A Sydneysider for a Week

#IASPR18 was eye-opening. There is nothing better than being with a room full of ridiculously smart people who believe that romance is important, intelligent, and beautiful.

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Check out the hashtag or look at Teach Me Tonight’s blog, which has summaries and links for each presentation. I gave my talk on “History Ever After: Fabricated Historical Chronotopes in Romance Genre Fiction,” in which I argued that the exclusiveness of the 19th-century British peerage chronotope—though fun when done well—can be harmful to the romance market as a whole, to the discipline of history, and particularly to authors of diverse books. Click on the image below for more:

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But what about Sydney you ask? How was the rest of the trip? It was amazing. I traveled light (carry-on only) so I didn’t bring my real camera. Crappy photos from my cheapo cell will have to do, which of course I posted on Instagram.

Before I sign off, here is the live tweet thread on Mina’s wonderful presentation for #romanceclass. Click on the image:

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Also, you should check out Book Thingo’s latest podcast, “All About Romance Lists.” (See what they did there?) It is amazing how much their discussion paralleled my own findings in “History Ever After,” and yet we had not talked to each other at all before they made the podcast and I wrote up my paper. Here’s the link to the podcast (click image):

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Now I have to get Sugar Moon ready…and I might have a few more surprises in store. Thanks for reading!

History Ever After: Fabricated Historical Chronotopes in Romance Genre Fiction

I was honored to be able to present my research and ideas about the fabricated historical chronotopes in romance genre fiction at the 2018 IASPR conference in Sydney, Australia. My talk, broken into two pieces, can be found below:

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Part one looks at how the bestsellers in historical romance are disproportionately: (1) set in Great Britain; (2) overpopulated with nobles; and (3) selective in their historical accuracy.

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Part two looks at how the aggregate impact of these chronotopes can be harmful to our understanding of history, to the romance market as a whole, and particularly to authors of diverse books.

You can also download a flyer with some of my charts and my bibliography by clicking on this image:

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Finally, here is a place where you can help me crowdsource books that fall outside this popular fabricated chronotope:

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Thank you for reading!

History Ever After, Part I: The Fabricated Chronotopes

Diversity of geography, time period, and representation exists in historical romance novels, both traditionally and independently published. However, mainstream bestsellers are disproportionately: (1) set in Great Britain; (2) overpopulated with nobles; and (3) selective in their historical accuracy. These three criteria define the most popular chronotopes.

Before we break down these three observations, it’s definition time. The Literary Encyclopedia says that a chronotope is: “A term taken over by Mikhail Bakhtin from 1920s science to describe the manner in which literature represents time and space.” I am adding geography and ethnicity to this construct. Therefore, this study examines historic, geographic, racial, and ethnic diversity within English-language romance sold in the United States and written at least fifty years after the events described.

the British setting

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I began with bestseller data for the last six months, relying first upon Romance Writers of America to identify the bestselling books by member authors and then doing my own investigation to determine whether these romances were historicals. This past April at the New England Chapter of RWA’s annual conference, Cat Clyne, editor at Sourcebooks, called the historical market “soft.” And this is partly true: in conventional print bestseller lists, historical romances by RWA-member authors are at most 11% of bestselling romances. They have the largest market share on the Barnes & Nobles Top 20, but in total sales that may not be much. As we will see later, the role of historical romance has a larger impact than sales on the overall romance industry.

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But let’s look at these 2018 bestsellers: 4/5th of them are set in one of only two periods: (1) 19th century England and (2) Scotland, in any period. Regency romance is almost half of the industry. The Regency, when Prince George ruled in proxy for his incapacitated father, George III, lasted only from 1811-1820. However, the era’s “style” may extend a decade or two on either side. Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, a date that should be the firm beginning of the Victorian age. Publishers still play with this date, though, depending on how they want to market a book. For example, Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas—a book that earned the title of #1 romance of all time in the All About Romance readership poll—is marketed as Regency, even though it is set in 1843. (More on this poll below.)

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The obsession with the Regency is backed up by my own survey in February and March 2018 of 336 self-identified historical romance readers. Respondents could choose more than one favorite, and over 90% of them chose Regency, with Victorian romance following closely behind at over 70%. More revealing, actually, is the fact that when asked if there were more periods that they would like to see used in romance, 25% said no. They are perfectly sated by the dominant chronotopes that exist. (However, 8% would like to see anything non-Western, a statistically-significant number because this was a write-in response chosen independently by 27 readers.)

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Critical reception follows the 19th-century British trend. All About Romance periodically identifies the top 100 romances of all time through a readership poll, and though this survey process was problematic from a social science standpoint, they do provide us with a current read on a longer-term market. Of their ranked top ten, six out of ten are historical, which skews high as compared to current sales data. Five out of these six are set in the 19th century. (The other is a time-travel Scottish romance. Ahem, Outlander.)

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The British Peerage

Another characteristic illustrated by the AAR poll is the obsession with the British peerage: five out of six historicals dealt with peers or lords and their heirs. Only KJ Charles has a relatively elite gentleman without a family title. Moreover, her book breaks class and sexuality assumptions that exist within the chronotope. This proves that alternatives do exist, and they do garner critical and reader attention—but note that this book is still not available in paperback and therefore will have a hard time making the conventional bestseller lists. And keep in mind that this is the only one of six that broke the mold.

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The 2018 RITA finalists showed a similar result: out of the seventeen finalists in historical categories, including historical novellas, 71% were set in the Regency and 24% were set in Scotland (with some overlap between those two). That is a total of 88% set in these two chronotopes. Note that 35% of these finalists have duke or duchess in the title—not in the book, but in the title.

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Neither the AAR poll or the RITAs are outliers: in the past six months, over one-third of the top 20 Regency and Victorian romances on Amazon’s bestseller lists have included either duke or duchess in their titles. If you extend that count to marquess and earl, the numbers jump to one half. In my industry producer survey, one author called this the 10,000 dukes problem.

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Several other authors reported that they had been asked to change the settings of their novels to Regency, and often specifically to dukes. One wrote: “Hero had to be a duke (again) to improve marketability. This is ridiculous. There were at most a couple dozen dukes running around Regency London at once, and they were not all tall, dark, grouchy, and in want of female companionship. Try telling my trad house editor that.”

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This author was on the money: there were 24 non-princely dukes in 1815, out of a British population of 19.2 million. These dukes averaged over 50 years of age, and if you have ever seen The Supersizers Go “Regency,” which is recapped at Just Hungry, the period diet would not quite leave one with chiseled abs. You may remember the era of baron romances, so where did all this peerage inflation come from?

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Mary Lynne Nielsen suggested this may be a symptom of rising wealth inequality in the US. The appeal is not just the power that comes with money, but the perceived security that this money brings. It is a similar phenomenon to billionaire books in contemporary romance, though it is easier to run into an American billionaire today (1:598,889) than a Regency duke in Britain (1:800,000).

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Despite the fact that Pride and Prejudice earned the 5th place spot on AAR‘s survey, Jane Austen is not really to blame for this duke obsession. First, while some claim their love for the historical romance genre stems from Austen’s work, she wrote contemporary novels. Some would argue, moreover, that these are comedies of manners with romantic elements rather than romance genre books. But, most importantly for our peerage discussion, Austen only mentioned one duke in the most passing of ways, according to the Jane Austen Wikia. Fitzwilliam Darcy was the nephew of an earl, the closest Austen ever comes to a peer hero.

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Georgette Heyer, on the other hand, was much more interested in peers, especially in her Regency novels. 43% of Heyer books have duke, marquess, or earl (or their issue) as heroes; and if you consider all peerage ranks (down to baron), 68% of Heyer’s heroes are peers or their issue. According to Laura Vivanco, the bestselling authors who shaped the modern standard of Regency—including Stephanie Laurens, Mary Balogh, and Mary Jo Putney—cite Heyer as their inspiration. Everyone claims to love Austen still, but do we love a Heyer-istic or chronotope remake of what we expect Austen to be, possibly based on our film and television adaptations of her work?

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Historical Selectivity

Let’s look more deeply at our Regency heroes and where they got their wealth. One author in my survey commented:

For bigger picture things, I hate that there’s so little acknowledgement in historical British-set stories where wealth comes from. They might have a throwaway line about ‘sugar’ or ‘land in Jamaica’ or ‘sent to India to make his fortune,’ but there’s absolutely no acknowledgement that this wealth is built on the backs of slaves or violent oppression. I don’t want every historical I read to be a history lesson on the evils of slavery but this refusal to even nod to the realities of historical fact completely erases entire continents and populations from their place in history.

For all the reasons mentioned above, it is unfair to pick on Mr. Darcy—except for the fact that Jane Austen gave us a figure: £10,000 a year. This may have been an exaggeration, but it is a number to start with. How much does this mean in modern terms? Well, it depends on how you measure the purchasing power of the money, but it could be a princely sum. Where did he get this money? Tenant farmers? Coal mines? Sugar trade in the Indies? Why don’t we ask?

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The chronotope is selectively inaccurate when realism endangers the happily-ever-after. Can you have a happily-ever-after with a slaveowner? (Yes, there was a 2015 RITA finalist with a Nazi concentration camp commandant, but I do not accept this story as romance because of the inability to consent in such a situation. I borrowed the book from the library to try to read it and could not get past the descriptions on pages 11-13 of their first meeting when she, knowing of the medical experiments the Nazis were performing, and afraid the hero was here to collect her to use in those experiments, still manages to swoon over his squared jaw and vibrant green eyes. Or maybe that wasn’t a swoon, but just her malnutrition. Ugh.)

The popular chronotope of 19th century Britain avoids such issues by erasing these uncomfortable aspects of history from the story. And yet the authors I surveyed claimed that accuracy was extremely important to them, and in impressively specific ways. For example, when was the doorknob invented? Ella Quinn will tell you that it was not until June 8, 1878, that Osbourn Dorsey filed the patent for a turning doorknob. There were no doorknobs in the Regency. Some readers who are sticklers will pan a book for a doorknob, waltzing before the scandalous dance was introduced, decorating a German-style Christmas tree in Regency England, or using peerage titles incorrectly.

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And yet no hero has syphilis. Of course not because it is a reality that does not fit the romance genre requirements. There can be no HEA with syphilis. Until penicillin was widely introduced in the 1940s, the recovery rate was 1%. After a latency period (3-15 years), the disease caused seizures, internal bleeding, physical deformations, loss of motor functions, organ failure, dementia, aneurysm, and death. We know that taming the Regency rake is a common trope—and where does one become a rake other than with a mistress, or at a gaming club, or brothel, where it had to be easy to contract syphilis through sexual contact. Honestly, though, it was easy to contract syphilis anywhere: between 8 and 15% of the general population was infected with this disease in the 19th & early 20th centuries. And because of the latency stage, you often did not know you had it. Doctors would often not tell their patients that they had syphilis, nor would they tell a man’s wife about his diagnosis, even though he was 92% likely to give it to her within the first year.

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And being wealthy or a duke did not protect you from this scourge. In fact, you were more likely to die from the disease than your textile workers, coal miners, or tenant farmers. Being young didn’t help either: based on records of Chester, England, 8% of our heroes should be contracting syphilis before age 35. But they don’t, and this is why the Regency chronotope works.

Advantages of the Regency Chronotope

Let’s stop talking about syphilis. Let’s be historically selective for the purposes of a happily-ever-after, character-driven story: this is “escapism.” One blogger  called this chronotope a “Never-Neverland mash-up that’s been dubbed ‘The Recency’ or ‘Almackistan.’” I have also heard it called a “wallpaper historical,” a ”costume drama,” or a “Disney Regency.” It is a cleaner, safer, prettier, better-smelling, and happier world than the real Regency ever was.

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Best of all, there are low barriers to entry, for both readers and authors. A reader can jump into a new duke Regency as easily as an episode of a favorite television program. It takes only a little marginal effort to start a new book, or a new author, or a new series. Because the history and rules are already known before the reading begins, the author can dive right into character development. The key research for the author is reading more of the same. One author, Maggie Mackeever, advised prospective authors to ”Immerse [themselves] in Georgette Heyer” and to “Read until [they] have the era fixed clearly in [their] head[s].” In other words, Regency dukes are commodities. We can buy and sell them easily on the free market—in novel form, of course.

Where is the harm in this? A good book is a good book, right? In moderation and with an audience who understands how this world has been fabricated, any reader can enjoy a Regency duke story. No single book, author, publisher, or reader is wrong. Read it all! But there are problems, in the aggregate. To find out what the are, read part two of History Ever After.

(To go back to the History Ever After content page and find the handout flyer, click here.)

History Ever After, Part II: The Problem of Chronotopes

In part one of History Ever After, I illustrated how bestselling historical romance is dominated by selectively accurate British peerage chronotopes, especially the Regency. So what, you ask? A good book is a good book. I agree: in moderation and with an audience who understands how this world has been fabricated, any reader can enjoy an exciting duke romance. I read everything.

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However, the aggregate impact of these chronotopes can be harmful to our understanding of history, to the romance market as a whole, and particularly to authors of diverse books.

Mirrors and Windows

A popular concept in the discussion of multicultural books is the question of whether fiction is meant to reflect one’s own identity and experiences, like a mirror, or provide insight into the identity and experiences of another. British peerage historical romance bestsellers are mirror texts for the dominant culture and windows text for readers of color. We need more of the reverse, too.

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This is not a new concept. In 1965 Nancy Larrick wrote up a study in which only 6.7% of children’s books had one or more African-American character. This was a problem for African-American children who could not see themselves in books as heroes, wizards, or just boys and girls. But Larrick saw another problem, too. She wrote that “the impact of all-white books upon . . . white children is probably even worse. . . . There seems to be little chance of developing the humility so urgently needed for world cooperation, instead of world conflict, as long as children are brought up on gentle doses of racism through their books.”

Fifty years on from Nancy Larrick’s study, we’re not doing any better in Romance, according to the Ripped Bodice’s State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report. Half of the publishers surveyed in 2016 had only 5% or fewer of their books written by people of color. While diverse books do exist, it is not enough—and too often they are published independently, without traditional backing or wide print distribution. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you publish only what is selling best now, then future bestsellers will be confined to this same limited chronotope—a vicious cycle. True to form, the numbers are worse in 2017 than in 2016: 10 out of 20 publishers surveyed had fewer books published by authors of color than the year before.

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Part of the problem is the lack of diversity WITHIN publishing. This 2015 Diversity Baseline Study by Lee & Low Books, a multicultural publisher that is minority-owned, illustrates the problem. These numbers do not include two of the Big Five publishers: Simon & Schuster (which includes Pocket Books) and HarperCollins (which includes romance behemoths Avon and Harlequin). Given the Ripped Bodice numbers, though, I cannot imagine their inclusion would make the industry more diverse, at least on the author side.

Last year, Penguin UK announced the new company-wide goal for “both our new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect UK society by 2025.” If American publishers tried this, they would need to target the following numbers, based on 2016 estimates by the United States Census Bureau: 61% white, 17% Latino, 13% Black, 6% Asian, 2.6% mixed race, 1.3% American Indian, and more. The numbers Lee & Low show us are far from such a representative target.

Everyone needs both mirror texts and window texts. We need them in different balances at different times in our lives, but we need both. We need diverse historical romance to be pushed with the same kind of institutional support that an Avon Regency duke book gets. Why isn’t that happening?

Misunderstanding History

Part of the reason is we misunderstand history. There is damage done when people believe that the chronotope is history. For example, if one only read the British peerage chronotopes, one might not know that people of color existed in Europe from Rome to the Middle Ages and beyond. Examples from art of the period not only proves this, but also that people of color existed at every level of society, too. Medieval Europeans discriminated more by class than race, a word they did not have.

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Images from the period, from left: Amazons, Le secret de l’histoire naturelle, France ca. 1480-1485, BnF, Français 22971, fol. 2r; Juriaen van Streeck, Still Life With Peaches and a Lemon Netherlands (c. 1650s), Oil on Canvas, 90.5 × 80 cm; Rosalba Carriera (Italy), Africa, (1673 – 1757); The Limbourg Brothers, Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry f. 193r: Exaltation of the Cross France (c. 1412) Illuminated Manuscript. All courtesy of the @medievalpoc account at Twitter.

And do not be fooled: people are getting their history from the genre. Bobbi Dumas wrote an article for NPR entitled “Don’t Know Much About History? Read A Romance.” She quoted Sabrina Jeffries as saying, “Everything I know about the personal cost of Waterloo, I learned from Regency-set historical romances.” Dumas also claimed that “Georgette Heyer wrote such a fine treatment of [Waterloo] in An Infamous Army that it ended up on a reading list for students at Sandhurst, the British military academy.” African-American author Beverly Jenkins calls her books “edutainment: entertainment and education,” which may be the most accurate way of putting it. “There’s no test on Friday,” she says, “so [the readers just] drink up the history. They just inhale it.”

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The Chinese School in Mott Street, New York, 1879, from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

But which history do readers inhale in bestselling chronotopes? One anonymous author in my survey reported:

I once was told to remove a secondary character who was Chinese-American from a book set in 19th century NYC because the editor believed having a character of Chinese descent in that time period and setting was anachronistic. It was in fact not—I could and did provide ample historical evidence of this—and I refused to change it because I believed not only did it damage the historical integrity of the work, but it also contributed to the white-washing of NYC history.

This editor should have known better. She or he may have even lived in New York. When people in control of publishing have such a warped impression of history by the books they have been the gatekeepers over, then we are in a terrible feedback loop of ignorance.

Perceived Accuracy as a Double Standard

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Perceived accuracy is a dangerous weapon, and it can hurt an author’s critical reception by people who should know better. Let me show you how this works.

In the AAR Top 100 romance novels process, there were no books by African-American authors on the original stage one voting lists. AAR rushed to change the stage one list after Twitter blew up, but they still left off the Romantic Times 2018 Book of the Year Award winner, An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole. I believe it is a particularly relevant example. First, AAR had the ambition to make such a list, so clearly they consider themselves an authority in the genre. Second, even before it became RT’s (last) Book of the Year, it was already a very, very highly praised book. An Extraordinary Union is the story of a free black woman who goes undercover as a slave in the American Confederacy to spy for the Union and falls for a white pro-Union spy she uncovers along the way. What an interesting story, you say. And outside the British peerage chronotope! So why did AAR omit it? Because they had given it a C.

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One of the reviewers questioned whether this book provided a “realistic depiction of the slave experience”? If it were realistic to the slave experience, there would be no happily-ever-after. There was no HEA for slaves. When history endangers the HEA, the HEA comes first because this is romance. It is usually a minor accommodation, as it was in this case. (For example, one reviewer claimed that the heroine Elle had “an awful lot of freedom” for her spying, but this same reviewer later stated that she would still have liked to see “more emphasis placed on the spy portions of the story.”) I should point out that Cole’s book was a very well researched piece of fiction loosely based on a real person, Mary Bowser. Its treatment of everyone—from black slaves to white Confederates—is highly nuanced and layered. It also includes a bibliography. [Edited to add: As pointed out in the Book Thingo podcast on romance lists, the real and harrowing risks Elle faced in her role as a slave were explicitly laid out in the book.]

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One month later, the same primary AAR reviewer blasted the historical flaws of a Regency duke book: “Ladies didn’t run amok unchaperoned in London, and dukes didn’t volunteer for the job without any prior introduction or connection to the lady in question.” She also wrote that “it’s awfully convenient how often [Max] breaks his own rules and finds himself alone with Sophie; and Sophie, country bumpkin, transforms into a sexually confident seductress.” The reviewer was “nevertheless charmed” and gave it a B. One reason this happened was because the reviewer the Regency book was judged against a chronotope, not real history.

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This is a double standard. Since there is not a pre-established model for diverse Civil War romance, An Extraordinary Union was compared to the inappropriate standard of historical fiction. No romance novel will stand for everything about slavery or the civil war. It can and should be a window into that history, but the world-building has to be done very explicitly to allow for a romance to develop between two characters and to make room for their HEA. Alyssa Cole’s Loyal League series is immersed in extensive research, down to a pro-Union insurrection within the Confederacy—an understudied part of the Civil War—but critics need to allow Cole at least a portion of the same authorial agency that they give to Regency duke stories. Overall, this series is more accurate than much in the Regency chronotope.

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But be careful: historical world-building also opens an author to the criticism of including too much history in the romance. This was true for Through the Storm by Beverly Jenkins on AAR. Jenkins HAS to do this historical work because it is not a chronotope that the reader understands before page one. But, again, both Jenkins and Cole include bibliographies in the back of their books. How many Regency duke stories do? And yet it seems there is no way to win: these authors are criticized for too much history or too little history.

inertia or incentive

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This is not necessarily racism, but are the mirror texts of the dominant culture creating bias, nevertheless? AAR is not included in the diversity of reviewers study by Lee and Low Books, but I looked through their site. There seemed to be 2 reviewers of South Asian descent, maybe 3. I saw no African American representation, though there were a few reviewers under pseudonyms with no identifying details so I cannot be sure. I do know that AAR’s historical categories only include European and American settings. They have ”Indian Historical Romance,” but it is about First Nations (“American Indians”), not Indians from India.

I do not mean to pick on one review site—but, again, if you aspire to poll readers and rank romance novels, your reviews and ratings do matter. [Edited to add: based on inquiries from an AAR reviewer, I acknowledge that other review sites may not be more representative. I did not break down the ethnicity and race make-up of other romance review sites, like Dear Author or Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, the two the reviewer asked me about. The Lee & Low Books study (above) shows that lack of representation in published review journals (also asked about by the AAR reviewer) is a significant problem. I focused on AAR‘s reviews in this study because of the visibility of the Top 100 list and the bias issues in the survey process, a larger issue that I might have to take up in a separate post.]

Still, no single book, publisher, reviewer, or reader is the problem. The aggregate is the problem. In the aggregate, if authors writing diverse historical romance, particularly authors of color, are not getting traditional publishing support (which the Ripped Bodice statistics show), and they are not getting critical acclaim because of an unequal standard, then they will have a harder time finding their market. They could have a harder time being mainstream bestsellers. And then traditional publishers might say “those books don’t sell,” which is a way to obscure the fact that publishing has helped establish a market that is unfriendly to these books.

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They will be sorry. Pew Research found that the most likely person to pick up a book—in any genre and any publishing format—is a black woman who has been to college. Reading is an inclusive activity. Moreover, the younger the reader, the more likely she or he is to be non-white in the United States. Yet RWA’s own study of romance readers and their membership is significantly less diverse than the nation as a whole. Diversifying the books in the genre should be a matter of survival for the industry—as well as a matter of variety and accuracy.

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Is there some optimism from my survey of 336 historical romance readers that they are interested in fresh, new settings outside the British peerage chronotope? If we assume the readers who answered these questions were at least as white as the United States as a whole (61%), then many white readers also want diverse books.

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Romance is a commercial industry, and readers can choose to read as they wish. But do they understand that their Regency dukes are a fabricated chronotope? More importantly, do industry professionals realize it? If they focus only on current bestselling trends, they will crowd out other books, alienate future readers, and weaken the industry itself by making it less elastic.

Change is happening fast. Vested interests are facing a challenge in one of the most money-dominated industries in America: politics. On 28 June 2018, the 28-year old Bronx hometown hero Ocasio-Cortez handed a primary defeat to the 4th ranking Democrat, Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and ten-term incumbent in the US House of Representatives, Joe Crowley—a white man. This is how fast markets can change. Ocasio-Cortez had no corporate donations and 1/16th the funding. And the New York Times missed it.

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Similarly, will New York publishing houses miss a similarly sudden shift in historical romance readership? If they do, we need to help each other find books that are a little different: set somewhere else, with more political plot lines, or with broader character representation. Help me crowd-source these lists on Goodreads so we can find the historical romances we need for the 21st century:

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(To go back to the History Ever After content page and find the handout flyer, click here.)