Tag Archives: diversity in romance

Jane Austen’s Small-Town Caribbean

Jane Austen only ever wrote one duke.

He doesn’t even appear on the page. He warrants a brief secondhand mention during the amateur theatricals of Mansfield Park, and POOF, farewell to his grace. There are a few titled Austen characters floating around in the novels, but even such plain titles as Sir, Lord, or Lady are rarefied and remarkable among all the misses and misters.

Caught as we are in the current wave of Ducaphilia, it’s hard for us to dissociate Austen from the sparkling titles that abound in modern historical romance. Every duke is a Darcy, after all, a well-bred, well-monied, appropriately snobby catch of a man. A lot of this transformation we can lay at Georgette Heyer’s door — the Austen –> Heyer –> Julia Quinn geneology seems pretty self-evident. (And there are plenty of names we could sub in for Quinn in that third step, no mistake: Eloisa James and Sarah MacLean, for instance.) But Austen’s primary heroines are untitled, unlanded, and uncomfortably financed. The social ground is always ready to shift beneath their feet.

Cover art for Summer for Scandal by Lydia San Andres.Which is why it fits so nicely when Lydia San Andres’ delightful Summer for Scandal transposes the structure of Pride and Prejudice to Arroyo Blanco, a fictional Caribbean town in 1911. Here social status can rise and fall with the speed of a rumor, small-scale authority can flex its muscle like a tyrant, and the course of a woman’s whole life can be changed by something as ordinary as tipping over a rowboat in a lagoon. (White linen, lagoon swims, and guava jelly — reading this book made me yearn for the tropics.)

At the same time, the story reverses several key dynamics of Austen’s novel, and part of the fun for this reader was tracing how those changes worked within and against the familiar P&P pattern. This makes for a strong, elegant romance that gets better and more profound the more I look at it.

Naturally, spoilers will abound from here on out.

Continue reading Jane Austen’s Small-Town Caribbean

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High Stakes Visibility

Two things in particular happened this week.

1. Authors of color shared their experiences at the national RWA conference in New York. Suleikha Snyder’s ‘A Tale of Two Conferences’ and Rebekah Weatherspoon’s ‘#RWA15 – A WOC Perspective’ are both required reading, especially if you’re newly awakened to the obstacles that authors of color overcome in addition to more openly acknowledged difficulties (revisions, synopses, caffeine dependency). Subsequent Twitter discussion brought up microaggressions and pushback from both fellow conference-goers and, most egregiously, the aggressive indifference of Pocket Books, which admitted in a spotlight chat that they refer non-white submissions to other imprints.

2. NPR posted a list of ‘100 Swoon-Worthy Romances’, a list compiled from both popular suggestion and curation. They are open about the fact that they corrected to showcase not only breadth of subgenre, but also more diversity of character and author than appeared in the popular vote. Some of the books on the list feature racist or misogynist content (I love you for being my first, Johanna Lindsey’s Warrior’s Woman, but come the fuck on.) The comments on the list are about what you’d expect in terms of romance reader versus non-romance reader, with bonus hat-tip to the misguided gentleman who stiffly informs Victoria Motherfucking Dahl she doesn’t need to be embarrassed.

There was a brief feel-good reaction to the list on romance Twitter — it’s always pleasant when people take as a given that romance reading has merit, or at least as much merit as other kinds of reading. But in light of Moment No. 1 it felt stifling, as though we’d only just opened Romance’s Box O’Problems and now the lid was slamming back shut out of defensiveness. H/t Mikki Kendall: #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen.

My assertion in this post is that these two moments are connected by more than just the romance genre. Both arise out of a profound and profoundly human need for visibility in stories — but then this need is filtered through the detritus of racism, classism, economic gain, and internalized misogyny. And things get shitty fast.

Romance has been the Designated Women’s Genre for a couple centuries now in Anglophone literature: written by women, featuring women, focusing on women’s lives and experience. This is often held up as proof of its empowering nature: I’ve done this more than once myself. It would be more accurate to say, though, that the vast majority of romance has focused on the lives and experiences of thin middle-to-upper-class white cis able-bodied women, with more than average levels of education. Bluestockings and heiresses a-plenty, housemaids and washerwomen not so much.

There’s a straight line you can draw from Jane Austen’s concern with the commodity model of marriage down to Betty Freidan’s Feminine Mystique. Because taking out the Canonical White Male capstone from the pyramid of kyriarchal literature still leaves all the other levels of the hierarchy in place. Women who have privilege will take up more narrative space than women without. This is not to say subversive things do not happen in books written by privileged white women; it is only to say that this is a limited conversation, and a less than universal empowerment.

Treating visibility as a zero-sum game is a failure of empathy we have seen over and over again: in publishing, in movies, in games. In the women’s suffrage movement, which as bell hooks shows explicitly rejected black women’s participation, even as black women were being rejected from participating in the abolition of slavery: white women counted, and black men counted, but black women didn’t. Black women, of course, kept participating anyways — they just aren’t historically celebrated for their labor. (See: Ida B. Wells.)

Now we’re seeing this same dynamic in romance, right out in the open at conferences and on social media. White women — because yeah, romance authors and publishers are mostly white, and anyone who gets defensive about this fact is not helping — push back against the call to diversify the genre because they’re used to defending it from the attacks of more privileged men. They have a readymade set of romance-defense rhetorical tools at the ready, whether it’s “laughing all the way to the bank” or “written by women, for women.”

They also push back against diversity because white privilege makes it easy to believe that women of color don’t count. It is impossible to untangle these two motivations from each other, since they come from a single system.

Racism is not just about police violence and starred-out slurs: racism is equally manifest in that knee-jerk, quiet little voice that whispers outsider when a woman of color asks for more heroines of color in romance. And if she writes heroines of color in her own stories, with happy endings? If she courts publishers or agents and markets her work? She’s taking our readers. Because white privilege tells us over and over that a woman of color cannot possibly be an insider herself. She doesn’t count. Not as a writer, and not as a woman. Not really. Not like us.

That voice is all the harder to uproot for being quiet.

 

It is impossible to overstate how much of this is tied up with money. Romance is big money for white women — one of the few genres where a woman’s name on the cover is not an automatic liability to sales. Meanwhile more and more books are appearing every year, while we all feel we have to write faster and faster, and prices and royalties fall lower and lower. Meanwhile women of color have a much larger wage gap than white women, and as a result can less easily spare time for activities without an immediate financial benefit — such as writing romances. Or self-publishing romances. They have to fight to enter the market, and fight to stay in it. This can be damn exhausting, and no wonder.

All because white women fucking forget that women of color count as women. As readers and insiders. As authors. As heroines.

We all have a need to be visible in the stories we tell. We as an industry need to be better at including all voices — not least because we are an industry, not a group of friends who get together over red wine and shirtless Hiddleston pics. An industry means money, and money means that when we shut out women of color, we do so in a way that actively privileges our lives and livelihoods over theirs. It is disingenuous to pretend that this is only about what types of stories we like to read: you cannot rail against ebook piracy and then claim it’s a total coincidence you only choose to read white authors.

You don’t have to apologize for your privilege, if you have it — but you can’t use it as a weapon against those who don’t. You can’t hide behind it, either, and claim you’re only being civil or professional.

Either you’re in this business for everyone, or you’re only out for yourself.

 

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Filthy Lucre and Laundered Souls

{Disclaimer: a copy of this book was provided me by the author for review. Ms. Cullars reached out after I discussed an earlier work of hers in my Feminism A-Z series on intersectionality in romance. It’s a brave author who looks at those posts and asks to run the gauntlet again. Especially since this review turned out to be extremely long. Spoilers will naturally abound, so be ye warned.

Also, this review series really does need a better title, so any suggestions will be most welcome.}

There’s an old joke that runs though literature departments: everything in fiction is a metaphor for sex — except sex, which is a metaphor for death.

Cover for Filthy Lucre by Sharon Cullars.

With money, it seems to go the other way. Money in fiction — literary, mystery, romance, sff, whatever — is always a stand-in for something else. Usually power, of course, but that begs the question: what kind of power precisely? In the case of Filthy Lucre by Sharon Cullars, money stands in for agency, for freedom, and for trust. Sometimes all at once, which makes my analytical brain rejoice.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first thing: this is a thoughtful and unusual romance — bank-robbing hero and black heroine in Missouri in 1933? AMBITIOUS — and it was really enjoyable. Definitely read it before continuing this post. There are mouth-watering food descriptions and richly drawn characters and real human conflict keeping the hero and heroine apart. Things like: he’s a bank robber who’s brought his fellow bank robbers into her home and they’ve taken her hostage and are probably going to kill her so they can make a clean getaway after the robbery. Also, those other bank robbers are Bonnie and Clyde. Yes, that Bonnie and Clyde.

I told you it was unusual. Continue reading Filthy Lucre and Laundered Souls

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A to Z Wrap-Up

1. I did it! I did it! *collapses into wild laughter and sobs* Thank you to everyone who commented, replied, and retweeted — the best part of this series was hearing other people’s thoughts, whether or not they aligned with mine. Authors, readers, and reviewers all care so deeply about what is going on in romance: it gives me hope in a world that so often seems unfixable.

2. It occurred to me around the letter D — for Tessa Dare — that this whole project could be considered a particularly exquisite and long-form instance of trolling. We have talked so much and at so many cross purposes about reviewing and readership and authorship in the genre lately, and here I was with twenty-six posts that question, criticize, analyze, and overthink romances by authors who are frequently friends or online acquaintances. There was the distinct feeling that I was angling for trouble. Especially since some of the books I took most to task were by big-name authors heavily laureled with industry awards and platinum sales figures. And some of the subjects I tackled were things I approach as an outsider. I’ll admit to no few qualms about this, despite all my grumpy defiance. But a lot of people seemed to be on the same page about problematic books, and many authors commented or tweeted in support as well. Best of all were the people who got excited and went out in search of the books I discussed — the whole point of this was to draw more attention to characters and authors from underrepresented groups, and if I’ve done even a little work to help that then this project counts as a success.

3. In fact, I liked doing this so much that I’m going to try and do at least one analytic post a month from now on. I might not always pick books with the criteria I’ve used here, but this is a part of my brain that I’m happy to have dusted off and put back to work. I think it’ll be good for my heart as well as for my fiction. Plus, I still owe you a Vorkosigan post, after all.

4. Around the letters M and N, I started to have more questions than answers about the books I was reading. Time was catching up to me and I refused to post something too half-baked just for the sake of posting, so I ended with questions. While this is not a strategy I intend to depend on entirely — unanswered questions are neither helpful in large doses nor do they generally make for good reading — I found it liberating to illustrate the net I was caught in, rather than trying to always cut myself free of threads that could ultimately prove useful or important. 

5. I made it onto Metafilter! Someone thinks my Sandra Hill post was a terrible review because I did not give a synopsis of the plot! Someone else thinks my writing style is like the Hairpin! It’s a pretty fun thread, with some really good points.

6. If you missed this stunning essay from Daniel José Older, “Diversity Is Not Enough,” then please click through and read the whole thing at once. It’s an excellent reminder that while talk is all well and good, the ultimate goal of such talk is to change the world. The real world, the one we’re living and breathing and eating and fucking and laughing and writing in.

7. I rarely tagged an author while sharing these posts, so I was surprised and delighted by the wealth of positive author response, even from authors whose books I had given less than glowing assessments of. Taking texts seriously as texts, even to disagree with, bears fruit, and that’s something I’m going to hold close against my heart to warm me during the cold, rainy winter of the soul. And the times I did really get down and dirty with righteous wrath (ahem) so far have not risen up to crush me. Exciting! Though ask me again after the RT Convention I’m attending in May, where it’s possible someone will give me the cut direct! Whereupon I’m sure I will weep bitter tears into my lemonade. Or, more probably, quote to myself a comforting snippet of Dorothy Parker:

And sweet’s the air with curly smoke

From all my burning bridges.

Memorizing Dorothy Parker poems by reading them too many times is definitely one of the happiest accidents of my life.

In case anyone wants to go back and read past entries, I’ve made a complete page for just the alphabet without all the introductory paragraphs.

And in the immortal words of Strong Bad, now it is my intention to sit down and play video games for several hours.

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