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.