Monday, July 7, 2014

RAINBOW ROMANCE: Characters Are People Too

by Kate McMurray

As you’ve likely heard by now, BookCon—a convention for readers held during Book Expo America—came under fire recently for not including a single writer of color on any of its panels. The resulting outcry created #WeNeedDiverseBooks, an online movement celebrating books about and written by people of color. (By the time you read this, BookCon will have already happened, but the day I’m writing this, there has been an announcement that BookCon will have a panel on diverse books after all. So hooray for small victories!)

I have long felt that, while the struggle is not quite the same, writers of LGBT ro­mance and multicultural romance do have a lot in common. (NB: I dislike the term “multicultural” because I think it’s too broad and sells short the wide, wide variety of books found under that umbrella, among other reasons. But since it seems to be the accepted industry term, I’m going to use it here.) Here’s how these books are similar:

1. “LGBT” and “multicultural” are not genres. They’re categories of romance, for lack of a better way to describe it. In both cases, the books that fall into those categories can be of any number of sub-genres and describe a wide range of characters and situations. In the wider discourse, though, they are often thought of as genres, which pulls out and separates them from the rest of romance.

2. Both are shelved differently from other romance, which has the effect of ghettoizing them. I understand the argument for shelving them separately; if a reader walks into Barnes & Noble with her heart set on a contempo­rary romance about African-American characters, she can find it easily. However, it highlights that these books are “different” (though I would argue that largely they aren’t—love is love, romance is romance). This also keeps those books away from the reader who is casually browsing the romance section of the store. She might pick up a book with African American characters and buy it because she likes the cover and the premise is intriguing if it’s shelved with the other romances. She’ll never pick that book up if it’s in its own section of the store that she doesn’t look at, though. (And at my local bookstore, romance with non-white characters is mostly limited to a little rack of Harlequin’s Kimani books shoved into a corner.) LGBT romance is usually shelved in the nonfiction “Gay & Lesbian” section, which makes them even harder to find.

3. Both frequently get dismissed with reasons like, “all those books are poorly written and badly edited,” usu­ally from a person who read a few, didn’t like them, and has dismissed the whole category. (Yes, some of those books are not so great, but some are excellent. Take a minute to think about this assumption: a reader picks up a male-male romance, thinks it’s poorly plotted and shoddily edited and assumes the whole category is that way. That same reader is unlikely to do the same if she picks up a contemporary romance with heterosexual charac­ters that doesn’t work for her.)

4. Romances with diverse characters are important because they show that all of us are worthy of love and a happy ending. Lives change when individual readers see people like them in the books they read.

At RWA National last year, I had the opportunity to briefly meet with the then-president of the Cultural, Interra­cial, and Multicultural special-interest chapter of RWA (CIMRWA). She agreed that it’s a good idea for chap­ters like CIMRWA and Rainbow Romance Writers (the LGBT special-interest chapter for which I am currently president) to work together to further the causes of both categories of romance, since we face a lot of the same issues. Each has further unique issues—I think racism and homophobia are both sides of the same hateful coin, but they have different consequences in society at large—but we have a lot in common as well.

I think there are a few ways we can bring more attention (and boost the sales of) both LGBT and multicultural romance. Such as:

1. Shelve all romance in the same place so that casual browsers can more easily discover it.

2. Tag books well at online booksellers so that readers can easily find what they’re looking for.

3. Put your money where your mouth is: #WeNeedDiverseBooks is a great movement but it’s nothing more than a Twitter hashtag if readers don’t support authors of these books. Show publishers that there are viable markets for many kinds of stories.

4. Publishers need to step up and make room on their lists for more diverse books.

5. Writers should write books that reflect reality, and that includes worlds populated by diverse characters.

A note on this last point: I have often heard the argument that white authors are hesitant to write from other POVs because they’re worried about getting it wrong. All I can say is this: characters are people first. An indi­vidual is not his race or gender or orientation, he’s a person. Focus on the character, and then work on the rest. Do your due diligence, research, and get help from beta readers. (To me, this is especially important for books set in worlds with diverse populations, such as cities or professional sports organizations. You’re not going to have an NFL team with only white players here in the real world, for example, and a book about professional football should reflect that.) And think of it this way: if we limited our writing to what we know from first-hand experience, there would be a lot of boring fiction out there.

In other words, we do need diverse books, and we as readers and writers can and should work to ensure those books make it to the shelves and into readers hands.♥

Kate McMurray is an award-winning author of gay romance and an unabashed romance fan. When she’s not writing, she works as a nonfiction editor, dabbles in various crafts, and is maybe a tiny bit obsessed with base­ball. She’s currently serving as President of Rainbow Romance Writers, the LGBT romance chapter of Romance Writers of America. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Visit her at

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