Recently there were some lengthy debates at another romance-oriented site about race and ethnicity in romances. What I realized from reading and contributing to them (yes, I put in my two cents) was that things have changed a lot in romances since the Big Change. As almost everyone knows, about 30 years ago, modern American romance writers finally got a voice. They’d been stifled and locked out by progressively less relevant girl-next-door stories from American publishers that completely ignored the sexual revolution, or by harsh, sexist melodramas that British Mills & Boon (Canadian Harlequin) could sell all over the world to women with fewer freedoms than American women enjoyed. There has been no looking back since then. The voices of American women have strongly impacted the romance publishing scene, and, to the degree that American-written romance gets reprinted in other countries, the world. Romance writers have branched out into many different territories that previously were considered taboo. And then created new paradigms, newly acceptable standards. It’s pretty amazing. Romances are continuously developing.
But there still are some topics that are being avoided. Either writers don’t write about them, or editors don’t buy stories about them for fear the published book either won’t sell well or will cause a controversy. Publishers only like controversy if it sells more books. This doesn’t usually happen with genre writing. Instead, the book that offends gets pulled from stores, maybe somebody gets sued, and the rest of the world doesn’t notice. Contrast that to the controversy that sells political memoirs, for instance.
The wild world of epublishing has given many hot topics a place to be aired. That discussion about race and ethnicity cited any number of romances, mostly epublished, that feature interracial couples as the main characters, for instance. The traditional print publishers have lagged behind.
Meanwhile, over the years we’ve seen some additions to the romance marketplace, chiefly romances by African-Americans about African-American heroes and heroines. And more recently, romances written by and about Latinas. (I don’t count Native American romances because to my knowledge they’re still being written from the point of view of a white woman meeting a hot Native American guy, in other words, they are stories about the fallout of colonial conquest.) But sometimes authors who write about a specific ethnic group have been expected to use ethnic-sounding pseudonyms, as if a person whose name does not sound Latina can’t write a Latina romance. What is this? Reverse discrimination? And whose idea is it? The romance readers’? Or the editors’?
Most American romances still ignore the vast, very mixed ethnic heritage of our citizens. This is deliberate, to appeal to the widest possible romance audience. And I think the part that bothers me the most is the blandness of the characters’ names. Everybody is Matt or Jessica, and they all have essentially middle-of-the-road, vaguely Anglo-Saxon last names. There are a few exceptions here and there, but mostly these exceptions prove the rule, because the “unusual” name indicates an unusual cultural heritage that’s going to be important to the plot. Never mind that in any phone book of any major city in America you can find all kinds of names; in romances, you don’t. If a character has a Spanish name, he or she is going to be Spanish. If, as in the case of a couple of romances that I’ve read, the names are clearly Jewish, then they’re in the diamond trade. A lousy cliché. The only Armenian I’ve seen in a category romance was a rug dealer. Sigh. And so it goes. Yes, we’re seeing more feisty Italians from big, noisy families. The Godfather movies brought Italian families—well, not quite the type one sees in romances—into national prominence. And yes, there are the Irish. But 150 years after being despised immigrants, the Irish are considered more charming than ethnic in this country. They have assimilated to the point that having an Irish character doesn’t mean that the heroine’s brother is a priest and her sister is a nun. Yet in romances written 100 years ago by and about Irish-Americans, those types of characters were common.
Chick lit, which is women-oriented fiction but is not considered technically romance, has definitely broken the name and ethnic heritage barrier. Lots of chick lit heroines are Jewish, or Italian, or Latina, or Eastern European. And they revel in their multicultural heritage and aren’t cliché types. Do we need more? Of course. Do we need to cross ethnic boundaries and delve into conflicts arising from ethnic differences? Why not, if it makes a good story?
But first, romance writers can start small, by daring to use names for their characters and pseudonyms as authors that proclaim something other than a whitebread cultural heritage. Let’s see Polish and French and Korean names. And let’s see another enduring cultural heritage, ethnic food. Have the otherwise bland heroine long for the oil crust apple pie made by her Pennsylvania Dutch great-grandmother. Allow characters to enjoy eating a kosher hot dog from Nathan’s in Coney Island. Make it a plot point to have the hero bring Russian Easter bread to a gathering.
America is full of interesting people with interesting family heritages. Instead of trying to turn romance characters into clones of each other who resemble some bland American ideal that is stripped of any ethnic roots, romance writers need to find the individualism of their characters and help show the world that it is appealing. It used to be a cliché that first-generation Americans were ashamed of their parents’ foreign accents and odd ways. Not enough respect is given to these people who had the courage to flee poverty, war, and oppression to start at the bottom here and make a good life for their families. Can a romance writer make it all sound glamorous? Yes. A romance writer can make a name like Zbigniew Brzezinski sound sexy, too.