Could Categorizing Romance Be Viewed As Segregation?
We ask authors what words they use to tag their stories, if it is still the most effective form of marketing and whether there’s a risk categorizing romance could be viewed as segregation.
LaQuette: We Still Have Work to Do: The Still-Present Need For Diverse Romance
Disclaimer: All opinions are my own, and do not represent RWA®, RWA/NYC®, or Pink Heart Society®.
Thank you to the Pink Heart Society for allowing me to drop in and chat for a bit. For those of you that don't know me. I'm LaQuette, and I write erotic romance featuring POC characters. Essentially, I write diverse romance. As much as I'd loved to state this no longer bears mentioning, current events have shown me in 2017 there remains a need to say, we still need diverse romance (shoutout to K.M. Jackson and her #WeNeedDiverseRomance Campaign).
Recently, an established member of the romance community made the statement, "Diversity for the sake of diversity is discrimination." This author's comment was directed at Romance Writers of America's current board of directors and their initiative to create a more inclusive organization for all of its membership.
Reading that statement for some may seem benign, but as a woman of color, who writes stories about protagonists of color, that short sentence has a real-world impact that mainstream writers will never have to face: Having their work devalued because its written by and about marginalized people.
Being an author in today's publishing industry is hard. No matter who you are, or what you're writing about, chances are, sustaining a living in this industry is not a simple task. However difficult publishing has been for most authors, it's ten times harder for those who are POC/minority authors, or those who write about marginalized characters, and or own-voices stories.
Fortunately for the those of us writing today, changes are happening in the publishing industry, and communities like RWA are trying to adapt. RWA and its board of directors are strides in welcoming everyone to the table. No, it's not perfect. Yes, there's still work to do. But, it's obvious RWA is willing to put in the work, and I am thrilled about that.
But, when an author, one who has benefited from the established norms of exclusion in the publishing industry, makes such a statement, it tells me we still have so much more work to do. It tells me that people still don't understand that thinking marginalized authors and stories don't deserve a place at the table, helps contribute to the lack of publishing opportunities currently available for marginalized groups.
This ideology that if disenfranchised groups are allowed to sit at the publishing table, there will be less room for mainstream authors or the standards will be lowered, is a false narrative. If publishing today appears harder for mainstream authors, it's not because marginalized groups are being sought after in place of them, it's because somehow, they haven't changed with the current landscape.
This erroneous belief leads to fewer contract opportunities and segregation of bookshelves. Adding diverse romance to shelves that are marked, "African-American Romance," or "LGBT Romance," instead of categorizing them by genre or sub-genre implies that those romances should only be sought after, and purchased by people belonging to those groups. The moment those labels are instituted, the visibility of those books becomes compromised. If they're not visible, they can't sell. If they don't sell, then it will be ten times harder for the next marginalized author in that category to be allowed into the fold.
Ultimately, diversity is not for diversity's sake, and inclusion does not equal oppression for the mainstream. Instead, diversity is needed to level a playing field that has given one group an unfair advantage over everyone else in the game. It allows readers to expand their horizons, and experience new and exciting love stories from all sorts of perspectives. After all, isn't that what we want in the romance industry? To allow writers to write, and readers to read beautiful love stories? Or, is our only goal to repeatedly perpetuate the same perspective and the same experience time and again?
GG Wynter: The Color of Love
If you only go by online categories and the bookshelves of some bookstores, you’d come away with a very skewed view of romantic love and the people who experience it. That’s because while categorizing books by theme tells readers what a book is about, categorizing books by race, ethnicity, and/or sexual orientation only tells readers who those books are about.
Theme and genre categories tell readers that within the pages of the book they’ve just selected, they’ll find a sweet small-town romance or a romantic thriller that will keep them up all night. It will tell them that the protagonists at the heart of the story they’re reading are navigating their way through a second chance at love, or through a passionate relationship set in a dystopian world. Correctly categorizing books can tell readers a great deal about a story, helping them to make buying decisions.
But books categorized solely by race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, only tell the reader who a book is about, and even then paints an incomplete picture. A book shelved in the African American category tells you one thing and one thing only: the book has an African American protagonist. It doesn’t tell a reader whether that protagonist is navigating through life in a dystopian setting or if she lives in a small town. It doesn’t tell the reader whether there’s a cozy mystery at the center of the story, or if the heat between the two main characters is enough to scorch the sheets.
When it comes to romance, this long-time practice of shelving books written by some authors solely by race or ethnicity, gives the impression that love is somehow different when the leading ladies and men are people of color. It says, intentionally or not, that their love is different from our love.
How do we fix this? It starts by making sure publishers and readers understand that in romance, the central themes of love, family, and heartache are universal. And when all readers of romance begin purchasing books featuring people of color and LGBTQ protagonists, their “also boughts” on retail sites will start to populate with titles by other authors of color. Authors of color who write books with universal themes across a wide range of categories that can’t be defined by the color of the authors’—or the protagonists’—skin.
So, what is the color of real love? It isn’t defined or confined by skin color. The color of love is fiery red passion and blue heartbreak. It’s sun-kissed morning afters and pale yellow melancholy. It’s a breath-catching, fingertip-lingering, electrifying rainbow of colors that burst onto the pages of our books, bringing with it that overwhelming feeling that touches all of us. And it’s too big to be relegated to a corner shelf at the back of a bookstore or a retail category that uses only its eyes when deciding where love belongs.
Race is not a subgenre.
Gender is not a subgenre.
Sexual orientation is not a subgenre.
It’s an old debate—should librarians and booksellers categorize romance with MCs of color, those that are LGBTQ+, and of course, any intersections of the two, under their own sub-category (often separate from romance)? In my opinion, the answer is a resounding no. Put the gay romances with the romances. Put the lesbian mysteries with the mysteries. Put the African speculative fiction with all of the other speculative fiction. To do otherwise is to weaken the genres and publishing as a whole.
As a queer woman writing queer romances, I see this first hand in LGBTQ+ romance. Instead of being shelved with other romances, LGBTQ+ romances will be shelved with “LGBTQ+ fiction” or LGBTQ+ books as a whole. This means people looking for literary fiction or memoirs about queer lives may grow frustrated when they find genre fiction instead—and people looking for romances will never see the LGBTQ+ books at all.
The same is true when shelving books of authors of any race by their race rather than the content of their books. The race of authors and characters doesn’t change the readership for the work—and by separating the books from their natural audience, you limit the audience.
Genre fiction readers are hungry for good content. They are hungry for new content. And they are hungry for diverse content. Hiding genre content in “special interest” shelving does a disservice to the readers, making it harder for them to find books that reflect society at large and reinforcing the idea that “no one is writing books for them.”
The recent announcement of the closing of the Kimani imprint at Harlequin has offered the romance community at large a chance to reflect on how romance publishing has ghetto-ized authors of color over the years. Harlequin has the opportunity to integrate their category lines at last—but the rest of publishing should pay attention also. The future of publishing is diverse, and it’s unacceptable to hide the talents of authors of color and LGBTQ+ authors because of who we are.
People are not a subgenre.
Imagine buying a packet of corn flakes & opening them to find the packet contained dried figs. Imagine opening a tin of peas to find it contained rice pudding. Imagine opening a pack of pajamas to find they were actually a tennis racket & a pair of trainers. You need to buy a 7 seater diesel car but the search app only allows you to pick by price & distance from you. You're looking for a party dress but when you walk into your favourite shop there's only a Men and a Women section, each containing one enormous pile of clothes. Life is full of a multitude of things & naturally humans seek to create order. One way we do this is by creating categories, types of things & clustering things together. City car. People carrier. Sports car. Office wear. Party clothes. Night wear. Although things may not fit exactly into these categories, it helps position them to customers when looking for something to buy. Even if a product could fit between 2 or more categories it should be placed in the category *most important to the consumer*. As an example, Ford makes cars of various sizes with the same engine, ranging from small city car, supermini, family car, sports utility vehicle to exec car. Ford could group all their cars by engine size - here's all the 1.0litre engine cars. Here's all the cars with 1.4litre engines etc. However most people don't buy cars like that. And who is going to start their car buying process with the question, 'I need a car with a 1.0litre engine'. Instead someone is far more likely to ask, 'I need a something to get me around a city.' Or 'I need something to carry myself my spouse & our 4 children with our luggage.' Hence cars are sold by type & size of car not engine size. In marketing speak- customers don't buy a product, they buy a solution to a problem they have; by categorizing products it helps them to be targeted & sold to the most appropriate consumer.
If I'm going to a party I'm looking for a particular kind of something to wear. I'm looking for a solution of clothing to allow me to go to the party and look & feel fabulous. It's not helpful when I go shopping to be presented with an amorphous mass of clothes. Although in theory I could wear any clothes to the party, if the only problem I was looking to solve was 'I want to cover my body in material' but rarely are our problems so broad when looking to buy something. Instead it's actually 'i want to buy something for a party that'll make me feel smart and fun'. In addition, consumers make decisions about whether to buy products based on their packaging which will be designed to communicate that product's features, advantages & benefits to the customer. 'I want a cereal to give me energy all day that's quick to prepare by adding milk.' If I then open the packet to find dried figs, I will be disappointed, regardless of whether I like them or not. Because it's not what the packaging led me to believe & because it's not providing a solution to the problem of something to eat at breakfast as described above. This is why books in similar genre have similar looking covers. A book is a product, just like a car, a packet of cereal, a film or a pair of pajamas. I'll use gay romance as an example of a subgenre within romance. Romance is such a massive genre it's a bit like 'women's clothes' as a category so it's easy to see why there's further categories within romance.
Because the main story of a romance is about two people meeting, overcoming obstacles in the plot & emotional conflict within themselves to be together for a happy ever after, it follows that one of the categories within romance would be 'gay' because the pairing is two men rather than a man & a Woman. Since romance focuses on the pairing it makes sense to separate off same sex couplings from opposite sex couplings based on reader preferences of the couplings they'd want to read. The problem with having *gay* as a separate category within romance is that there are plenty of gay stories, about 2 men, that aren't really romances.
They don't follow the romance genre conventions. (Which are the same regardless of gender of pairing) They don't end happily. They don't focus on the men's relationship etc. So this means there will be some gay stories under gay romance that are gay but not romance. If you put the coupling first you end up with same sex coupling books under romance that aren't romance. So you'd need to separate gay fiction from gay romance - same with lesbian fiction & lesbian romance etc (similarly to how chick lit is separate from m/f category romances). If it's all starting to sound rather complex, that's what I intended. However, If you put GLBTQ romances under their sub genre (contemporary, historical, fantasy, cowboy...) among the straight romances you risk putting readers off who don't want to read same sex romance when if it's about cowboys or doctors or fantasy, which is their go to sub genre. This isn't about people's attitudes to gay people; it's about what they prefer to read - no judgement. Furthermore, If you take all the GLBTQ books and put them together in their own section, it continues to be treated separately from the rest of stories simply because the couplings are same sex not opposite sex. Which means readers who've never read a gay romance probably never will, because they won't stumble across Adam & Steve's cowboy romance while looking for Karen & Steve's cowboy romance.
Plus why would you assume that readers of gay romance are the same as readers of lesbian, bisexual, transgender romance? It's surely more likely that even within GLBTQ romance readers will have pairing preferences, hence making putting them all together creating as many problems as it solves. At a recent residential writing course when asked by another author what I wrote I said gay romance & gay fiction & the author replied that the market for erotica was growing.
'How do you know what I write is erotica?' I asked. 'I assumed gay meant it was erotica,' she replied, genuinely surprised & apologetic. 'That's a big assumption. Gay romance has everything from fade to black to lots of on page erotic content, just like m/f romance.'
She apologised & stood very much corrected.
I've been a member of the RNA since 2014 & have attended chapter meetings, explaining that gay romance doesn't necessarily mean erotica, and many focus on the emotional journey with minimal or no on page explicit content, and that if people were to try one, they may like it as much if not more than a m/f romance.
So maybe romance books should be categorised according to how much explicit content they have, regardless of gender of the coupling...
Categorizing books, and other entertainment, unlike cars and clothes, automatically becomes politicised because it's about types of people & their lives (gay, lesbian, Asian, black, Jewish). But they have to be categorised for marketing, for selling, for buying - to prevent being presented with a big amorphous pile of books. And for that reason, although it's not perfect, and despite the fact that it doesn't support readers unconsciously crossing their pairing preference divide (from m/f to m/m or f/f) while remaining in their sub category preference (contemporary, recency, cowboy) and therefore discovering a whole new world of romance reading, I think having LGBTQ books in a separate section makes more sense. But I am a strong advocate for mixing among romance readers - LGBTQ romance authors attending m/f author events, being on each other's blogs, attending reader events for all romance books regardless of pairing. Because, even if you don't want to read about 2 men *getting down to it in bed* (and tbh I'm not that keen to read it and I am a gay man) there's plenty of gay romance (and lesbian romance etc) you could try that focuses on the emotions & the development of their love that a dyed in the wool *mainstream romance* reader, used to reading male female couplings, could enjoy too.
Liam’s latest male/male category romance, Heat Wave Astoria, is out now. For more information about his writing, check out his website, and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and his blog.
As we all know, search for a romance novel online and you'll quite literally be spoiled for choice, so discoverability is a major concern for authors. Hence why category/series romance has been so successful over the years. Narrow the search parameters for readers and books should, theoretically, be easier to find, particularly when you’re short on time and are more interested in reading the kind of book you want to read than spending hours trying to find it.
The RWA’s definition of a romance, according to their website, is as follows:
Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel. An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love. Human emotions are traits we all share, the key word there being human. We all understand fear and joy, loss and love (to name but a few), because we’ve experienced them. That’s why, regardless of who the characters are or their sexuality or physical disability, if by the end of a story they love each other and choose to spend their lives together, it fits the criteria for a romance.
The RWA website goes on to say:
Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot. These settings and distinctions of plot create specific subgenres within romance fiction.
It then lists the subgenres:
Contemporary Romance: Romance novels that are set from 1950 to the present that focus primarily on the romantic relationship
Erotic Romance: Romance novels in which strong, often explicit, sexual interaction is an inherent part of the love story, character growth and relationship development and could not be removed without damaging the storyline. These novels may contain elements of other romance subgenres (such as paranormal, historical, etc.).
Historical Romance: Romance novels that are set prior to 1950.
Paranormal Romance: Romance novels in which fantasy worlds or paranormal or science fiction elements are an integral part of the plot.
Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements: Romance novels in which religious or spiritual beliefs are an inherent part of the love story, character growth and relationship development and could not be removed without damaging the storyline. These novels may be set in the context of any religious or spiritual belief system of any culture.
Romantic Suspense: Romance novels in which suspense, mystery, or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot.
Young Adult Romance: Romance novels in which young adult life is an integral part of the plot.
So, why aren’t we categorizing every romance novel that way?
Personally speaking, I’ve got all the information I need to decide whether I’m going to read a book from the cover art and back-blurb (and possibly a sneak peek at the first chapter). The choices I make from that starting point are mine and entirely personal. If I’m hooked by compelling characters and fantastic writing, I’ll go looking for more by the same author. It’s that simple.
But what if you can’t find what you’d like to read or characters who resonate with you? Imagine how that would feel. I have and I don’t like it any more than I do when people belittle what I read. What irritates me more, is that this genre, the one which has empowered female authors for more than a century, which blazed a trail into EBooks and self-publishing and is devoured by readers all over the world to the tune of billions of dollars per year is even debating the all-encompassing kind of diversity which broadens the genres readership, at all.
Successful businesses don’t ignore the economics of supply and demand. And that’s but one of the oh-so-many-reasons #WeNeedDiverseRomance. It’s not diversity for the sake of diversity, it’s reflective of the world we live in and the people who should matter most to the publishing industry: Readers. Without them, the genre dies. It’s that simple.
When it comes to discoverability, I think we should continue categorizing romance novels by tone and content - Contemporary, Erotic, Historical, Paranormal, etc. – letting the cover art, back blurb and story tell the reader everything else they need to know. Whether they choose to read a book is up to them. No-one should deny them the right to make that choice, make it more difficult for them or categorize them based on what they want to read. When it comes to a character’s ethnicity, sexuality or physical challenges, I look forward to the day when it isn’t a topic for discussion beyond whether the story was any good, if the hero/heroine was a keeper and if anyone can recommend more of the same. It should be that simple for everyone.
In the meantime, I’ll continue tagging my books as Romance > Contemporary > RomCom > New York > Adult Content or any of the other words I think are relevant to the story. And if a reader buys one of my books and enjoys it, I’ll do what every other author on the planet does when that happens. Celebrate!
Trish has a new book coming out this month! Mostly Married can be pre-ordered from all the usual online retailers and its release coincides with the relaunch of her website on September 18th. To keep up to date with the latest news and help her celebrate, you can follow her on Facebook or Instagram.
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