Amazon’s top-twenty best-seller list in the romance genre doesn’t exactly sparkle with heady tales of multicultural romances. Sci-fi romance is on the list, but I wasn’t so much thinking of love affairs between blue aliens with horns and nubile females, though its popularity ought to at least hint of a reader’s desire for stories other than between two white heterosexuals.
Nor do their titles feature gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people as romantic protagonists. More the vanilla flavoured; we’ll get to the Neapolitan, same sex multicultural romances later. To put it another way, the lack of diversity is astonishing given our interconnected world, migration patterns, and the ethnic melting pots we love to call our global communities.
Why should this be? Surely it’s the writers’ role to reflect and challenge how we think about the world. If not us, then who?
One reason is because the vast majority, about ninety-five percent as a matter of fact, of romance novels that get published are written by established white authors about white heterosexual people. It’s also true that the largest organisation of romance writers, the Romance Writers of America, has a white membership of almost ninety percent. Another, related, reason is because the rich history of romance books dating from at least the Bronte sisters, to Barbara Cartland’s “penny dreadfuls,” through to Danielle Steele, as well as many other well-established authors, defined the genre decades ago.
The third reason is more prosaic, yet important. The major publishers seldom take on a new author with an uncomfortable backstory. Romantic authors seeking to challenge the conventional wisdom are often forced to self-publish, and big retailers like K-Mart and Target won’t take a risk on up-and-coming writers taking issue with the status quo. Books that are seen as risky don’t get picked up by bricks and mortar retailers, and then fail to sell, reinforcing the problem.
There are signs publishers are broadening their acceptance of our changing times. More ethnically and sexually diverse writers are forcing their way into the genre, influencing readers’ tastes – and the bottom-line calculations of publishers. Progress is slow, though today’s romance novels now offer sub-categories like horror, cowboy, historical and military romance, as well as the alien encounters of science fiction I mentioned before. Even so, the lovers are usually still restricted to a limited range of terrestrial ethnic and cultural stereotypes. There aren’t many star-struck or star-crossed lovers with mental or physical disabilities either.
If the rule-of-thumb is that readers want books that reflect the world they live in, or want to escape from in the case of sci-fi, they are beginning to vote with their feet – and wallets. I’m suggesting it’s not enough to have the currently successful authors “write more diversely,” which has been the response of the literary elite. It will be the fresh take on the genre that a new breed of multicultural romantic authors bring who will be the harbingers of change. Authors like Courtney Milan, Delaney Diamond, and Helen Hoang with their interracial, gay couples, transgender, disabled, and bisexual characters who may well be the future of romance in the years ahead.
Now, I get that Gone With the Wind would not have been such a hit with a romance between Rhett Butler and Prissy, the ditsy, subversive, slave girl who sweeps through the first part of the film like a whirlwind. Even less likely between Scarlett and Prissy. A love affair which would never have made it into a book and guaranteed Margaret Mitchell – or Prissy more likely – being strung up from a tree by the KKK of the time.
But seventy-five years on, isn’t it about time some decent – or epic – multicultural romances of that grandeur made their way into the pages of a novel?
Check out my new novel,The Diary of Katy Yehonala, a great multicultural romance novel – plus an interesting life story. Katy’s a girl who follows her destiny, like we all can.
Robert Barclay is an Australian author of the best Australian crime/mystery novels. His Australian romance novels and stories follow the lives of Katy Yehonala and her daughter, Clara, his strong female protagonists as they confront the evils of society.
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