The Changing Face of Romance Novels

From The New York Times:

Growing up in Minnesota, Helen Hoang suffered from crippling social anxiety and struggled to make friends. She found refuge in romance novels, frothy stories that allowed her to experience intense feelings that were clearly spelled out on the page, always with the promise of a happy ending. “It was like I found a pure, undiluted drug,” she said.

Many years later, as a mother of two in her 30s, Ms. Hoang began researching autism and realized that she’s on the spectrum, a condition that makes it difficult for her to hold casual conversations, read emotional cues, have an office job and meet new people. She once again turned to romance. But this time, she wrote the story herself.

So far, romance fans have swooned over Ms. Hoang’s debut novel, “The Kiss Quotient,” a multicultural love story centered on an autistic woman who has trouble navigating the nuances of dating and courtship. Readers have flooded the website Goodreads with more than 7,000 positive ratings, and the book, which was published in June, is already in its fourth printing.

The novel’s unexpected success is all the more astonishing given the striking lack of diversity within the romance genre. Romance novels released by big publishing houses tend to center on white characters, and rarely feature gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people in leading roles, or heroines with disabilities. Even as the genre has evolved to reflect readers’ varied tastes and fetishes — popular subcategories include vampire and werewolf romance, military romance, cowboy romance, time travel romance, pirate and Viking romance — the lead characters are often confined to a fairly narrow set of ethnic, cultural and aesthetic types.

“Publishers aren’t putting out books by many people of color and they’re giving us limited space at the table,” said the romance writer Rebekah Weatherspoon, who has published some novels with small presses and self-published others, including “Sated,” which features a black heroine and a disabled, bisexual Korean-American hero. “It’s definitely not a level playing field.”

. . . .

“Readers want books that reflect the world they live in, and they won’t settle for a book about a small town where every single person is white,” said Leah Koch, co-owner of the romance bookstore the Ripped Bodice in Culver City, Calif. Last year, six of her store’s top 10 best-selling novels were written by authors of color, Ms. Koch said.

. . . .

Romance publishers say that they want to publish books with more diverse characters and settings, but argue that it’s a challenge in part because the majority of submissions still come from white authors. The genre’s largest organization, the Romance Writers of America, which has around 10,000 members, recently conducted a survey and found that nearly 86 percent of its members are white.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

The last time PG checked, KDP doesn’t ask for the racial background of an author before publishing a book. He suspects the large majority of traditionally-published authors have never told their agents or publishers their racial identity.

Is there an assumption that, unless an author discloses their racial identity that they are a person of no color? Is there an assumption that an author of color will always mention that fact? From what source does such an assumption arise?

PG is old enough to remember when apartheid (separateness) was the law in South Africa and each person received an official racial designation recognized by both law and tradition – white, black, coloured and Asian. That racial identity was the basis of how each person was treated socially, professionally and legally. Racial identity was the most important part of a person’s identity and underpinned a racial spoils system that distributed favors, prestige, rights and riches based upon a person’s race.

Apartheid was and is rightfully condemned as a violation of fundamental human rights and a deep moral failing of any nation that practices it.

For a very long time, a government and society that was colorblind, recognizing rights and providing favors and opportunities regardless of racial identity was the epitome of fairness and justice, the polar opposite of apartheid.

PG finds a renewal of apartheid in 21st century America and elsewhere to be disgusting and distasteful. The idea that we must always be aware of each person’s race and take steps to adjust individual privileges, talents and desires so that any group of individuals is comprised of all racial groups in the proper proportions strikes PG as apartheid with a data-centric face. There are, of course, exceptions to these rules that apply to almost any group in which persons of color are overrepresented. Overrepresentation of a particular racial group on the basketball team is fine, but overrepresentation on the swimming team is a problem.

If the Romance Writers of America need to pay a lot more attention to the racial makeup of its membership because the racial background of romance authors is an important metric of racial equality, what about the racial background of romance readers?

Should the owner of a bookstore recommend books by Anglo American authors only to white readers and steer African American readers to books by African Americans and Hispanic readers to Hispanic authors? Should a bookstore have separate sections for whites, blacks and Hispanics with appropriate signage and instruct its clerks to direct those walking in the door to books with the appropriate racial pedigree to the appropriate racial section? What is the store to do if it is unable to locate a book about the Balkan Wars written by an Hispanic author to stock in its history section for Hispanics?

PG apologizes for a political take on a topic related to authors and their books, but he finds the idea of a kinder, gentler apartheid and the excessive attention being paid to the racial composition of various groups of people to be insultingly retrograde.

36 thoughts on “The Changing Face of Romance Novels”

  1. The Times needs to get out more. A large part of the romance genre is not by ‘big publishers’ and the LGBT romance sub-genre is huge.

    • Right. The reason Ms. Hoang’s book gets a mention in the NYT is because it is published by Penguin.

      The article isn’t about Romance authors, or readers, or Romance as a genre. It’s about Romance *publishers*, because that’s all that matters.


    • You don’t even need to venture out of the office.
      Kindle lists over 40,000 titles in the LGBT category and they break it out by interest, too.

      They also list over 10,000 african american romance titles, 40,000 inspirational, and twenty different categories, including multicultural & interracial over 20,000.

      That seems pretty diverse to me and I didn’t even have to get out of my seat to quantify it.


      African American
      Clean & Wholesome
      Collections & Anthologies
      Historical Romance
      Multicultural & Interracial
      Mystery & Suspense
      New Adult & College
      Romantic Comedy
      Science Fiction
      Time Travel

  2. “Readers want books that reflect the world they live in, and they won’t settle for a book about a small town where every single person is white,” said Leah Koch, co-owner of the romance bookstore the Ripped Bodice in Culver City, Calif. Last year, six of her store’s top 10 best-selling novels were written by authors of color, Ms. Koch said.

    I should point out that California as a whole is enormously multi-cultural. And the West LA/Santa Monica/South Bay/Palos Verdes area of Los Angeles — of which Culver City is a part — is also enormously multi-cultural, as well as highly-educated, highly professional, and very well-to-do… for all residents, regardless of ethnicity. It’s definitely an outlier when compared to most of the US, especially the “fly-over” parts. So it’s not surprising that this bookstore sells a lot of multi-cultural romances.

    • While your usage here is consistent, and consistent with common usage, I think it is slightly misleading.

      The French and English colonists were not the same cultures. There was a wide mix of cultures in the thirteen colonies. There were differences in regional culture between the colonies, but the cultures of the colonies could largely be described as a stripped down consensus of common denominators. That heavily preserved ways of convincingly saying “I do not plan, at this time, to kill you.” Small towns in “flyover” country are still largely heavily heirs to this sort of “multicultural” consensus culture.

      Whereas the “multicultural” of a place like California tends to exclude this other sense of multicultural by claiming that a common denominator consensus culture is uniform and inherently white. There are important functional differences, but both categories are cases with more than one culture.

      The United States was a successful negative answer to the question of whether an empire run by the strong central power of a single culture and ethnicity is the only way to have a multicultural and multiethnic polity. It is not yet clear what all the fundamental requirements of that success are.

    • That was a well written article, Olga. I thought it was funny that in the comments so many people said, “I agree with you but we need more diversity.”

      Unless you are planning on preventing me (Most people would describe me as white, despite the fact that I am part native American) from writing and forcing someone else to write who don’t want to, I’m not sure how you get more diversity.

      Anyone can go to KDP and publish. I think ultimately if you want more heroes of a certain racial/ethnic makeup in fiction you have to encourage people of that racial/ethnic makeup to read. Not every culture has a love of reading. I’ve rarely met a writer who didn’t start out as an avid reader.

      • Or just let writers use whatever character they want – any background, any “race,” any ethnicity – without attacking them for “appropriation.”

        I read books with Black heros (actually, they are mostly heroines – Michelle “Mike” Henke in David Weber’s Honorverse is Black, for one). I read books with homosexual male heroes (Sarah Hoyt’s “A Few Good Men” and sequels, an example). They are interesting characters – and neither I, nor any of the many other fans, really gives a tinker’s dam that we are not of “that kind” or that the writer is not, either.

  3. they won’t settle for a book about a small town where every single person is white

    Well, do they have books about a small town where every single person was either white or tan? Where I grew up, it was about 50/50 “White” / “Hispanic”, the “white” split again into South Slavic and miscellaneous. Is my background represented?

    (We did have one – count them, one – Black family in town, among between 3,000 and 4,000 households. I still chuckle at the “scandal” when my older sister convinced their son of her age to take her to Senior Prom.)

    Anyway – please do not apologize for your editorial, PG. Some things have to be said; we have been losing the war against bigotry and alienation on ridiculous foundations for far too long.

  4. Interestingly, in romance, a great deal of author representation and editor interaction is face to face, as the editors and agents come to romance writer conferences. In other genres, one isn’t unlikely to be never meeting the publisher before you publish, unless you live in New York. (I’ve dated a romance author who has a personal relationship with every editor who publishes her, and the editors she’s queried are ones she’s usually met). So indeed, one’s race tends to be already known to one’s publishers in the romance category, according to her.

  5. “PG apologizes for a political take on a topic related to authors and their books, but he finds the idea of a kinder, gentler apartheid and the excessive attention being paid to the racial composition of various groups of people to be insultingly retrograde.”

    IMO, PG doesn’t need to apologize. The situation *is* insultingly retrograde.

  6. The natural extension of this is when people start telling you what race you are. I don’t look native, but I am part native. I married a Hispanic woman who doesn’t speak Spanish and our kids don’t look Hispanic or native… does that make us neither? Is it not the race but race+income? Is it language? Where is this mysterious “POC” line drawn? It’s great for people who are black/black, not so much for black people who are just deeply tanned. How about all the blue-eyed, blond-haired Argentinians who speak Portuguese? Or are we really just talking about African communities. Minus Madagascar because they speak French, amirite? I certainly don’t hear this outcry about Asians… who draws these lines? Who is the arbiter of race? At what point do you get to claim your race even if you may not look or sound like it to someone else?

    • Eventually it drills down to the individual. Which I’m fine with. I tire of the identity games. I think basically everyone is fed up with it.

      • Alas, “identity games” aren’t yet done with us.
        If anything, they are spreading unto the next generation in new ways.

        Consider this profile piece from the WP, last february, where they highlight all the classic signs yet fail to see how they added up to produce the “mystifying” result of the young offspring of multiple generations of suburban liberals turned “white supremacist”.

        At a time when everything is about identity politics this young man aligned with the one group willing to tell him it is okay to be a white heterosexual male. That suggested he too could be proud of his heritage. Shocking, huh? (Actions breed reactions.)

        When even the passive follower types are moved to take sides you know things are getting pretty bad.

        • Unfortunately, that’s what happens when people are identified by their race and not by what they believe, the values they hold and their religious commitments.
          If we need to categorise people for whatever reason, doing it by belief and not by skin colour seems to make more sense, because racial identity is only skin deep.

          • Careful there.
            Show too much religious or ethical commitment and your worth gets challenged. “The dogma is strong in you.”

            I guess the folks buying all those Inspirational Romances don’t count towards “diversity”.

            • “Careful there.
              Show too much religious or ethical commitment and your worth gets challenged.”

              Only western/white religions, though.

    • How about all the blue-eyed, blond-haired Argentinians who speak Portuguese?

      Never heard of this group.

      I know blue-eyed, blond Brazilians from Porto Alegre who speak Portuguese . . . and German. I know an Argentine who speaks English and traces his ancestry back to Ireland.

      Are there Argentines whose first language is Portuguese?

      • There used to be a lot of Argentines whose first language was Italian, German, or Guaraní. Arabic, too. Portuguese? Near the brazilian border maybe. Or emigrants after one of the coups. On either side.

        Wouldn’t write off any variation.

        • Yes, there are people in Argentina who speak Portuguese. Not as many who speak Spanish, but they are there.

  7. The rules are simple.

    If you are “woke” and properly supportive of whatever today’s SJW agenda is, you can be “Native” with only 1/64th – a “drop” (less than what the Nazis defined as “Jewish blood”) – in you (Elizabeth Warren). Or, with sufficient chutzpah, you can simply “identify” with a “race” and, hey presto!, you are a member in good standing (Rachel Dolezal).

    On the other hand, if you are one of the “others” – those that don’t go along with the inherent racial bigotry of the Left – you are not whatever your ancestors may have bequeathed upon your genetic makeup. We who supported Sad Puppies have an in-joke about Sarah Hoyt (female, Portuguese, Catholic); she is the “White Mormon Male” because all Sad Puppies are obviously that. (We add “with a great rack.”)

    Side note: Without meaning offense, and acknowledging that people are free to call themselves whatever they want to, the language stickler in me objects strenuously to “Native American.” To me, you are a native, your wife is a native, I am a native – we were all born here. I much prefer either “First Americans” or “Elder Americans” – to me, more accurate and somewhat more dignified.

    • Btw, I’m starting to dislike that expression. “Woke”.
      Like only they see reality and everybody else is sleepwalking?

      Life isn’t The Matrix.
      And there isn’t just one way to look at things. Too simplistic.

      Real life is complicated.

      • Woke. Agreed Felix. Not sure where that word came from in that sense. THere are several word usages in the ‘whatever wars’ that are pulsing at the moment, that sound more like epithets hurled, than conversations.

        • Walking away from being “Woke” has become known as “Taking the Red Pill.”

          This is not by accident.

  8. I do think we need to remember that trad pub houses have discriminated against non-white authors for years. I certainly don’t believe that a system of cultural apartheid is the answer. I do think we should be looking for solutions to end racism and structural racism.

    As a romance writer myself, my problem is the misrepresentation of the romance genre displayed in the article and overall attitude. For example, the condescending description of romances as having “clearly spelled out emotions” and a “guaranteed happy ending”. Sounds like they are written for morons, doesn’t it?

    How many romances do Penguin publish a year? Penguin is hardly the go-to publisher for romance readers! I looked at the first few Amazon reviews for the title mentioned, and it seemed clear that the reviewers were not regular romance readers. Hardly surprising. And just look at the cringe-worthy cover with an actual HEART on it. Obviously designed by someone with no knowledge of the romance genre.

    Romance has ALWAYS been a genre of a million niches, resulting in many small speciality publishers catering for the immense variety of tastes. No wonder self publishing has been so revolutionary for romance.

    Personally, I read and write gay (M/M) romance and have done so for more than fifteen years. If I had been born twenty years earlier and had to go with an obscure small press to be published, I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to reach the same audience / potential audience that I can now self publishing.

    So … when is the New York Times going to print that?

  9. “For a very long time, a government and society that was colorblind, recognizing rights and providing favors and opportunities regardless of racial identity was the epitome of fairness and justice, the polar opposite of apartheid.”

    The trouble is, no government or society has ever actually been colourblind. If that was the case, the USA and other nations would never have had slavery. In Canada, current police carding/street check tactics policies overwhelmingly target those who are not-white, with Indigenous women being the most targeted.

    Bias, racial and otherwise, has always existed, and I’m glad that people in publishing are starting to realize that non-white authors have been overlooked, or shunted off into specific, special categories. Yes, authors can publish via KDP and other methods, but I don’t see the increasing recognition in traditional publishing to be a bad thing.

    • Come on.

      Slavery has existed well beyond having anything to do with modern notions of race and color.

      Check out LeBlanc’s Constant Battles, and some of the other things the recent Physical Anthropologists have done. Meade was a fraud; warfare is endemic to collections of humans. Including between populations that would be exactly the same in terms of modern ‘race’.

      What do you do with a defeated enemy? In many cases this would have predated the development of such institutions as ransom, weregild, and tribute. Leave them free to fight again? Generally only picked by the stupid or weak. Kill them? Enslave them? Lots of people throughout history have picked slavery.

      All ‘slavery is race’ is on par for sheer bigoted ignorance with ‘logic is the patriarchy’ or curing homosexuals using a combination of thumbscrews and blowtorches.

  10. OUr family, over the decades has been all around the world about what is identity to us .

    I’m the head of a multi-racial [as it said in our time, there wre far more harsh words before to describe us and others like us] family. It is true that some persons take issue with our colors, with right off the bat assumptions that come from the negative. It is true that persons in our family of any hue have been not treated well, and also have been treated decently and occasionally, when earned, lauded. Pretty much like any family.

    My brother and son are Black. Spouse middle Eastern. Daughters, sisters and brothers, Mestizos a Mexico, y Converso. Grandchildren, one is Asian and one is Mestizo ,three are Black, and three are mosaics, many threads woven together. Grandparents now walked onward, are decendants of Chichimecas y Apache and Spanish. Other grandparents also walked on, farmer serfs who fled from E. Eu taken by the Turks. That’s just the basis.

    We’ve been on each side [the many many sides, not just two sides] of this re who we are, what we strive for, who can we help, who might walk with us.

    The answers we have about race are different on different days, depending on whether its just a conversation, in which case we think division by color is an unconscious effort to start a war in which people are told to stay in their own pens and be excluded from x while being accepted into z, and often in said ‘group of color’ as we have been invited, to see the ongoing, never settled anger against an entire race of persons of many heritages… acdg to race/color/heritage. That doesnt fly in the family.

    We try to see what is on people’s hearts even beyond what they might say as they too are finding their way re where to stand in this very windy culture of do this, dont do that, be this, dont be that. As my son [in his 50s]and brother [in his 70s] dont want to be called ‘african americans’, just americans. THey are adamant about this, My son doesnt ascribe to being of the ‘negro race’ even though his skin is a beautiful dark mahogany color. He says he is ‘of the human race.” I concur. I could go on with more examples, but will stop there.

    In essence as we have learned and grown, we are of a pretty single mind on the idea of seeing the soul who stands before us, without racial or color or heritage or econ status, or educational status assigned by some in society. But just as a soul who most often is interesting and wise in their own way, and is suffering about something, as we all are. Those seem to us, far better similaritie to base connection on, that allow us to draw others close. beyond our family group, racial groups, heritage groups.

    Yet, we bond closely with our histories of farback people, their struggles, their errors, their shining moments, how each group was treated then and now. We see no reason to leave behind our histories, for they inform us of useful/not useful ways to go in life. We are well aware of the prejudices inherent in the now; we’ve suffered the blows, and some have been truly egregious, and yet, we are still here.

    Oddly, we are sometimes loudly mocked and called out for our stances of seeing without the filter of color and race. Traitor, buying into the ‘white’ man’s trap to homogenize us all, “privilege of having a mixed family” [I know, it makes my head explode too], they not realizing that we have to go to the front on the behalf of near every downgrade and prejudice that exists on too regular a basis, esp for our grandchldren who do not look like the average person in america, but look like many persons in america who will have much higher profiles as adults.

    I have to say much of the time it appears prejudice and exclusion is based on how a person ‘looks’ to certain people. To us, that is sad .And not the way we strive to live.

    I dont use the term ‘social justice warrior’ because social justice is a deep part of our faith that we enact in the word, based on the sermon on the mount. Clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick and lonely and imprisoned, watch over the widowed, protect the children, give shelter to the wandering… not only in literal terms but in many creative ways… including writing for, about, with them, and opening whatever doors one can

    Were I to write a romance book, not sure I could, but it would have to have horses and guns in it, and probably unlikley combinatons of people in it, that are found in my own fissioning, lively, opinionated, caring family. lol

    Most of all, we would like people who are euro-american, who are often attacked or made to feel guilt, that they owe something to the past actions of others–to know, at least from our part, nothing is owed. Just once in a while if you can have a cup of coffee with us, or stand a look at the billions of stars at night in a place that is not lamplight overgrown, or stand with us, if you can, when we have troubles. We are reciprocal within our reach, without question.

    Like I said, we’ve been dragged willingly and unwillingly into angry discussions about who owes who what. We’ve been angry, sad, bewildered and wrongly insulted and wrongly aggrandized. But over time, this is where we have arrived : seeking our brothers and sisters who stand for helping each other if they can, as they can. I really, in my bones, know no more than that for as much peace and creative life as possible.

  11. Some of these comments… wow.

    Clearly, there is a huge misunderstanding as to what racism is, and what’s going on in the Romance genre with major publishers and PoC.

    When people are not actively involved in the conversations that are occurring then it’s easy to make assumptions.

  12. What I want to know is what exactly these people expect.
    How they pretend to achieve their diversity nirvana.

    Do they want corporate publishing acquisitions editors fired or sent to reeducation camps?

    Do they want voluntary quotas? (Government can’t mandate speech in the US so they can’t be legally mandated.)

    Do they want to change whose books tradpub buys? Less old white cis males and more “woke” folk? Or do they want tradpub to spend more money adding approved authors?

    Do they want agents to demand personal biological information before accepting manuscripts?

    How do they expect to filter out pen names and hidden collaborations where the author of record didn’t write a thing? (This kind of Fronting happens all the time in Federal Government procurements.)

    A bit of clarity would be helpful here.

    It is easy to bemoan a situation and demand change as long as you don’t worry the details of how to get people to act against their own best judgment.

  13. It would help a lot IMO if the organization that purports to speak for romance writers would do a little more navel-gazing.

    Writers of color (that’s intended to include black writers) have for years reported exclusion at the RWA’s big national convention. The stories are out there and easy to find. So also report writers with disabilities. No book by a black writer has ever been awarded the coveted “Rita” prize. Yet they are expected to continue entering their novels and paying their fees, only to realize the scale is already heavily weighted against them. Why has Beverly Jenkins never taken a “Rita” home?

    It would help also for Harlequin, still considered the 400 lb. gorilla in romance publishing, to acquire more fiction featuring black characters, disabled characters, multi-ethnic characters. Why did they close their Kimani line if they were truly interested in serving the black romance reader?

    Yeah, I agree with the commenter above that we can’t include a race box on the submission form, that writers should check off to make sure the publisher meets their diversity quota. But a little more introspection on the part of the romance industry would not hurt; with, of course, the resulting actions actually being taken.

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