Monday, February 23, 2015

On diversity in romance: a statement of intent

I’ve been preoccupied for a number of weeks by a key point of synchronicity in two communities I follow online: medievalist scholars and romance enthusiasts. Both groups are heavily engaged at present in discussions of practices that promote diversity and inclusion.

So I wanted to take this opportunity to make explicit my own commitment to diversity in romance—as a reader, blogger, and scholar.

When I was growing up, most of the romances I encountered featured white, straight, Christian protagonists. And, as far as I knew, they were pretty much all written by white, straight, Christian women. Some of these books did feature non-white protagonists, but they were often portrayed as an exotic Other in well-worn stereotypes (the “savage” Indian warrior, the desert sheik, etc.).  Some of these depictions were sympathetic, or aimed to be, but most fell short of true sensitivity and inclusiveness.

I was limited in the ’90s to the paperbacks my mother purchased, and she in turn was constrained by whatever the bookstore was willing to stock. And in those days, access to author information was much more limited. There were fewer author websites, and sometimes there wasn’t even an author photo in the back of the book; all I had to go on was a probable pseudonym. So it would have been difficult to know whether I was reading diversely, had the idea even occurred to me.

Times, of course, have changed. Basic information about romance novelists is much more readily available online. Many authors write quite eloquently about how their background or identity informs their fiction. And the recent explosion of self-publishing is increasing the visibility of often-marginalized groups, including authors of color and queer authors. With the increase of access to information and availability, there is no excuse for readers of romance to not be reading diversely in 2015.

Romance is a genre of empathy and of identification. Every reader should be able to see himself or herself reflected in the genre, because love stories do not belong exclusively to those in privileged groups. Moreover, writers of talent and vision deserve recognition, and those who belong to minority groups are all too often overlooked or discounted, whether by readers, publishers, critics, or scholars.

I want this blog to be an inclusive space that accounts for the tremendous diversity of the romance genre, both in terms of its content and its creators. What does that mean pragmatically for me as a scholar who blogs on romance? It means making sure that authors of color and queer authors are represented in my posts. It also entails accounting for other identity markers that may be relevant to either author or text, such as religion, age, disability, class, and nationality.  And, critically, it means recognizing the role of intersectionality between and among these identities.

Here is my working statement of intent:
  • I will make a concerted effort to read and analyze books by authors who are diverse in terms of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, country or region, disability, and language.
  • I will make a concerted effort to read and analyze books whose main characters are diverse, whether or not that diversity is directly thematized in the story.
  • I will engage with the work of diverse scholars and critics, and will acknowledge their contributions to my own scholarship.
  • I will work to ensure that readers of this blog feel welcome and valued, and will respond respectfully and receptively when an interlocutor lets me know I’ve been offensive or gotten something wrong.

Diversity in romance is not my central mission. (If you are interested in a resource that deals predominantly with this topic, I recommend the review site Love in the Margins.) But as a scholar whose goals include promoting the genre to a wider readership, it is important to me that romance’s full spectrum be represented in such discussions. Romance has become a diverse genre, and Penetrating Analysis needs to reflect that diversity.

Because I post once a week, I can’t address all of the above-mentioned areas of diversity immediately. So please watch this space in the coming months to evaluate how well I am honoring my commitment over the long haul. And if you notice a glaring lacuna, or have an idea for a post in this vein, please don’t hesitate to let me know. Promoting diversity in romance must be a collaborative effort, and it needs plenty of partners and allies.   


  1. Sorry for being so late to the party but this is OMG awesome. Kudos.

  2. The romance genre is my favorite literary escape, both to read and to write. I enjoyed your article and will seek out more. Recognizing diversity has been unhurried and niched, but I am expectant that love will flourish for all in the pages stocked on inclusive shelves wherever books are sold or borrowed. Thank you for writing!