picking up the ~controversy~ and its ~tearing apart~ the romance community. Wendy the Super Librarian and Sunita have focused on the romance community’s complicity in the existence of FSaT because of the popularity of romances with consent issues and wonky power dynamics, as well as the love for “extreme heroes.” Other conversations have made the regulations of the RITA Awards a focal point. Both are valid conversations to have with regards to FSaT. A number of people have asked why now? Why not when the book was initially published? Why not when SBTB posted their review in June?

As I posted on Wendy’s blog:

This dialogue has come to encompass many overlapping topics, of which consent, power dynamics, and other problematic elements are one. However, the genesis of the conversation mostly–if not entirely–derives from the microaggressions and sometimes hostility experienced at RWA in the context of diversity in the genre and its strong presence in the form of authors in NYC.

My response is threefold:

This book hurt people. This book violated the safe space the romance community purports to represent for women authors. And lastly, this book should make the romance community take a closer look at itself for how it marginalizes and silences the voices of certain women.

It’s quite possible that no one spoke up before now because they know and have experienced the artificial reception to saying, “hey, this is hurtful/wrong/problematic” within the community.

We’ve marched so fervently under the banner of “yay women’s fantasies, pleasures, and personal kinks” that we have built a community that decimates any critique of the content.

We’ve marched so fervently under the banner of “romance is feminist/for women” that we denigrate anyone who asks “which women? whose feminism?”.

We’ve created a community that prefers to doggy paddle in the shallow end of the pool, even as we present ourselves as Olympic divers to naysayers.

I sat on my response to Sunita’s post because it felt unformed, and it wasn’t until I happened to discover an article about “ethnic romance” in the December 1982 issue of Black Enterprise that my thoughts fully coalesced.

There’s a popular saying that “History is Written by the Victors” (ironically, no one knows to whom to attribute the quote!). This is used as a generic, catch-all excuse during debates over history and historical accuracy in any field in which history is vital.

I will go further and say that history is written by the privileged, for the benefit of privileged audiences, who internalize them and, if they are a writer, regurgitate them all over again for the privileged readership. And it impresses upon the marginalized audiences that they are not the norm–and that to be the norm means to believe in and to perform those privileged narratives.

The Black Enterprise article, written at the height of the romance boom of the early 1980s, was astonishing and painful to read for many reasons, the most outrageous being the deliberate throttling of a diverse romance industry.

Without this article, the old chestnut that Terry MacMillan’s Waiting to Exhale is the genesis of African-American popular fiction, which then trickled down to the romance genre, could remain unchallenged. Without this article, you could continue believing there were little to no romance writers of any ethnic background trying to break into the genre before 1995–and that the publishing industry was absolutely shocked that African-American women read romance. You probably wouldn’t even be aware of the powerful, influential African-American romance editors who not only shaped general romance industry trends, but went to bat for diverse romance.


When I decided to write a romance novel, I didn’t know anything about publishing, the RWA, other authors, writing communities, etc. I had read a boatload of Regency romances and felt the urge to write one of my own. As is usual with young writers, my first novel was complete self-insertion: a mixed race American girl travels to Regency England to claim her inheritance and is swept away by an earl (don’t ask to see it! It’s on an old hard drive). At the time, I was heavily involved in the fanfiction community, so I was certain there existed a romance writing community online, and there was! I joined a few forums and loops and settled in to have fun.

Gradually, I realized that non-white romance writers did not exist to the mainstream romance community. And that to succeed on an equal playing field meant suppressing part of my heritage. Oh, it wasn’t a conscious effort to “pass”–I genuinely love Edwardian England, and I’ve always been a bit of a square peg in general, so I never go into any community expecting to fit in 100% (I never do *sad trombone*). But the realization that writing romance with characters of my ethnic background meant I too would no longer exist to people I admired and whose books I loved was a bit traumatic.

Call me naive and sheltered at best, or stupid at worst, but as a kid who was often ushered into gifted programs, encouraged by teachers to explore my talents, and happily chosen for a number of extracurricular activities–I have never entered a situation where my existence would be automatically marginalized and where my talent would be automatically second-guessed, until I became involved in the publishing industry.

Thankfully, my rather (racially/ethnically) sheltered upbringing keeps me more optimistic than I would assume, but when presented with the opportunity to present my work on a mainstream platform, I took the plunge and wrote myself back into the story.


One of the major selling points for the romance genre, when combating negativity from naysayers is to cite romance’s billion dollar market. In 1982, the money to be made in romance was distinctly marveled over by the Black Enterprise reporter: “With advances on the typical romance averaging $5000, against royalties of about $20,000 for each book…it is not at all unusual for prolific full-time romance writers to make $100,000 or more yearly.”

Economic freedom and empowerment of women is what this emphasis on sales revenue promotes, particularly post-2010 (KDP’s inauguration).


Last year, Sunita initiated a great conversation about “id reading,” with particular emphasis on historical romance. Her post about Nazi heroes in romance fits into this “id reading.”

I’ve had a great opportunity to think about my Christian privilege throughout the conversation surrounding FSaT, and the book’s existence is both the result of id reading and the cultural privilege of (generic) Protestant Christianity in American society. This goes beyond the Christian/Evangelical/Inspirational Fiction community vs Secular. This is about how American society easily co-opts the Holocaust because it has little to do with our everyday lives. Because Christianity, in whatever form, is the default. Because Americans like to believe we’re the heroes of the world, based on our superiority through Christianity. “Redeeming” a Nazi, whether it be in inspy fiction, m/m fiction, etc, thus falls under the umbrella of American=hero=Christian=saving=superior.

And this is all up in the most popular romance tropes of the good, moral heroine saving the dark, evil, amoral, troubled vampire/Navy SEAL/duke/BDSM billionaire/MMA fighter millionaire college freshman by the redemptive power of love.

Circling back to historical romance specifically, the genre co-opts a lot of popular narratives from novels and film and turns them into tropes (e.g. Tarzan, The Sheikh, etc), with little unpacking of the troublesome baggage attached to them. And popular narratives also contribute to the erasure of diverse peoples in the past because their points of origin go unquestioned (hello Production Code, which deliberately ironed out the real lives of the past [1930s-1960s]) and passed this down as how life was Back Then [wholesome, all white, good, upstanding, and moral]).

Combine all of these elements, shake em up, and you get why FSaT can be conceived, written, published, read, and feted without anyone in the line of production bringing it to a screeching halt.


I have a little bit of a radical streak at times, so I’ll be frank: the calls for diversity and inclusiveness can often seem a little like the story of the little boy with his finger in the dam. And to use a little Biblical allegory–you don’t put new wine into old wineskins.

The posts on SC Write and Buzzfeed give voice to this.

To ironically quote Gwyneth Paltrow, we need to consciously uncouple from the structures that have historically marginalized certain voices.

Historical romance in particular needs to be decolonized.

So, now I ask, where do we go from here?