Back in the late 90s, when I was still in school, I remember one of my friends raving about a book by science-fiction author Octavia Butler. I wanted to give her a try, so the next time I was in Borders, I went looking in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section for one of her books. To my surprise, I could find no books by this award-winning author on the shelf. I knew Butler had won Hugo and Nebula awards as well as receiving a MacArthur genius grant, so I decided that perhaps the store now classified her as “literary”, and I went looking in general fiction.
I must have looked lost because at that point, a clerk asked me what I was trying to find. When I told her, she smiled and said, “Oh yes. We’ve got several of her books.” To my surprise, she led me back through the store to a small alcove by the bathrooms – and a single bookcase labeled “African-American Literature.” Sure enough, Octavia Butler’s books resided there, shelved in with everything from The Color Purple to the works of Maya Angelou to Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. It made little sense, and one reason I remember the incident so clearly is because of how much it bothered me. The store grouped all of the other books in the store by genre and/or subject matter. All these books had in common was the race of their authors, and that grouping made no sense. If a fantasy book by any other author is fantasy first and foremost, why should a fantasy novel by an African-American author suddenly become a work that is first about the author’s race and only secondarily about the type of story written?
While I think we still have a very long way to go, romance and other genres are thankfully seeing more inclusion of characters from a variety of races and ethnicities. I’ve noticed it in eBooks, and in recent years, I’ve seen more from the major print publishers as well. I used to see non-white leads in primarily books from imprints specifically targeted to African-American readers such as Kimani, Arabesque or Dafina, or in Beverly Jenkins’ historicals. However, we have in recent memory had books such as My Nora from Crimson Romance or Selena Montgomery’s romantic suspense novels from Avon, both of which feature African-American leads. Vicki Essex’s novel Back to the Good Fortune Diner was published by Harlequin Superromance and features an interracial romance with an Asian heroine. Not suprisingly, Jeannie Lin’s Tang Dynasty novels also feature Asian leads, and Harlequin has also been publishing novels by Indian author Shoma Narayanan as part of its Harlequin Romance and KISS lines.
While diversity of characters has slowly started to creep into romance publishing(which could still stand to pick up the pace, but that’s a column for another day), stores and libraries still fall behind in their response. Books published in the various Harlequin lines because many stores have dedicated shelving for those particular series lines and libraries will often have a separate area for series romance paperbacks. However, if I want to read a Beverly Jenkins historical or something from the Kimani line or which has been published by Dafina, I still need to head over to the African-American literature shelf.
And it’s not just African-American romance that gets the segregation treatment. I got curious recently, and checked out 10 bookstores that I happened to pass in my travels(4 Barnes & Noble, 3 Books a Million, 1 UBS and 2 Indies). All of them had romances by African-American authors shelved away from the romance section – as did my local library. And I noticed something else as well. While m/m and f/f romances are still most widely available as eBooks, the few out in paperback were all shelved in LGBT literaure sections (or as one store so charmingly called their shelf, “Homosexual Literature”) rather than with romance. When I asked a few store managers why they shelved their books this way, the answers showed disappointingly little reasoning as they ranged from “I just shelve where corporate tells us to” to “That’s the way I’ve always done it.”
I have to say that I just don’t agree with the segregation. Authors who are not white or who write about gay characters are no less romance authors. By segregating their books from other romance, stores send a message that these authors are somehow Other and that they don’t fit in with the romance genre. This hurts readers as well. After all, it’s hard to have that moment of chance discovery with an author like Farrah Rochon or J.L. Langley on the romance shelves when stores won’t even put their books there.
Some authors take a dim view of bookstore segregation as well. In 2010, fantasy author N.k. Jemisin wrote a piece entitled, “Don’t Put My Book in the African American Section.” You can probably hazard a guess at her view on the subject. In her blog, Jemisin makes it clear that she does not like the African-American fiction section in stores and libraries and she sees it as a racist creation.
Similarly, in 2011 blogger Robin Bradford (aka @Tuphlos in the Twittersphere) wrote about frustrations with the AA section in libraries as well. As Bradford points out, ” I’ve never had anyone come in for Victoria Christopher Murray and leave with Zane because they’re both black. I’ve never had anyone come in for Jan Karon and leave with Laurell K. Hamilton because they’re both white.” In her piece, Bradford goes on to interview romance author Farrah Rochon, and it’s an interview well worth reading. Rochon makes a number of very good points from observing that she and many other readers like to read books featuring a wide variety of characters and cultures to the fact that segregating authors away from the romance section limits those authors’ exposure and by extension, their sales.
Over the years as I’ve been reviewing and blogging, I’ve met a lot of romance readers and I know for a fact that they come in all ages, sexual orientations and from all races and ethnicities. We live in a diverse world of readers, so the idea that bookstores and libraries would still judge books and authors by race or sexual orientation first, marking some as Other rather then including them with rest of the romance genre goes over like a lead balloon with me. We can do so much better.
- Lynn Spencer