Elizabeth: Spotlight on Diversity

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage month in the United States – commemorating both Japanese immigration and the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad – as well as Jewish American Heritage month – recognizing diverse Jewish contributions to American culture.  The month also includes the celebration of Cinco de Mayo – though I’m guessing a fair number of folks are a little hazy about what they’re actually celebrating there – and even a World Day for Cultural Diversity.    All of which made me think that maybe this would be a good time to talk a little about diversity in romance writing/publishing.

First, let’s start with some numbers.

It’s probably no surprise to anyone that, according to recent demographics posted over on the Romance Writers of America website, 82% of romance readers are female, or that 73% are white/Caucasian, but it may be more surprising to realize that 27% of readers are people of color (PoC).

Think about the books you’ve read recently.  Were 27% of the characters PoC?  How about the authors?  What about the individuals featured on the book covers?

If your reading has been anything like mine, those answers are probably all “no” or “not so much.”

For the past several years there has been an increased emphasis on diversity in romance fiction – at writing conferences, on writing blogs, and in the mainstream media.  The focus was generally aimed at getting writers to include more diverse characters in their stories.   One probably predictable result was an uptick in stories that had characters described as being of varying ethnicities but who sounded, acted, reacted, and generally moved through their stories as if their ethnicity was completely irrelevant.  Certainly there were authors do did a great job diversifying their cast of characters, but I encountered far more who missed the mark.

Okay, so what about writers of color?

It would seem logical to assume that one of the results of the increased emphasis on diversity would at least be an increase in the number of diverse writers.  After all, who better to realistically portray a diverse character than a diverse writer, right?

Uh, apparently not.

According to the latest “State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report” from The Ripped Bodice bookstore, only a little over 6% of books published by leading romance publishers in 2017 were written by PoC, down more than 1% from the prior year.  That seems odd, since a whopping 60% of the Top 10 Bestsellers at The Ripped Bodice were written by PoC.  There seems to be a demand for diverse stories, by diverse authors, so where’s the disconnect?

What’s going on in publishing?

One big reason there are not more books by PoC is not because they are not being written, but rather because traditional publishers are not choosing to publish them.   Some of those authors/books reach readers via self-publishing, but others do not.  Now, to be fair, some publishers like Crimson Romance, Sourcebooks, Gallery, and HQN showed good improvement from 2016 to 2017.  At the top of the list, 29.3% of the books published by Crimson Romance were by PoC.  That’s good news, but not for long.  Simon & Schuster, the parent of Crimson said it would be closing the imprint citing “changing consumer reading habits and the continual evolution of the marketplace,” just as Harlequin did with its African American romance imprint Kimani last year.

Say what now?

It is particularly perplexing since back in 2014 a Pew study indicated that one of the most significant book-buying demographics was college-educated black women.  In an industry with total sales well over a billion dollars, you’d think romance publishers would be doing more to support that significant demographic, not less.

Apparently not.

The diversity disconnect is more of a reflection on how society treats PoC, rather than something unique to the romance industry.  When doing some research for this post I was appalled to come across examples from authors of color who were asked to make their non-white characters white, so their stories would be easier to sell or to change the ethnic images on their book covers to white images.

It probably doesn’t help that those that work in the publishing industry are predominately white.   If you don’t have diversity in the people making decisions on which books to publish and how to position/market them, then it’s not unexpected to wind up with a status quo that remains stubbornly white, despite the changing demographics of our society as a whole.

A bit of positivity

There are some bright spots for diverse writers.  In 2016, for example, the short-list for the prestigious PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut fiction was filled entirely by writers of color, one of whom went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.  In the children’s book market, a 2017 study showed that 22% of children’s books were written by, illustrated by, or about PoC, up from a historical average of 10%.  Perhaps the children that read those stories will continue the trend by growing up to write stories of their own.

I’ll be posting more about diversity in romance publishing over the next few weeks, including a post from the perspective of a diverse romance reader, as well as some reading recommendations.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts on the subject?  Have you made changes over the years in either your reading or your writing to include more diversity?

11 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Spotlight on Diversity

  1. It’s even worse than that. While the female lead is invariably:

    – blonde
    – curly haired
    – short
    – clumsy

    fiction doesn’t even reflect the diversity of white women. We need proper diversity, across all possibilities (and not just Cliche White Woman and Cliche Black Woman).

    • Hi Anne. You’re right, even non-diverse characters can often fall into very narrow stereotypical types. One can only hope that, with increased attention, there will be improvement.

  2. Several years ago, I received feedback from my critique group that my characters were all white. Since then, I’ve put some effort into adding more diversity. As an OWL (old white lady), I’m concerned about getting it wrong, so I’ve also recruited diverse beta readers to help me.

    • That’s one of my concerns, too, that as a GOWL (Getting-Old White Lady), I’ll screw something up. As you say, though, it’s easily fixed. Change the demographic of my beta readership.

      The other issue I have is the genre I write. Historical romance is a double-edged sword. We want to be historically accurate (some of us, anyway, myself included). Yet historically, many white people have treated non-whites like crap, and were often been subjugated by their white peers. Yes, there were the occasional anomalies, like Dido Elizabeth Belle, but when you’re talking about dashing dukes and other ladies of the ton, there was very little diversity.

      I have read a few historicals that touch on this subject…the doctor is black and marries a white woman, or the son who inherits the title is part-Indian because his father married a local woman in Delhi. But to be historically accurate, they would be social pariahs at worst or on the very fringes of society at best.

      Then again, we’re writing FICTION. We can do whatever we want, right?

      Truth be told, what many of us write — even of white characters — isn’t necessarily historically accurate, either. I would argue that many of us tend to write 21st century sensibilities into our historical female characters, complete with their independent minds and strong wills. And I’m not saying that those types of strong-willed and intelligent women didn’t exist back then, either, but I think they do much more rule-breaking society-wise in our books than they did in real life (and perhaps they were more on the fringes of society than in the middle of it? IDK). Given that, I don’t see why it should be so difficult for us to write non-white characters into our books and give them something to do besides serve their white masters.

      The net-net of it is that I SHOULD add meaningful diversity into my books as best I can, and I already have ideas of how I can do this.

      • Jeanne, I was thinking the very same thing about the challenges of incorporating diversity in historical fiction, while remaining historically accurate. I’d love to see what you come up with to move the needle there.

        I’m t thinking increasing my character’s awareness might be a small first-step.

    • LOL Jeanne, I love the OWL tag. To you point, recruiting beta readers and other diverse voices seems like a good way to both see where to add more diversity and how to do so more believably.

      At the day job, I work in an environment that is incredibly diverse (where I am definitely in the minority). It has given me some really good insights that I would never have acquired otherwise.

  3. I’m a white minority in an Asian-majority culture, which is a whole different ball of wax from, say, an Asian minority in a Euro-white-majority culture. But, I naturally tend to gravitate toward international fiction.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that there’s a LOT of good fiction that is monocultural. For example, most of the people in Sonali Dev’s A Bollywood Affair are Indian; I may be mistaken, but I think they may even be mostly from the same subculture in India. In Stella Gets Her Groove Back, most of the people are black from the New World. (I think the hero might be African-Caribbean, but it’s been a long time since I read the book.)

    So, monocultural fiction isn’t a terrible thing (unless one writes terribly, of course). But does it reflect the author’s cultural truth?

    The fact of the matter is, I write sometimes to escape my life, so I don’t see myself writing about an American ex-pat surrounded by Japanese people in the near future. One part of me thinks I just don’t have the talent to make people *understand*; I think I’ve got a really niche audience for that.

    I do write diverse characters, but they’re just people, mostly. I try to do my research, but when I write a black heroine, she’s not going to speak to The African American experience. Just like when I write a white heroine, she’s probably not going to speak to The Old White Lady American experience. I just don’t have enough experience in those fields . . . . I have enough trouble just getting my characters to speak their own truths as characters.

    One of the hardest parts I have is timing. How do I introduce a character by skin color? The subtler ways tend to go “whoosh” right over heads, because for most readers (even POC, I’ve read), the default is white. And I am NOT going to write, “She looked in the mirror at her black skin,” or “She sealed the letter, her black hands a pleasing contrast on the white paper.” Bleh!

    About the only time I do anything with skin color itself is during sex scenes (I can speak truth to the leisurely pleasures of noticing contrasts there). Other cues, like hair, or certain art on the walls, don’t seem to be enough.

    And the thing is, my stories aren’t about The Struggle to be accepted in Society. My stories are about accepting oneself for oneself . . . or maybe something else.

    I believe firmly one must push one’s own boundaries. But, pushing isn’t the same as packing up shop and moving into a new realm of Social Education. (Nothing wrong with that, if that’s what you like, but it’s very hard to pull off.)

  4. Pingback: Elizabeth: Diversity Reading List – Eight Ladies Writing

  5. Pingback: Elizabeth: A Diverse Reader’s Perspective – Eight Ladies Writing

  6. Pingback: Elizabeth: Creating Diverse Characters – Eight Ladies Writing

  7. Pingback: Elizabeth: Diversity and the Historical – Eight Ladies Writing

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