The Culture Crush
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Mirror, Mirror

Mirror, Mirror

written by Ruby Scalera

An outspoken woman. A standoffish man. A will they or won’t they of wit, desire, intruding family members and well-timed rainstorms. Misunderstandings abound, perceptions change, each character follows their own journey to the same destination of love and acceptance and they all live happily ever after. 

It could be the plot of the next best-selling romance novel, flying off the shelves. Or it could be the plot of Pride and Prejudice, an early tale of love and acceptance in the age of strict social governing and silent women.  But whether the stories are set in ballrooms, boardrooms or bedrooms, the romance novel--and its writer--has faced challenges for generations, despite its continued commercial success. 

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“The bottom line is, just because women do it doesn’t make it have any less worth as literature,” says Cindy Dees, a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more fifty suspense and thriller novels and recipient of this year’s Romance Writers of America organization’s PRO Mentor Award. “It’s optimistic and it’s done by women. It’s got two strikes against it before they even pick up a book.” 

While authors and industry professionals are grappling with questions of representation and diversity in the romance genre, they must also navigate the world of self-publishing, modern communication and the unstable nature of small presses, social media, and ebooks. For some, that means a total rebuild with inclusive writing and mainstream representation at the heart of the question. 

And yet, the books continue to sell en mass. The romance industry, however, must continue to justify its value at every turn. Some of those obstacles facing romance today look the same as they did centuries ago, a struggle for acceptance and respect. Where have we heard that before? A successful industry made up primarily by women having to prove themselves, despite the glaring statistics that should speak for them. The industry isn't taken seriously? You don't say! 

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In 2015, romance writer Maya Rodale released the book, Dangerous Books For Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained, chronicling the silently progressive history of the romance genre, from the early days of Austen to the supermarket shelves--where romance novels have long been placed so homemakers could purchase them with the week’s shopping money and without their husband’s permission. Rodale’s research is stark. More than half the readers surveyed believe they should keep their romance reading a secret, even more believe romance has a bad reputation and almost all believe romance readers are looked down upon. 

Here’s an example: In 2015 Nora Roberts had appeared on the New York Times Best Sellers for at least 191 separate books, yet has been reviewed by them only twice. That’s right. One, two. Two times. Completely unjust, but not unique. This fact might cause you to shake your head, but probably not in disbelief.

To combat those common stereotypes, Rodale’s survey shows that only some of those asked believe romance creates unrealistic expectations and more than half considered themselves feminists. The most important qualities for heroines came in at intelligence and sense of humor. It reflects the demographic of readers who, on average, have college educations and make more than $55,000 a year. So, why isn’t it being taken seriously? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put two and two together.

While the genre has been grappling with the struggle for respect for years, many within the industry are still merely asking to be seen, fighting for a chance to tell stories beyond the scope of straight, white, Christian female authors, to make space for authors and characters who have never been afforded a seat at the table of this billion-dollar romance banquet, to share diverse stories that represent the real world.

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“One of the things that I noticed was that there were no people that looked like me. All of the heroines were white,” says LaQuette, author and President of the New York City chapter of the Romance Writers of America organization. “I was just wow, all these lovely white people are falling in love….  I don’t think I even realized at that point, until I had the books in my hand and these characters on the page before me, how desperately I ached for these [characters of color].” 

A lack of diversity is not new to the world of romance, or any industry for that matter, but the conversation has only become commonplace over the last few years. You might think this is all in the past, but as recently as March of this year, the Romance Writers of America organization addressed the issue of representation in their annual book awards.

While the award program, known as the RITAs, has been part of RWA for over thirty years, statistics on finalists and winners are available only dating back to 2000. From 2000 to 2017, the number of books that finaled in the RITAs by black authors was less than half of one percent of the number of all books that finaled. Yes, half of one percent. The information also showed that no black author has ever won a RITA award. For some, those numbers came as quite an uncomfortable surprise. For others, the data merely verified what they’d been saying all along. 

“I don’t know if the people that can affect change are ready to have that conversation seriously,” says Adriana Herrera, an author who recently signed with Carina Press, the digital-first imprint of Harlequin. “But the silencing has stopped… A lot of people are listening and I hope that means at some point that will bring change to the genre as a business.” 

And change is coming. In fact, the numbers already show the average romance consumer is younger than ever before, in a time when younger people are running for political office, while also shifting consumer trends, and leading resistance efforts. As of 2017, the highest percentage of romance readers falls into the 25-34 age bracket, millennial readers with the most of any generation. 

The film industry has always needed more diversity. But recently, with the success of recent films, such as Black Panther, Wonder Woman, Love, Simon, and To All The Boys I Loved Before, we’re seeing diverse casts and plot lines. But while film is doing better at diversifying than romance is, there is a clear winner where the discussion of female sexuality and liberation is concerned. 

“In this instance, romance is way ahead of Hollywood.” Leah Koch, along with her sister Bea, is one of the founders of The Ripped Bodice, America’s only romance-exclusive bookstore, located in Culver City, California. The Ripped Bodice opened about two and a half years ago, after raising nearly $100,000 on Kickstarter, a testament to the power of the romance reader. Leah and Bea Koch have worked hard to ensure their business is rooted in progressive thinking, women’s issues and education for the future, all based around the romance novel. 

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“There isn’t a way to reckon with women lives to the degree romance does without exploring a lot of these things,” Ms. Koch adds, speaking of consent and safe sex that have become prevalent in the genre in recent years. “I don’t want to read books about women that are written by people who don’t believe that women are people.” Which, unfortunately, seems to be the common theme. It comes as no surprise, considering women and minorities are still fighting to have their actual life stories told in the mainstream. If we don’t listen to them tell their truths, why would we listen to their fiction?

She references the famous romance cover model Fabio as a prime example. Fabio appeared on well over 400 romance novel covers in the 1980’s and 1990’s and largely influenced media and outside perception of the romance genre even up unto today. When the store first opened up, a Fabio cutout was displayed and the man himself even came to visit for a news segment. A few weeks later, he was on conservative television hawking closed borders, after having only recently received his own American citizenship. The irony is lost on literally no one.

“At some point we said, this is no longer acceptable to us because you have made all your money solely because of women,” Ms. Koch says. “We’re not going to keep our mouths shut and we’re certainly not going to help you continue to make money. The whole thing reeks of hypocrisy.”

If The Ripped Bodice has plans for the future, they certainly don’t forget their past. The very name harkens back to a different era of the romance industry, albeit one still strongly aligned with progressive thinking. The era of the bodice rippers may cause some cringing among those who reread the classics from the 1970’s and 1980’s through a modern lens. Where consensual sex is the rule of the day in romance today, rape and forced sex were not only prevalent in those books, but part of their very success and, shockingly, by today’s standards, viewable through a progressive, forward-thinking light. 

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“It’s forced seduction, that’s what the trope is,” says Kate McMurray, former chapter president of RWA NYC and self-proclaimed history nerd. “Because at the time, women weren’t allowed to have agency over their own sexuality. It’s a way of taking the responsibility for her own sexuality away from the women character in a way that was socially acceptable at the time.”

Changing the entire narrative certainly doesn’t stop and start exclusively with sex, just as the romance novels themselves do not stop and start exclusively with sex. If it seems challenging to divorce the romance reader and writer from the social and political landscape in which they create and consume media, and that may be because it is nearly impossible. Women’s media as a whole often represents the world in which it is created, for better or for worse, and romance may own the unlikely honor of even precipitating those changes at times. Whether through the lens of history, as with the bodice rippers of yesteryear, or via live feed updates on Twitter in 2018, politics and the romance novel are inextricably entwined. 

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“I think it’s actually an incredibly crystal clear mirror image,” says Suzanne Brockmann, a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than 55 books. Ms. Brockmann was awarded this year’s RWA Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award. When given the opportunity to speak at a national conference, Ms. Brockmann, whose son is gay, told a personal story of how she was told to eliminate homosexual characters out of her book in the early 1990’s.

In as recent as the mid-2000’s, she was asked not to speak at an RWA conference because her best-selling romance novel featured a gay FBI agent and his Hollywood partner. When it comes to smaller print runs for her books with characters of color, she received no second contract for those books strictly because they feature characters of color and queer characters. These characters are eliminated time and time again, despite Ms. Brockmann’s continued success. 

It is an all too common refrain. While romance writers of today navigate new technology and communication, intersectional storytelling, and changing demographics, so does the world at large. There is a shift in power, in so much that it no longer rests with a single demographic or voice. Just as younger people, women, people of color and members of the LGBTQIA community are running for office and leading grassroots resistance efforts, younger authors, queer authors and authors of color are making their voices heard on the platforms available, and making space on the ones that are not. 

“As we move forward into a new generation of readers it is more important than ever that our novels represent the world as it is,” says Dee Davis, current president of the Romance Writers of America organization. “Readers deserve to see themselves reflected on the pages of the books they read.” Just as they are starting to demand to be reflected on the pages of history as well. 

Two things are for certain--the world is in a state of change and the romance industry is in a state of change. While no one knows for sure what is to come for the future of either, it is impossible for things to remain as they are right now. 

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“I feel like we’re on the diamond edge of the cusp of something that no one knows where we’re headed next. Everything is so positioned on razor edges of razor edges,” says Heidi Cullinan. “It can’t stay the same because we’re not the same.” 

Romance has a long and storied history of upsetting the status quo with by telling stories rarely shared in the mainstream consciousness. Those in the industry have a positive outlook on what the future holds and the constantly evolving format. From brown paper covers to the hidden Kindle screen, from the days when homemakers slipped those ubiquitous grocery store romance novels in with their weekly shopping to the brightly lit aisles of America’s box stores, romance is a genre that both reflects the world at large and influences it. Perhaps that adds some pressure, but the writers who dedicate their lives to telling love stories seem more than prepared to take on the challenge. 

“Connection is the ultimate human experience,” Suzanne Brockmann puts it simply. “Romance is just one aspect of that connection. When we write romance, we are writing the ultimate human story.”