In USA Today, Sean Gilmartin gives usLove in the Stacks: Making strides with diversity in romance novels. Gilmartin discussessearching for representations “that are more realistic representations of the real world;” representation readers can identify with, including representations of gay people, a wider range of cultural representations and more representations of people of colour in YA and romance. Gilmartin interviews Adrianne Byrd, JD Mason, Cheris Hodges, Beverly Jenkins, and Donna Hill, all romance authors who write more realistic representations of the real world. These authors give us people of colour in romance fiction.
The article is, as Marisa Tomei says in My Cousin Vinny, “Dead on balls accurate.” I particularly like this line, “We as authors and publishers are not being honest with our readers when we fail to include diversity in our fiction.” I often wonder why it’s so difficult to have diversity in the media when life offers such a range of amazing and difference, of variety, which, you know, is the spice of life.
Gilmartin, who writes paranormal romance as Sean Thomas, believes as I do, that there is not just ONE archetype of romance reader or a handful of romance fiction protagonists. In real life, readers are a diverse bunch who are waiting and wiling to read books, particularly romance novels, that offer a more realistic representation of their lives. Diversity in fiction, television, and film means an accurate portrayal of ethnicity and culture, a greater representation of people of all colour,a greater representation of gay people, and, as I have in my romance novels Driving in Neutral, For Your Eyes Only, and A Basic Renovation, a greater representation of mature-aged people — that’s anyone over 40. Diversity means that the lead character, the protagonist, heroine and hero, whatever you want to call them, is the star of the show, not a supporting player or stereotype.
So how about spicing things up? How about we be honest in the media and give accurate and diverse representation of what it’s like to be human.
If you haven’t noticed, discrimination against older women is now a ‘thing,’ a topic of ongoing discussion –thanks to Hollywood, Russell Crowe (we’re getting a lot of mileage from you, Rusty), the fashion industry, and the BBC, but where’s the discourse on mature-aged women in the world of publishing fiction, particularly genre fiction?
Yes, romance fiction. I am looking right at you.
The 19 January 2015Daily Mail UKhas Sandra Howard suggesting that Selfridges (A UK department store) ‘Bright Old Things’ ad campaign is not a “nod to the older generation” or even directed to an older generation, but more of a tactic to sell clothes to the young.
If you missed it, on 16 January 2015, Holly Watt at The Telegraphreported that the BBC was shown to have an “informal policy” of discriminating against older women, and that this “imbalance” in the media shaped “social norms…” While similarly aged male counterparts have advanced or remained as reporters, presenters, and experts, older women have been under-represented as broadcasters. This lack of representation of older women feeds the cult of youth that privileges younger women, and renders older women as invisible, which is often something mature-aged women feel is their reality.
All this ‘discussion of age’ serves to highlight the discussion of diversity, which is another current hot issue. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AKA the Academy Awards) have been accused of ‘whitewashing’ the 2015 Oscar nominations. As The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Fritz reports, from 16 January 2015. Oscar Nominations Stir Up Controversy for being the least ethnic and racially diverse group of nominees in something like 17 years.
I want the inclusion of ethnicity, race, sexuality, religion, and gender in film, TV, and fiction, particularly romance fiction. That is why this 16 January 2015 article in The Guardian is good: The Six Hottest African Romance Novels for 2015. Yes, that’s African, not ‘African American.’ Ankara Press is “bringing African romance fiction into the bedrooms, offices and hearts of women the world over.” Ethnic diversity and colour diversity. Real life romance has no colour, but if you look at romance fiction you’ll discover how very white most of it is.
There is one thing that concerns me in the conversations on age discrimination and diversity. Although it is wonderful that ageism and the lack of diversity in the media is topical, age is seldom included in the discussion of diversity of fiction and genre fiction. There is no discussion of the discrimination against mature-aged women in publishing. That is, there is no discourse regarding the representation of women of age in genre fiction, particularly with how they are seldom or not at all represented in romance fiction.
I feel something quite sad about the passing of a childhood icon, actress Ann B Davis. Besides playing Schultzy on the Bob Cummings Show in the 60s, for many of us Post-Baby Boom TV kids, Ann B will always be a much-loved character on a 70s sitcom. Ann B will always be Alice Nelson, the housekeeper on The Brady Bunch.
I readily admit Alice had a huge impact on my life. Alice is responsible for my bizarre love of housekeeping, my affection for wearing aprons, my preference for wearing little white canvas Keds, and my fascination for stories about middle-aged love.
Yes, The Brady Bunch was a sitcom, yes it was unrealistic because what family of nine in a house that size had one bathroom for six kids? But the realism expressed in The Brady Bunch hinges on the portrayal of the adults and their relationships. What I learned from the Brady Bunch, despite it’s idealised-sunshiny-everything-is-rosy-sit-com-prefect-blended-family, was that grown ups got divorced, grown ups got remarried, grown ups who were older than my parents STILL WENT ON DATES, and STILL LOOKED FOR LOVE. Okay, Sam the Butcher wasn’t exactly what you’d call hawtt stuff, the fact was he was middle-aged Alice’s boyfriend, and what this showed me was that middle-aged women had middle aged boyfriends. Divorced gown-ups and middle aged grownups looked for love. That was the message I took away from Alice and The Brady Bunch. That was the message I accepted as reality.
And guess what? This IS REALITY. Grown-ups, Middle-aged grown-ups and grown-ups who are older than my parents STILL GO ON DATES, and STILL LOOK FOR LOVE. Middle-aged women have middle aged boyfriends. There are some films and TV shows that buck the love-is-for-the-young trend (Enough Said, Last Chance Harvey), but why do you think we don’t we see more of this reality portrayed on TV or in movies or in books–in romance fiction?
Does it have something to do with more people wearing Converse and Vans than Keds?
Oh, and one more thing. Alice is also the reason the pre-renovated kitchen in my grown up romance novel, A Basic Renovation, resembles the orange and brown Brady Bunch kitchen, where Alice spent so much time.
What is romance? What makes a romance a romance? What is Women’s Fiction? This is a point of difference I discuss in my PhD research, and it’s proved a bone of contention for my supervisor. She’s unhappy with the typing that separates fiction along gender lines. “Can’t it simply BE fiction?” she asks. However,, she understands this classification when it comes to explaining the difference between romance and, well, Women’s Fiction.
If it’s not clear what I’m yammering on about, let me define. We can argue about it you wanna, but for me, and maybe for many of you as well, romance is a love story with a happy ending or optimistic ending. The plot of a romance is driven by a love story between two people, driven by how the love develops, how it hits an obstacle, how that obstacle is overcome and how the love triumphs. That’s a Romance.
Women’s Fiction? Well, besides being an umbrella term that classifies and lumps together any novel written mostly by and for women (including romance, since most romance is written by women for women), Women’s Fiction is also a classification of a TYPE of novel where a female is the protagonist dealing with whatever life throws at her.
Trust me on this. I have it from editor’s and publishing houses that this is how it works.
So, Women’s Fiction? Think of the Bildungsroman, the “relationship novel” whereby the woman’s relationship may be with her husband, kids, mother-in-law, best friends. Think of a story that charts a woman’s voyage or self discovery, or her emotional/physical evolution, or her battle to take on City Hall. There may or may not be an element of a love story in a work of Women’s Fiction, but if it’s there it is only a sliver of the pie. Think of it this way: a love story is not what drives the plot in Women’s Fiction. As for the hallmark happily ever after? In Women’s Fiction there may or may not be a happy or optimistic ending, or a satisfying ending. There could be loose ends. OH DEAR GOD, Loose ends! But not always.
The bottom line, kids, these are THE important distinctions between romance and Women’s Fiction. Women’s Fiction love may be a slice of pie. Romance is THE WHOLE PIE.
Have I mentioned how much I love pie? Especially cherry pie?
Anyhow, I know where I stand on this. I know what publishers think but I’m curious for your input.
Several weeks ago, my romance-reading friend Swell told me about a novel she was reading. She said that the plot was seventeen different kinds of batshit crazy and WTF, and the characters were all nutjobs, and she swore the 2012 this romance HAD to be a reprint from 1975, not a Harlequin from 2012. However, it was a 2012 publication, which is what led to her to thinking WTF, and me thinking: Gee, this book has all the hallmarks of what my dear friend and shallowreader Vassiliki looks for. She LOVES WTFery and the ca-razier the better!
So, I contacted Vassiliki to ask her to give me some insight on why the plot of Swell’s effed-up book, and other effed up romance plots full of bizarre-o-osity, would appeal to her.
Sandra: Thanks for joining me, Vassiliki. I know you pride yourself on being a shallow reader. You’ve mentioned you like WTFery and crazy in the categories you read and have mentioned several authors by name. Would you care to explain your appeal for what I like to call The ‘70s Caftaned Hero Romance?
Vassiliki: Awww man! You go straight to the hard questions! I love absurd humour. Early Woody Allen has a lot of bizarre occurrences where he still gets the girl. I just love the absurdity of Sleeper and Take the Money and Run. I love Mark Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroentorologist and Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing. I love a touch of the absurd in my romances too—but only occasionally.
Sandra: OK. You named 2 of the 4 Woody Allen movies I don’t mind.
Vassiliki: Are the others Play it Again Sam and Annie Hall?
Sandra: Nope. Radio Days and The Purple Rose of Cairo.
Vassiliki: I liked those too, but Play it Again Sam is my favourite. It is all about the romantic leading man and try-hards. You say ‘70s caftaned roms. Can I point out the most over the top bizarre caftaned hero was from 1993.
Sandra: And now there’s the one Swell read from 2012, the one she found over the top with WTF and referred to as a “POS Angst ridden wallow in self pity with completely non realistic psychological behavior.” There are scenarios you’ve mentioned you enjoy are that are over the top, like a hero in a caftan. Tell me about them.
Vassiliki: Please note that there is no disrespect to the authors that write WTF roms. I LOVE their writing.
Sandra: So tell me what WTF is to you…with examples, please.
Vassiliki: I truly believe that they are deliberate in their attempt to write bizarre, over the top plots whilst sustaining believability. It is like Fantasy, but no fantasy elements. Beth and the Barbarian is totally WTF. The guy lives in a compound like place in Morocco. She’s a feisty Aussie who rides a crazy stallion he owns because she’s just that sorta go get ‘em gal. The hero has the most ridiculous clothing sense and she calls him out on it too. Yet they connect. He actually does wear a caftan. It is described as Satanic Black and the heroine can tell he is wearing nothing underneath it—this is in the seduction scene. The other example is Lynne Graham. I ADORE her books. There is an aspect of unbelievability to most of her plots, yet I am often crying towards the end because her characters go through some powerful low points.
Sandra: I remember you once telling me about the book with the Satanic black caftan—and I was stunned it was from 1993. The seduction scene when the guy is wearing a Satanic Black caftan and nothing else….I mean HOW did that work? Was he de-caftaned? It screams ‘70s!
Vassiliki: That one was the most cra-cra I have ever read. It was a page-turner only because I needed to read the next lot of crazy. I wanted to know what outline could she see that she ‘knew’ he wore nothing else underneath…but back to Lynne Graham: the plot. The plots she writes, to me, seem to stretch the believability spectrum. My ‘As-IF-o-meter’ was screaming with The Contract Baby. It starts in the US. A Billionaire CEO decides to hire a surrogate to have his heir because women are not trustworthy, but he needs a baby. He decides upon a 21 year-old woman. She needs to be a surrogate to pay for her mother’s cancer treatment—Oh, the mum that she was just reunited with. The Mum dies before the heroine gives birth. The heroine then decides she loves her bub too much, so she will escape/renege on the surrogacy and flees to her home in the UK. Surrogate dad (who unbeknownst to her had befriended her on her walks to the park so he could meet the woman having his baby) follows her, kidnaps her and takes her back to his hacienda in Argentina (?) to ensure that he has the baby. Then plausibility is stretched again in that she has a caesarean, which is great news because she was a virgin (you know—gotta keep it all tight down there), and of course she feels vulnerable about the sexy hot neighbour next door. But none of this was too ludicrous for love. At the end she brings this ever-powerful man to his knees and he loves her and adores her. HEA! Smiles for all. And a baby too. Phew! Does that example help?
Sandra: Oh, Gawd, I am rollin’ my eyes! Perhaps if I approached it from a different perspective—if I read for the WTF, I might enjoy it the way I enjoy the total unbelievabliity of say, The Transporter or Die Hard…
Vassiliki: YES! As unbelievable as Die Hard and Bond movies, but in the romance genre. It is awesome.
Sandra: For me, the romance aspect is the game changer. I have to believe the romance would happen. The kidnapped bit makes me hit a wall. I’d stop reading. And then the book would hit the wall. Funny, I can buy John McClane jumping off a building with a fire hose wrapped around his waist or James Bond landing on his feet after jumping through a hole he made in a train car, but I can’t buy that a woman would fall for the guy who kidnaps her and keeps her prisoner on an island. That’s more like a mental illness, horror, sex slave story…Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, BoxingHelena… With that stuff, it ceases to be romance for me. Completely.
Vassiliki: In Beth and the Barbarian she consents to going back to his compound against the advice of other people. She is not a prisoner/kidnapped.
Sandra: She is willing? That’s A NEW KETTLE OF WTF!!! Willing = huge WTF.
Vassiliki: In The Contract Baby it is a bit more tenuous, but he is holding her to the contract. I can’t read most fantasy because the unbelievability of werewolves and vampires stretches me beyond reading. But yes, I think it is a new kettle of WTF! Sara Craven’s Count Valieri’s Prisoner was a Stockolm Syndrome romance. I usually like all her books but this one did not work for me. The power imbalance was too great. And perhaps that is the key—who holds power and how much.
Sandra: Tell me how THAT power balance worked because I’m not getting it.
Vassiliki: In the other 2 WTF roms I’ve mentioned, there is still power within the female character; they brought the guy to his knees. From memory, it wasn’t only the power of great sex (which is definitely one criteria), but somehow a personal connection that no other person managed to have with the hero. Somewhere along the bizarre story the heroine connects with the vulnerable part of the hero. Isn’t the vulnerability aspect the best though? How the hero/heroine copes and communicates when they find you are vulnerable.
Sandra: So which is more important, the vulnerability or who holds the power? When it comes down to accepting the WTF, I mean.
Vassiliki: I think it needs to be equal. Imbalances in relationships is what makes them unbelievable not plot twists. Can I also point out I have 3 subcategories of WTF. There is the WTF Absurd (discussed above) WTF Wallbanger (I cannot bear to read any longer for any number of reasons) and WTF Dysfunctional.
Sandra: I understand the Wallbanger. Can you explain the Dysfunctional?
Vassiliki: WTF Dysfunctional romances are when people enter abusive horrid relationships. They happen in real life. We see people we know in unhappy partnerships, they may go through mercurial love/hate stages and it can make my skin crawl yet they stay (at least for some time) in these relationships.
Sandra: I can’t read those at all. Those fall into dysfunctional for me.
Vassiliki: A Dysfunctional example is Lillian Cheatham’s Shadowed Reunion. This book is quite bleak. The hero is abusive both physically and mentally. He finally gets her to say I love you by breaking her will. All the power is his. He too says, I love you, AFTER her. I hate this book, yet I reread it every few years. The power imbalance is horrible. But I am intrigued by that momentary high, that moment of the love declaration. People look at the Taylor/Burton pairing. “True love!” Yet they were too mercurial to stay together, but those high moments of love still fascinate readers. I guess it depends on what sort of reader you feel you are. I am not a placeholder reader (I think that is the term that is used).
Sandra: I can do Rhett & Scarlett & Taylor Burton. They were equally matched. I’m not a placeholder. I’m more a voyeur or observer.
Vassiliki: I read as an observer/voyeur even when I get totally immersed in a book. I never see myself in a specific role….well with the exception of Miranda Melendy in Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays, but that is a kid’s book and kinda different.
Sandra: Thanks for joining me this morning to discuss the appeal of reading Absurd, Wallbanger and DysfunctionalWTF romance and caftans. I see the joy reading gives you, and I’m all for reading and joy. Will you join me again to discuss other aspects of reading and romance and romance scholarship? Or we can just talk about heroes with facial & body hair or the sublime WTFery of jumpsuits for men.
Vassiliki is The Shallow Reader who barely scratches the surface of romance literature, reading and libraries. She is an avid romance reader and romance scholar. She is, the shit. You can read her blog here.
I have been told I often I live up to the meaning of my first name, Sandra, from Alexander: Defender of man. This might be true (Yes, I know that’s Athena over there, but you get what I mean)
For years, I have talked about the lack of age representation in romance on OldBitey. First on the Oldbitey LiveJournal Blog, then here. But yesterday somebody else asked me the questions. Yesterday, I was on my soapbox on someone else’s blog: Read in a Single Sitting, and I was Advocating for older protagonists in romance fiction. If you are familiar with Oldbitey, you know my spiel, you know my PhD research is all about mature-aged romance heroines, but mostly I am really an advocate for inclusion.
I love romance fiction. I read across all genres, but I have a special place for romance. In romance there is something for everyone. Yes, there is a lot of ‘white romance,’ but there is also some diversity outside the white hetro romance. There are m/m romance, lesbian romance, there’s even ethnic diversity if you look for it–not a lot, but it’s there. You can find stories of cross-cultural romance (Sheiks and Greeks anyone?), plus-sized heroine romance (although what makes plus-size is up for discussion) and inter-species romance (e.g. weres, vampires, aliens, shapeshifters). There are, however, certain demographics seldom represented as protagonists in romance fiction. There is lack of heroes or heroines who are amputees, wheelchair bound, or have physical or mental challenges–such as Tim in Colleen McCullough’s Tim —the only romance I can even think of where a protagonist is, as McCullough puts it “not the full quid,” which of course speaks volumes to the attitude regarding disability of any sort. While ‘challenged individuals’ come in all forms, special demographics confront something that romance often wrestles with. The question becomes: How real is too real in the fantasy of romance?
There is a strange idea at work here with regard to the idea of how ‘real’ the romance fantasy can be. Some say too much realism ‘spoils’ the fantasy for them, but that is only when it comes to the age of the characters, as well as physical capability and mental capacity. Some readers prefer everything to be whole, pretty and young. All the time. Yet even within that whole, young prettiness, romance is incredible for addressing real life social issues, mores, and cultural standards, and changing the attitudes about them. Rape, divorce, single parenthood, abuse of all sorts, sexuality, the position of women in in business, in schools, in professions have all been poked and prodded and interrogated in romance and have transformed social sensibilities. These matters do not appear to be ‘too real’ to be included in a romance fantasy. So what the hell’s the matter with including the other incarnations of real human life in the fantasy?
The interesting hard fact is, the romance genre transforms itself and becomes more inclusive with each year. One day, I expect to see an even broader choice for all tastes, a broader scope of real people given the opportunity to participate in the fantasy because that’s what romance does.
Meanwhile, as you ponder my musings, I’ll let my awesome scarlet cape flap in the wind and stand poised on my soapbox, ready to swoop down and defend and support forgotten demographics.
Subversive heroines. Much has been said about your Buffys and Anitas–you know, the ass-kicking-vampire-hunting-zombie-slaying types of paranormal romance and/or science fiction romance–yet for all their strength and cunning, no one has included a subversive heroine in a straight (and by straight I don’t mean the inverse of gay) romance. As far as subversion goes, a romance heroine can be a courtesan, a "fallen woman," or go as far as having a smart-mouth, but she can’t possess the Scarlett O’Hara bitch gene.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t mind a bit of bitch. All women, ALL women are capable of doing and have most certainly, at some point in their life, done bitch.
Don’t lie. You know you have.
So where’s the rationale behind the idea a romance heroine can’t be a bitch? If, as some romance scholars (Kleypas, Kinsale, Juhasz) theorise, many female romance readers identify with the heroine (be it a heroine in a paranormal, historical or contemporary romance), and if those females can recognise they’re more likely to be a bitch than a courtesan, why isn’t there a bitch heroine?
Beyond Heaving Bosoms offers a reason. For the reader to accept the heroine, Sarah Wendell & Candy Tan, those wonderful Smart Bitches authors, suggest the romance heroine has to be a "perfectly nice, vanilla creation of moderation." Which means no reader wants to read about nasty heroine anymore than she wants to read about a heroine cutting off someone’s head because that’s just not nice, proper girly behaviour and…
Oh, wait. They do want to read about the heroine cutting off someone’s head! Hello? Anita Blake
Ok, so bitch = bad and scary ass-kicker beheading a vampire = good.
Excuse me, where’s the nice, vanilla creation of moderation in that? Is this kind of strong, does-not-always-play-nice heroine reserved for Science Fiction romance and Paranormal romance subgenres? Anything that shows a woman being bitchy and moody to those around her, or acting manipulative or selfish in the least bit because she’s a sexually-frustrated single parent dealing with a moody 15 year old son, a craptacular dead-end job, and a car that just died can exist only in the realm of Sci-Fi and Paranormal?
Maybe the issue is Vanilla. Used the way it is above it means "conventional, of ordinary sexual preferences." In other words, boring. However the true etymology of vanilla comes from the spanish name for the spice, vainilla, which is the diminutive of vina, sheath, vagina.
Now I bet all of you will look at vanilla ice cream in a new way, won’t you? And if I’m really lucky, romance writers will look a the bitch in a new way.
Just maybe, someday soon, The Bitch heroine will have her day.
I have fallen into the doldrums when it comes to reading. Swell and I have discussed this. I am suffering from eveything-I-pick-up-is-the-sameitis. I’m after fresh, edgy, smart, but what I find is stale, crusted with old blood, yellowing lace, serial killers, and brooding alphas who need to lighten up. Yes, I’m sure it’s just me, but I am BORED with what’s on offer. Of course I want that happily ever after, but can it get there in a NEW or clever way?
Indeed, it’s probably my own fault for reading too fast. I inhale my books. Out of ten books I get one gem. Then I expect the next nine to be just a glittery, but eight is a rehash of nine, seven is a rehash of a rehash of eight and so on…
Please, pardon me while I cover my gaping yawn. Sameness. Is that the fault of the author or the publisher who’s out to make money off whatever the current trend happens to be? For me, the trends in paranormal, historical, urban fantasy, contemporary and suspense are wearing thin. They have become predictable, too predictable. Am I the only one tired of vampires, supes, super-spies, black ops, SEALs, rogue FBI agents, serial killers, new gals in town and chefs following the same A to Z format? Is there any original element left out there?
Yes, there are plot formats we all know and love. I have to cop to the fact I adore heroes and heroines who hate each other at the start, as well as rogue FBI agents, and southern gentleman Vampire Bill. This admission this brings me to my TBR (To Be Read, for the uninitiated) pile, which, at this point, consists of one book.
As a result of my big yawn fest, I’m saving my new Susan Donovan (Ain’t Too Proud To Beg), for an upcoming trip, which isn’t fair, because that means I’m expecting BIG THINGS from SD. But here’s the thing. She surprised me with her last outing, where she turned the secret baby on its ear. I detest secret baby plots, but SD pulled it off. That fact Susan managed to putt that off for me gets to the heart of what I mean. She took week-old stale bread and transformed it into a delicious panzanella (Tuscan Bread salad), and who doesn’t love a good panzanella?
Will Susan Donovan do it again? Can she bring something original to Identicalville? Or am I trapped in the doldrums, doomed to float on a flat sea until Suzanne Brockmann’s next book comes out?
And your thoughts on the matter? Surely you have some.