My Beef Against Contemporaries

10553126It’s no secret that I like historicals.  No, change that.  I love historicals.  Yeah, I complain about the proliferation of Regencies.  But when all’s said and done, I look at my list of treasured books, and the vast majority are historicals.

My second preference would be for paranormals and fantasy.  Contemporaries, I’m afraid, are a very, very distant third.  I used to think this was due to several reasons, like the fact that historicals are my first love and that I love the escape into a separate world.  And those are still true.  But the other day, I had an epiphany, which, frankly, I should have had a long time ago: One of the main reasons I don’t read as many contemporaries as I do historicals is that 99.9% of contemporary characters are white and Christian.

My issue isn’t that I don’t qualify as either white or Christian.  After all, human emotions are the same all around the world.  And heck, I’m 100% Chinese, and I identify more with Eve Dallas than characters in The Joy Luck Club.  (Not an exaggeration.)

No, I’m talking about the disparity between what I see and what I read, particularly in urban-set contemporaries.  Where are skins of all colors sweating on the subway?  Symbols of all creed and faith pouring out of office buildings?  Schoolchildren from a multitude of cultures?  Groups of friends that are ethnically, racially, culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse?  Do I read about any of this in contemporaries?  Nope.  And considering what a melting pot North America is (which is where the majority of contemporaries take place), I find that odd.  No, actually I find it a problem.

The question is why this phenomenon, as I perceive it, exists.  Do I blame the old horse about authors writing what they know?  That couldn’t be the case, because then no one would get anywhere; it’s called imagination.  And anyway, some authors do write racially diverse characters, and for proof I can submit Suzanne Brockmann’s Alyssa from the Troubleshooters series, Marjorie M. Liu’s Mirabelle Lee from The Red Heart of Jade, two heroes from Anne Stuart’s Ice series, some of Jade Lee’s Blaze titles, quite a few of Susan Fox/Lyons’ contemporaries, and a Singaporean heroine in Kelly Hunter’s Her Singapore Fling.  Are there more?  Sure.  Are they the exception?  Yes.

There are also authors and lines like Harlequin’s Kimani Press that specialize in African-American characters.  However, I think these books exist in part because blacks weren’t anywhere to be found in the first place.  As far as I’m concerned, not much has changed.

So it’s not authors, at least, that I know of.  Is it the romance readers, then?  Are we all just a bunch of pathetic 50-year-old white Christian spinsters who wear gloves and yearn for true love?  Am I a Mars Bar who wants to be deep-fried and sprinkled with peanuts?  The answer to both is no.  Is the racial status quo all we want to read about?  There’s the rub.

Mostly though, I’m back to blaming the old enemy, the vertex of the publishing triumvirate that invariably ends up on top: Publishers.  Books are a business: People want to make money, ergo, publishers will put out what they hope people will buy; ergo, this is what they think readers want.

For the record, I don’t want a token Asian girlfriend or black buddy.  And I’m not asking authors to pander to political correctness by writing about a small town in northern Manitoba with a population that’s 25% Caucasian, 25% African-Canadian, 25% Aboriginal and 25% Asian because that would be hugely unlikely.  But geez, if you’re writing about four absolute bestest pals who get together and start a flower shop/knitting circle/wedding business, would it absolutely kill the story to make one of them Jewish?  Or black?  Or Korean?  Or (and here’s another can of worms) Muslim?

I think publishers ultimately want safe.  Writing a historical or paranormal with racially diverse characters, that’s risky, but hey, if you have to transport yourself back 300 years, or imagine a vampires and demons roaming the world, an Asian police detective paired with a Southern werewolf gentleman is a mild stretch.  (This, by the way, actually is the pairing in Eileen Wilks’ Lupi series.)

But take away the distractions of vampires and historical distance, and I’d bet most publishers would rear in shock.  “Wait, your hero’s last name is Tanenbaum?  I must have misheard – did you just say your heroine’s family comes from Sri Lanka?  Well, I applaud your, ahem, imagination, but I’m afraid your characters just aren’t viable in this economic climate.  They’re just not what readers want.  Where would Judith McNaught be if Julie Mathison (Perfect) were an orphaned black girl?  After all, you’re not trying to be Amy Tan; you’re only writing a romance novel.”

Okay, I made that whole thing up.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s close to the truth.

Now it’s your turn.  Do you agree that contemporaries lack racial diversity, and do you think it’s a problem?

- Jean AAR

44 thoughts on “My Beef Against Contemporaries

  1. Such an interesting discussion. As a writer, I find your comments very helpful in clarifying my own thinking.

    My discomfort with writing a principal character from another race or culture is not simply a factor of not being from that race or culture myself. For example, in that discussion with a black classmate, I actually did feel like I understood how she felt while she was telling me I couldn’t understand what it’s like to be black. That’s because I frequently feel that no one could understand what it was like growing up in my statistically unusual circumstances. So, ironically, I think I could write a character who has that degree of anger and perceived isolation.

    The problem is, I don’t know enough black people, or Asians, or Hispanics, or…well, frankly, the only “culture” other than my own that I know at all well is British. I know a lot about British people, partly because I’ve lived there a lot, I’ve married two Brits, and I have relatives there. Unfortunately, adding a Brit to one of my books is hardly going to ameliorate Jean’s wish for more diversity in contemporary romances.

    But what if I’d had all that experience of another nationality or culture, one more diverse than “northern European”? I could feel more comfortable writing about someone of another race if I’d had more experience with people of that race.

    So it’s not an inherent barrier, but a circumstantial one. Under other circumstances, another writer might feel very comfortable writing about a person of a different race.

    And yes, I do write about characters of a different gender. Again, I have a lot more experience with men to draw on. But two other things play into the question of cross-gender identification. One is that I’ve consumed a LOT of media portraying men. Yes, mostly white men, but not exclusively. (I actually think I could write a black hero with more confidence than a black heroine.)

    The other factor is wish-fulfillment. The heroes in my stories are in many ways idealized. They’re the way I want men to be as much as they reflect how I think men really are.

    If I write about a black, Asian, indigenous, or Hispanic character, I risk “making” them what I think they ought to be–and that’s where Kathryn Stockett got into trouble. I’m entitled to some wish fulfillment about men because of the nature of romance as a genre. But if I start tinkering with a set of cultural cues or racial experiences–and particularly without any real experience (which Stockett did have)–I’m heading down a road almost certain to end with some readers being deeply offended.

    I’m not afraid of readers, but I think I’m exercising common sense when I decide to avoid making too many assumptions about characters of a different ethnic group. I can (and do) have secondary characters with some diversity, but Jean’s post specifically calls for main characters to be diverse.

    Like Jean, I hope this divide narrows. I just know that I’d have a hard time writing a black or Asian heroine, and I’d worry the whole time that I’d written something too pretty or too easy.

  2. I don’t know why, but romantic suspense generally has much more cultural diversity than “straight” contemporary romance. There are generally Hispanic characters, often the leads, in romantic suspense, especially the non-SEAL variety. Asian and African-American characters are also more common. Maybe it’s because the RS I read is often law-enforcement based and minorities are well represented in those careers, especially in urban areas.

  3. Gigi Young:
    I just don’t buy this argument because it’s a hypothetical fear, andunless you pulled out a bunch of racist stereotypes, a few (hypothetical) complaints about “authenticity” should not be a major deterrent to creating a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural “world” in contemporary romance. And IMO, this stance seems to say that an African-American or Korean-American or Indian Muslim romance writer would never have this quibble over writing white middle-class “Christian” characters (aka the “default”).

    Gigi,

    As much as I’d like to say they are hypothetical complaints, I have seen it over and over again here on the internet. So, no, the complaints are real and they can have a chilling effect.

    As to your “default”, I disagree. I think that “that an African-American or Korean-American or Indian Muslim romance writer” would have this issue. They write from what they know the same as white authors write from what they know.

    The fact is that race and ethnicity are flashpoints for our society. It’s risky to bring them up.

    Ultimately, as much as I think authors might worry about this, I think the answer lies with the publishers. They control what gets published, or at least have for a long time. Now, with self-publishing taking off the way it has, we might see more diversity in that realm and if people go and buy it, the publishers will follow suit and publish it.

    I get what you are saying – that the fear of backlash should not stop people from writing those stories. You see it as an excuse. That’s a valid way of looking at it. I just don’t have the same view.

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  5. I very much agree with Jean. I grew up in a urban California setting, where my classmates and now colleagues where/are a mix of Hispanic, black, variety of Asian and middle eastern people. I have Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Shinto and Bahai friends. I myself come from mixed race. I do get annoyed that it seems most characters in romance novels do not reflect the world of race around me. Maybe most romance authors are from middle America, where there is little diversity.

    I actually have recently fell in love with Nalini Singh’s books. To be honest I started reading her books because her name was Indian. It was so nice to see some diversity in a romance author. Her characters are of mixed race (eg half Russian, half Asian) and her characters come from all over the world.

  6. Gigi Young:
    If you’re writing about a character–meaning, a hero or heroine with a background story, some inner conflict, some external conflict, etc etc, what does someone’s racial/ethnic background have to do with the overall characterization? If the race or ethnicity of the h/h does not overtly affect the plot, what’s the big deal? Sure, a black heroine who is a geek working at a tech start-up will have a different outlook than a white heroine ” ”, but that element is something enhance the characterization, not be the sole factor of the heroine’s character. How is this different or “harder” than writing a white character who was raised in a foster home and becomes an international assassin for the US government?

    Because authors get flak for not making the character “ethnic” enough. Your example of a “a black heroine who is a geek working at a tech start-up” is great, and I could write her with my own “white” experiences and simply change the color of her skin, but then reviewers and readers (and I’ve seen it done) will argue that there should have been more shown about how her race affected how others saw her and how she dealt with that. The point is that even in today’s society, much as I might wish it otherwise, these things matter. If you write a non-white character you are expected to highlight those differences in the story, especially if you are a white author.

    Disclaimer: I am not an author, I was just using myself as a white woman as an example for experiences in life.

    To answer your question about “How is this different or “harder” than writing a white character who was raised in a foster home and becomes an international assassin for the US government?” Very simply, almost no one who reads romance is a “white [character] who was raised in a foster home and becomes an international assassin for the US government” but there are many readers of romance who are Asian, are African-American and when reading romance want to see their life experiences properly reflected there. So, an author has more leeway for making things up in the foster child turns assassin that she does in writing an authentic “ethnic” character.

    • Mo:
      Because authors get flak for not making the character “ethnic” enough.Your example of a “a black heroine who is a geek working at a tech start-up” is great, and I could write her with my own “white” experiences and simply change the color of her skin, but then reviewers and readers (and I’ve seen it done) will argue that there should have been more shown about how her race affected how others saw her and how she dealt with that.The point is that even in today’s society, much as I might wish it otherwise, these things matter.If you write a non-white character you are expected to highlight those differences in the story, especially if you are a white author.Disclaimer:I am not an author, I was just using myself as a white woman as an example for experiences in life.To answer your question about “How is this different or “harder” than writing a white character who was raised in a foster home and becomes an international assassin for the US government?”Very simply, almost no one who reads romance is a “white [character] who was raised in a foster home and becomes an international assassin for the US government” but there are many readers of romance who are Asian, are African-American and when reading romance want to see their life experiences properly reflected there.So, an author has more leeway for making things up in the foster child turns assassin that she does in writing an authentic “ethnic” character.

      If that fear keeps an author from writing characters of color, then all of these authors should tremble and quake whenever people begin to argue about wallpaper historical romances or unrealistic romantic suspense scenarios or the number of secret pregnancies in category romances, and so on and so forth.

      Plus, this alleged fear does not keep romance authors from using superficial and borderline offensive stereotypes about particular ethnicities as shorthand for “alpha male”. Nor do most American authors of British-set historicals care that they are imposing their modern American views onto 19th century English characters (not to mention the hack job that’s done in Scottish historicals). So nope, I refuse to accept this as an excuse, regardless of your non authorial status.

      All this does is reinforce the notion that whiteness is a “default” that any one of any background, culture, or ethnic group can “identify” with, but stick a character of color into the main role and only people of that particular ethnic group/race can identify with them. How much sense does that make?

      • Gigi Young:
        If that fear keeps an author from writing characters of color, then all of these authors should tremble and quake whenever people begin to argue about wallpaper historical romances or unrealistic romantic suspense scenarios or the number of secret pregnancies in category romances, and so on and so forth.

        First, they should tremble and quake at those things. I stopped reading almost all historicals for exactly the reason you mention and when you consider that I used to read historicals almost exclusively, that is pretty major.

        Plus, this alleged fear does not keep romance authors from using superficial and borderline offensive stereotypes about particular ethnicities as shorthand for “alpha male”.

        This is true, and I noticed it recently and commented on it on a totally different website.

        Nor do most American authors of British-set historicals care that they are imposing their modern American views onto 19th century English characters (not to mention the hack job that’s done in Scottish historicals).

        Another reason I stopped reading historicals.

        …regardless of your non authorial status.

        My non-authorial status was only mentioned because I said “I could write…” It has no bearing whatsoever on the arguments.

        All this does is reinforce the notion that whiteness is a “default” that any one of any background, culture, or ethnic group can “identify” with, but stick a character of color into the main role and only people of that particular ethnic group/race can identify with them. How much sense does that make?

        I am not saying it makes sense, Gigi. I happen to read a number of authors who have Asian characters (those authors are also all Asian, btw) and I can identify with them with no problems. I’m sure I miss some of the more subtle things that a Chinese person or Japanese person might pick up on, but the characters themselves are very engaging.

        The argument is not that white people can’t identify with characters of another ethnic group or race. The argument is that people of that particular ethnic group or race say that they can’t identify with the character of their own ethnic group or race – that the character is “too white” or alternatively does not accurately reflect the prejudice the reader sees in the world.

        The reason, imo, that some authors tend not to tread there is that they don’t want to offend. In the end, as others here have said “You can’t win for losing”. If you do it, people get upset with how you did it and if you didn’t do it, people are upset you didn’t.

        • Mo:
          he argument is not that white people can’t identify with characters of another ethnic group or race.The argument is that people of that particular ethnic group or race say that they can’t identify with the character of their own ethnic group or race – that the character is “too white” or alternatively does not accurately reflect the prejudice the reader sees in the world.The reason, imo, that some authors tend not to tread there is that they don’t want to offend.In the end, as others here have said “You can’t win for losing”.If you do it, people get upset with how you did it and if you didn’t do it, people are upset you didn’t.

          I just don’t buy this argument because it’s a hypothetical fear, and unless you pulled out a bunch of racist stereotypes, a few (hypothetical) complaints about “authenticity” should not be a major deterrent to creating a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural “world” in contemporary romance. And IMO, this stance seems to say that an African-American or Korean-American or Indian Muslim romance writer would never have this quibble over writing white middle-class “Christian” characters (aka the “default”).

  7. One of the posters commented that she didn’t read romance fiction for cultural diversity. I concur. Why should romance authors feel obligated to include culturally or ethnically diverse character in what they write any more than they should have an obligation to write historicals rather than contemporaries? Just as authors should not try to impose their political or moral views on readers, I don’t think readers should insist that authors should write about anything they don’t wish to.

    • dick: One of the posters commented that she didn’t read romance fiction for cultural diversity.I concur.Why should romance authors feel obligated to include culturally or ethnically diverse character in what they write any more than they should have an obligation to write historicals rather than contemporaries?Just as authors should not try to impose their political or moral views on readers, I don’t think readers should insist that authors should write about anything they don’t wish to.

      So you don’t care about diversity in your romances? Cool. There are certainly plenty of titles for you to choose from. However, for those of us who would on occasion like to read about characters that look a little like us or even friends of ours we have very few options.

      I don’t think anyone is asking authors to write something they’re not comfortable writing. I just don’t buy the idea that these stories can’t and won’t sell. If a publisher really got behind, developed and marketed authors that wrote good stories that featured characters of other races or ethnicities I think those books could sell. Even to white audiences, otherwise I would have to believe that white Americans are just a really shallow people that cannot empathize or relate to people that don’t share their particular hue. I don’t think that view is completely supported given the books in the last few years that have been best sellers in both literary fiction and non-fiction. I just don’t understand why the same cannot be said about romance.

      Just to add: The assumption seems to be that white authors should include ethnic characters in their books, while that would be nice and a quick way to remedy the dearth of non-white characters I don’t see why expectations aren’t raised for more non-white authors.

      Adding again: This discussion just reminded me of Chimamanda Adichie’s TED speech entitled “The Danger of the Single Story.” It’s on youtube.

  8. On another note, how to explain the popularity of the m/m romance in the reading community? Most, if not all, in the romance/romantica genre are written by women. And they are not writing “what they know”, because they are not male. Explain that.

  9. @Tesa: I have read The Help and I also lived through that era in 1960s Montgomery, Alabama. It rang very true to me and to my mother. The author discussed beatings of blacks by white men, women fearful of being accused of theft and sent away to prison on no evidence but their employer’s word. It discussed meeting in secret at churches and the fear that they would be caught. The Help is fiction, first and foremost. We will never get past all of that baggage if we cannot discuss it. The fact that Kathryn Stockett is getting such a backlash over her book is one reason people are hesitant to write characters of other cultures and ethnicities. I think one of the questions we need to ask is WHY is this a land mine? No one who writes historicals KNOWS what it was like to live back then. Is it because this history is just too recent? Or is any discussion of racial differences doomed to be treated with kid gloves? I think the best thing about The Help is people are talking across racial lines. We need more of that.

  10. Mary Skelton, from what I understand the criticism of The Help is quite varied and not just about a white writer and black characters. Most of the charges against the book were leveled by historians and literary critics in academia who study African American culture and art. They were more concerned about what they perceive to be a limited portrayal of the Jim Crow South and the real dangers black domestics faced in that environment. I haven’t read it yet, but I think it’s important to distinguish between writing characters of color and writing them in a historical period that also has it’s share of baggage. Even African American writers, Alice Walker comes to mind, have been criticized for depictions of this time period. It’s a land mine.

  11. When we talk about writers like Suzanne Brockmann, it’s important to remember that for every critic who does not love a character like Alyssa, there are just as many fans who adore her. I’m an African-American woman who has been reading romance for almost twenty years and Brockmann’s Troubleshooters series is auto-buy for me because her characters are well-written. Period. I don’t hold the romance writers I read to some litmus test for authenticity; there is no such thing as a truly “authentic” portrayal of any ethnicity. If a writer wants to make the heroine or hero of their romance a person of color, I think they have to first get past the notion that such characters would be intrinsically different from a white hero/heroine. To be sure, race isn’t just window-dressing, but the idea that a non-white perspective of the world would be entirely foreign, and therefore beyond the grasp of a white writer doesn’t hold much water. Just like one of the posters mentioned earlier, even people within the same race can and do challenge each other’s racial knowledge.

    I tend to think if publishers felt there was a demand for more heroines/heroes of color in mainstream contemporary romance, we would see more of them. Paranormals were not always peopled with all of these diverse characters. The warm reception of books by writers like Nalini Singh opens up a space for those characters in this genre. Why wouldn’t contemporary romance follow suit? I would trust a Lisa Kleypas, for instance, to write just about any character because she’s a deft storyteller who writes relatable characters people fall in love with. At the end of the day, that’s what I want from romance. Come to think of it, I believe the heroine of Sugar Daddy was biracial.

  12. I think this is an interesting discussion. I just finished reading “The Help” about 2 weeks ago and went on Good Reads to comment on it. It was amazing the criticism the author got for “daring” to write from the black point of view. I pointed out that men write from the female point of view all of the time and vice versa for female writers – yet we do not jump them for daring to write about a gender they could never really understand. If the only characters one can write about is one based on their own experiences, then most books would be pretty boring. Women could not write about men, Americans could not write about other cultures, Childless women could not write about being mothers, etc. Writers are people watchers. They have to be to write realistic characters. While I am not black, I know many people who are. While I am not male, I have my husband, brothers and son & his friends who I could draw upon. I just want an author who is writing about a different culture to do enough research to make the character realistic.

  13. Ugh. I’m so sick of AAR’s bias towards historicals. These days it seems older readers (who got going in the 70s and 80s with their romance books) are still stuck in the Regency, whereas those of us under forty just aren’t interested. I’d love for you guys to move with the times, as I – and every one of my friends – steer well clear of historicals.
    Americanised fluff passing as Regency England holds no appeal for me. I want books about the modern day, about heroines I can relate to.

    As to the diversity. Well, writers write what they know. And you know what? It’s the white women who write most of the romance. If Koreans want to read about Korean heroines, why aren’t they writing romance then? Because whenever a white woman attempts some cultural diversity in her writing, someone like Sunita at Dear Author picks the book to shreds for not being “an accurate enough portrayal of the culture”.

    You can’t win.

    • BRose: Ugh. I’m so sick of AAR’s bias towards historicals.

      BRose, I’m heading straight toward 60 and I am firmly in your camp. Maybe it’s because I didn’t start reading romance until I was in my 50′s and came to by way of mysteries and suspense, but I greatly prefer contemporary settings over historicals. I also enjoy sci-fi rom when it’s well done.

  14. I agree that the separate Kimani line is offensive and those stories should just be shuffled into the existing Harlequin lines.

    Harlequin bought Kimani (Arabesque) from BET in 2005 and at the time Laurie Gold published an “At the Back Fence” column at AAR about this and the segregation of AA romances.

    Harlequin have published Brenda Jackson under both the Kimani and Silhouette imprints and Carmen Green’s The Husband She Couldn’t Forget was published as a Silhouette Special Edition.

    There does seem to be some resistance among some readers to AA heroes and heroines in non-AA lines. Certainly in November this year Dear Author reported that:

    Maisey Yates is getting some negative feedback on the cover of The Highest Price to Pay sent to her publisher, Mills & Boon.

    Mills & Boon is the brand name for Harlequin in the UK. The hero of the book is black (not AA – he’s French).

  15. I’m happy that it was pointed out that 80% of Americans are not white. No way could that be true anymore. Just come out to California where I live, my town is like the United Nations. I realized long ago that romances are heavily white and do not reflect society. I shrugged and figured it was because most romance writers are white women and so are most romance readers. But then someone like Nalini Singh will pop up and I’ll enjoy how she slips in different ethnicities like its no big deal. I agree that the separate Kimani line is offensive and those stories should just be shuffled into the existing Harlequin lines. I can see that they wanted to be open by creating the line in the first place, but its time to be brave and upgrade to true equality.
    Integration of different ethnicities will improve over time. Slowly but surely. Thank you for bringing up this topic so we all could chew on it a little bit.

  16. I do agree that there is little racial diversity in contemporary romance novels. I also have a beef with how many young or youngish heroines read like middle aged women. Which would be fine if they were actually middle-aged, but everything from the way they think, talk and dress mostly (not always) smacks of an author who is really writing what she knows, and doesn’t bother to look around her. I read mostly historical romances , and I have a handful of contemporary authors I enjoy. If I choose a contemporary novel, I often pick out of the genre.

  17. I read romances because I’m very attached to the concept of HEA. Life can be tough enough all on its own, and really, I am reading for enjoyment, pure and simple. So, as long as you give me my HEA, and a well-written tale, I’m happy to read about the hero and heroine no matter their ethnic group. In fact, diversity would probably make the story more interesting. So, I agree with you Jean, more ethnically rich books would be welcome.

    However, I agree with Magdalen’s dictum “Write what you know, what you can comfortably imagine, and what you can research enough to feel confident about.” I think that means different things to each writer.

    The world has gotten a lot smaller, better informed, yet the issue of race and racism are still uncomfortable subjects for many of us. It’s as if we know there are rules (and those rules keep changing) but we’re not sure what they are. I think that’s part of what makes writing from a different racial perspective so intimidating. It’s just a guess. Wouldn’t it be something if race were as interesting and as noteworthy as say the color of a person’s eyes?

    Having said all that, I do have a question for you Jean. You wrote, “Are we all just a bunch of pathetic 50-year-old white Christian spinsters who wear gloves and yearn for true love?” So what exactly about those characteristics denotes the “pathetic” epithet? You’ve got me a little worried, because if those traits were a list, I’m thinking I’d be putting a check mark by a number of them. I’d certainly hate to think I was pathetic and didn’t know it. Maybe it’s the gloves? (I guess I could go around wearing mittens instead.)

    • TerryS: Having said all that, I do have a question for you Jean. You wrote, “Are we all just a bunch of pathetic 50-year-old white Christian spinsters who wear gloves and yearn for true love?” So what exactly about those characteristics denotes the “pathetic” epithet? You’ve got me a little worried, because if those traits were a list, I’m thinking I’d be putting a check mark by a number of them. I’d certainly hate to think I was pathetic and didn’t know it. Maybe it’s the gloves? (I guess I could go around wearing mittens instead.)

      Sorry TerryS – I meant absolutely no offense by that, although now I see how it can be taken that way. I was merely being sarcastic and commenting on a stereotype about romance readers, and how they’re often perceived as having all those characteristics. “Pathetic” is how others often judge us, regardless of the age, race, and preference for gloves; it’s not how I judge myself or other romance readers.

  18. If the author had only described the eye colors as medium to dark brown, I think I could have envisioned the characters in the last several contemporaries I read to have been middle class folks from any ethnic group whose families had been in American for 3+ generations.

  19. Gigi Young: MagdalenAnd really, not only are we surrounded by stories of multicultural and multi-ethnic life, but you can ask someone for help to make your characters more authentic. It just amuses me that fear of not getting a cultural or ethnic background correct is used as an excuse when authors will gladly spend hours researching maps and weapons and other mundane things.

    You can easily research what a weapon would have looked like, what a map would have looked like. Every person’s experience, whether a white person, an African-American person, an Asian person, etc is different. My experience has been that I am treated a certain way by people because I am a geek, I am a woman, I am white, I have glasses, I am shy, I am different. But to hark back to what Jean said in her original post, there are some Chinese people who will look at her as not Chinese enough, the same way in my office there are African-American women who look at other African-American women as not being “black enough”. (Their words, not mine.) Where on that spectrum of experience is good enough for a white woman to write and not be criticized? Research is all well and good, but capturing experiences, and different experiences, and translating that into writing well is very difficult. The bottom line is that not all white women have the same experiences and relate to the same things and not all African-American women have the same experiences and relate to the same things.

    In the end, if someone messes up a detail about a weapon, people will grouse about it if they know anything about weapons, but if you mess up the life experiences of a group you are not a member of, you are often vilified, a la Brockmann.

    *shrug* In the end, you weigh the pros and cons and if it isn’t worth the risk, then it’s not written.

    • Mo: Where on that spectrum of experience is good enough for a white woman to write and not be criticized?Research is all well and good, but capturing experiences, and different experiences, and translating that into writing well is very difficult.The bottom line is that not all white women have the same experiences and relate to the same things and not all African-American women have the same experiences and relate to the same things.

      If you’re writing about a character–meaning, a hero or heroine with a background story, some inner conflict, some external conflict, etc etc, what does someone’s racial/ethnic background have to do with the overall characterization? If the race or ethnicity of the h/h does not overtly affect the plot, what’s the big deal? Sure, a black heroine who is a geek working at a tech start-up will have a different outlook than a white heroine ” ”, but that element is something enhance the characterization, not be the sole factor of the heroine’s character. How is this different or “harder” than writing a white character who was raised in a foster home and becomes an international assassin for the US government?

  20. Fwiw, a client once told me I’m “all white” and my friend, a pale-skinned redhead, is a sister. Personality is more representative of culture than skin color.

    • Jane AAR: Fwiw, a client once told me I’m “all white” and my friend, a pale-skinned redhead, is a sister. Personality is more representative of culture than skin color.

      I would have to disagree with that. I am hispanic, have no accent (Spanish is my second language, my parents wanted me raised speaking English) and have been only minimally exposed to hispanic culture. But people will often expect me to speak fluent Spanish (I don’t), and will respond to me as they would to anyone of a foreign culture. I am asked where I am from (Missouri) and all sorts of other questions about my heritage. My son, whose father is white as they come, receives the same questions because he looks like me.

      I think, especially in the US, that ethnicity is in the eye of the beholder. It is a very visual thing. People do get beyond appearances but they are very aware of them.

  21. I think there’s a fine line between writing what you know, and being afraid of putting yourself into another’s mindset. Magdalen has a good point, but in the end most romance novelists will write at least partially from a mans pov, while they themselves are female. I also wonder how many authors of racial, ethnic, or religious minorities write white characters without notice. This is rarely an issue in mainstream fiction; at least I’ve never heard of male writers getting flak for writing women, or white authors writing minority characters. The key is doing it well, and not just making characters multi-ethnic for the sale of it, without putting the effort forth to make them realatic.

    • Jane AAR: I think there’s a fine line between writing what you know, and being afraid of putting yourself into another’s mindset. Magdalen has a good point, but in the end most romance novelists will write at least partially from a mans pov, while they themselves are female.

      And many times I think they write a man from a woman’s perspective or what a woman would want a man to do in that situation instead of what a man would do. But that is just my opinion. In fact, now that I think about it, I wonder if that is why alpha heroes tend to be so alpha.

  22. I believe that Brockmann was criticized by some readers for writing African American characters because she is not African American — which puts us firmly into you can’t win for loosing territory. And puts me in agreement with Magdalen.

    I don’t have a solution, honestly.

  23. This is an interesting post. I agree with you, Jean, that there should be more diversity in both contemporary and historical romances and I think the reason that we don’t see more diveristy is because publishers are playing it safe. I think this short-changes us as readers to have our selections so limited and does not encourage authors to go in more diverse directions. When I think about some of the contemporary books written by Sandra Kitt (which received A ratings on AAR)and Rachel Butler which had interesting interracial relationships and characters and the fact that they seem more like the exceptions than the rule I think there is a problem from a publishing and marketing perspective. I think the assumption the romance publishing world has made is that we will only buy what we know. In my opinion, this is an insult to the reading public. Like Mo, I believe many of the speciality lines encourage
    segregation and not inclusion. I remember how offended I would be when I would go into a mainline bookstore like Borders and see all of the African American romances separated from the mainstream. That does not encourage or support the idea of diversity or expose readers to stories with characters that are multicultural or different from ourselves.

  24. I dunno. We live in a country that is 80% white and Christian and even in urban areas, people do tend to marry/date from their own ethnic group. I think, given that most readers especially romance readers look for familiarity when they read…hence the majority contemporaries, are white. Let’s be real, the vast majority of any kind of romanes feature white characters.

    Please don’t misunderstand me…I am not calling readers rascist and, quiite honestly, aside from a few bloggers complaining about it, I can’t see that the lack of diversity has hurt romance sales any. So we live in a country where the majority of people ar3 white and Christian, I think we can extrapolate from this the majority of readers are white and Christian, and the majority of writers are white Christians. So basicslly, you want white Christian writers to write more diverse characters. I guess this all boils down to is the question of why white Christians people don’t write with cultural diversity in mind? I am guesing they don’t want to. As the demographics change, I imagine, I imagine this will change.

    As for me, I find it very strange that that Nalini Singh’s books which feature characters every color under the sun, always have covers that show a white guy. I think some publisher some where made a crude calculation based on the aforementioned demographics and concluded since the majority of readers are white, they will only buy books featuring white people on the cover. Maybe they are right. Depressing, but probably some truth to it.

  25. I understand what you are saying. However while you feel removed from the present world with historicals, I feel like most authors incorporate today’s morals, and sensibilities – which drives me crazy.

  26. Frankly, I have always felt that the added Kimani, Arabesque, and African-American lines in Harlequin specifically are just wrong. Wrong, not because those stories shouldn’t be out there, but wrong because it segregates those stories. To me, it says “These books are written for African-American women”. Well, no, romance is for everyone. Why not integrate them, make them Presents and Desires and Superromance?

    And yes, I chose those more inflammatory words for a reason, because that is what it looks like to me and I don’t like it.

    I don’t read many, if any, stand alone contemporaries, so I can’t comment on those. I do read a lot of category romance though, so I see that on a regular basis.

  27. @Magdalen – That’s very interesting, and I fully agree with your dictum at the end.

    I do wonder, however, at your classmate’s statement; I personally would be uncomfortable saying that anyone who isn’t Chinese can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be Chinese, and therefore (by extension) there’s no point in trying. Aside from the fact that I believe it’s quite untrue, no race has a blanket checklist of qualities, where all who qualify have to do, say, and believe certain things. Many “real” Chinese would say I’m not really Chinese, by virtue of the fact that my beliefs, language, and outlook are all largely Western. And yet I’m patently not Caucasian either, because of my facial features, my linguistic ability, and certain Chinese habits or outlooks.

    In other words, I don’t think it’s impossible for people to understand another culture, even ones that are polar opposites. It may be difficult, but it’s not impossible in North America, where the cultural lines are becoming increasingly blurred.

    • Jean Wan: @Magdalen – That’s very interesting, and I fully agree with your dictum at the end.I do wonder, however, at your classmate’s statement; I personally would be uncomfortable saying that anyone who isn’t Chinese can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be Chinese, and therefore (by extension) there’s no point in trying.Aside from the fact that I believe it’s quite untrue, no race has a blanket checklist of qualities, where all who qualify have to do, say, and believe certain things.

      Magdalen’s example is certainly not an isolated case. I have been told by a Chinese friend that I could not possibly understand what it is like to be Chinese and I have been told by African-American friends that I’ll never understand what it is like to be African-American.

  28. Leigh, I agree that historicals aren’t all that diverse either. But speaking personally, I think that the simple fact that historicals are set chronologically apart from the present world means that I feel removed, just one extra step, from the story. Yes, the lack of diversity in historicals bugs me, but only because it lacks variety, not because I don’t relate.

    In contemporaries, there’s a huge difference because they’re writing about my world, my time, and in some cases places I’ve been to and seen. And because the book is that one step /closer/ to my reality, the disparity bothers me. Because I’m finding it increasingly hard to relate to a world where everyone in the book, or in the author’s book, or in an entire sub genre, is more or less homogeneously monoracial. And that is /not/ my world.

    Does that make sense?

  29. I’m a fan of contemporary romances, but I fully concede they hardly reflect the demographics of modern society. As a writer, I’ve thought hard about this, but while I can imagine writing about characters who are decades younger than me, live in cities I’ve barely visited (thanks, Google Maps!), and even have religious affiliations I’ve never had, there are two things I don’t think I can imagine well enough to write them.

    The first is profession. Sure some professions I can guess at, but others I can’t. And I’m most comfortable with urban professionals because that’s what I used to be and what most of my friends and family are or used to be. If nothing else, I know who to ask for details.

    The second is race. I had a conversation with a black classmate in law school who made it VERY clear to me that I would never understand what her life was like. I might be able to imagine some aspects of that life, but not enough to make a hero or heroine black. Same thing with Asian, Native American, or even anyone for whom English is a second language.

    It’s not just that I don’t know enough, it’s that I can’t embody that character sufficiently to do her justice–and if I’m not doing her justice, I’d be sure to piss someone off. If nothing else, I’d worry about the criticism I was sure I’d get from the moment the book was released.

    The dictum “write what you know” could be expanded: Write what you know, what you can comfortably imagine, and what you can research enough to feel confident about.

    That simply doesn’t include the subtleties of a life lived as a person of another race or culture. At least not for me.

    • Magdalen Eh…I think this is a bit of a cop out. That was one African-American who offered this opinion. I’m certain that she was more sensitive to her ethnicity because she is probably weary of being the only black woman in all-white situations (namely, her schooling, since the higher you go, the less likely you are to see a ton of people of color) and the irritations that go with that (to hark back to my first parentheses–being treated as a “representative” of your race and also feeling frustrated and uncomfortable for standing out when speaking up when non-blacks say insensitive things about black people).

      It’s funny because no one thinks twice about the opposite–shouldn’t it be just as difficult for an Indian author or a black author, etc to write books with white characters? And there’s the pesky issue of a white author writing characters of color (for “flavor”) and not being pigeon-holed as an “ethnic” author…

      And really, not only are we surrounded by stories of multicultural and multi-ethnic life, but you can ask someone for help to make your characters more authentic. It just amuses me that fear of not getting a cultural or ethnic background correct is used as an excuse when authors will gladly spend hours researching maps and weapons and other mundane things.

      • Gigi Young: MagdalenIt’s funny because no one thinks twice about the opposite–shouldn’t it be just as difficult for an Indian author or a black author, etc to write books with white characters?

        Gigi, you took the words right out of my mouth. And yet it happens. In the romance world alone, we have Sherry Thomas, Nalini Singh, Marjorie M. Liu, Jade Lee, and possibly more.

        Regarding Suzanne Brockmann, I didn’t know about that. But the fact that she was criticized for writing about Harvard Joe (presumably), Alyssa, and some other fantastic characters makes me sad. Very, very sad.

        It’s one thing when an author employs blanket stereotypes in an offensive, thoughtless way. And for all my beefs with Brockmann, the books I’ve read don’t qualify as such.

        @mari – It’s interesting that the US counts 80% of its population white (according to the 2010 census). But the census separates Hispanic and Latino Caucasians as a separate category (16%), which drops the Non-Hispanic White population to 64%. Looking at it that way, if all things were equal, for every 3 non-Hispanic white characters in contemporaries there should be one hispanic/latino character. And even that is not true.

        All I’m saying is that the characters in contemporaries represent a much narrower slice of the population than I’d realized, or thought about.

  30. Jean, I am little confused with your reasoning because what little historicals I read now seemed to fall in the same category. Now I know that recently more books have been set in Asia, or Egypt but unless I missed it not too many of the popular historical authors have racially diversed characters.

    I agree that you will find more cultural diversity in the type of fantasy books, but historicals not so much.

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