Friday, July 31, 2015

The Changing Face of Romance Fiction

Last week, I attended Romance Writers of America's national conference for the second time. This was a sold out conference in New York City featuring hundreds of published and unpublished writers and industry pros. There's a glitzy awards banquet where big names like Lisa Kleypas and Nora Roberts hand out trophies. Attendees are predominately women, and the atmosphere is empowering.

And yet ... not everyone felt empowered at this conference, where shifting cultural focus and values led some to feel threatened or excluded.

And yet ... women are often belittled for their interest in romance books.

And yet ... romance readers are labeled as lonely, bon-bon-stuffing, Fabio-loving, losers.

And yet ... mainstream articles regularly devalue romance, or even if the article is good, the trolls come out to remind us that fans are fat, lonely, desperate, or at best, their interests are "guilty pleasures."

We have a problem in our culture when women-dominated anything is picked apart and devalued. When legitimate critical conversation turns to dissect the woman who authored the book, and what she looks like, and how much she weighs, or how intelligent we believe she is. The issue becomes less the content of the book, and focuses on the value of the author.

A lot of this is coming to light because authors and readers are pushing back. 

At the 2013 Atlanta RWA conference, you saw far more racial diversity walking out of the hotel to the Atlanta downtown streets than within the conference walls. Seriously, it was noticeable. Flash forward to 2015, and I sensed a shift. An author-generated #WeNeedDiverseRomance twitter campaign began long before the conference, with a diversity T-shirt day initiated for the first full day of the conference. See some pics here on K.M. Jackson's blog. There were multiple workshop panels addressing diversity, and industry and writing craft workshops taught by writers of different nationalities, races, sexual orientation. Yay!

And yet with this positive shift, some writers felt like they attended two different conferences. Read this blog post by Suleikah Snyder for her experience. For anyone who feels like "diversity" is an overused buzzword, or is talked about too much, I'm guessing those complainers haven't been on the receiving end of someone walking away with no explanation after you introduced yourself. I'm guessing they see themselves reflected enough in the books they read and the awards given out that they don't need to advocate for representation.

As writers, we have an opportunity to support those voices who aren't being heard. Listen. Be an ally. I'm a white lady who doesn't tend to face much discrimination. No matter your background, we can be a part of this shift by not silencing the voices that ask to be heard. Support by buying books and tweeting about books by diverse authors, Promo "diverse" books the same way you promote any other book. If you like X you will love Y. 

It's important we're unified here, because the rest of publishing and mainstream culture already thinks we're a joke. Check out some of these fantastic articles pointing out how others see romance:

Aren't you sick of seeing a female-dominated industry get crapped on? I am. I used to dis romance too. I didn't realize I was reading romance because my reading choices involved vampire hunters and plucky detectives, and just happened to you know, feature some romantic relationships. Why the shame? It's time to stop the shame.

NPR Books is currently featuring a summer of romance. Check out their list of 100 recommended romance books. They asked readers and authors for their favorites across all subgenres, and then solicited top romance industry bloggers to cull the list. That's respect. Check out blogger Bobbi Dumas' Read-a-Romance Month starting in August. 

If you want to support these writers, spread the respectful journalism. I think much of the change in how romance--and to a larger degree, women's writing--is generated by readers and authors themselves. We're still going to see lame Fabio articles and references to women stuffing their faces with chocolate until we point out we're sick of it.
Photo collage: Pixlr Express, All photo credits: Stephanie Scott 2015

Talk to me! I love comments. What frustrates you about how romance fiction is viewed? Do you see discrimination in other avenues of literature?


  1. Stephanie, really enjoyed this and am sharing.


  2. I really wanted to attend this convention, but funds and travel never meshed. Maybe next year! I used to think that way about romance, until I realized I read it! Not straight romance, usually, but fantasy romance, horror romance. I write it too. For some reason, I thought just because it wasn't straight romance I wasn't like those authors with Fabio-like half-naked dudes on the cover. But obviously they're huge sellers, so why should I be hating? Good for them.

    1. Yes, same here. I was reading urban fantasy, Janet Evanovich, and lit or women's fact that often crossed over with romance. Oh, and chick lit in the early & mid 2000s. I just did not venture down the romance aisle of the bookstore, thinking they were all fancy historical covers with Fabio-esque dudes.

  3. Loved your article and I agree that it's time to stop the shame. Interestingly, I see a lot of that shame coming from fellow women who've been taught to believe that educated professional women shouldn't read romance. That feels so limiting. No one's saying "you shouldn't read mystery" and most of those involve a murder. Why is it wrong to be interested in human relationships and why two people come together?

    1. Yes to all of this! Certain circles look down on genre fiction in general, but honestly, if people are reading books, who cares what type they are? Books aren't competing with other books now. They're competing with Netflix, smartphone apps, and Candy Crush. I actually overheard someone at work say she couldn't remember the last time she read a book. "Netlfix is my books." I've always been a reader, but if I wasn't writing books, I know I wouldn't read as *many* as I do. now.

  4. Naughty, naughty, hehe! - You go get em!


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