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.”

Ripped-Bodice-Diversity-Report-2016Fifty 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.

Ripped-Bodice-Diversity-Report-2017

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.

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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.

An-Extraordinary-Union-AAR-review-chronotope

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.]

Duke-Unexpected-Bride-AAR-review-chronotope

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 Regency book was judged against a chronotope, not real history.chronotope-double-standard-historical-romanceThis 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.

Through-the-Storm-AAR-review-chronotope

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

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.

pew-study-readership-affinity-groups

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.

readership-compared-ethnicity-population

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:

historical-romance-chronotope-original-list

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

Save the Date: New England Chapter RWA Conference April 7-8, 2017

I’m a planner of novels but not an event planner. The whole idea frightens me, in a flying-through-a-narrow-trench-on-the-Death-Star-to-find-its-only-vulnerable-point-while-there-are-TIE-fighters-everywhere kind of way.

But when friends in NECRWA, the New England Chapter of Romance Writers of America, came forward with great ideas for next year’s Let Your Imagination Take Flight Conference, I wanted to be a part of their success. With a group like this, how can you go wrong?

An Inside Look at the Committee

These are only a few of the full-length novels produced by this talented group. Follow author links below to buy books. I recommend them all!

The real leader of our charge is Kristen Strassel, one of the most innovative and prolific independent authors I know. We joined NECRWA the exact same month: January 2013. Since this time, she’s published at least 26 books by my last count, in both the paranormal and contemporary subgenres. (In contrast, I’ve published two books in one subgenre.) The woman gets shit done, so it is not surprise we asked her to take the reins. She’s also a talented makeup artist by day (and sometimes by night, too).

I’m the vice chair, which means I give encouragement on vice to the chair. Okay, I can do that.

Jen Doyle is the registration chair. Before you say, “I’ve read Calling It, and this is one funny woman. Why did you give her such a boring job?” please do know that she wanted it. She’s got day job skills, you see. And she’s organized. I mean, have you seen her Facebook parties? If not, join her and two other great authors this Monday, August 29th, here, for the release of her second novel by Carina Press. Jen writes sexy and clever sports romance with small-town feels.

Our workshop chair is Stephanie Kay, who just released her debut novel, Unmatched, to great acclaim: 4.9 out of 5.0 stars on Amazon! Holy reviews, Batman! Steph’s biting sense of humor comes through in her writing, but it also makes her a lot of fun to work with. She’s passionate about bringing together the most innovative and helpful workshops possible. If you’re interested in presenting at our great conference, email her at conference_workshops@necrwa.org or submit an online form here.

Our agent and editor chair is Tamsen Parker, who writes emotionally intense BDSM erotic romance, or “elegant superfilth.” Believe me, it delivers on all those promises. Her experience as an agented hybrid author gives her great insight into all facets of our industry, which is why she was the natural choice for A&E. And if you could just see her desk calendar and washi tape, you would know that she has her act together. She puts the elegant in superfilth.

Kari Lemor is our book fair chair, when she’s not working as secretary of our chapter! She had her first novella published as a part of the Beautiful Disaster Anthology, and she has three novels coming out soon from Kensington. She’s one to watch, and she’s a super sweet person, too!

Finally, you’re not going to find this on our conference webpage, but here’s a scoop for you. We have two more committee members-at-large: Teresa Noelle Roberts and Alexa Rowan. Both have been incredible supportive to me over the last few years. Teresa is a veteran author of fantastic paranormal, science fiction, and erotic romance, yet she was kind enough to take newbies like me under her wing. I’ve beta-read her latest release, Buck, Naked, and it is a cheeky, suspenseful sci fi interracial romance with loads of sexy. Just dreamy.

Some newbies make a splash: Alexa won the 2015 RWA Golden Heart award (a big effin’ deal for unpublished romance writers) for Best Short Contemporary Romance. Check out the winning book, Winning Her Over, for yourself. She writes swoony romance for the professional woman featuring hot lawyers, sexy massages, and smart plots. She’s our resident perfectionist, too, so any typos in this post are mine and mine alone.

That’s the gang. We write different stuff. Some of us are cat people. Some are dog people. At least a few of us are bird people (including chickens). But you’ll have to trust me on this: we get on really well. It’s awesome how much we like each other, and this chemistry will infect every minute of the conference. You gotta come.

The Speaker Teaser

Did I mention that we have an amazing line up? First, there’s Joanna Bourne, our keynote speaker, who has no idea that she was a key influence in my own writer-origin story. Her Spymaster Series takes place in the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars—and, as a professional historian, I have to tell you, these books are amazing. I have one name for you: Hawker. You’ll find out.

Joanna’s latest novella is in a delightful anthology called Gambled Away, and guess what? Our Master Class teacher, Molly O’Keefe, is in it with her! (And check out that cover below. It’s one of my favorites of all time. I wish it was mine.) Molly writes historical, erotic, contemporary, and category romance—all sizzling. She’s won two RITA awards (a big effin’ deal for published authors) and some Romantic Times kudos, too. You don’t want to miss this chance to pick her brain.

Last but not least, we will be wowing you at lunch with Zoe York. What a repertoire this woman has. Small town romance? SEALs? Vikings in Space? Yes, please. And, if you want something a little more naughty, check out her alter ego, Ainsley Booth. This woman has got you covered…um, literally. I mean, check out those covers!

Sign me up, you say? Stay tuned at our Facebook page for all the latest information on registration and the workshop program. See this and more links below. We look forward to seeing you in April.

It may be premature for thanks, but who cares? Thank you to all the great NECRWA committees that paved the way, and a special shout out to the Board of Directors for their guidance, support, and enthusiasm. The current board includes Myretta Robens (president), Patricia Grasso (vice president), Jackie Horne aka Bliss Bennet (treasurer), and Kari Lemor (secretary, as linked above).

I could go on and on, but those books in your pile are not going to read themselves. Or maybe you’ve got audio editions and they will. Just go do it!

Conference & Chapter Links

Conference Facebook page

New England Chapter of RWA Conference Page

Conference Twitter: @NECRWA

Conference Instagram: necrwa

Mabuhay Love, Mabuhay #romanceclass

(“Mabuhay” means “long live!” and “welcome.”)

The best thing to come out of writing my Sugar Sun series—other than getting these characters out of my head and onto the page—has been connecting with the #romanceclass community. This is a group of Filipino contemporary, new adult, and young adult authors brought together by the indie publishing pioneer, Mina V. Esguerra (@minavesguerra).

When I first picked up the December 2015 issue of Romance Writers Report, it hit me right in the face: “Romancing the Globe: Filipino Romance,” by Alyssa Cole (@AlyssaColeLit). Cole profiled four authors: Esguerra, Marian Tee (@authormariantee), Ines Bautista-Yao (@Inesbyao), and Bianca Mori (@thebiancamori). I cold-called all of them (or “cold-Facebooked”…whatever), and they were soooo nice. They spread the word in their very well-connected web of writers and readers and, all of a sudden, I had a network of people who understood why I was so obsessed with a Filipino sugar baron and an American schoolmarm. (And a priest, too, but he’s book three. That apple will take some time to fall from the tree.) I also developed a very long TBR pile, at which I am still chipping away.

Just because these writers are nice, though, don’t underestimate their ability to get things done. Just as five women founded RWA in 1979, so Esguerra created #romanceclass in 2013. Eleven of her first 100 students published full-length novels. Soon #romanceclass grew into a lifestyle. The group now puts together classes, publishing support, podcasts and videos, book fairs, book launches, live performances, a stock photo service, meet-ups (last Sunday was April Feels Day), book signings, poetry readings, and so much more. Mina has even organized a full scholarship for 12 students at the Philippine Normal University! (She meant to sponsor two, but generosity from the larger #romanceclass community rounded that number up to a full dozen.) In the midst of organizing all this, Mina manages to write, as well. I’m not sure how, but here’s a Dear Author review to prove it.

The May 3, 2014, Manila Bulletin article by Ronald S. Lim (@tristantrakand) on Mina’s scholarships at the Philippine Normal University. By the way, PNU was started in 1901 by the Thomasites, American teachers like Georgina of Under the Sugar Sun—and do you see how we’re coming full circle here?

With American readers clamoring for more diverse reads, I wanted to spread the reach of these talented writers. For some, their primary market is already in the United States, but you may have missed a few of the others. And, if so, you are missing out. To prove that, with the generosity of #romanceclass authors, I’ve assembled a Mabuhay Love basket giveaway at the New England Chapter of RWA’s Let Your Imagination Take Flight Conference next week! That’s April 29-30, 2016, at the Boston Marriott, in Burlington, Massachusetts.

Conference Logo

Here is what it includes (so far):