Am I Falling Out of Love With Romance?

Disclaimer: While this is something I’ve thought about in some form for a while, and it finally hit a breaking point. It’s also purely an opinion piece meant to vent my frustration, and not meant to disparage anyone or the romance genre as a whole in any way. 

“In some ways, portraying a healthy relationship in literature is the most revolutionary thing you can do.” Julia Quinn said this in an interview, and while I do see her as something of a problematic fave for other reasons I won’t get into here but have been discussed to death in certain sections of social media, I love her for this reason: her relationships feel realistic and something I as a feminist could believe in. I also loved the way authors like Maya Rodale unpacked the radical nature of romance novels, discussing how it always was about women and them negotiating their agency, even in the 1970s when dubious consent and full-on rape were features of the plots (for info on this contradiction, check out her book, Dangerous Books for Girls). 

But between the comments I’ve seen online that such books were more “historically accurate” due to being published pre-political correctness (the only thing they’re not is respectful of cultural diversity, given the plethora of sheikh and Native American romances at worst, and the constant erasure of the actually accurate presence of minorities at best) to the contrary protests against detractors of romance calling them “unrealistic” (among other, more derogatory, terms) juxtaposed against the defense that “it’s fiction” to defend the perpetuation of troubling tropes, I honestly wonder if the romance community, one I thought was loving, welcoming, and progressive (although still flawed) is really any of those things.

 I mean, writers continue to show their true colors daily. From the people who speak out about plagiarism but are silent, dismissive, or complicit in the racist actions of others in the community, it’s easy to lose faith as more and more bad actors come out. But even that just affirmed that most of the authors I read are great, even if, like JQ, they do have their blind spots. With each yearly Ripped Bodice survey of diversity in publishing, there is outrage. And most on Twitter reacted with fury at the announcement of a recent book acquisition dealing with “romance across the partisan divide.”
But why, then, have I read way more books than any previous year, and statistically romance is still my main genre, but I feel like I’ve been falling out of love with the genre, or at the very least, the community, or small sectors of it? 

Part of it seems to be the weird double standards. It’s touted as “by women for women” but for the most part, they clearly mean “by cishet women for cishet women,” because, aside from the fact that there are non-binary authors and readers, f/f is underrepresented compared to m/m, with the former being called “gross” by cishet female readers who don’t mind fetishizing m/m (not to mention sexy men in general) and some not considering gay men as a legitimate audience for romance.
And that brings me to my main source of frustration. #MeToo apparently rocked the romance world when it first became a headline, with authors like Sarah MacLean, Lisa Kleypas, and many others talking about how it (and/or the election of Trunp) impacted their writing process. However, there does still appear to be a market for the more problematic elements. I’m not talking consensual BDSM, as a tweet states that there is a clear difference between accurate depictions of the lifestyle and Fifty Shades-esque inaccurate portrayals masking abuse, better suited for an episode of Law and Order: SVU. But from the rise of new subgenres like “bully romance” in the indie scene to the publication of an old shoe of a romance book like Bringing Down the Duke, that actually doesn’t add anything new to the genre like it claims to and just feels like an Old School 80s romance in a way that will appeal to new readers, predatory male-in-power behavior and all, it’s clear the community still loves a “good” misogynistic, abusive alphahole. It’s fine if the author can add some nuance to the stereotype to make him sympathetic, as Kerrigan Byrne does with her latest, How to Love a Duke in Ten Days, completely going against her typical setup of taming the often unlikable heroes by having a hero who is more less likable, while still creating a strong and emotionally compelling alpha male character who can realistically change in the space of 300-ish pasges. But when the book hinges on it all being a “fantasy” that he will reform, that’s when I check out and prefer to imagine the book ends with the “hero” dying from a fall off a cliff, and as shown in my interaction with Nicola Davidson, I am not alone in this opinion. 

And them describing the“fantasy” of it also makes me laugh. Romance gets pegged as “unrealistic,” and while I understand you interact differently with romance readers than you might detractors, due to one being conceivably viewed as a safe haven, as a budding writer, I’ve heard there should be a certain element of realism or plausibility, even in fiction. Obviously, romance is somewhat unique in that it glosses over some elements, like no one ever smells bad or is missing teeth in historicals, but it seems pretty crappy to gloss over the reality of abuse with the belief that “anyone can be redeemed!”

And then, when I really started to think about these romance community disparities, especially in the aftermath of the wider #DeleteFacebook movement, I began to notice the difference between Romance Twitter and Romance Facebook. Romance Twitter is where all the activists are; that’s not to say there aren’t bad actors there, but that’s where I heard about the outrage over the partisan divide book, for example, and while publishing news is less plentiful in Romance Facebook, I did expect more outrage than I got when I shared it in a thread.And even the people who are or were on both platforms feel they can be freer with their opinions, as demonstrated by the greater advocacy on many an author’s Twitter feed, whereas they tend to be more circumspect on Facebook.

And the overall demographics of the people who use Twitter vs Facebook become more apparent when it comes to their opinions on news items and public figures. Lately, I’ve seen a ton of tweets defending Harry and Meghan in the aftermath of the release of their new documentary and war with the press. And, perhaps illustrating why their feelings are what they are, you can’t open a comments section for any Harry/Meghan article without seeing awful comments from trolls saying she should suck it up, she married into it, or otherwise showing no sympathy for her whatsoever. And why Ellen DeGeneres defended her friendship with George W.  Bush, it was the Twitter users who pointed out why her “be kind to everyone” message was so privileged and ignorant. 

And I’m sick of it. A lot of the problems in romance come from privilege and ignorance. Some readers and writers do go into books with problematic content and unapologetically enjoy them, and I feel nothing but respect for them, even if we disagree. But the exhausted excuses, the way it’s hampered inclusion of much else besides white alpha cishet masculine broody “heroes,” to the exclusion of everyone else? They say there’s romances for everyone, and that is still true, but it doesn’t the perpetuation of these tropes  less concerning from a personal standpoint.  



“No, You’re Not the First!”: Erasure and False Advertising as Marketing in Trade Paperback Romance

The last year or two has seen romance go “mainstream” to an extent, even more so than the slight push it got from the Fifty Shades series. And on the surface, it seems to be somewhat positive. More romances are being optioned for film and television than before, largely thanks to streaming, from the hotly anticipated Bridgertons Netflix series, helmed by Shonda Rhimes, The Hating Game by Sally Thorne, and even some projects being developed by Leah and Bea Koch, owners of the Culver City-based indie romance bookstore, The Ripped Bodice. 

And publishers are trying hard to reach a wider audience as well, with many embracing the cartoon cover trend. While there are myriad issues with them, like how they might misrepresent the contents, lead readers to confuse the books which chick-lit, and debates around the higher price point, I tend to like them and the variety they add to the romance section. 

But it’s this new marketing trend that has led to a side effect of some newer authors either promoting themselves, or being promoted by others (whether they be publishers, reviewers, or whoever) as “revolutionary,” when it’s not the case at all. And one of the main authors who is often at the center of such controversial pieces these days is Jasmine Guillory.

I enjoy Guillory’s work, and find them charming rom-coms, but I don’t get why they are being hyped up as this big thing for Black romance readers, or the romance community in general, with the most recent offense occurring in this tone-deaf piece. Publishing has a diversity problem, but that doesn’t mean she’s the first to portray successful Black characters. To say that spits in the face of those who came before her, like Beverly Jenkins (especialyr), and those who are coming up in the industry at relatively the same time in the last few years, like Alyssa Cole. I’m glad Guillory is part of bringing romance to a broader audience of readers, but even I know there are even more names out there that I may not have read, but are beloved by others, and my reading of Black romance authors is sadly limited by what the Hawaii-based library can buy and a few supplemental personal purchases.  And the Romance Writers of America Trailblazers page and video serves as further proof that racially diverse romance was very much a thing throughout romance history, and there very much indeed is a gap between Fabio and Fifty Shades people are missing, to cite the arguments of Kirkus reviewer Jennifer Prokop, who called out think pieces from uneducated newbies to the romance genre and the actions of authors like Guillory who don’t bother to do their research. 

Speaking of authors being praised for being different, but aren’t really doing anything new…we have Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore, where the blurb suggests the heroine is a feminist trying to convert a conservative duke. Lots of people mentioned how great it was, how Dunmore “makes an old trope her own,” and if there was a critique, it concerned the amount of “politics” in the book. 

But sadly, the politics is the best part of this book. I love when you see aristocratic heroes actually do things aside from just be autocratic and lord over everyone, and, even if I didn’t agree with his views, I found the Duke of Montgomery’s work the best part about him. His first scene involves him meeting with the Queen…how cool is that?! And while Annabelle’s beliefs do feel a little on the modern side, they still felt believable in the context of the suffrage movement.

If either or both had been more explored instead of being forgotten about as soon as they developed the hots for each other, I think it would have been marginally better. But it devolved…fast…after she was confined at his estate due to circumstances beyond her control, and what unfolds is an unfortunate #MeToo-power disparity tale. I got as far as him propositioning her to be his mistress, and while she refused, he apparently wouldn’t let the issue drop. While he apparently does have some saving grace moments later in the book, she apparently gives up her fight to…be a lazy duchess? *shaking my head so hard*

One of the worst parts is that other authors have done the alpha duke/commoner feminist heroine so much better, including Eva Leigh, who coincidentally blurbed this book. Her Dare to Love a Duke incorporates the agency I found missing in Dunmore’s book, both sexually (the heroine is a courtesan) and in terms of her career, and got a lot of flack for it, at least from one reviewer. Dunmore’s book strikes me as wanting to appeal to modern feminist sensibilities, without ruffling the feathers of the more “traditional” readers, to its detriment. 

I don’t have a personal  beef with either Guillory or Dunmore personally, and even like Guillory as an author, even if I feel like the hype around her is largely undeserved, when it gives her credit that rightly belongs to so many others who came before her. And both Dunmore and Guillory seem to be subject to the narrative that their books are doing something major for pom, ,were dynamics in their respective genres, when that could not be further from the truth. People at all levels of marketing, from the authors themselves, their publicists, people writing “puff pieces” on these new romance authors, and even reviewers (particularly those less well versed in romance history)  need to be more self-aware about how they’re speaking about books.

 And I include myself in that as well. I believe I said in my review for Guillory’s The Wedding Date that, while some  elements of the relationship development bothered me, it was “refreshing” to read about a couple on an equal playing field, under the misguided impression that, much like every hero in historicals was a duke, or at least a member of the aristocracy, billionaires vastly dominated the contemporary genre, usually paired with women of a much lower social or economic standing. And while that is a very popular trope, and one that got something of a shakeup in the wake of #MeToo,  it’s not the only one, and Guillory did not invent this. It was a lesson that I will take with me going forward, along with my growing awareness of the wide array of amazing trailblazers who paved the way for the authors we have today. 

Colorblind Casting, Racism, and “Historical Accuracy”: Unpacking the Bridgerton Casting “Controversy”

Last week, casting news for  The Little Mermaid live-action remake began making waves (hehe) on the Internet, and it was followed up this week by the casting announcement for Shonda Rhimes Bridgerton  Netflix series. And while both pieces of news had me excited, due to Little Mermaid being my childhood favorite and the Bridgertons being my all-time favorite historical romance series…other people weren’t so happy. And setting aside the understandable reservations that some have about the casting of the Bridgertons series, such as the implied changes and new characters, many of the worst comments shared a similar theme with The Little Mermaid’s casting reactions in being focused on the race of some of the actors. 

Among the cast, we have Regé-Jean Page playing Simon and Adjoa Andoh as Lady Danbury, those being the choices that have been the targets of the biggest race-related comments, due to the characters’ prominence in the book series. 

Most, like with the Ariel comments, chose to make it about “historical accuracy,” accusing Shonda of “changing [history] to fit her narrative,” with others questioning why the change was done when Julia Quinn did not make them POC in the first place, pulling the “create original stories” card, which are very familiar to anyone who was following the insanity from the Ariel casting last week. 

` And I just find it laughable and sickening at the same time. Laughable because historical accuracy is their excuse, but neither Disney nor JQ are necessarily known for their strict adherence to historical accuracy. And it’s even funny for historical romance readers to cry about that stuff, because they’re totally fine with thousands of young, virile dukes (a complete fiction), not to mention some of the anachronistic shenanigans of historical romance books, but an aristocratic historical romance hero (or heroine)  portrayed as a person of color? Pitchforks! 

Also, I’ve seen the claim touted that if black people existed at all during the Regency, they were servants or slaves. Vanessa Riley (and many serious historians) would beg to differ, having written a number of books set in the period, with black people in different walks of life, from servant to aristocrat, and featuring a wealth of information about Black people in the Regency on her website. 

For the most part, it all goes back to colorblind casting and each of the people chosen being who they felt captured the spirit of the role. The main  defense given for Halle Bailey as Ariel is her killer pipes, and I have to agree, especially given the fact that some people’s ideal casting choices don’t come close to hitting her range vocally. And while I’m not familiar with any of the cast for the Bridgertons series, I don’t think it’s out of character for Shonda Rhimes, who has produced diverse series like Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder, to cast people of color here either, and am open to giving all of the cast a chance to prove what they can do, instead of passing judgment prematurely. 

But regardless of who’s in charge, it’s just disheartening to see so much hatred over the casting of fictional characters, especially since the accusations are the same every time (like, legitimately, I heard the same things come up in response to both Ariel and the Bridgertons, and every other colorblind re-casting)? Becoming “too PC?” Heard that one before. “Black people should make their own show?” What do you think they’ve been trying to do for decades? “Not historically accurate?” See above. 

It’s sad that we still have people who hold these antiquated beliefs in 2019. I understand having a love for a childhood classic film or a beloved book series, and dreading changes when a remake or new adaptation comes around. But that’s no reason to be hateful and exclusionary to others, especially to entire groups of people who have put up with decades of not being represented in media, due to systemic barriers in their way.

#CopyPasteCris and the Amazon Algorithm

It’s been a while since I posted about book community drama and issues, and while I could have posed about #CockyGate or The Blood Heir, or some of the other controversies that have come up in the past year, I resisted, out of a sense of either not knowing the subject well enough, feeling it was explained better by others, or just not knowing what my voice contributed to the matter. But while those two aforementioned scandals were rather single-minded, if a bit divisive (particularly in the second case), this one is multilayered in a way I did not expect it to be, bringing to light issues that have long lurked in the underbelly of the book world.  

Context

By now, you’ve probably heard about #copypastecris from other sources, whether it be when it trended on Twitter, when author Courtney Milan posted about it on her blog, or when Nora Roberts made three killer blog posts of her own. But in case you have not, in summary, a person calling themselves Cristiane Serruya (it’s debatable whether it’s one person working alone or part of a larger group of scammers, or whether she is who she claims she is), publicly lauded as a USA Today Bestselling author, has been revealed to have copied and pasted passages from a multitude of sources, with the current totals adding up to fifty-one books by thirty-four authors (Milan and Roberts having multiple titles among this number, with other prominent names including Tessa Dare, Christi Caldwell, and, most recently, Julia Quinn and Diana Gabaldon), three articles from web and magazine sources (including one called, quite ironically, “Law, Grace and Redemption in Les Miserables”), two recipes, a Wikipedia article, and a Wattpad story across her backlist, all of which were compiled into a growing list by the amazing @CaffeinatedFae on Twitter on the #copypastecrislist hashtag as more and more are uncovered.

In short, the fact that she copied and pasted passages from others should make this an easy, black-and-white situation with little to debate upon. However, in the last several days, more and more layers have been brought to light about the issue, which has made it more complex and divisive.

The first is the use of ghostwriters when writing fiction. This came about when Serruya, in a tweet on her now-deleted Twitter account, cast the blame on a ghostwriter she hired on Fiverr (it should be noted, for those few that are unfamiliar with the story, that this came out when only a few authors, such as Milan and Tessa Dare, were revealed to have been plagiarized and the only work of Serruya’s in question at the time was Royal Love, so this tweet was written in the context of it being a one-time thing that she could blame on a shoddy ghostwriter). However, two ghostwriters subsequently reached out to Milan, independent of one another, stating that they were given bits and pieces by Serruya for them to rework, thus making them at worst only irresponsible for not confirming the words not plagiarized.

However, in reaction to Serruya, many authors began to post the affirmation that they “write their own books.” And I don’t disagree with this response, given the way that many in the community, some of whom are legitimately fast writers and put out a book every few months, or even a book a month because of their writing speed, get shamed and subjected to false accusations.

But it does also feed into this anti-ghostwriter narrative. And while I do feel that, much like any other profession, if you can’t write fiction, you probably shouldn’t do it, I also see where ghostwriters are coming from when they talk about the reasons they ghostwrite, like it pays the bills, or they don’t want to deal with the business aspects of writing. But there should be some acknowledgment of the contributor’s hard work, whether it be on the cover, as is often the case with many works “co-authored” by James Patterson, or at least a mention of them within the acknowledgments. More transparency is needed to ensure readers aren’t being duped, especially as readers today crave that connection to their favorite authors, and the feeling that they are real people they can connect with. That, does, of course, bring about its own issues, meaning authors need to be mindful of the personas they curate online, but that is another topic for another post. Now, onto the most polarizing aspect of the issue that gradually has come to be discussed more frankly.

The Readers, the Authors, and the Algorithms

Another issue that has come up is one concerning Amazon’s broken algorithms. I have numerous issues with Amazon, like the way they’re a huge conglomerate and authors depend on reviews for promotional purposes, yet limit those who can post reviews of their products to those who make purchases of $50 or more with a credit or debit card, thus making it impossible for people who don’t have consistent access to that to help their favorites in this way, among other reasons I may go into later.

Admittedly, because of my lack of experience with Amazon, I’m a little out of my depth in terms of describing the specific scams some readers have been discussing, both in this case, and in previous cases, like #CockyGate, but I do understand the implications of something like a click farm could be used to game the already imperfect Kindle Unlimited program, thus meaning that scammers gain more money from the “pot” allotted to be distributed among authors with books in the program.

And it’s also an issue of the reader’s perspective, and what they are willing to pay for a book, especially by an author that’s new to them. Several people took issue with a statement in Roberts’ second blog post:

“And to readers, those of you who keep pushing for more and cheaper books, just stop it. Writing, real writing, is work, it takes time and talent and effort. By snapping up a book just because it’s ninety-nine cents on line, you’re encouraging this. The creator and the content they work so hard to produce is devalued.

Pay the artist, for God’s sake, or the artist can’t create. What you end up with is rushed from a desperate writer struggling to keep up to pay the bills. Or mass-produced crap thrown together by scammers.”

I had mixed feelings upon reading this passage. I could understand why people were a little hurt, as the way she worded it felt like she was putting part of the blame for this on the readers, believing all they care about is free books, and not considering they may not always have the money to purchase a book, because it’s often either that or the basic necessities. There was also an argument that Roberts was a hypocrite, due to the fact that her publisher advertised some of her early “In Death” titles for $1.99, never mind that this, like many an eBook sale, was done for promotional reasons, and might entice readers to shell out more on future titles.

Bit I could also see where she was coming from, as an injured party in this awful mess. And I understand, from what she states elsewhere, both in this post and her previous one, that she understands her place of privilege as a bestselling author who has not only a lengthy backlist, but funds and clout enough to defend not only herself, but can take on the fight for others who may not as well.

And readers do have the power of choice of authors to invest their time in, and I believe that is why Roberts puts so much responsibility at their door. There is a difference between promoting a quality product through a sale with hopes of hooking the reader, which is the intent of a legitimate author or publisher’s goal in marking down a book’s price either temporarily or permanently, and there is enticing the reader purely through the price point to consume cheap crap, which is usually the domain of a scammer so they can profit off it. And if all a legit author, whether it be Nora Roberts or Courtney Milan or anyone else,  cared about was making more money, why would so many authors promote libraries, with many of them that I’ve spoken to being excited to see their work represented in library collections? In fact, the library came up as a valid, legal alternative to purchasing books in the comments section of this blog post, including from Roberts herself, when responding to a commenter of the mindset to clap back at her for criticizing people who pick up books for free or on sale, and essentially that because Roberts has a “fortune,” it should not be something she should lecture readers about, especially if they are on a budget, among other claims, which Roberts refuted splendidly. Given that this is also a sore spot for her, with readers taking issue with the prices of her books (something she does not control, as she works with a publisher), I can understand her outrage here, regardless of any initial (albeit slight) agreement I may have had with the opposing arguments without thinking about it within the context of this situation.

And this sense of entitlement feeds it to the bigger issue in our Internet-saturated culture that has allowed scammy, illegal behavior to thrive. When watching all this play out, I could not help but be reminded of Taylor Swift taking issue with streaming services, who I also recall being criticized for being overly money-grubbing in spite of her vast fortune when she pulled her catalog from Spotify. In both cases, there was a sense of entitlement on the part of the consumer, that because they were on a fixed budget, they should not be obliged support the creators they enjoyed in a fair and legitimate way, essentially devaluing the art the creators create. And while yes, both Roberts and Swift are successful in their respective fields, this entitlement creates an problems for the struggling up-and-coming author or musician, who genuinely loves to write or perform, and would love to make a full-time career of it, but is denied this dream due to the fact that their career isn’t profitable.

Roberts then made a third blog post earlier today as of this writing, confirming all of my suppositions that I posited earlier and shutting down her detractors in the best way. Unfortunately, in subsequent keyword searches on Twitter for people talking about “Nora Roberts,” I saw that the post either did not alter their opinion that books should have value, or they did not bother to read it.

“Trashy Books?”: The Widening Debate Between Quality and Quantity

Upon reflection, however, I did find this a strange conversation to come to light in the romance community, especially when so many readers and authors are champions for the genre and its place as equally important to any other work of fiction. This debate around the idea of “quality” is at the root of several romance aficionados’ forays into academic studies of the genre. Author Maya Rodale wrote of the long history of the dismissal of romance novels in her book, Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. She  spoke about the romance industry as being very focused as being a system where “high volume = low cost = less risk,” (71) writing of the promotional tactics of a series, hooking a reader with book one at lower price, thus making it more likely they may buy the second (and the third and so on), which is a very familiar model that has already been discussed, and unfortunately, exploited, in this discussion on cheap books. But the argument for cheap books dismisses Rodale’s other claim of the close bond formed between an author and a reader, as well as the ways the genre has been dismissed to no avail throughout history due to its presentation, in a similar way that these readers are ironically devaluing a genre they claim to love.  

The lack of perceived lasting value of romance novels in society is one that other scholars have also confronted, like Australian Library and Information Science (LIS) scholar Vassiliki Veros. In an article, “A Matter of Meta: Category Romance Fiction and the Interplay of Paratext and Library Metadata” (2015), Veros wrote about the contrasting values of libraries and librarians toward books with cultural capital (which also can be symbolized by any intellectual romance detractor who views romance as “trash”) and the vast economic capital generated in the romance industry. While her argument pertains more specifically to the way in which libraries devalue romance novels, especially category romance, and don’t catalog them correctly, the general gist of her explanation surrounding economic vs. cultural capital is how I assumed it stood prior to the explosion of this scandal. But to have people so firmly in the economic capital camp that they think of books of any type as disposable and not worth paying for at any point is crazy to me, especially since scamming has become such a prevalent thing in the book industry.

Final Thoughts

As this situation continues to develop on all sides of the issue, I don’t know what the outcome will be, or if it’s possible for their to be one that will end peacefully for everyone who’s since gotten involved. The main hope that I hope to see materialize is that Cristiane Serruya is fully taken down and the lengthy list of authors, both notable and unknown, get some recompense for this. But as many have noted it’s not just a problem of just one scammer messing with the system, but many who are taking advantage of algorithms to get ahead and crush legitimate authors, many of whom are working hard for little reward. Contrary to what some readers believe, we can and should do better to stop this and show that this won’t be tolerated. And hopefully, if all our voices are loud enough, Amazon may finally listen.

Sources:

#copypastecris and #copypastecrislist on Twitter (special shout-out to @CaffeinatedFae)

Various tweets and Twitter threads

Courtney Milan’s blog post: http://www.courtneymilan.com/ramblings/2019/02/18/cristiane-serruya-is-a-copyright-infringer-a-plagiarist-and-an-idiot/

Nora’s first blog post: http://fallintothestory.com/plagiarism-then-and-now/

Nora’s second blog post: http://fallintothestory.com/not-a-rant-but-a-promise/

Nora’s third blog post: http://fallintothestory.com/let-me-address-this/

Article on Taylor Swift and streaming services for context: https://www.theverge.com/2017/6/9/15767986/taylor-swift-apple-music-spotify-statements-timeline

Maya Rodale, Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained (2015)

Vassiliki Veros, “A Matter of Meta: Category Romance Fiction and the Interplay of Paratext and Library Metadata,” In the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, 5.1 (2015), 1-13

Romance in the News: Romance Readers vs. Clinton

Note: This is a political post. But as always, I shall remain as non-partisan as possible. 

This year has been an interesting one for the romance genre. Between the romance genre being a source of comfort (and resistance) for readers in the aftermath of the 2016 election and the evolving conversation around consent and the role of the alpha male hero in romance that has only become more pronounced in the second half of the year as sexual harassment allegations dominated the headlines, I don’t think the genre has has been as talked about, within the community and outside of it.

But even a woman who, for some, embodies female empowerment, can be ill-informed about romance and the progress that has been made. Ironically, she compared the much-beloved genre to the tales of sexual harassment from the headlines, stating, “The whole romance novel industry is about women being grabbed and thrown on a horse and ridden off into the distance.”

Romance readers and authors, of course, did not take kindly to the comment. #RomancenovelsforHillary became a hashtag on Twitter. One author, Cecelia Mecca, wrote, “If you honestly believe a woman w/ a Ph.D. in education raised by a strong single mother would make a career writing literature that subjugates women, the only logical conclusion I can draw is that you haven’t read a romance novel lately.” Christopher Rice, while not calling out Hillary directly, wrote, “I continue to be astonished by the speed and ease with which those who have apparently never read a romance novel use the term ‘romance novels’ as a slur against pretty much anything they don’t like.” And both Lisa Kleypas and Maya Rodale wrote their own letters to her to her in major publications, through which they hoped to educate her about the value of romance for empowered women.

However, very mention of the name “Hillary Clinton” might get two reactions. Rodale declares herself a Clinton supporter in her piece, but whether you support her or not should not affect your opinion of her comments. People were quick to contradict Kleypas’ naming Clinton a romance heroine in the title of her piece, with one commenter stating, that she is “definitely not a romance heroine that I would want to read about. But not surprising that she is still casting blame all over the place.” Another commenter said, “That woman is only a heroine to un/undereducated fools. Her days outside lockup are numbered.” However, another injected some levity into the conversation, saying, “Dear H, so sorry your knight in shinning armor turned out to be an a-hole in tinfoil. But don’t be trying to brainwash our girls from ever knowing what a real prince is.”

But underneath the comedy of it all, this commenter may be right.  Hillary wields influence as a political figure, and with the negative image of romance novels still lingering, a comment from someone with political power and/or media presence could further shift the public perception about romance novels, and keep people from discovering the truth about this wonderful genre that empowers both women and men.

Art and Poltics: A Response to “Romance as Resistance”

Note: This was written as an extended response to several commenters on a post to Julia Quinn’s Facebook page.

In our current political climate, it can be hard to escape the constant coverage, to the point where it has started to impact all facets of life. And while it is understandable to want an artist to focus primarily on their craft and not allow their political concerns to dominate their public persona, at the end of the day, they are people too, with concerns for our society.

While I find many of the celebrities throwing petty insults at a certain political figure tiresome, when an artist has something to say about an issue, I find that worthwhile to listen to. That is definitely the case with the writers featured in the recent article in Entertainment Weekly, “Romance as Resistance: How the happily-ever-after genre is taking on Trump.” Despite what the headline (and the art at the top of the article) suggest, this isn’t more entertainers disrespecting the President. The article instead highlights the fact that these books tackle social issues such as women’s rights, sexual agency, gay rights, and more. And while a reader might conceive these books as being somewhat escapist, they are only partially right: it is escapist in the sense that it imagines a more ideal world where good triumphs over evil, and the real world is not always so black-and-white. That in itself makes a very powerful statement, one of hope. Nowhere does it say that there will be no discussion of real-life issues, however.

And upon doing further reading into the history of romance, you will find that the genre itself is rooted in politics. Maya Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls traces the genre back to the early days of women’s writing, and the measures society took to control what women read, out of fear. And if one wants to look at a political movement that directly impacted the romance industry, one should look no further than the “bodice rippers” of the 1970s, which were influenced by the sexual revolution and women’s rights movement of the 1960s.

And even Jane Austen is not the prim spinster aunt one might expect, writing solely about courtship and marriage. As scholars like Helena Kelly (Jane Austen: The Secret Radical) discuss, much of Austen’s work had political undertones. A well-known example includes the discussion of the slave trade in Mansfield Park. Not to mention, Austen was well-known for her disapproval (and that is putting it lightly) of the Prince Regent, the future George IV. She generally wrote very satirical portraits of the aristocracy within her novels, and even was openly critical of him in Emma,  so it is incredibly ironic that Prinny loved them, inviting her to dedicate that particular work to him.

And the truth of the matter is everything is political, although it is not always political in the partisan sense. As Olive Senior wrote: “Every author has a world view which reflects a political stance and shapes what we do, even unconsciously. For example, as a child, I grew up in a world where I never saw myself or the people around me visually portrayed in the children’s books I read (though I took great pleasure in reading them). As a writer of children’s books now, I would say that I am simply concerned with telling a story that a child anywhere in the world that might want to read. But, I have to confess, I am very much concerned that the illustrations should reflect and express a multicultural world, for that is what I live in. Is that political? Can any of us escape the political? I would say no. Even romantic literature plunges us into the realm of political economy: does the potential suitor have a job?” Through this simple act of trying to diversify her own genre, she is making a political statement. And she makes a valid point about romance. Even while it may seem vapid at worst and pure escape at best, in writing a love story where people overcome their obstacles and find happiness.

Other suggested reading:

Kelly, Helena. Jane Austen: The Secret Radical. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.

Rodale, Maya. Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. New York: Maya Rodale, 2015,

 

Why We Need Diversity in Romance (and Books in General)

While I make it a policy to keep my interactions with the literary community as non-political as possible, since romance does not shy away from tough topics, I am making an exception here, but I promise to keep it as nonpartisan as I can.

Romance bookstore The Ripped Bodice posted their report on “The State of Racial Diversity in 2016. And while it is nice to see the genre making strides toward inclusion, I still found the data worrying. Only two publishers came close to have 20% of their books written by an author of color: Kensington at 19.8 and Forever/Forever Yours at 17.5%. Crimson Romance features 12.2%, but all other publishers publish less than 10% of books by authors of color.

There is an argument that it’s all about the publisher’s expectations of the manuscript. Romance, despite being varied, does  see enduring trends (e.g. Regency dukes) or new trends that rise in popularity, which will dictate what publishing houses are looking for. One member of OSRBC, responding to a post about the Ripped Bodice’s data started off by pointing out that they don’t ask the color of your skin when you submit the manuscript.

Fair enough, especially as so many aspiring authors query agents and publishers online. But she demonstrated a lack of understanding of why we need diverse books, which shows her white privilege. I shared with her a video of a talk that the writer Chimamanda Adichie did, and she was perplexed when I explained that Adichie could not identify with what she was reading in books by white people about white people, deflecting by comparing to her own experience, and then suggesting that we prove that some races are aliens, because they can’t identify with everything. In her attempt to prove that somehow focusing on the lack of books by authors of color was racist, she made herself look like one.

As I began to think about this concept of not identifying a bit more, however, I began to realize I may have conveyed the idea of Adichie’s talk in an inaccurate way. Yes, it’s true there are things she could not identify with. But they are just as much geographical as they are racial, if not more so. When I read books set in England, taking for granted what the weather might be like during the season (when it is mentioned). I live in Hawaii, and have never traveled anywhere except within the state, and to California and Las Vegas (Side note: Prayers to all affected by the recent shooting). As a result, I know nothing about extremely cold winters and snowstorms, or even the obvious signs of seasonal change. I can read about it, and look at photos or videos, but I don’t get to experience it firsthand.

And this is just one of several reasons why I support diverse books. They can allow you to go anywhere without monetary cost, and the experience of being able to read about people like yourself, or recommend those books to others to broaden their horizons, is a truly rewarding experience.

Should Critics Critique Enthusiastically?: An Update on the New York Times Books Fiasco + Related Real Life Stuff

Today another piece posted by the New York Times made waves, this time by their  Books editorial director Radhika Jones, who had previously issued a weak response on Facebook. But in this follow-up post, she begins by poorly defending their choice of Robert Gottlieb as a writer for their piece on romance, stating that he is “an accomplished critic who has written on dance, music, biography and a wide range of fiction and nonfiction; and also a voracious reader of contemporary romance.” And while he definitely shows some knowledge of what’s out there in the genre, being a “voracious reader” of a genre doesn’t mean he appreciates it.

But while Jones does feature some comments from romance readers, she quickly proves that she does not appreciate these readers. She states, further on: “Our goal is not simply to recommend books or enthuse about them…Our goal is to assess and critique the books on offer. Mr. Gottlieb’s assessments include drawing positive attention to the “robust sex and amusing plotting” in one writer’s novel and noting another’s “preposterous” story line (though he adds that the preposterousness is what allows for the fun).”

But this idea that critique and enthusiasm should never meet is preposterous, and results in alienating your audience. I consider myself a critical thinking person, and I don’t shy away from critiquing bits of the romance novels I find problematic, or just lacking, while still enjoying them. If I can’t find a connection to a text, the reading experience feels soulless and uninvigorating.

By coincidence, I met with my professor for a literary theory course I’m taking, as it’s a requirement for my thesis, to discuss an upcoming project. The topic being “Resistance,” I thought I might find a way to pitch something romance-related. But just as I was explaining that I had no connection to anything in the course that we’ve read, he shut me down by saying that “you don’t have to like something to write about it.” As the conversation concluded, I thought to myself something along the lines of, “But surely Derrida or Freud or Marx were passionate about what they wrote about?”

Thoughts: Reaction to That Awful New York Times Article

I apologize, as this post on this is somewhat overdue. But it took a while to get my thoughts together, especially with more reactions, and especially response from The New York Times themselves coming out. But I hope you enjoy my analysis and thoughts on Robert Gottlieb’s insulting piece. 

As it is Banned Books Week, this a great time to talk about banned or challenged books. But it is also a great time to reaffirm our freedom to read, and expand our horizons about genres we may not know a lot about, with an open mind.

For many, that includes romance. And, quite ironically, in several days, the old assumption that “romance = trash” has again been resurrected in a public forum, this time in a New York Times article by Robert Gottlieb, the 86 year old writer and editor of Simon & Schuster, Knopf, and The New Yorker. But despite his distinguished pedigree in the literary world, he shows his lack of knowledge of romance novels and their content almost from the first sentence.

First of all, in his summary of The Duke and I (what is a book from 2000 doing in an article with the headline”A Roundup of the Season’s Romance Novels?”, he first refers to Daphne as “Lady Daphne” (despite saying within the same sentence that she’s the daughter of a viscount. A paragraph later, he presents a Cliffs-Notes summary of the book, putting emphasis on the sex, “he ‘squirming with desire,’ she ‘writhing in delight’.”

He continues on in the same vein, with brief (and judgmental) summaries of select titles. At one point he has the audacity to say that, aside from “a few scattered references to racial matters, you’d never know” that the two leads from Deadly Rumors by Cheris Hodges are African American. Ron Hogan, in his rebuttal to Gottlieb, posed the question, “How should African-American characters behave to sufficiently convey their African-Americanness to readers?” He presents the point that, as Gottlieb was Toni Morrison’s former editor, should be aware of the nuances of African-American culture.

Once he is finished with his insulting “He/She/They” summaries, he begins to attack the genre as a whole, first outright alienating several popular subgenres, and then digging into a select number of recent releases, starting in Regency historical (as he blatantly ignores the other historical settings), making fun of the common tropes of the genre as formulaic. But as always, it comes back to sex for him, as he feels the need to point out that classic old school Regency romance author Barbara Cartland’s books are “without benefit of sex” [Emphasis mine].

And while he acknowledges that Nora Roberts writes “sensibly written” books, he returns to turning up his nose at the genre quickly, by bringing up the Fifty Shades phenomenon. And while I have expressed my ambivalence and distaste for some segments of romance in the past, I firmly believe that we should all adhere to the saying, “Don’t yuck on someone else’s yum.” A lesson Mr. Gottlieb appears not likely to take to heart, even considering the statement in the closing lines of his piece, where he questions the whether the violence and danger of James Bond with stories of romance and female empowerment. Especially when he boils down the reading of these books to being “harmless.”

In addition to Hogan’s article, there have been a number of other responses across the Internet.

Author Laura Layne, while a bit late to the party on this issue, delivered a similarly incensed response. And Read-a-Romance Month founder and romance reviewer Bobbi Dumas (who notably had her reviews of romances featured last year in a much more favorable piece showcasing the genre and its current offerings at the time) wrote expressing her exhaustion of having to defend it, but also pointed out that while this article was by a man, it saddens her further when it’s a woman bashing the genre, as it shows how much misogyny is internalized in our society. This piece continued with a piece that showed her knowledge and experience of reading the genre, through picking recent releases, and discussing them based on their merits, without reducing them to the same tired cliches.  

The post of the link to the article on The New York Times Books  Facebook page drew negative comments from many readers, many of whom I recognized from “seeing” them every day in book club chats. And then, sixteen hours ago at the time of this writing, editorial director Radhika Jones posting a feeble apology “thanked” the commenters for their “passionate response.” No mention of any changes being made. No indication that she and other staff there realized their mistake of constantly not showing a prominent, if not the most popular, genre in the fiction market. Are they just happy to be getting clicks?!

This is yet another reminder that even as more things progress, more things stay the same, both politically and socially. We have the power to change that. Encourage anyone who has disparaged a romance novel without having read one to do so. Because at the end of the day, whatever you read, at least you are reading.

Thoughts: Intellectual Freedom, Censorship, & Barnes&Noble

Despite condemning censorship on many occasions in my library school classes, I continue to find it hard to look at cases of censorship within romance from an objective point of view. Despite adopting an “if you enjoy it, read it” attitude toward Jude Deveraux’s The Black Lyon and other classic “bodice-rippers,” I found myself with my foot in my mouth when I expressed an ambivalent opinion on Barnes & Noble/Nook Press removing erotica titles that were reportedly in violation of their new content policy that a fellow member of the Old School Romance Book Club posted. I started off on the wrong foot, expressing my more “conservative” opinions about the content I would like to see. I also expressed that I felt that if a book was glorifying illegal behavior, then a business has a right to remove it. But I also thought that authors should be made aware of the policy changes, instead of being expected to just “be aware.”

I was swiftly crucified for this “Switzerland”-esque response, with the original poster responding with a question of “Where do we draw the line?” bringing up some of the famous classic bodice-rippers and asking if they should be censored as well. Another focused solely on the fact that I expressed conservative reading tastes, and informed me that some people aren’t.

I was perplexed for a bit. I have no objection to erotica, as long as everything is consensual and legal, and adopt a “different strokes for different folks” approach there. And upon reviewing their policy, I did note that one of the types of objectionable content includes “obscene or pornographic material.” If an author is being removed for that reason alone, and it seems that some are, then that reeks of bad taste.

The thornier issue, however, is the one I alluded to previously, concerning “illegal content or offensive material,” which includes incest rape, bestiality, necrophilia, paedophilia or content that encourages hate or violence.” I cannot understand people who would be interested in works which glorify this illegal behavior, but to restrict access to or remove this content is censorship, and as the original poster asked, where do we draw the line?

In looking for clarity on this situation, I referred to the ALA’s Freedom to Read Statement. Nearly every line condemns B&N’s behavior in this situation. At one point, it states that “no group has the right to take the law into its own hands, and to impose its own concept of politics or morality upon other members of a democratic society.”

While the press and complaints about these incidents has led B&N to reinstate these authors’ accounts, as stated in the Publishers’ Weekly article, I do hope that talking about it further will cause them to make some changes to their policy.