Friday, March 17, 2017

The Lack of Diversity in Historical Romance

In case you haven't heard about it yet, there's a thought-provoking opinion piece over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books about the dearth of people of color (POC) in historical romance. "The Diversity Thorn: Ethnic Identity, History, and Historical Romance," by new-to-romance reader and gender scholar Asha Ganesan, opens with a bold claim:

Historical Romance (HR) has a major diversity and accuracy problem. The problem stems from assumptions that have been passed down through the lineage of HR (though these assumptions are not exclusive to this genre). The assumption is that branding a story "historical romance" includes some representation of "historical accuracy." It does not.

Ganesan goes on to argue that since HR is often as much, if not more, fantasy than realism, authors cannot use the defense of "I'm being historically accurate" to justify not writing characters of color into their historical works:

If we are capable of suspending reality when it comes to our handsome rake alpha not being even slightly physically affected by his debauchery and we are willing to overlook the deus ex machina in many of our favourite books (twin-swapping? Windfall? He wasn't a commoner after all?), is it really too much to ask to make one of the MC's lover an African woman? To make his wife Asian? To have a character be a cunning Indian businessman—villain or hero?

I appreciate Ganesan's goal—to push writers to write, and publishers to publish, more HR featuring characters of color. But I think we have to go a little further than just pointing out the logical fallacy that lies behind most traditionally-published (and a lot of independently-published) HR if we want the ethnic and racial landscape of HR to change.

My thoughts here take a few twists and turns. To start, I'm going to go counterintuitive: by arguing that Ganesan's claim that all historical romance features no historical accuracy is not accurate. Some HRs use their historical settings as little more than backdrops, yes, an excuse to feature pretty ballgowns, lavish jewels, and beautiful estates. Others, though, are deeply invested in what it was like to live in a particular historical moment, how daily life at a particular place and at a specific year or period in history influenced how the people alive then thought, felt, and especially fell in love. Some HRs are almost pure fantasy, while others balance on the line between historical romance and historical fiction.

Do you think that readers tend to prefer books on one or the other end of this fantasy/accuracy spectrum? I know I do, and many readers I know do, too. I don't know this empirically, but it's my hunch that readers who prefer the "wallpaper" HRs, the books that use the past as a pretty set piece rather than as opportunity to explore human difference as well as similarity, are also the ones who prefer their romances to feature only aristocratic protagonists. And that readers who prefer the other end of the spectrum enjoy romances with characters from all different social class positions.

In large part, the fantasy of aristocratic HR is a fantasy of escaping our social class: I may live a middle or working-class life, but when I read HR with dukes and duchesses, viscounts and viscountesses, I can fantasize that I live a life of wealth and ease. Crossing class lines (earls marrying governesses, or, even far less likely, dukes wedding serving girls) is an especially potent fantasy, one that's been a part of Western culture for as long as we've been telling versions of the Cinderella story. Such romances diffuses class tensions by allowing the economically underprivileged to fantasize about joining the ranks of the privileged, if only for the short while the book we are reading lasts.

But there's a second, usually unremarked-upon fantasy that the aristocratic wallpaper HR also allows: a fantasy of living in an all white world. Because the English nobility was almost exclusively white during the periods in which HRs are most popular. By asking for story after story of dukes and marquesses and earls and their ilk, readers not only get stories of rich, powerful men, but they can also get books with all-white characters, all without having to specifically ask for this.

Readers who want to "escape" by reading HR, then, might not just wish to escape the hardships of their own working lives (a class escape). They might also harbor a wish to escape the increasingly difficult-to-ignore fact that American, and much European, life now is inescapably not all white (a race escape).

Such readers may be unconscious of this desire. Or they may not wish to express it openly, for fear of being labeled racist. But the aristocratic HR, by its very nature, caters to such a desire, whether it wishes to or not.

How much does that fantasy of an all-white world, a world without racial strife, appeal to you, consciously or unconsciously, when you read or write historical romance? I'm asking myself this question today, and urging other white readers and writers to do the same.

Illustration credits:
Two Regency white ballgowns: The Miniature Historian
Contemporary white ballgowns: This is Glamorous


  1. Boy, I don't know. I quit reading SBTB a while ago because I found their discourse about complex race/gender issues, when seen in romance, to be exceedingly banal, focused on in-group backpatting rather than on really grappling with deep issues. (To the extent that it is useful to do that with a light fantasy genre, which is a thing I am not yet sure about, even though it seems widely taken for granted by others.) I took a quick scan at these comments and I just do not relate to some of the ideas being expressed there, mainly that people owe it to certain authors or certain topics to consume their material. I often see this in discussions that are primarily female, that the rhetorical tools of the patriarchy get turned against other women. Women "owe it" to you to do something, behave a certain way, agree with your assertions, and if they refuse, they aren't nice. It's an inversion of the power dynamics, it isn't a deconstruction of the power dynamic. I don't like it.

    You mention class here, thank goodness. I feel quite strongly that mostly American leftist discourse has come to stand in dire need of some Marxist class-conscious dialectic. The degree to which people who read and discuss historical romances feel certain that they are on the right side of the diversity debate while simultaneously flatly refusing to grapple in any way with the class issues raised by these books is astounding to me. How often have you read a book where an aristocrat is depicted as being friends with his valet? That's the worst to me, when people sense the discomfort of class distinctions but sweep them away with "my heroine is very good friends with her maid, who is like family, except family who empties her chamberpot and is extremely interested in her mistress' love life and has no needs of her own".

    I find it very difficult to speak seriously with others on this topic because of the blindness to class - and the blindness to the reality of gender issues in the times depicted (which I think, in the time period, one can think of a sub-type of class issues, really). In the 2010s I have noticed a string of popular HR novels, for instance, that are of the "the heroine has a man's job and smokes cigars and wears pants, because feminism" type, or novels that include LGBT characters who live their sexuality openly without repercussion, and I find this so strange. I frequently see people enthusing about how wonderful these things are, but they seem so banal and so disrespectful to the actual historical struggle to me. This idea that many modern writers have, where they jam contemporary mores into 1812 settings and sort of pretend that people in the past could have lived modern lives if they just got their stuff together-!

    IDK. I don't read historical romance for illumination. If I want that, I read non-fiction, or serious historical novels. I typically find that HR authors who seek to "fix" some historical error moderns find problematic are insultingly shallow to me. The ex-Confederate who now loves all Black people. The Regency gentleman who is totally cool with his friend being gay. The Victorian woman who has powerful ideas about colonialism.

    I think these things are an uneasy fit with HR, because "romances" are fundamentally books with guaranteed happy endings. That's our cultural assumption - and I for one have no interest in giving that up. But a number of stories people claim to be clamoring for simply don't have realistic happy endings. So how do you fit them into HR without making them feel insulting and fake? I don't think you can, very often, so people rig fake happy endings that I can't stand to read, because they seem, ironically, so extremely dismissive of the generations of terrible injustice and grief suffered by so many.

    1. I should have said "American leftist discourse" (which is the one I am primarily familiar with). I don't know much about lefty discussions in other cultures.

      Final note, I used to be a Courtney Milan fan, but have found her recent works unbearable in the ways I mention here: but I see a couple of people in the SB comments enthusing about how great and right on they are.

      I think this issue is so complicated, and the treatment it gets in mainstream romance discussion seems so shallow to me, so focused on the purity cult of agreement and exclusion of the wrong. CANNOT HANG.

    2. Thanks, Anonymous, for stopping by and adding your thoughts. One of the reasons why I wrote this post was because I didn't think the SBTB discussion was really grappling with why some/many readers would be drawn to HR with all-white characters. It's not just that HR has unrealistic elements; we have to look at WHICH unrealistic elements are welcomed, and which are not. Being friends with your maid/valet, yes; being an aristocrat of color, no.

      How can we move beyond the "purity of cult agreement and exclusion of the wrong" discussions? By looking at issues of class, definitely. And issues of race, beyond just the "is this fair/unfair" arguments.

    3. Have you read KJ Charles' male/male romances, Anonymous? I'm thinking of A GENTLEMAN'S POSITION, which features a lord who falls for his valet. And their story really GRAPPLES with issues of class, of the power differentials of class positions, and the respect (and lack of respect) that underlies rich people's beliefs about working class lives.

  2. My struggle with accurate and diverse HR is that it pains me to read them. I don't want to read what life was really like for women, people of colour, the disadvantaged, etc. in Georgian or Victorian times. It is not simply that I want to escape, but the reality of people who were not considered persons under the law is often downright miserable.

    I stick to primarily to English aristocrats because in Georgian times it is probably the life that resembles my own modern middle-class life -- as long I am not provided with too many details (i.e., chamber pots, poor personal hygiene, little medicine, etc.).

    Reading a HR more reflective of my ancestors would be likely a story about teenagers who glanced at each other at church and liked what they saw, married, he went down mines, she was pregnant on wedding night, half their children died by 15, he died by 50 of black lungs if a mine collapse didn't get him first...leaving her and remaining children too young to work near destitute. Diversity was a rare as fruit. No one wants to read that. Not much romance when you are scraping out a living.

    1. "the reality of people who were not considered persons under the law is often downright miserable."

      The point made in this recent post by Jackie, though, is that even aristocratic women weren't fully recognised by the law because, as explained more fully elsewhere:

      marriage and property laws, or "coverture," stipulated that a married woman did not have a separate legal existence from her husband. A married woman or feme covert was a dependent, like an underage child or a slave, and could not own property in her own name or control her own earnings, except under very specific circumstances. When a husband died, his wife could not be the guardian to their under-age children.

      There's an interesting time-line about women's rights in various parts of the word throughout history (but mostly focused on the UK and US) here. So to believe in the happy endings in most UK-set historicals, you're having to accept that happiness is possible with limited rights.

      Roberta Gellis's The Rope Dancer, while acknowledging various comforts which are lacking in the characters' lives, still makes their future as a medieval troupe of travelling players seem credible and positive.

      Similarly, I think Beverly Jenkins does a very good job of imagining positive futures for her African American protagonists post-Civil War.

    2. Hi, Kettle 8:

      Like Laura V, I'm also going to quote your line back at you: "the reality of people who were not considered persons under the law is often downright miserable." The word that encourages me in that sentence is "often."

      Because "often" doesn't mean "always" or "inevitably." "Often" recognizes the possibility of something different. It recognizes that people of the past who did not have the privileges of the aristocrats we so love to read about could still be happy, could still fall in love, could still live meaningful lives, even if they did not have the wealth and rights that their "betters" did.

      I worry that when we insist that people of the past who did not live a life as physically comfortable as we do today are not worthy of romance readers' time, we can all too easily slip into the assumption that people alive TODAY who do not share our class standards are not worthy, either. And that's a dangerously slippery slope, I think.

      "Happiness is possible within limited rights." I really like that line, Laura. It doesn't ignore oppression, but it doesn't suggest that oppressed peoples are something less than human.

  3. THIS is such a thought-provolking post. Thank you for putting this up. I released a book with an Asian-American main character bout six month ago after writing six other historical romances with Caucasian heroines (well one is Melungion but she appears white on the cover.) My book about the Asian-American woman WAY undersells my other novels. Now maybe, it is some other reason (although I think it is my best blurb, tagline and cover) but I am starting to wonder if it is the race of the heroine. That's how I found your post and there are other people online that are noticing this phenomenon in H.R. as well. My other books are very realistic HR and gritty too and they sell well so I am wondering what the heck is going on! (Ha! maybe it's just a crummby book) Either way thanks for your post.

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