Romance, Representation And You
So the last post I reblogged got some interesting comments I want to touch on, namely people stating that they don’t dislike Romance because it’s fluffy and feel good, but because it is often sexist, misogynistic, ableist, heteronormative and woefully lacking in diversity, which yes, absolutely, yes. Those are entirely valid criticisms of the genre—indeed I find them to be valid of any genre, whether it’s sci-fi, fantasy, young adult or otherwise. There is a shocking lack of diversity in our fiction and media—and not because people don’t want it or aren’t trying to make it, but because publishing houses and media can’t see the co-relation between what their marketing teams are telling them, and the actual reality that of course straight white stories are selling the best, of course it is, because you won’t sell anything else, that’s why there’s no sales numbers for anything else.
I worked in a romance publishing house for a good few years, I also worked for their erotica team, and do you know, not once did I ever come across a manuscript with a disabled person? Not a single one. There was also never a manuscript that featured a character with mental illness who wasn’t the villain, or whose issues couldn’t be Fixed With Love™(*vomit*).
The few times a story featured non white characters, it was usually “The Best Friend Who Gives Sassy Real Advice”, or so horrifically racist that our modus operandi was to nuke it from the office servers rather than try and deal with it because how do you politely tell an author, hey, you’re a fetishistic piece of shit please find God and change the entirety of your story so we can print it, (Answer: you don’t there is no polite way to tell someone they are a fetishistic piece of shit and you never want their work to darken your inbox ever again.) when you can instead say “Sorry, not what we’re looking for a the moment” and retreat to the relative safety of the slushpile where maybe, just maybe, a hidden gem awaits excavation.
And our publishing house prided itself on diversity because we had an LGBT section, and oh boy let me tell you I was so excited when I got moved over onto that side…only to realize, there’s no w/w fiction because “it doesn’t sell well” and 90% of the m/m fiction is being written by women for women and they fired the one gay author cause his work wasn’t “what was selling” and every bisexual character I ever encountered was either Actually Gay/Actually Straight, or surprise! The Evil Greedy Homewrecker who needs to pick a side, booo hiiiiss, grab your pitchforks and burn the witch.
And I remember, I remember looking to my senior editor who was also my friend at the time, a poly bisexual, mentally ill woman and saying “what the fuck Rebecca” (yes, her name was actually Becky) and she looked at me over our skype call and said “You want to keep your job? Deal with it.”
Because you see, Marketing reigns supreme, and Marketing doesn’t give a shit about people like you and me. It doesn’t care if the neurodivergent person wants to see people like them in fiction, it doesn’t care that people of color want to be more than just the friend/villain, they don’t care that there is more to LGBTQIA+ than the L and specifically the G, it doesn’t care if disabled people want to be represented as more than someone ele’s story arc prop. They don’t care they, don’t care, and do you know why so many publishing houses look down on indie publishing and self published authors and try to call them hacks? Because we don’t give a fuck that they don’t care and we’re doing what we want anyway.
Oh sure you get the usual “but the work is so unpolished, no one has vetted it, it’s just bad, this is why we need publishers to stop the crap from rising to the top”—and yet Fifty Shades of Grey still gets a multi-billion dollar production budget and to the top of the best seller list—do you see, where I am going with this? They’re not interested in selling the best they are just interested in selling, and we are living in a society that has a system designed specifically to a quite literally straight and narrow demographic. So of course XYZ stories sell well, of course they do, because that is where the vast majority of marketing goes, to make sure you buy into it. And Romance…Romance is a lucrative industry to be in if you can get the weight of that campaign behind you…but if you can’t? Well, not only do you have to compete with lack of funding and resources, but also the pervasive lie that because you’re not affiliated directly with X Publishing House or Y Agency, you are not good enough, and no one will want to read your story.
And that’s a bunch of baloney. It’s so much baloney you can slap it between two slices of bread and cover it in mustard because the whole thing is a ham.
Do you know what I would have loved growing up? (And still would) Stories about girls who liked people regardless of gender—and who wasn’t conflicted over it because people are people and gender is fluid and irrelevant to love. Stories about people with mental health issues, where the person is still loved and shown as functional, with their mental health issues, not despite. Stories about disabled and ill people who have fulfilling lives whose arc doesn’t revolve around being brave for simply existing or how much of a saint their families/loved ones are for putting up with them. And do you know what I get instead, even now as an adult who has worked in the industry that sells these stories? I get things like Fifty Shades of Domestic Abuse, and train wrecks like You Before Me where the death of the disabled person is seen as a romantic gesture of selflessness that sets the love interest free to fully live her life. HOW FUCKING FUCKED UP IS THAT. Oh you can argue with me all you want that wasn’t Moyes intent when she was writing it, but it damn well was the end result.
Yes, Romance is lacking, and yes it needs revamped, it needs more cultural diversity, it needs more inclusion, it needs so many things—but it also needs for people to not want to not write for it because it’s “fluffy” and cheap, like somehow they are selling their souls away.
I’ve got friends who have written amazing, diverse stories told from their point of view…but they won’t ever get them published because as soon as you mention self publishing or the Romance industry they turn their noses up. And they’re shooting themselves in the foot in doing so, because there ain’t no way a story about XYZ is going to make it in a sci-fi house, no matter who much tech you add in. On the flipside of that, I’ve also got a friend who has written about her experiences as a Black queer disabled woman and it’s filled with relationships and great life stuff and so funny…but she can’t get it published anywhere because she’s been explicitly made to feel like she doesn’t belong in the genre because her stories are too complex, they’re too different they’re too comedic…too…too…too (the list goes on). And that’s awful because Romance is a genre that is primarily about people and if you as a Romance house are telling me you can’t sell a story about people, boy are we well and truly fucked.
The biggest criticism of the Romance genre shouldn’t be that it’s too damn happy and therefore unrealistic and nothing but fluff. What’s unrealistic is the complete lack of diversity and inclusion in the genre that makes it so alienating that a huge part of our society immediately feels like they don’t belong.
And that’s a bigger problem than fluff.
So great, yes fine, Romance isn’t for you, you can tell me all the time that you don’t like Romance and I will cheerfully talk to you about literally anything else. But don’t ever tell me you don’t like Romance because it’s simple and fluffy when there’s a whole wealth of actual problematic shit to dislike it for.
And to you, yes you, I’m talking to you. You with the idea in the back of your head and the worry that you’ll never be a Serious Author because all you want to write about is romance and people and angst and fluff and also thinking no one wants to read stories about people like you: take that idea and run with with it, learn from your experiences and keep doing it some more and maybe one day we’ll have the publishing industry we deserve that will acknowledge you. But until then: Rebel and Do It Anyway.