Love is for everyone. Modern romance writers are breaking barriers to show it
Published 12th February 2023
Love is for everyone. Modern romance writers are breaking barriers to show it
By any standard, Shirley Hailstock is a romance-writing star.
Not only has she penned more than three dozen novels and novellas, she's won dozens of awards, written best sellers, and previously presided over the romance industry's leading professional organization, the Romance Writers of America.
So, naturally, she gets fan mail. And there's one letter from 1999 that she hasn't forgotten.
The letter was from a self-proclaimed fan, also a romance author. It was meant to be a compliment.
"I'm writing to let you know how much I enjoyed 'Whispers of Love.' It's my first African American romance," the writer wrote, as cited by reports published two decades later. "I guess I might sound bigoted, but I never knew that Black folks fall in love like White folks. I thought it was just all sex or jungle fever I think 'they' call it. Silly of me. Love is love no matter what color or religion or nationality, as sex is sex. I guess the media has a lot to do with it."
"It just floored me," Hailstock told CNN. "I didn't understand."
The letter went viral in 2019, making its rounds among the online romance community. Many were shocked, infuriated even. The letter was only 20 years old. Just three years before, Denzel Washington had been named People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive." Prince had built his career in the decade prior on sexy, love-making music. And popular sitcoms like "Living Single," "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "A Different World" had been showing Black people living their best lives, including romantically, for years.
"That is a little indicative of romance readership," said Jodie Slaughter, a modern romance author. "For a very long time, the bulk of the romance audience, being straight, cis(gender) White women, have found themselves completely uninterested in understanding the fact that other people who are not like them do in fact experience romance."
More than 20 years later, the romance genre -- one of the biggest moneymakers in publishing -- is seemingly more diverse than ever. Gay and lesbian romance novels have become best sellers, and covers featuring lovers of all races and shapes grace bookstore displays. Some characters struggle with mental illness (as in Slaughter's "Bet on It"); others are neurodivergent (as in Helen Hoang's "The Kiss Quotient."). And these are not fringe books -- these are some of the most popular novels in the genre today.
But, as some say, visibility can be a trap. And for authors of marginalized groups writing characters outside of the majority, questions linger. Is this visibility an authentic push toward a more inclusive industry, or is it simply a feeble response to societal trends?
"It appears that things are getting better, and that's the whole point," said Leah Koch, co-owner of The Ripped Bodice, a romance book store in Culver City, California. "It appears."
The romance novel industry has made baby steps
This is not to say that the romance industry hasn't changed at all since Hailstock received that fan letter.
Concepts like consent and agency have become a lot more important in recent years, Hoang -- who has written multiple romance best sellers -- pointed out. When she first started reading the genre, protagonists were suspiciously young and always seemed to be in pursuit of older men and questionable relationships.
Narratives featuring dubious forms of consent and abusive situations were also popular in 1980s and 1990s, she said -- particularly in historical romance novels. And older books tended to be more euphemistic about sex, with references to "quivering" this and "throbbing" that.
When people of color did make their way into early romance pages, they were often fetishized. One of the most popular romance novels of its time, E. M. Hull's "The Sheik," published in 1919, is filled with Orientalist stereotypes, and begins with the eponymous sheik kidnapping and raping the main character. Two years after the best-selling book was released, it went on to become a hit at the box-office, too.
That story has since changed.
"Modern romance is much bigger on feminism and just being open-minded and encouraging of all of the human experience," Hoang said.
These are, of course, wins. And the recent spotlight on more diverse stories in the industry is a victory, too.
Cat Sebastian has written more than a dozen queer historical romance novels since her debut in 2016. But before then, she told CNN you couldn't just go to your local bookstore and find LGBTQ romance novels. You had to know where to look and who to follow.
The first time Sebastian ever saw queer romance in a bookstore was when she spotted her own books at Barnes and Noble. But such sightings have become more frequent in recent years with the success of books like "Red, White, and Royal Blue," a story about the son of a US president and a British prince falling in love. The book became a runaway bestseller in 2019 and is now being made into a movie.
"I think it led people to realize they've been sleeping on an entire demographic," Sebastian said.
The change isn't limited to LGBTQ romances. Romance novels featuring characters of color were previously only marketed to specific ethnic groups. Now, they're being released by mainstream publishers and marketed toward the general public, suggesting another shift.
Hailstock, for example, recalled times when the only marketing publishers would do for Black romances was to simply send the books to Black bookstores. Authors had to follow up with information or material about their novels themselves, essentially making the writers their own publicity team.
"Traditional publishing has peeped that the audience for romance novels is not just straight cis White women," Slaughter said. "(It) is now very slowly, at what sometimes feels like a snail's pace, attempting to move past the older days when other readers that were not straight, cis White women were just completely disregarded."
This isn't to say that LGBTQ romances and romances featuring people of color didn't exist before. They did -- in feminist or Black-owned bookstores, in corners of the internet, in fanfiction.
But now, publishing heavyweights -- like HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Penguin Randomhouse -- are throwing their hats, and marketing dollars, into the proverbial ring.
Koch, of The Ripped Bodice, noted the LGBTQ section of her store has gone from almost all the novels being self-published to at least half being from mainstream publishers. In the seven years she's been selling books, she said, that's quite a bit of progress.
But there's still a long way to go
Society has been changing, demanding accountability and inclusion from all corners of culture. And the publishing industry is an industry like any other, with concern for its bottom line.
That makes public perception important, Koch said. In 2019, the Romance Writers of America, the industry's leading board, faced massive upheaval amid accusations of discrimination and exclusion. Its major awards event was canceled by the start of the next year, and dozens of prominent writers spoke out against the association.
The industry had just begun to include a splash of diversity and inclusion in its offerings, but the series of events put pressure on the leaders in romance. A splash wasn't enough; many writers and readers wanted a full blown tidal wave.
Romance readers are also getting younger, Koch said, and they're not as interested in the homogeneity of the past.
But public pressure has its limits. Since 2016, The Ripped Bodice has calculated what percentage of romance books published each year from major publishers and imprints were written by authors of color. Though the total percentage climbed from 7.8% in 2016 to 11.9% in 2021, the increases are largely incremental, Koch said.
Publishers are putting more money behind works by authors of color, Koch explained. Those dollars can go toward marketing and book tours, making it seem like there are more romance books written by non-White authors. Yet the actual number, according to her data calculations, has largely stayed the same.
"They're publishing the same number they always have," she said. "You just are seeing them more because they're spending more money so that you see them."
And some authors, like Hoang, are worried the push for diversity may already be losing its shove.
"If you look at the best seller list, you see consistently the same," Hoang said. "It's going to be White authors writing White narratives."
Efforts to make the industry more inclusive have simply fallen too short, Hailstock said. In 2018, Avon Books -- the romance imprint of HarperCollins -- announced its Beverly Jenkins Diverse Voices Sponsorship. One lucky winner, anyone who qualified as a "diverse voice," would receive up to $2,500 toward registration, travel and lodging to the 2019 annual Romance Writers of America conference. Winners would also receive a meeting with an Avon staff member -- though publication of a novel was not guaranteed.
"It's a minimal effort," Hailstock said. "(Publishers) think, 'We're doing something, you guys should be glad.' And it's like, one? Why should we be glad over one?"
Avon Books did not respond to a CNN request for comment.
People pick up romance novels wanting to see people fall in love, to be reminded that everybody is deserving of desire. If they can relate to the characters, or see some of themselves in the story, that can make the experience all the more validating.
But most romance readers are White. That means selling stories of underrepresented identities and experiences, while equally important, can be a difficult business proposition.
"My publisher specifically and my editor have encouraged me to write books that represent people like me: Asians and people with disabilities. I feel really lucky in that case," Hoang said. "But I don't know if it's highly lucrative for most authors to be branding themselves that way, which is a little sad."
Hoang suspects readers may unintentionally disregard a novel featuring characters different from them, either culturally or sexually. Publishers know this. And unfortunately, the books that get attention reflect it as well.
"Look at what's going viral on TikTok," Hoang said. "It's not African American love stories."
Back when Hailstock did book signings, most of the people who would come were Black, she said. When there was a White person, they were buying the book for a friend.
Once, Hailstock pushed back, asking if they would have read the book themselves.
The White reader fumbled, Hailstock said, replying with a stuttered "yes."
"You can tell they never even thought of doing that. It just didn't occur to them," she said. "I think readers are still like that. I don't think there's a huge crossover."
So where does romance go from here?
Some authors, like Sebastian, refuse to believe the genre will regress. The state of LGBTQ romance publishing now would've been difficult to imagine even just five years ago. Now, she said, you could read a new LGBTQ historical romance every week and not run out of books.
"That's what I want for other kinds of diversity," she said. "I want an abundance."
Still, romance publishing is a business like any other. The desire for new stories is weighed against marketability.
Straight, White cisgender authors are far ahead of other romance writers in terms of market power, Slaughter said. This makes it hard for authors outside that category to catch up, and she's unsure about where the market pendulum will swing next.
Either way, she said, marginalized creators will do what they've always done: Make art anyway.