Friday, March 23, 2018

The slightly less white, not-quite-so-heteronormative world of the RITA awards

Earlier this week, Romance Writers of America® (RWA) announced their annual list of finalists for the RITA Award, which the organization bestows in recognition of excellence in published romance writing. In 2018, as in 2017, the award will be given in twelve different sub-genre categories, as well as an award for best first book.

Last year, after the 2017 RITA list (for books published in 2016) was announced, I wrote about the predominance of white authors amongst the finalists, as well as the predominance of white and heterosexual protagonists in their books. Out of the 85 distinct finalists (several books were up for best first book and best book in another sub-genre), four featured protagonists of color (with 3 of the 4 featuring a protagonist of color falling for a white partner); 4 books featured same-sex protagonists; 4-6 were written by authors of color.

This year, for the first time, the RITA contest was not restricted to authors with print books; in fact, no print books were allowed to be submitted. Instead, authors and/or publishers were required to submit pdf copies of books for judges to read and score.

Did this shift change the demographics of the winner pool? It did as far as the independent publisher/traditional publisher divide, with a whopping 22 self-published authors as named finalists, far more than had ever finalled before. Almost every sub-genre category (except for Young Adult and Long Historical) included at least one self-published title.

But did the shift change the demographics of the winner pool in terms of race and sexual orientation of the authors? Or their books' protagonists?

Given the report from The Ripped Bodice on "The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing" released earlier this year, which found that fewer romances by authors of color had been published by leading romance publishers in 2017 than in 2016 (6.2% in 2017, down from 7.8% in 2016), I was guessing the answer would be "no." But the answer turned out to be a small but noticeable "yes."

Of course, many books, and most author bios, don't explicitly state a protagonist or author's race. So my calculations below are based on the following:

• In cases where I've read the book, I knew the race of the protagonists, either by being told directly in the narrative, or from context clues in the book

• In cases where I had not read the book, I examined book covers, book descriptions, Goodreads book reviews, and character names for hints about protagonists' racial or ethnic backgrounds, and made my best guess. Major room for error here, so if you see any mistakes below, please let me know!

• Similarly, for authors with whom I was familiar, and/or who had discussed their own racial backgrounds in public, I went with self-represented racial identities. I had to rely on author photographs and guess for the rest. Again, room for error (and correction) here.

Overall Statistics:

# of finalists
    2017: 78
    2016: 85

# of authors of color
    2017: 5-6
    2016: 4-6

% of authors of color
    2017: 6-7.7%
    2016: 4-7%

# of protagonists of color
    2017: 13*                                                     
    2016:   5

% of protagonists of color
    2017: 8.3%*                                             
    2016: 2.9%

# of queer protagonists
    2017: 12     
    2016:  8

% of queer protagonists
    2017: 7.6%                                               
    2016: 4%

Individual Sub-Genre Numbers:

Contemporary Romance Long
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 2 (or 3?)
# of protagonists of color: 1
# of queer protagonists: 0

Contemporary Romance: Mid-Length
# of finalists: 9
# of authors of color: 1
# of protagonists of color: 2
# of queer protagonists: 2

Contemporary Romance: Short
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 1? (he's a sheikh)
# of queer protagonists: 0

Erotic Romance:
# of finalists: 5
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 1
# of queer protagonists: 0

Historical Romance: Long
# of finalists: 5
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Historical Romance: Short
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 3 (1 is from Spain)
# of queer protagonists: 0

Mainstream Fiction with a Central Romance:
# of finalists: 4
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 2

Paranormal Romance:
# of finalists: 8
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 1? (several are fantasy worlds, so I couldn't really tell just by looking at the blurbs)
# of queer protagonists: 4

Romance Novella:
# of finalists: 8
# of authors of color: 1
# of protagonists of color: 1
# of queer protagonists: 2

Romance with Religious/Spiritual Elements:
# of finalists: 5
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Romantic Suspense:
# of finalists: 9
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 1*
# of queer protagonists: 2

Young Adult Romance:
# of finalists: 4
# of authors of color: 1
# of protagonists of color: 1?
# of queer protagonists: 0

I'd be interested to see how the demographics of the RWA membership, and in particular, the demographics of the judges, compares to the demographics of the U.S. as a whole, and how those demographics compare to the percentages in the finalists selected by judges. Last year, RWA stated that it was going to poll its membership about demographic issues, but to date I don't believe any such information has been made public. I hope that it will, and soon.

Because this year's RITA finalist figures suggest that in terms of sexuality, the awards are quite representative of gay male experience, an improvement to celebrate. But though they are less racially imbalanced than last year's, they are still not at all close to reflecting the demographics of the country as a whole. And they do not represent female queer experience at all.

U.S. LGBT population: 3.8%

RITA Finalists with queer male characters: 7.6%

U.S. Census Data on race/ethnicity (2016)

White: 61.3%
POC:  40.9%

RITA Finalists by race/ethnicity:

White: 92.3%
POC:     7.7%

* Update 3/27/18: Author HelenKay Dimon wrote to let me know that the protagonist of The Fixer is biracial (white/Japanese parents). I've updated the overall figures, and changed the numbers in the Romantic Suspense category, accordingly.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

What type of HEA do You Prefer: Accomodation or Collaboration?

At the March meeting of the New England Chapter of Romance Writers of America, attorney Alisha Bloom gave a presentation on different negotiating strategies, and how romance writers might draw on these strategies in construction their characters and conflicts. Drawing on the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, Bloom listed these five common negotiating styles:

• Avoiding
• Accomodating
• Compromising
• Competing
• Collaborating

These styles all sounded familiar to me, and I could easily assign each to different people in my life (and to different characters in romance novels). What was new was the underlying relationship Thomas and Kilmann posit between these five styles. They do not appear on a linear continuum, but rather along a dual axis, one the degree to which the outcome of a dispute matters, the other the degree to which the relationship matters. Or, in other words, how much do your wants and needs matter, and how much do you care about the wants and needs of the person or group with whom you are negotiating? (The Thomas-Killman instrument actually posits these axes as personality issues, with one axis = degree of assertiveness, the other = degree of cooperativeness).

People and characters who choose an Avoidance style of negotiating typically cluster close to the zero point on both of these axes: they don't care that much about the outcome, nor do they care that much about the relationship between themselves and the person or group with whom they are negotiating. Those who use a  Compete strategy cluster on the high end of the "care more about their own wants and needs" axis, but low on the "care about the wants and needs of the other" axis. And those who use an Accomodate strategy cluster around the point diagonally opposite that of the competitors: high on the "care for the needs of others" and low on the "care for own needs."

One might think that a "Compromise" strategy would be the goal in a successful negotiation. But in the examples Bloom provided from romance novels (all recently published), the protagonists moved not toward compromise (splitting things evenly, so each side wins a bit and loses a bit), a cluster at the midpoint of both axes, but towards the "Collaborate" strategy: a strategy that cares highly about both the needs of the self and the needs of the other.

Bloom asked us if we thought that this was a general goal of romance: to move characters through the arc of caring either too much or not enough for self, or too much or not enough for others, towards not compromise, which is a "split everything fifty fifty" type of negotiating, but towards collaboration: a strategy which seeks new ways to meet both sides' needs. "Expanding the pie" is one way to put it, but in terms of romance writing, Bloom described the character movement as one in which the romantic protagonists move towards valuing both their own and the other's goals and desires, and seek ways to have both sides' needs met.

A lively discussion followed Bloom's presentation.  I pointed out that unlike the 21st century romance novels that Bloom had used as examples in her presentation (Julie James' Practice Makes Perfect, one example), in which Collaboration proved to be the end goal, Old Skool romances generally held up the "accomodation" style as the heart of a true HEA. Older romances, which value the "taming" the the alpha hero, a taming that causes him to not only admit his feelings of love for the heroine, but also to recognize the value of emotional work typically carried out by the female half of the population, require their heroes not to compromise or to collaborate, but instead to "accomodate": to give up their own needs or desires (because they are misguided and harmful) and to replace those needs and desires with those of their heroines.

Some agreed that in more modern romances, "Collaboration" appeared far more often than "Accomodation." And some stated that they preferred this type of HEA to one that "tames" the hero, one that makes him fall at the feet of the heroine. "I want the protagonists to work together, to value each other and their goals equally," said one member.

But others expressed a continued preference for the "Accomodation" HEA over the "Collaboration" one.  "I will give up anything and everything for you, that's what I want to hear from the hero at the end of the romance" one person noted. "That's what makes me feel." Another noted, "This is a fantasy, not real life. In real life, you compromise. But the fantasy of romance is that your hero will do what you as a woman want. He'll come home and do the dishes."

The conversation made me wonder: how many romance readers prefer "collaborative" HEA's, and how many prefer "accomodation" HEA's? Is this a generational thing? Or does it depend more on one's own real-life expectations about and experiences of gendered behavior? My partner already does do the dishes (at least on weekdays; on the weekends he cooks, and I pick up the dishcloth), so my fantasy is not about finding a guy who will do that. If your partner doesn't, and neither of you expect that he will, are you more likely to wish for an accomodation HEA?

Would love to hear your own preferences, readers, as well as your thoughts on using a negotiating strategy model to think about romance novel endings.

Photo credits:
Negotiation styles chart: Negotiation Experts
Compromise: Redbubble
Win Win: Thought Exchange

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

When An Artist's Abusive Behavior Call Your Love of Their Art into Question

Composer Richard Wagner's magnificent operas, set against his deeply anti-semitic tract Jewishness in Music. The racism of the early cartoons of Dr. Seuss, or in the first-edition depictions of the Oompa-Loompas in Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The myriad works of literature by lauded male writers, and the misogyny that runs like a bloody thread through their personal lives.

How can we love an artist's work, when we discover that the creator of that art held political or social views that we find to be morally repugnant? Or acted in a morally reprehensible way? Many shrug and say "It was different back then." But this already questionable position is even more difficult to take when the morally reprehensible actions have been done by an artist of our own times, our contemporary, rather than someone from the distant past.

Such are the questions confronting the male/male romance corners of Romancelandia after last week's tumultuous cascade of accusations and revelations about widely-praised queer romance author Santino Hassell. Over the past year, the pseudonymous Hassell has accused others of harassing him by trying to discover and reveal his IRL (in real life) identity, an identity that he claimed he kept hidden to protect himself from homophobia in his native Texas. But as accusations of Hassell's self-misrepresentation on a GoodReads thread, screen-shotted Twitter evidence to support such claims, and heartbreaking #metoo stories about Hassell's abuse of members of the queer community proliferated, reaching a groundswell late last week, two of his publishers, Riptide and Dreamspinner Press, abruptly announced that they had dropped him from their lists. Because the "author known as Santino Hassell" misrepresented himself to the publisher, which is cause for cancellation in the majority of author contracts. [If you want a more detailed timeline of the events leading to this, see these three posts from The Salt Mines].

What do we do when we hear that an author whose books we love has treated others with far less humanity than the characters in those books do? Has lied about who he is? Has catfished queer fans to mine their personal lives for story ideas, then used said stories not just without attribution, but without permission, in his novels? Who manipulated others to attack those who tried to call him out for his despicable behavior?

Many are taking down their reviews of all of Hassell's books on Amazon, GoodReads, and other social media sharing sites. Many are returning his books for refunds, or spending the $5 credit offered by Riptide to any reader who has ever purchased one of his books from their house on a book by a queer author other than SH. And many who supported Hassell's Patreon account after hearing him movingly write about of his cancer, his struggles as a single father, his bullied children—all claims which have turned out to be false—have yanked their financial support.

As a blogger, I am struggling with how to respond to this horrible cascade of accusation and abuse. I have a family member who was a long-time victim of a narcissist, one who sounds painfully similar to the person described by many who describe SH and his abuse. Being manipulated by such a  person is painful, embarrassing, and deeply shaming. All those harmed by SH's more direct abuse, you never deserved to be treated that way.

I have no desire to help advance the career of, or indirectly provide financial support to, an aggressively narcissistic abuser.

RNFF has reviewed several of Hassell's previous books. Should those reviews be taken down? Or should each be prefaced by and/or replaced with by a link to this post and a brief explanation, so readers can explore the issues and decide for themselves whether they feel comfortable reading a book by an author they would in all likelihood in real life shun?

Many other blogs, including Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words From Top to Bottom Reviews, Vir Reviews, and Just Love have done the first. My gut instinct, though, is leading me toward the second. Because erasing evidence of abusive behavior makes us forget, not remember. Because history matters. Because readers, including myself, need to be reminded that a detestable  person can write an aesthetically and politically good book.

I'd like to hear from RNFF's readers before I make the final call.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Equal Opportunity Violence: Sexual Assault and Lorelie Brown's HER HOMETOWN GIRL

When you hear the word "rape," what images of victims and perpetrators first jump into your mind? I've not been the victim of such a crime myself, and I don't involuntarily place myself in the first role. But I do tend to imagine a woman as the victim, and a man as the perpetrator.

Romance novels featuring characters who have experienced sexual assault tend to follow this same pattern: a woman as victim of a male perpetrator. I've seen the occasional romance with a man in the role as victim, but the perpetrator remains male.

Lorelie Brown's Her Hometown Girl is the first romance I've ever read in which the victim and the perpetrator have both been women.

Brown's novel opens with twenty five-year-old white schoolteacher Tansy Graves breaking down in the chair at Belladonna Ink, where she's in the midst of getting her first tattoo. Earlier that day, Tansy was supposed to have married her lesbian lover, Jody—a plan she ditched after she witnessed Jody "banging the [male] caterer's assistant right before the ceremony. And we're lesbians" (Kindle Loc 27). Thirty-nine-year-old Chinese-American tattoo artist Cai not only feels bad for wounded, insecure Tansy; she also finds her immensely attractive. Cai's instincts are to try and protect this wounded bird, especially when a not-so-contrite Jody comes searching for her fiancĂ©e. But Cai knows better than to interfere in a complete stranger's life. She may see signs that Jody is an unfeeling control-freak, but "then, I don't know their dynamic. Maybe this is the fifth time they've been through this dance. All things considered, I'm pretty helpless. This isn't my fight to pick" (page 11).

We get both Cai's and Tansy's points of view in this dual first-person narrative. And so when Tansy returns to her apartment with Jody, only intending to spend the night before moving out, readers witness firsthand the sexual assault an under-the-influence-of Xanax Tansy experiences at Jody's hands. A scene that feels both horrific and necessary, to not just tell, but to show potentially disbelieving readers that yes, female-on-female sexual assault can and does happen. Far more often than most readers might imagine: according to the Human Rights Campaign, which cites a 2010 survey by the CDC on intimate partner sexual violence, 44 percent of lesbians experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner (compared to 35 percent of heterosexual women). Rape is not only about a penis forcibly entering a vagina without consent, something that Brown's story insists readers understand and begin to acknowledge.

A difficult thing, something that even Tansy has trouble doing. Though she follows through on her resolve to leave Jody, she cannot bring herself to talk to anyone about Jody's sexual abuse. Not even Cai, whom she befriends, and then begins to date, six weeks after her breakup. Tansy is just starting to understand that Jody's behavior was less about love, and more about her need to manipulative and control: "I'm from Idaho, and the adjustment to Cal State Fullerton was overwhelming. . .  [Jody] set herself up as my rescuer, told me no one would ever understand me the way she did, and they wouldn't want me anyway" (20). And she's only just beginning to rewrite the story that Jody instilled in her, a story in which she was the messed-up, but fortunate, recipient of cool and calm Jody's "care":

It's so weird. No one wants to hear about my random bits of school teacher knowledge. Jody helped me tone that part of myself down and be more interesting. Unless she didn't. Unless she was actually just ruining me. (32).

Brown's narrative shows just how difficult it can be for a person who has been the victim of a manipulative, abusive intimate partner to react "normally" with a non-abusive partner. Tansy keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Cai to casually demean her, or undercut her choices, or to guilt her into acting the way Cai wants her to, rather than the way Tansy wishes to. Recovering from abuse is especially difficult for a person like Tansy, who craves being appreciated, who likes being chased, and who is just beginning to discover that she enjoys being sexually submissive (something Brown makes clear is far different than being sexually abused).

"After . . . after the way things used to be, shouldn't I want to be calling the shots and be the one who starts everything?" a confused Tansy asks Cai after they engage in some dominance/submission sexual play (129). Even though Tansy's words make Cai suspect what Tansy may have suffered, Cai doesn't push; instead, she simply "takes what she's offered me and no more. 'Whatever you're doing is the way it's supposed to be. No matter if that was standing on street corners wearing a clown costume and turning somersaults'" (129). Cai's experienced her own share of trauma, albeit of a far different kind, and understands that each person must come to terms with it in her own way, and in her own time.

But when Tansy and Cai begin to introduce more power play into their sexual relationship, something that turns Tansy on when she thinks about it sends her into a panic attack when played out in reality. Which is not something Cai, nor Tansy, can simply ignore. Not if their relationship is going to survive Tansy's moving back home to her native Idaho.

As Evan Urquhart notes in "Female-on-Female Sexual Violence is Real and Awful," "While there have been a respectable number of articles written about lesbian sexual violence, the reality of this problem doesn't seem to have fully penetrated into most people's awareness." He theorizes that this may be because the LGBTQ community has been so focused on marriage equality, advocacy for which might be undermined by addressing the problem of sexual abuse in queer relationships. I'd also hazard it has a lot to do with the dominant conception of rape in the heterosexual community, one that can see rape only if a male sex organ is involved.

Her Hometown Girl may go a little way towards address this lack of awareness in the romance-reading community, even as it tells an emotionally involving, and ultimately joyful story of two women falling in love.

Word quotes: Marie Claire

Her Hometown Girl
A Belladonna Ink novel
Riptide, 2017

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

RNFF Romance Reading Pet Peeves

During RNFF's first year, a regular feature on the blog was the "RNFF Pet Peeve" post. Each pet peeve post pointed to a particular common feature of traditional romance novels, and explored why the particular plot line, trope, character type, or stock phrase, struck me as problematic when viewed through a feminist lens.

I thought it might be interesting to go back, several years later, and revisit some of these pet peeves. Are they still commonly found in heterosexual romances? Have newer feminist issues emerged, issues that might lead to different pet peeves? How many of these older pet peeves would still rank on my top 10 pet peeves list today? If I took some off, what would I replace them with?

(NOTE: the pet peeves listed below come from reading heterosexual romances. Discussing pet peeves about queer romance is certainly worth its own post...)


1. The "I'll follow you wherever you go; wherever you are is my home" declaration, or, the heroine moves to be with her hero with no sense that the hero would do the same for her (discussed at greater length in this post).

I've not seen this one as much in my reading of late as I did when I first started writing the blog. Have I become better at screening my reading to avoid this trend, or is it really becoming far less common?

2. "But what choice did she have?", otherwise known as the story that backs the heroine into an anti-feminist corner for plot purposes (discussed in this post).

I still come across this one quite often, even in romances purporting to be about strong women. She has to accept his gift/money/help because she has no other choice... She had to give in to stupid, sexist demands because she has no other choice...  She has to act in a way that makes her TSTL, because she has no other choice...

Ah, no. You can always choose not to take that gift/money/help, not to give in to sexist demands, not to act stupidly. Authors are always advised to make things harder for their characters, but that doesn't mean they must back their characters into sexist corners to do so. Try thinking outside the patriarchal box, instead!

3. "Baby, you're all that I need," otherwise known as "your romantic partner must and will fulfill all your emotional, physical, and psychological needs"

I'd say that this one is still pretty common (shades of Jerry Maguire). Many romance readers like believing that a heroine who finds her one true love is guaranteed to live happily ever after, because finding her one and only makes her life complete, whole. How many readers actually believe this, and how many know it's an aspect of the fantasy that the romance genre holds out to its readers? Janice Radway, where are you when we need you for some timely reader response exploration?

4. The overabundance of dukes as heroes in historical romances (discussed here).

Since I write historical romance (under my pen name of Bliss Bennet), I personally get annoyed by the completely historically inaccurate bounty of dukes who roam the current grounds of English-set historical romances. A quick glance at Debretts Peerage shows that only 25 non-royal dukedoms existed in 1818. Out of a population of 14.4 million people living in England, only 0.0001735%, or one in every 576,000 English people, held the title. A popular historical romance author today will  likely create more than 25 dukes in just her books alone!

Given the way that amazon search engines reward authors who include certain tropes (or aristocratic titles) in their books, arguing against this plethora of dukes seems like a losing battle. So this perhaps wouldn't make a general top 10 list of anti-feminist peeves, but I reserve the right to keep it on my own personal one.

5. When "feisty" is mistaken for "feminist" (see this post)

Acting feisty (or bratty, or snarky) is not the same as acting with feminist principles in mind. Yelling at a stupid guy, snipping at a sexist alpha, ignoring the advice of a potential love interest because he's a man—none of that grants you a feminist card. Working on behalf of other women, on behalf of women's rights, calling attention to sexist behavior, laws, assumptions: those are feminist actions. Books that assume that a feisty, or strong female is also a feminist female still seem distressingly common.

6. Romances that diss feminism (see this post)

I recently read one of the four books that won the first RITA Award (then named the Golden Medallion Award) back in 1982. I'll be blogging about that experience in a future post, but suffice it to say, references to feminism (or "women's lib") in the book are hardly flattering. It's a bit disheartening, if not surprising, to discover such comments in a book published in 1981. But even today, when a romance novel includes the words "feminism" or "feminist," it rarely regards those words as positive. But so few romance novels even use the words that I'm not sure this one deserves a place on a top 10 list anymore.

7. Heroines in historical romances who spout gender critiques that sound more like Ms. Magazine than anything Mary Wollstonecraft or her radical contemporaries ever wrote (mentioned in passing here)

I could write a treatise on this one. But again, this may be my own particular pet peeve. The historical romance market right now does not seem to care much about historical accuracy, at least when it comes to social mores that would rankle contemporary readers' morals or standards.

8. "It's a Guy Thing" (or "Women all do this...) (see this post)

Part of the spice of many romances depends on playing up the differences between male and female characters. Far too often, though, for a feminist's taste, playing up differences between particular characters shades over into definitive statements about what all men do/are/say/act like, and what all women do (or don't do). I don't know about you, but the variation in behavior between individual women seems just as wide as the variation between any particular man and any particular woman. Whenever a writer (either through a character, or in the voice of the narrator) states that "guys are like that" or "women always/never say/do this," I can't help but cringe. This may be the most common pet peeve I have with a lot of contemporary romances.

I've not written previous blog posts about the following, but I'd definitely include them on a top 10 heterosexual romance Pet Peeve list today:

• Heroes who don't take "no" for an answer. Harassment is not sexy

Heroines who say "no" but really mean "yes." Heroes are NOT mind readers, ladies

• No discussion of birth control before or during sexy times

• No portrayal of consent before or during sexy times

• Evil other women as foils for a virtuous heroine

• Slut shaming

When you put on your feminist reading glasses, what pet peeves annoy the heck out of you?