Evangeline Holland

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

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?

May 3rd, 2013

The Trouble with Historical Romance

Image courtesy of Phaitoon / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Phaitoon / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This was a comment on Dear Author’s latest post about historical romance, which was written to address AAR’s Lynn Spencer’s lament about the decline of historical romance, but I didn’t want to hog the comments section.

But first my comment from last week’s Dear Author:

…I think the only way for the sub-genre to shake itself up is if we have a Fifty Shades of Grey phenom: something that originates outside of the genre and trickles down to us. Contemporary romance, erotic romance, and New Adult exploded over the past year when ex-romance readers, non-romance readers, and even romance haters devoured the trilogy and wanted more. Self-published authors and e-publishers first filled the void, and then publishers sat up to repackage backlists and sell new content from the superstars of these genres (Sylvia Day, Maya Banks, Beth Kery, et al) for these voracious new readers.

Historical romance can’t even ride the wave of popular period dramas like Downton Abbey, Hatfields & McCoy, Vikings, et al, because it’s still surfing the Jane Austen break of the 90s. Which is the sub-genre’s main issue: it has no “gateway drug” to attract new readers who will push for something different. Someone who enjoys suspense/thrillers can easily slide over into romantic suspense; someone who enjoys vampires/werewolves/etc can easily slide over into paranormal romance and urban fantasy; someone who enjoys chick-lit or women’s fiction can pick up Victoria Dahl or Robyn Carr. We aren’t going to see historical fiction readers–or even Downton Abbey fans–traipse over to the romance section and pick up books with half-naked cover models, seemingly dubious historical content, and titles like “Sins of a Wicked Rake at Midnight.”

Another issue–regarding the self-pub market–is that newly self-published authors are selling books NY did not want (not a slur on the quality, but the reality of submitting your work). If an aspiring HR author decides to put up those four books NY rejected, it’s a given that they are Regency Historicals–that’s what’s selling and you write what’s selling (and what you read). Why would an author determined to sell to a traditional publisher write books set in 1840s New York or Dark Age Britain? It’s freaking scary to be an outlier. It also requires a lot of balls to stick out your neck with unusual settings/plots/characters, and more than a little hubris, when your chances of garnering attention, readers, and a steady income is safer if you color inside of the lines.

I love history, period, and–for the sake of the romance genre–believe a deeply romantic, HEA story can happen in any setting or era, and for all types of people. However, perhaps many others don’t–the Regency setting is “safe” from the elements many feel are not conducive to a blithe HEA. Move into the Victorian era and everyone has Dickens, repressed sexuality, and grimy poverty on the brain. Move into the Edwardian era and everyone has the horrors of WWI in mind. And then the Great Depression of the 1930s if you move further into the 20th century. Move backwards in history and everyone thinks about lice, rotting teeth, smallpox, etc. Move over to America and everyone thinks about slavery, Native American oppression, and racism. The Regency setting is not exempt from its own horrors, oppression, and turmoil, but via the works of Austen and Heyer, it has been shaped into a soothing “fairy tale” period of history.

This perception of history is the challenge non-Regency authors must face (or perhaps Regency authors who cull from history rather than rely upon Heyerisms), and is probably why books set in 1840 or 1755 or 1893 still read like “Regencies”. Having just completed a romance set during WWI, I certainly kept this challenge in mind because I don’t want to scare readers away, lol. That said, I did have many moments where I second-guessed myself over whether the book fit inside the boundaries of the historical romance market (Sherry Thomas mentioned this in last Friday’s post). But I had the time to experiment with what to add and what to extract because I am not traditionally published; a published author juggling multiple deadlines does not.

This is not to say romance authors skimp on research, but the parameter for historical fiction is bound by “what happened” (or what is perceived to have happened), whereas speculative fiction (paranormal romance, romantic urban fantasy, SFF romance) is freed by “what if?”, and contemporaries by “why not?”. “What happened” combined with the expectations of the romance genre means things must be fudged, or at least spiffed up to reassure readers that the HEA means the h/h will live in bliss, in prosperity, and in chrysalis (I was intrigued when Kate Noble’s latest release, Let It Be Me opened with a prologue set in the 1890s where the Regency heroine was now elderly and the hero had been dead for many years–wonder if that upset some readers). This unique desire for historical romance readers could also be why novels inspired by the writer’s ancestors are written as historical fiction–perhaps many are too close to the reality of the past via their grandparents or aunt or great-great uncle to think of the 1940s or 1910s or 1870s as fodder for fun historical romance, whereas the Regency setting is far away enough and quite glamorous.

Overall, I don’t think historicals are going anywhere, but for new and emerging writers, I feel the clue to revitalizing the genre is not to look to what has happened–look at what is to come. Young Adult fiction is shaping how many read and consume fiction, and this audience is going to seek fiction akin to what they grew up on (hence why New Adult/Mature YA is–in my controversial opinion–meeting the needs of YA readers who wouldn’t “get” adult romance [YA romance is plentiful, so why riffle through mom’s Harlequins as you grow up? Very unlike how it seems many current romance readers were introduced to the genre]). Readers like Liz, Jessica, and Robin/Janet have mentioned needing to acclimate themselves to the language of the romance genre when they discovered it, and I think this is a vital and important element when musing about the future of the genre. I don’t claim to have fully hashed out my own thoughts or even reconciled my own writing with these ponderings, but I can’t ignore that they exist and will influence whether my writing career will sink or swim.

Thoughts? Rebuttals? Opinions?