Evangeline Holland

Sweeping Drama ⚜ Larger than Life History ⚜ Exquisite Romance ⚜ Diverse Perspectives
August 12th, 2015 by Evangeline Holland

Where Do We Go From Here?


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?


6 Responses to “Where Do We Go From Here?”
  1. I do believe I can hear pearls and the cardigans to several sweater sets being clutched. Yes, the lens through which the historical romance has been viewed needs to be adjusted but how? We writers of color can keep penning our takes but is the mainstream reading them outside of Beverly Jenkins work? Personally, I made the decision years ago that I will write for me no matter what. Plus I was lucky a publisher liked it. We know a real income from writing can’t be made unless folks are buying. ALL kinds of folks. So I decided I wouldn’t depend on that revenue to live. And that’s what freed me. I write historicals and paranormals. Two tough fields to catch traction in especially if that heroine is not the big bosomed blonde-du-jour or the blonde-chick-in-leather-wielding-edged-instrument. I have no intention of making them blonde to make the old guard comfy. So with readers used to those images, anything outside of that default will be seen as a novelty and a challenge. It’s sad because we have so much to offer that is worthy of more than the occasional, patronizing nod.

    • Yes, that belated acknowledgement (usually when the issue of diversity is brought up) is indeed the saddest part. Which is why I had to say that the genre chooses to behave as though “ethnic romance” and its writers don’t exist.

      I really appreciate the work you, Beverly Jenkins, Piper Huguley, and others are doing to restore some color to the historical narrative.

  2. merriank says

    I read Bethany House’s statement which uses those RITA nominations as cover thus highlighting how the problem is structural and within the genre. Until Harlequin stops publishing Sheikh romances and publishers stop using trend and diversity in the same sentence we won’t see change. How we/genre/publishers think about the world has to be broken open and shifted. Also, how important it is to have hold of our history. That ‘Black Enterprise’ article highlights so much, especially one of the things very wrong with that book; re-writing the agency and the truth of the Jewish people in the Holocaust and being a-historical in that.

    One thing I have thought over the years is that change comes through our words, our chosen vocabulary that we use to engage with the world influences the world around us and reflects back different things and possibilities depending. The romance genre needs to change and open up its language of possibilities by acknowledging it’s current default of white, middleclass, protestant is just that, the unthinking default.

    • I completely agree that words hold a lot of power–if not all of it. And books make you get inside of stories; the stories get inside of your head. I like to believe that this dialogue around FSaT will create new conversations and add to/increase our book vocabulary. But we’ll see!

  3. Thank you for this–and for including the links to that Black Enterprise piece. As someone who works on romance from the academic side, I can tell you that there’s a lot of false or incomplete publishing history in circulation, as well as a lot of boosterism (pushing back against earlier academic dismissal, but still problematic). I’m lucky enough to have opportunities to tell both students and scholars about the genre and its history–teaching a Beverly Jenkins novel this afternoon, in fact–and I’m very grateful to you for helping me do a better, truer job.

    • Thank you for reading! I like to believe that we all–writers, readers, and scholars alike–are now creating a community that challenges and interrogates the past, for a better picture of where we’ve been and where we’re to hopefully go.

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