Friday, November 11, 2016

Romance Novels in the Wake of the U.S. Presidential Election

With the exception of romance novels that take place in political settings, romance and politics seem, on the surface, to be worlds apart. Romance is about entertainment, about escape; politics is about the real world. I'd like to take this space today, though, to think about the ways that one might influence the other—and what obligations romance writers have, or might want to take on, in the aftermath of this week's United States presidential election.

Some ideas, and some questions, in no particular order...

I'm thinking about the increase in depictions of LGBTQ rights and identities in the romance genre over the past five to ten years. Not every romance reader is a fan of romances with protagonists who are not heterosexual, but the increase in both the numbers of non-heterosexual romances published over this period and in their readership has been marked (See Jessica Freely's post, "Reading Gay Romance," on the Popular Romance Project's web site for more info). Such books provide happily ever afters for readers who identify as LGBTQ, stories that contest the insistence that such lives must always be ones of victimization and oppression. But they also serve to inform and educate those who have not encountered an openly LGBTQ person in their lives, or who have been raised in environments that demonize such identities. The evidence so far is anecdotal, but I've read many a comment on romance blogs which suggest that reading such books has opened the eyes of many a reader who had been taught by school or church or community that homosexuality and homosexuals were by nature evil and other. Though not without its downsides (objectification; #ownvoices, etc.), I take this as a generally positive movement in the field, one to celebrate. Romance is about entertainment, but it can also serve a positive social purpose: as they say in education, it can be both a mirror (to LGBTQ people) and a window (to those for whom such identities are unfamiliar).

Survey of readers of the Goodreads male/male romance group

Are there other identities that romance could be working to portray? What other mirrors and windows are we lacking? What identities do romances portray obsessively (biker, billionaire, duke), and why? What other identities do romances deliberately shun?

I'm thinking about race here, of course. Would so many white women voters have been able to bring themselves to pull the lever for a presidential candidate who utters openly racist statements if they had regularly "met" people with racial and ethnic identities different from their own via their romance reading?

How much does the restriction of romances with African American characters to African American only lines create, rather than reflect, the belief that white readers will not be interested in such stories? And how can we, as romance readers and writers, push back against such restrictions? How can we encourage cross-race reading among white readers (as readers of color have, by default, been forced to read white romances for a very long time)?

How can and do romances model cross-race relationships? Not just between lovers, but between friends? Is there room for both "we are all humans/I'm blind to racial difference" type of romance, as well as the romance that openly grapples with the struggles different racial and ethnic groups have on both an individual and a group level?


Intersectionality is more often used to think about women of color, but can we also used it to think productively about white working class identity and romance readership? According to RWA,

  • The U.S. romance book buyer is most likely to be aged between 30 and 54 years.
  • Romance book buyers are highly represented in the South.
  • Romance book buyers have an average income of $55,000

RWA used to list information about educational attainment of the readership, but such information no longer appears on the site. Given that the average starting salary of a new college graduate in 2016 is projected to be $50,566 (Money magazine), the average romance reader is likely not a college educated one (although the readership does, of course, include many college-educated readers).

Romance readership, then, seems overlaps to a great extent with the women who voted for Trump. Many proponents of the romance genre have argued that romance is by its very nature feminist; do these demographic figures, and the presidential voting results in this election, call this claim into question?




I'm also thinking a lot about class. I'm thinking about the Trump message, "Make America Great Again," and the desire that lies behind that message: a desire to return to an America where white working class men could earn a respectable wage. Are there romances that depict this demographic, that play out against a background of the disruptive shift from a manufacturing to a technology/service economy? That show this desire in a positive light, rather than link it to a racist identity? What might such a romance look like?

Do small town romances feed into the desire to "Make America Great Again"? In what ways? Is there a way to write a small town romance that is not falsely nostalgic? 


"Socially responsible daily behavior": only one small
spoke in the social change wheel

Romance, and the novel itself, are about individual characters, rather than about groups. And so they portray change happening most often on the level of the individual: if Darcy can get over his prideful nature, and Elizabeth can stop judging people, they will be able to unite as a couple and live at Pemberly happily ever after. But political and social change comes about far more often through group movements than through change on the individual level. Is there a way that romance novels can incorporate depictions of group organizing as a positive force? Where are the romances that are set against social justice organizing/work?


I'm also thinking about religion. Why is religion been restricted to the subgenre of the Evangelical romance? For many people, on both ends of the political spectrum, religion plays a major role in their lives and identities. It also often plays a large role in social change. Why is romance as a genre (with the exception of Evangelical romance) so wary of religion?


And, of course, the obvious question: what about the depiction of masculinity in the most popular heterosexual romance novels? Do romance novelists who write alpha male heroes contribute to the normalizing and acceptability of offensive male behavior, such as that embodied in our current president-elect? Do the alpha males of romance, who are strong, aggressive, and often offensively mouthy but who inevitably learn to meet our heroine's emotional needs, hold out a deceptively hopeful picture of American masculinity to female readers? Do such depictions provide validation to women who say about real life men, "oh, he says some pretty bad things, but underneath he doesn't really mean them"?


Can romance writers ask our business organization to be more proactive in fostering social justice? In particular, I'd like to see Romance Writers of America track the number of romances published each year by the identities of their characters. And to track the number of romances published each year by the identities of their authors. So we can track over time what, if any, progress is being made by people of color and LGTBQ people in our books, and in our industry.


Perhaps it is a utopian vision, but I can't help but wonder if there is some way for romance, or for RWA in particular, to foster cross-geographical, and cross-political party discussion, as well. Via panels at the annual convention? (Any writers interested in participating in a panel discussion about how to write a feminist romance, please let me know...). Via a pen pal exchange between red state and blue state writers? When we get out of our insular bubbles, and get to know people who are different from ourselves, sympathy, rather than intolerance, come to the fore. What other ways might we as a community foster communication across political lines?


Romance readers often say they read romance to escape from the grim realities of their daily lives. But romance novels are not apolitical. The escapes they depict can either encourage readers to accept and/or ignore the oppressions that exist in their everyday lives, or encourage them to recognize and fight against them.


Romance readers and writers, what are your thoughts and feelings in the wake of this week's election?


Photo credits:
Gay romance readers: Popular Romance Project
Voter chart: FiveThirtyEight
Social change wheel: Der Viator


27 comments:

  1. Lots to think about here, Jackie. I too would love to see RWA become a force for its chief demographic--women writers and readers. Excellent essay.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Marissa. I sent a link to the post to the members of RWA's board; here's hoping they take a look.

      Delete
  2. RWA's board has been actively supporting more diversity in romance. The change in the RITA category for Inspirational to Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements shows that they're welcoming to more than the Evangelical romance typically associated with that category. There's work to be done, ongoing. But I'm encouraged.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sherri:

      Thanks for stopping by, and adding your thoughts. I agree that the RWA Board has been actively supporting more diversity in romance of late. This is a fairly new development, though, so there's a lot of playing catch-up to do. So, yes, I'm encouraged, but I'm also wanting more...

      Delete
  3. I just deleted a big long post with some of my thoughts from the past crazy week, and just want to say, I don't know if the romance genre can or even should be a force for political change, but I do hope that, as long as we keep writing stories where love prevails, maybe we're doing one small part in the fight between good and evil.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Teri Anne, for stopping by and sharing your thoughts (even if your long post didn't end up being something you wanted to share with everyone). I definitely agree that romance's generic imperative—love prevails—is one of the best things about these books, and provides a positive example to counter the more hate-filled ones currently being set by too many politicians.

      Delete
  4. I hope that we have something that will help us get through the dark days ahead.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I believe there's truth to 'if you can see it, you can be it' and often am intensely frustrated with the nearly unmitigated pink color professions and low career success we see in romance novels. I can't help but think romance could be a force for helping women imagine themselves, and the people they vote for, in roles equal to men. I often wonder, when reading yet another novel about a pr gal, teacher or bookshop/bakery owner, if some romance authors themselves just don't have exposure to women in other professions. I would love to see the RWA offer ways to hook up women in a wider variety of professions (mayors, plumbers, ministers, factory owners, etc) with writers seeking inspiration.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I would love to see titles of books where this is the case -- women equal to men in professions that are not pink and men happily toiling in pink professions. As both a reader and writer, I love imagining the heroine as imminently capable, smart, and proactive, because that's what *I* want to be.

      Delete
    2. I would like to see books like this, too, and for the same reason as Jody W.

      Do we only see books with women in pink collar professions because book marketers think these are the only women who read romances, and that women want to see women like themselves? This leaves out those of use who want to see women not only as we are, but as we can be.

      Delete
    3. What a great idea, Anonymous. I definitely would like to see more romances featuring women who work in traditionally male professions. Let's hear it for the plumbers, construction workers, and ministers!

      Delete
  6. As much as I love romance novels especially historical romance novels there just doesn't seem to be a variety of representation and it frustrates me. I simply get excited if a black person is mentioned in a HR romance novel because it seems like we didn't exist or something.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Destiny:

      Yes, this is definitely a problem. I've been enjoying Alyssa Cole's historical short stories of late, but I'd love to see more historical fiction written by, and featuring, women of color.

      Delete
  7. On a related note, and not strictly romance--how about a post about female superheroes? I've always liked superheroes, but there's a dearth of female superheroes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Female superheroes in romance? Or romance in superhero comic books?

      Delete
  8. Thoughtful and an excellent call to action. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  9. "Romance novels is not apolitical" is the truest damn thing. I wrote a thing for the SFF blog Lady Business (not sure yet when it's scheduled to go live) about how people always talk about how they don't want politics in their football or their comics because they're just in those things to have fun. And it's so futile and crazy to me to hear people say this, because the default politics in football and comics ARE ALSO POLITICS; we've just been given blanket permission by a culture that privileges white male identity to see that kind of identity and those kind of politics as invisible.

    Anyway. Sorry for the mini-rant -- all of that to say, I ardently agree with you, and I hope that many publishing communities can find ways to diversify and combat the forces this election uncovered in as many ways as possible.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jenny:

      Thanks for stopping by, and adding your mini-rant. When I worked as a college professor, and taught classes on children's literature, it was often a problem trying to persuade students that books for kids were political. But they are, and so are romance novels, and SFF. Someone once told me that the hardest ideology to recognize is the ideology that mirrors your own beliefs; it may be that many don't see the politics in their reading because those politics match their own.

      Delete
  10. It was mostly WEALTHY white people who voted in Trump, so I'm not sure your wage/class section works, but I very much agree that romance as a whole NEEDS to diversify. Although very often oppressed people do need an escape from from the "grim realities of their daily lives". But there can be "fluff", I think, that doesn't have to be anodyne, white, rich, straight etc. There needs to be diverse romance that deals with tough issues, but there also needs to be diverse romance that doesn't.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No. Clinton and Trump split the over $100,000 income vote. Trump took the $50,000 - $100000, and Clinton took the under $50,000. Education and race were more important than income, although education and race are correlated with income.

      Delete
    2. I'm not sure what you're saying here is any different than what I'm saying? It was the middle-class that voted in Trump. Not working class. Which is what you're also saying. So I don't see where the no comes in.

      Delete
    3. Hi, Kellie. I think what Linda was disagreeing with was the claim with which you opened your comment: "It was mostly WEALTHY white people who voted for Trump."

      Right after the election, I started reading Arlie Hochschild's STRANGERS IN THEIR OWN LAND: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. It suggests that it is blue collar workers, ones who once could earn a middle-class wage doing factory and industrial work and who now, due to trade agreements and automation, no longer have access to such jobs, who are the angriest at the current state of the economy. A fascinating read.

      Delete
    4. I see. I think we possibly just have different definitions of wealthy then! That does sound interesting.

      Delete
  11. I was thinking about romance as a tool for political change this summer. My novel, For Good, had just come out. What had started as a lighthearted story about strangers in a small town, had turned into a story of political struggle.

    While I was writing, my wife had been working at the Oregon parole board. I was struck by the injustices she saw and those themes ended up working their way into the story. In the end, the book turned out to be about love between a paroled felon and a district attorney.

    Never one of those writers whose characters got away from them (or so I thought) I chided myself. I felt like I had gone off the romance novel "script." I was supposed to write something fun in which the greatest challenge the characters faced was what to wear on their second date. But writing about real political issues also made me think about the way love allows us to see the "other." It made me think that romance really could be a vehicle for social change.

    Here are a few more thoughts on that subject:

    https://lgbtqreads.com/2016/07/21/soro-three-ways-socially-conscious-romance-can-change-the-world-a-guest-post-by-karelia-stetz-waters/

    ReplyDelete