Friday, March 22, 2019

The Sorry State of Diversity in the RWA's RITA Awards: 2019 edition

Yesterday, Romance Writers of America® announced the list of finalists for its RITA Awards, which the organization bestows in recognition of excellence in publishing romance writing. So it's also time for the annual RNFF blog post with data on the state of racial diversity amongst the RITA finalists, with added info on the race/ethnicity and sexuality of the characters of the finalist books.

For the second year in a row, all RITA contest entrants were required to submit a pdf copy, rather than print copies, of their books. Entrants could also submit either an epub or a kindle mobi file as well, for the convenience of judges. As this was not a change that changed the basic demographics of the entrants pool, as the switch from all print to pdf was in 2017, it's not surprising that a similar number of self-published books were chosen as finalists this year as last (22, by my count).

Representation of queer characters is a bit down from last year, although there is one lesbian romance, as compared to no lesbian romances last year.

What about representation of race/ethnicity? What do those numbers look like?

Not good. Not good at all.

Many books, and many author bios, don't explicitly state protagonists' or authors' race. So the calculations below are based on the following:

• In cases where I'd read the book, I knew the race of the protagonists, either by being directly told 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 and 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 my best guesses for the rest. Two finalists do not include author photos on their web sites, so I classified them as white. Again, room for error (and correction) here.

Overall Statistics:

# of finalists:
  2018: 74
  2017: 78
  2016: 85

# of authors of color:
  2018: 3***
  2017: 5-6
  2016: 4-6

% of authors of color:
  2018: 4%***
  2017: 6-7.7%
  2016: 4-7%

Overall # of protagonists: 149 (73 * 2, 1 * 3 [one erotic romance features a ménage-a-trois])

# of protagonists of color
  2018: 8
  2017: 13
  2016: 5

% of protagonists of color
  2018: 5.3%
  2017: 8.3%
  2018: 2.9%

of queer protagonists:
  2018: 10 (8 in m/m romances, 2 in a lesbian romance)
  2017: 12
  2016: 8

% of queer protagonists:
  2018: 6.7%
  2017: 7.6%
  2016: 4%

Individual Sub-Genre Numbers:

Contemporary Romance Long
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 2
# of queer protagonists: 0

Contemporary Romance: Mid-Length
# of finalists: 11
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 4

Contemporary Romance: Short
# of finalists: 8
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 0*
# of queer protagonists: 2

Erotic Romance:
# of finalists: 4
# of authors of color: 0
# of protagonists of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Historical Romance: Long
# of finalists: 4
# of authors of color: 0
# of characters of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Historical Romance: Short
# of finalists: 6
# of authors of color: 0
# of characters of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Mainstream Fiction with a Central Romance
# of finalists: 5
# of authors of color: 0
# of characters of color: 1
# of queer protagonists: 0

Paranormal Romance
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 0
# of characters of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Romance Novella
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 1
# of characters of color: 1
# of queer protagonists: 2

Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements
# of finalists: 4
# of authors of color: 0
# of characters of color: 0
# of queer protagonists: 0

Romantic Suspense
# of finalists: 7
# of authors of color: 0
# of characters of color: 1
# of queer protagonists: 0

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

It's more than depressing that the representation of authors of color in the RITA finalist pool has decreased, despite recent efforts by the organization to better support its members of color. What else can RWA do to begin to address what is a glaringly obvious problem of bias in its judging system?

More than a year ago, RWA stated that it was in the process of polling its membership about demographic issues, but to date I don't believe that information has been made public. Does RWA have any sense of how the demographics of RWA membership compares to the demographics of the U. S. as a whole? And how its overall demographics compare to the demographics of the finalists and the judges? Compiling and sharing such information with its membership would be a good place to start.

Another intervention would be to begin asking entrants for demographic information about themselves and about the characters in the books they are submitting. Percentages could then be compared to the percentages in the finalist pool.

Or RWA could consider revamping the way the entire contest is judged, and create a process in which systemic racism could be, if not entirely eliminated, at least majorly curtailed. I'd strongly urge the Board to create a committee or working group to study the issue in the coming year.

I know more than a few authors who would be interested in serving...

US Census data on race/ethnicity (2016)
White: 61.3%
POC: 40.9%

2018 RITA Finalists by race/ethnicity
White: 97.3%
POC: 4%

* Caitlin Crews' A Baby to Bind His Bride includes this description of its hero: "amalgam of everything that was beautiful in him. His Greek mother. His Spanish father. His Brazilian grandparents on one side, his French and Persian grandparents on the other." I'm not counting this hero as a POC.

** one of these books, written by a white author, features Latinx characters, one of whom is a gang member. I have counted these characters as POC, despite some concern that this representation may be problematic. I have not yet read the book in question.

*** My original post listed 2 authors of color, not 3. I've updated the numbers accordingly, given the comments below.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Race and Romance: The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report 2018

Early this month, the Ripped Bodice bookstore released their third annual "The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report." The news about that diversity is not encouraging. The report lists the percentages of romances written by people of color and indigenous authors that have been published each year by twenty of the leading commercial publishers of romance books. As the report notes, in bold blue type, "there has been zero progress in the last 3 years." While a few publishers have increased the percentage of writers of color on their lists since 2016, the majority haven't. Even the publisher with the highest percentage of POC-authored books (Kensington, at 22.8%) does not come close to matching the percentage of the American populace who identify as something other than white (38.7%). Fewer than half of the publishers surveyed can even boast about having a lowly 10% of authors of color on their lists.

Bea and Leah Koch, the owners of The Ripped Bodice, note in their report that "When beginning this project three years ago, we believed that as soon as the numbers were collected and publicly released, publishers would immediately make strides toward correcting this imbalance. We hoped that providing clear data would contribute to the work that authors of color have been doing for decades to prove that there is widespread systemic racism within romance publishing." The first statement seems a bit naive, given the second. If "widespread systemic racism" exists within the romance publishing industry, merely pointing to data from three years of a report isn't likely to root that racism out.

An anecdote by way of suggesting why:

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I worked for a major trade children's book publisher, the head of our marketing department prepared an informal report on "multicultural" books. The report concluded that books that could be labeled "multicultural" sold, on average, at a higher rate that those that could not.

One of the "multicultural" books. Written by
author Mwenye Hadithi, aka Bruce Hobson
I don't know if other children's book publishers compiled any similar reports, or if they did, whether it would have helped decrease publishing's institutional racism. Because that report did not differentiate between multicultural books (which included a wide range of content, from folktales from other cultures to stories with primary, or more often secondary, characters of color) and books written or illustrated by people of color. I don't remember us discussing that fact in any great detail. Perhaps because everyone in the Editorial, Marketing, and Publicity departments, including myself, was white? Or because publishers, even publishers for children, were increasingly being asked to focus on the bottom line, rather than was what good for children or society?

Many of our "multicultural" books at the time were written by white authors; a few authors even took on pen names that suggested they were from non-white cultures. Something that really bothered me and several of my similar-aged colleagues at the time. But it didn't seem to bother our superiors. If "multicultural" would sell, then we would sell multicultural books, no matter who their creators.

It would take more than twenty years, and the advent of social media (in particular, Twitter), for  writers and illustrators of color to mount a collective campaign to protest children's book publishing's whitewashed version of multiculturalism. Pressure from the children's lit twitterverse, the work of the the nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books (which was formed in 2014), and the publication of statistics on children's books publishing diversity by the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) have all combined to exert pressure on publishers, which has led to a marked increase in the diversity content of children's books being published (from 10% in 2013 to 31% in 2017).

Infographic courtesy of Lee & Low Books
Yet the percentage of books created by writers and illustrators of color still lag far behind those created by whites, even when the content of said books can be labeled "multicultural." Doing some back of the envelope calculations based on the figures cited by the CCBC, I come up with the following:

• Total percentage of books by authors/illustrators of color: 14%

• Percentage of books by black, Latinx, and Native authors: 7%

• Percentage of books by people of color that focus on multicultural content: 9%

• Percentage of books by whites that focus on multicultural content: 16%

14% is still a far cry from reflecting the actual racial diversity in America today (38%). And romance is doing far worse that children's books are...

In their 2018 edition of "The State of Diversity in Romance Publishing Report," the Kochs' place the onus for fixing the problem of systemic racism in romance publishing on publishers: "ultimately, unless acquiring editors purchase more manuscripts for publication by authors of color, these numbers will remain the same." Given my own past experiences, I'm not convinced that relying on the good will (or the embarrassment) of editors will be enough.

Some additional things that might help:

• More information about the publishing industry, like that compiled by the Koch's. And more detailed information, too, such as that compiled by the CBBC about children's book publishing. Is traditional publishing giving white authors preference over writers of color in writing multicultural romances? Are some groups of color underrepresented as writers to a greater degree than others?

• More information about romance's readership. Are publishers' claims that "they don't buy those books," i.e., white readers don't buy books about/by people of color, true? If so, is this true across all demographic categories we might study? (age, educational status, economic status, geographical location)? And what are the best ways to counter such attitudes, if they do in fact exist?

• More scholars to study the genre, to supply some of the answers to the above questions

• RWA to continue to call attention to issues of race and institutional racism in the industry, and to support authors of color. Also, guidance to its membership on how to talk productively, rather than adversarially, about race and racism in the industry

• The continued voices of Romancelandia Twitterverse speaking out in protest of the current situation

• More white readers to buy books about and by writers of color

• More conversations about the difference between institutional racism and prejudice, so that whites don't get so automatically defensive whenever the topic of race enters a conversation

• More blogs and reviews about romances by/about people of color

Will you answer Bea and Leah Koch's call to "join us" in advocating for "significant improvement" when it comes to authors of color in the romance book industry?

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Fix Is NOT In: Tamsen Parker's THE INSIDE TRACK

I am, by nature, a fixer. Whenever I hear someone talk about a problem, I immediately start to think about all the possible ways I could act to make that problem go away. It can be a really annoying habit, this urge to want to fix everything, especially when it comes to people. Not everyone needs, or even wants, to be fixed. Even if the larger society around them thinks they should do something to make their situation better, a lot of people are perfectly happy being the way they are.  Because broken isn't always fixable, especially when it comes to people. And also because one person's "broken" may just be another person's "different."

Reading Tamsen Parker's latest contemporary romance, The Inside Track, gave me a much-needed reminder of this. And did so while making me laugh harder than I can ever remember laughing while reading a romance.

The Inside Track's two white protagonists, financial advisor Dempsey Lawrence and boy band guitarist Nick Fischer, do not function in socially conventionally ways. Readers of Parker's earlier books featuring License to Game (Love on the Tracks and Thrown Off Track), the boy band on the cusp of aging out of their audience, will remember Nick as the goofball screwup of the group, an eight-year-old boy in a 28-year-old's body. Nick's more than just a bundle of impulsivity; he fidgets, he wrestles, he talks a mile a minute about the most fascinating, and often disgusting, things. He's never worried about making a fool of himself; he adores being the center of attention. Witness the book's opening scene, in which we find a drunken Nick with the accordion which once belonged to Lawrence Welk, an accordion which he's "borrowed" from the wall of the Los Angeles restaurant where he was dining. He's playing it outside, in the middle of a fountain—stark naked. If only he had his unicycle, too...

Using close first person, Parker gives readers access to the whirling pinball inside Nick's head, following his thoughts as they carom from topic to topic, making leaps of association that are as amazingly imaginative as they are hilarious:

Maybe these police officers would like to be my friends. Because if any of my guys were here, they probably would've suggested that climbing into a fountain, naked, with an accordion was maybe not my best idea. Or at least they would've held my goddamn pants so some dickwad wouldn't take them. Fucking pants thieves. That's just low.  (Kobo epub, Chapter 1, page 7)

Or this, from the second chapter, where Nick is serving out his community service sentence for the aforementioned accordion incident by speaking with kids at a local performing arts school about managing your money when you're a creative. Nick on the coolness of spreadsheets:

"They're like wizards, guys. Seriously. Magic on your screen. They do math for you, but in a cooler way than a calculator. And then you can even make pie charts. Pie charts are really fu— falutin' rad. I don't know about you guys, but like, sometimes numbers make my head hurt? But I'm totally game for colors and shapes. And pie. Pie is delicious. My favorite is probably key lime. Why do you think they call them pie charts instead of pizza charts? Because pizza is great, and it would make them sound way cooler. But then I guess they call pizzas pies, don't they? Which is weird. Because it's not like a real pie. Except in Chicago. You guys like deep dish?" (Ch. 2, p. 13-14)

Even after encountering Nick not under the influence, a reader who knows anyone with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is likely to be thinking "It's ADHD! Get diagnosed! Get some help!" But Parker is not interested in telling the story of a person whose life gets put back on track after receiving a welcome medical diagnosis. Sometimes, a diagnosis doesn't lead to an easy fix. As Nick reveals later on in the story, he was diagnosed as a child, but rebounding off the drugs proscribed to deal with the ADHD made him sullen and violent, and the meds themselves gave him a tic. So his family decided against medicating Nick's condition. Neurotypical is certainly not the word to describe Nick. But he and his family and bandmates have come to love him for who he is, not for who he should or could be if only the drugs had worked better for him.

Parker pairs attention-hound Nick with perhaps the most unlikely of opposites: a woman who has not left her property for more than five years. Thirty-four year old Dempsey, a former teen tv star, experienced major trauma due to her career. She, unlike Nick, takes medication, because the trauma has left her with debilitating problems; her meds help curb her anxiety and panic attacks, and allow her to function as a financial planner to other young show business kids who don't mind working with someone over the phone. But neither her doctors nor "a shit ton of pharmaceuticals" have been able to rid Dempsey of her agoraphobia. A shiny new boyfriend certainly won't, either, as Dempsey makes clear to Nick when she first tells him about her condition:

"You're not going to be the hero here. There are no white horses or castle moats or needle-pricked fingers. You should assume that I'm never leaving this quarter-acre lot ever again and make your choices based on that. There's the door." (Ch 6, p 9)

But unconventional Nick doesn't think Dempsey's agoraphobia is as anathema to romance as she does: "I like you. I  like being with you. And if I have to come here to hang out with you, then I will. I don't really feel like that's a big thing. No one's perfect." (Ch 6, p 10). Nick loves everyone's attention, but there's something about Dempsey's that is just off the charts compelling to him. Almost as if she can channel the cheering of a stadium full of people, just by herself. And Dempsey is equally charmed by Nick's intelligence, humor, and utter lack of guile. After being lied to over and over again in the past, Dempsey truly appreciates a man who isn't hiding anything.

As I read further on into their story, one part of my mind kept expecting some big plot event that would "fix" either Dempsey or Nick. Some danger to Nick would compel Dempsey to leave her house, and she'd find herself miraculously recovered. Or some new doctor would give Nick a different diagnosis, or would offer him a new drug that would calm down the impulsivity of his brain. And Parker throws out several plot complications that look like they might be headed in one of those directions—only to pull back and disrupt the common romance trope that falling in love will fix everything. Dempsey and Nick do help each other, not to fix themselves, but rather, to adapt to each other's needs, while keeping their own abilities and needs also in view. Those adaptations might be a bit on the unusual side for this particular couple, but its a process anyone, neurotypical or no, who is involved in a relationship must embrace if they are to make it past the first blush of romance.

Photo credits:
Lawrence Welk album: Treadwell's Music
Pie pie chart:

The Inside Track
License to Love #2
Indie published, 2019

Friday, March 1, 2019

Why do women like m/m SEM? Thoughts on Lucy Neville's GIRLS WHO LIKE BOYS WHO LIKE BOYS

In the comments section of RNFF's first review of a m/m romance (Alex Beecroft's Blessed Isle, back in 2013), several commenters posted their thoughts about why they found m/m romance novels appealing, often more appealing than heterosexual romances. RNFF readers aren't the only ones who have thoughts on the matter. Slash fiction writer and academic scholar Lucy Neville has just published an entire book on the subject, or at least, on a closely related topic. In Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, Neville reports on her sociological study of more than 500 self-identified women who engage with sexually explicit material (SEM) that features (or purports to feature) gay men, to explore how and why they engage with it, and what they enjoy about that engagement.

Initially, Neville began with focus groups and one-on-one interviews with seventeen subjects, guided by a rough set of questions she'd put together, but open enough to follow the ideas and issues raised by her interviewees. In response to those initial conversations, Neville then developed a questionnaire to send to the broader group of 508, which she'd found through chat groups, fandom groups, and connections from her own work as a writer of gay male slash fiction. The responses to these questionnaires were then "data coded," with recurring themes pulled out, reviewed, and refined, until Neville had the broad themes and subthemes that organize the 8 chapters of her published book (Chapter 1 serves as an introduction, and an explanation of her methodology).

Though gay pornography and erotica, as well as slash fiction, are not the same as m/m romance, I was curious to read about Neville's survey, and its respondents' ideas, to see if any of those ideas might be applicable to romance.

Unfortunately, while Neville shares demographic information about her respondents, she doesn't share the survey itself in the book (unless I somehow missed it?), so we don't know precisely what questions she asked (and what questions she didn't). And the book itself spends far less time discussing what her respondents had to say than it does presenting the ideas of other researchers who have theorized about sexuality, porn, slash fiction, and other topics related to study. It's rare to read a single page here that doesn't include at least five, if not more, quotations from or summaries of other writers' scholarship. Perhaps this just a difference in writing style between literary scholarship and social science scholarship (Neville is a Lecturer in Criminology at Leicester University), but I found this constant name- and quote-dropping really frustrating. I wanted to hear what Neville's interviewees had to say,but their comments often got lost amidst the flood of secondary source material. How could you not want more of fabulous lines like this: "Porn is mostly for wanking, erotica is more towards inspiring the imagination towards wanking, and romance is more about making your heart feel like it's wanking" (126-27)?

Chapter 2, which discusses why women watch m/m porn and Chapter 3, which asks why readers read m/m slash fiction, struck me as quite relevant to m/m romance, too, as did and Chapters 5 and 6, which explore in more depth the reasons behind two general reader explanations for why they enjoy m/m SEM (the absence of female actresses/characters in Chapter 5, the combination of sex and emotional intimacy in Chapter 6).

So, what reasons did Neville's respondents give for watching m/m porn?

EYE CANDY: The most common reason was "the seemingly unradical notion that many women find men attractive, and therefore like looking at them, particularly without their clothes on" (50). Women like eye candy, but eye candy is rarely found in heterosexual media. Thus, women turn to m/m SEM to get what they want.

Their reasons for engaging with m/m slash fiction were far more numerous, and include:


There are far more male characters in popular culture than female ones (especially in the 1970s and 80s, when many of the study's respondents were growing up), so "many of the characters I care about most are male" (84). Since many slash readers prefer to read about characters they already know and care about, those characters end up being largely male.


Homosocial partnership between males has far older culture roots than does heterosexual romance, which only emerged during the age of chivalry. Friendships between men, then, are held up as more noble, self-sacrificing, and worthy than friendships between women, or friendships between men and women. "All that slash fans do, then, is observe the homosociality they see all around them, and choose to frame it as homosexuality. Unlike others, they do not presume heterosexuality" (91). Additionally, men don't have to change in order to be with other men, unlike much traditional romance, where women must "often drop everything to be supported by him" (94).


According to media scholar Henry Jenkins, "Fans operate from a position of cultural marginality and social weakness.... [They] lack direct access to the means of commercial cultural productions and have only the most limited resources with which to influence the entertainment industry's decisions" (Neville 97). And also, sneaking into privileged ground to poach is part of the thrill (101).


Written primarily by women, produced, distributed, and consumed primarily by women, slash is "both resistance and creative appropriation" and as such, is overtly political (103).


Slash doesn't raise some of the moral and ethical problems that readers and writers often have with visual pornography. There are no real people, no actual bodies involved, so there are no concerns over exploitation or coercion. And since slash circulates for free, there is no issue of capitalist exploitation to worry over (107)


Neville devotes an entire chapter to this issue, with its many nuances and valences. Here are the main reasons she suggests her respondents enjoyed not seeing women in their SEM:

Don't Hurt Her: As Clarissa Smith notes, "female consumers of pornography are constantly dogged by questions of harm, subordination, objectification, and authenticity, and the need to consider women's well-being before their own pleasures in watching porn." Neville finds that for many of her respondents, engaging with m/m SEM "is a way to sidestep some of these questions and start putting their own desires first" (155-56). In particular, "entrenched notions about power and submission with regards to penetration" in porn are hard to evade when there are female bodies on display, but in "m/m SEM men are doing things to or with other men—there is no woman to potentially feel bad for" (157).

My Sexual Pleasure Shouldn't Be Someone Else's Work: Many women, although they do not have a problem with sex work per se, are reluctant to consume sex for their own pleasure knowing that the sex they are watching was performed as work.

Don't Trigger Me: For women who have experienced rape or sexual assault, it can be triggering or re-traumatizing to see a woman in sexually explicit materials.

Female Bodies are Upsetting/Gross: Some women dislike seeing the female body in sexually explicit materials, either because they don't like to think about their own bodily perfections, or because they find female genitalia and sexuality "actively unpleasant" (158)

"It's Hard to Miss a Hard-On": You can't "see" female arousal with the same ease that you can see male arousal. There isn't any visual correlate to the erect penis or "come shot" for women. How can you enjoy pleasure if you can't see it? (145-9)

Same Body, Better Pleasure: Many study participants also believed that "same-sex partners are more proficient at pleasuring each other because of their familiarity with their own (male) bodies and preferences" (161)

Power Dynamics: One study Neville mentions found that "female sexual arousal in response to SEM is facilitated when participants perceive their identification figure as being in control of, or dominating, the sexual interaction." Neville goes on to report that "a lot of the women I spoke to struggle to find this in m/f SEM, either written or visual." But m/m SEM requires that they identify with a man, which allows them to identify with the controlling figure (162)

Unsexy Feminists: Neville quotes Judith Butler to explain this one: "among gay men, a certain focus on pleasure and sexuality that [i]sn't always available in women's communities highly mediated by feminism" (quoted in Neville p. 165)

Equality: Study respondents discussed a sense of equality between men that is often lacking between men and women. "This dynamic can in and of itself, be extremely erotic for some women" (165)

Payback: A small number of respondents enjoyed the fact that m/m SEM objectifies male bodies, which serves "as a form of payback for women's objectification in patriarchal culture as a whole" (180). As one respondent notes, "There's a little thrill of revenge when reading about men getting abused just like women. It's nasty, but it makes one feel better about the general situation of women in society to remember that this can happen to men, too" (181)


In chapter 6, Neville discusses one additional reason why female readers enjoy m/m SEM: "intimatopia." "For many of the women I spoke to, porn and love are not polar opposites. Instead, it is the fusion of these two things that gives them the most pleasure: sexually and emotionally" (191).  Neville refers here to Elizabeth Woledge's 2006 coinage of the term "intimatopia" to describe the fantasy world of certain types of slash fiction, a fantasy space which allows both sexually charged relationships and a high degree of sustained emotional connection. Woledge argues that while romance and porn "seek to separate sex and intimacy," slash fiction brings them together (212-213).

For those of you who read m/m romance, do any of these reasons strike a chord with you? And are there other reasons you enjoy m/m romance that Neville's focus on SEM failed to capture?

Photo credits:
• Bromance: Inside Hook
• Revenge & Payback: Photobucket

Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys:
Women and Gay Male Pornography and Erotica
Palgrave/Macmillan, 2018