Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Updates: Romance Wiki Down; a TED talk on romance; Book on Masculinities and Romance out soon.

As some of you may have noticed, the Romance Wiki, which includes the Romance Scholarship bibliography, has been offline for over a month. If you go to https://romancewiki.com/ there is currently a message saying "The RomanceWiki is currently offline while we look for a new home. If you’re interested in adopting the wiki, please get in touch."

Jessica Lyn Van Slooten recently gave a TED talk about romance:
Many people think romance novels are trashy, formulaic, and anti-feminist smut. In this passionate talk, Jessica Lyn Van Slooten challenges negative stereotypes about romance novels. She argues that many of today’s authors are modeling a more inclusive, equitable, and feminist world through romance novels.

Jonathan A. Allan's latest book will be published shortly (it's due on 15th November). Men, Masculinities and Popular Romance
seeks to open a lively and accessible discussion between critical studies of men and masculinities and popular romance studies, especially its continued interest in what Janice Radway has called "the purity of his maleness."

Monday, November 04, 2019

CFP: Edited Collection on Consent, Diversity, Inclusion, etc in 21st-Century Romances

deadline for submissions: 
December 31, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
Susan Fanetti/CSU Sacramento
contact email: 

Not Your Mother’s Bodice Rippers: The Romance Genre in the 21st Century
Editor: Susan Fanetti
The enduring stereotype of the romance novel is the dramatic cover depicting the bare-chested, Fabio-modeled “hero” holding the swooning “heroine” draped over his arm, her wild hair flowing and her bountiful pale breasts swelling from her torn dress. Hence the term “bodice-ripper.”
But neither the stereotype nor the term have aged well. Though of course there are still stories written about brooding dukes and naïve duchesses, the genre contains multitudes. Romance is more diverse and dynamic than ever before and continuing to evolve in new, more inclusive directions.
Romance is the only literary genre dominated in every facet by women, and as such is often unjustly denigrated as “mommy porn.” However, its cultural influence is significant, and we would do well to take it seriously. In the twenty-first century, the romance genre is a billion-dollar industry—as big as the mystery, science fiction, and fantasy genres combined. It is an industry juggernaut, supported by and responding to a savvy, sophisticated audience that is culturally and politically aware, engaged, and active.
Moreover, while it is dominated by women, romance is not exclusively by or for women, and the industry itself is finally taking notice of voices outside the conventional cishet, white, privileged perspective the stereotype instantiates.
This collection will examine the position of the romance genre in the twenty-first century, and the ways in which romance responds to and influences the culture and community in which it exists.
This collection is under contract at McFarland & Company, with a planned 2021 publication date. It will be peer-reviewed.
Potential topics include but are not limited to:
  • The impact of Fifty Shades of Grey on the romance genre and industry
  • #MeToo and questions of consent in the romance genre
  • Diversity, inclusion, sensitivity and #OwnVoices in romance writing and reading
  • Broadening representations of gender and sexuality in romance
  • Social media and the “Romancelandia” community
  • The writer-reader relationship in the genre
  • The place of fanfiction in the genre
  • The rise of independent publishing and its effects on the genre as a whole
  • The explosion of subgenres within romance and the influences from which they might have derived
  • Issues of gatekeeping and claim-staking within the genre/industry/community
  • Cultural analyses of specific authors/texts/etc., or historicist analyses of the genre as it’s evolved to the present
Note: The focus of this collection is romance in the contemporary moment. Submissions that do not engage that focus in some way will not be considered.
Completed manuscripts should be 6000-8000 words (not including Works Cited or notes) and should conform to MLA 8 style and formatting.
300-500 word abstract/proposals with current CV due: 31 December 2019
If accepted, complete final submission due: 31 August 2020
Send inquiries and/or submissions to: sfanetti@csus.edu
From http://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/cfp/2019/11/01/edited-collection-on-the-romance-genre-in-the-21st-century (via the Romance Scholar Listserv)

Monday, September 16, 2019

Romance Research Wins Award at BGSU

From the BGSU website:
Bowling Green State University Libraries announced that Elizabeth Brownlow, a Ph.D. student in American Culture Studies, has been named as the 2019 recipient of The Roberta Gellis Memorial Paper Award. Brownlow’s paper “Distinguishing Feminist Readerships and Shaping Genre in the Online Community Romance Novels for Feminists” explores the ways in which “community members resist the image of the “typical” romance reader and the stigma attached to it by engaging with the genre through feminist critique and the sharing of personal experience to “save face” in a world that tells them one cannot be both feminist and a romance reader.” The Roberta Gellis Memorial Award honors the best graduate and undergraduate papers written using the resources of the Ray & Pat Browne Library for Popular Culture Studies and pertaining to the fields of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, or romance fiction.
Brownlow gave a paper at last year's BGSU conference on researching the romance. It was on a related topic, and here's the abstract:
How do online spaces allow feminist romance readers to define and negotiate feminism for themselves? How do these readers define which romance novels are feminist, and which are not? In this case study, I will look at the popular romance review blog, Romance Novels for Feminists (RNFF). In 2009, Jackie C. Horne, a romance novelist, former children’s book editor, and literary scholar, established RNFF to review and comment on romance novels in all subgenres. RNFF does not explicitly state criteria for book selection, only stating that it “strives to review only books that in its opinion espouse and/or encourage feminist value.” RNFF’s reviews of feminist romance novels are based on a no-grading system intended to open up conversations about feminism and fiction. The reviews on RNFF allow for dialogue amongst readers, responding to both the books themselves and to Horne’s reading of them. This paper will explore the traits that Horne homes in on for her selection of “feminist romance” criteria as well as the traits that blog responders find most important. I will focus particularly on claims of sexist and feminist contradictions in these reviews. Moments of agreement and disagreement between reviewer and responders suggest romance readers are using online spaces such as RNFF to determine what feminism means to them as well as to form and articulate opinions on what does and does not count as feminist in the genre.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Scheduling The Sheik

There was a screening of The Sheik (1921) at the University of Birmingham on Thursday and today's programme is:

Friday 13 September 2019
10-11:15 – Academic panel on The Sheik
  • Pauline Suwanban, Beastly Figures: The Sheik and Fairy Tales
  • Francesca Pierini, The Legacy of E.M. Hull’s The Sheik on the Depiction of the Italian Romantic Hero in Harlequin Short Contemporaries
  • Respondent: Amy Burge
  • Chair: Melissa Dickson
Tweet summary by Ali Williams here. To summarise the summary:

Pauline Suwanban is a PhD student at Birkbeck, doing research into orientalist romances. She argues that the hero of The Sheik takes on the 'devil husband figure' that has been popular over the years within popular romantic fiction. She draws parallels between the 'devil husband' and the 'beastly lover' or 'monster husband' character that can be thread through myths and fairytales. Examples include 'Beauty and the Beast'. There lies within the Arabian communities in the novel a 'sinister promise of sexual material pleasure, as well as financial security for women who can tolerate it'.

Francesca Pierini's research is focused on representations of Italian culture in Anglophone literature. Instead of the 'Latin lover', she recommends the term 'Mediterranean men', as she feels that it draws parallels with the way that South European and some Middle Eastern heroes are represented. There is a focus on the perceived 'traditional' nature of these heroes, and there are similar discursive patterns seen within the writing of these heroes within short contemporary romances. Pierini talks about the importance of the focus on 'darkness' in these 'Mediterranean men' that is qualifyingly 'foreign', especially in comparison to the white Anglo-Saxon male. Often these novels seem to play on an assumed upon link between the Mediterranean men and the natural world.
12:00-1.15pm – Author and editor panel on diversity in popular romance publishing
  • Featuring Ali Williams, Ria Cheyne, Eleanor Harkstead and Jeevani Charika/Rhoda Baxter
2pm-3pm – Learning and Teaching The Sheik
  • A conversation with Professor Deborah Longworth and Professor Eric Selinger
Again, a summary has been tweeted by Ali Williams. Here's small part of it:

Eric Selinger was sharing his approaches to romance. The first sets out four approaches (Historical, Philosophical, Psychological and Literary). The second tool was derived from teaching Rose Lerner's Sweet Disorder: Improving Tale; Erotic Fiction; Novel of Ideas; Novel as Aesthetic Object. Selinger translates this as
  • How does this book want me to behave?
  • What does this book tell me that I might desire?
  • What does this book want me to think about?
  • What does this book want me to appreciate about itself?
Deb Longworth commented that thinking about formalised approaches like this allows the genre of popular romance to be legitimised for students.

3:30-4:30pm – Final roundtable and discussion – where now for The Sheik

There should be a special issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies appearing soon, dedicated to The Sheik in its centenary year.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Taken Out of Context or Taking Responsibility: Rape, Abortion and the Romance Writer

The Guardian has reported quotes made at the Melbourne Writers' Festival, in a panel session about Romance as Resistance, by Melanie Milburne, who writes for Harlequin Mills & Boon:
“Women have lots of options if they fall pregnant after a one-night stand, and marrying a perfect stranger is not one of them, in my opinion,” Milburne said.

Her discomfort is part of a tension being felt in some areas of the romance community in the wake of #MeToo, and in the context of debates around consent and reproductive rights.

“It takes a village to rape a woman and romance writers are part of that village,” Milburne said.

It’s a tension inherent in a genre – filled with women many of whom consider themselves feminist – that is regularly painted as both challenging and upholding patriarchal ideas.
Naturally, this reporting raised concern in the romance community.

Secret Babies, Pregnancy and Abortion

As far as the pregnancy quote is concerned, it's probably worth noting that Milburne's latest novel, Cinderella's Scandalous Secret, involves a pregnant heroine and when the hero "learns about her pregnancy, he's intent on sweeping her away to Sicily ... and marrying her!"

Unfortunately this novel has not yet been released, so it's not possible to examine it yet to assess how Milburne tackles the heroine's decision-making process with respect to her pregnancy. However, Kat at BookThingo has pointed to editor Kate Cuthbert's address to the 2018 Romance Writers of Australia conference, in which Cuthbert praised
one of the bravest acts I’ve ever seen. Earlier this year I attended the Australian Romance Reader Awards, where Melanie Milburne was the guest speaker. At the table beforehand, she told me that she wasn’t sure how her speech would be received, that she was nervous because what she had to say was controversial. And then she got up and said that after a stellar career and nearly 80 titles to her name, not only were there some books that she wished she could go back and rewrite, but that there were some of which she was actively ashamed.
Cuthbert exhorted the gathered authors to (among other things)
Write options. Secret babies are a treasured part of our genre, but unwanted pregnancies have serious financial, emotional, and professional repercussions for women without a support system around them. Use this plot point, by all means, but be deliberate in your choices and don’t romanticise it. You don’t know who’s reading. 
This is part of the context to Milburne's comments at the Writers' Festival. Moreover, as reported in The Guardian, in May, other authors have been discussing this type of storyline and stating that in such circumstances abortion should be seriously considered as an option and sometimes one which is taken:
The unexpected pregnancy that forces a couple into a marriage of convenience – only for them to soon fall in love – is a common trope in romantic fiction. But in the days after Alabama’s state senate passed a near-total ban on abortion, writers are asking themselves why none of these heroines ever considers termination. According to the Guttmacher Institute, an organisation promoting sexual and reproductive health and rights, it’s a common experience for women in the US, with nearly one in four having had an abortion by the age of 45.

“We need to start putting abortion in our books,” the novelist Liz Lincoln tweeted on Wednesday. “As an alternative to marrying virtual strangers after a surprise pregnancy. As a part of character backstory. As a thing lots of people experience.”
Rape, MeToo, and Romance's Responsibilities

Dr Jodi McAlister, who was chair of the panel, has clarified that "Melanie was explaining that romance has occasionally been complicit in the past with some narratives which are harmful to women, & she doesn't want to perpetuate that in the future. Out of context, it sounds way more dramatic than that!"

Kate Cuthbert, who was "the curator and co-programmer of a day-long discussion on the romance genre at a major Australian literary festival this past weekend" confirmed that Milburne had been "quoted accurately"

but argued that the quotes needed to be understood in their context:
the quote that is causing the most concern came as part of an incredibly broad & wide-ranging discussion on the genre, and its place in a #metoo world. [...] First, she said it as part of a discussion on the history of romance and how romance has changed as a genre from its past iterations to present day. Second, she was speaking to her own past, her own backlist and things she would like to have done differently if she had her time over. Melanie has over 80 books to her name, so she had some perspective to this. Finally, she was speaking to her own beliefs as a writer to the responsibility of romance genre writers, in the context of her own feminism and experience.
This kind of conversation is something Cuthbert supported in her speech last year:
I keep coming back to this idea of potential and obligation. Because I think this is why romance has been so important to so many women for so long: it shows the potential within all of us, and it honours its obligations.

Now, obligations are slippery. And in a genre as big as ours, they’re hard to pin down. The romance readership contains multitudes, and it’s impossible to be everything to everyone. And, as one cogent argument goes, we’re not the only genre. Why is romance being held accountable in a way that other genres are not? Why must we answer to this ingrained malice in a way that no one else is expected to?

Because it’s obligation. If we want to call ourselves a feminist genre, if we want to hold ourselves up as an example of women being centred, of representing the female gaze, of creating women heroes who not only survive but thrive, then we have to lead. We can’t deflect and we can’t dissemble. We need to look to the future and create the books that women need to read now. We’ve been shown our potential. To rise to it is our obligation.
Edited to add responses made to this post/after it was written:

Nicola Davidson: "I've seen the context, and agree that robust discussions on consent and culture are important and worthwhile. Doesn't change my opinion that the phrase used was an extremely poor choice of words, and as a rape and sexual assault survivor, I hope to never see it again."

Beverly Jenkins: "But consent is at the center now and has been for years. We’re basically leading the charge on that. I had a heroine who had an abortion."
Tasha L. Harrison:  "I get that it was part of a larger conversation. However, this kind of language about romance from a romance author creates this mentality that romance has a greater influence on women than the constant and consistent narrative from ALL genres and ALL media pre-me too."

Bree: "I still think she said something dumb, I guess. She just didn't throw us under the bus to a reporter."

Zoe Archer: "It's an ongoing dialogue and process to which so many are contributing. The positioning of an author as the lone voice of change troubles me and doesn't negate the shock value of that last quote about villages."

Jodi McAlister: "I want to emphasise that while it wasn't the best wording ever, in context, it made much more sense. It was part of a claim that, essentially, rape culture exists, and that in the past, romance (including the works of the author in question - it was a self-interrogative claim) has sometimes upheld or played into narratives which uphold this culture. It was also an expression of desire from this author that her future works don't perpetuate narratives which are harmful to women, and we moved into a discussion of some of the radical potentials of the romance genre. Taken in isolation, the quote in question seems quite shocking, but in context, it was part of a very thoughtful and nuanced discussion of the romance genre (something which was a great privilege to be part of, given the track record of mainstream lit festivals in this regard)."

An exchange between Elizabeth Bright and Elizabeth Kingston
EB: It takes a village to rape a woman.
It takes a village to tell her she deserved it.
It takes a village to raise boys who say no means yes.
It takes a village to look the other way.
And when romance writers call a raping love interest a hero, well…we are part of that village.
I have a lot to say on the raping years of romance novels, and where we came from and where I hope we're going. I also think it takes guts to look back on your own body of work and express regrets about things you got wrong. I wasn't there. I don't know what she said, or what she meant. I'm just taking the words at face value, and I don't think the words are entirely wrong. Feel free to disagree. If someone could explain why they're mad about it, that would help because I just don't get it.

EK:  Speaking as someone who has had to say hard truths about what this genre promotes (innocently or not), I can say I think she was just careless about her word choice. She made it accusatory, and crudely so, which is wildly hurtful to many people who are already hurt.

EB: I think that’s probably true. But we’ve all had things to say about old school rom and even some very recent ones. The response from Romancelandia caught me by surprise. Her choice of words might be awful, but I’ve heard similar things from many of the people shrieking about it.

EK: I don't think I've ever heard someone oversimplify it so drastically, though. It's very different than saying "we are complicit" or "we have contributed." It's a pretty complex subject and there are pitfalls to being pithy, I guess.

EB: Absolutely. Her wording wasn’t good at all, not even for the sake of symmetry of language. I think what bothers me is that it seemed like people weren’t angry about the phrasing; they were angry at the implication that we are complicit. But maybe I misunderstood their anger, too.

EK: No, I think you're right that the anger is about that too - that's where the lack of nuance is a big problem. Women who wrote those things were often doing so in an attempt to find a way to process their own oppression and abuse, not to excuse or justify or perpetuate it. So to take that tangled and painful history and turn it into something that reads like "you're basically a rapist too" is anger-making

EB: Now that makes sense. Thanks for taking the time!

EK: Thanks for raising the question. This is just my take on it, who knows if I'm right. And fwiw, I think there's definitely an element of "don't air our dirty laundry so carelessly to outsiders" involved

Dr Sandra Schwab: I don't know about you, but I've read a large amount of category romance from the late 1990s and 2000s, and yes, from today's POV, many of these books contain massively problematic stuff. The hero blackmailing the heroine to have sex with him or to marry him was such a common motif. The hero kidnapping the heroine because of some stuff she did or did not do, whisking her away to a remote island, keeping her there against her will and threatening her a bit until she has sex with him? Yeah, that happened pretty often. Punishing kisses? Yep. The hero thinking of the heroine as a slut because she had sex with him? Yep. (Of course, he later realizes his mistake, blah, blah.) In many of these books abortion was vilified as was the morning-after pill. And a woman wanting to have a career? The horror! She must be an evil bitch. Moreover, a lot of these novels were massively homophobic: The hero's cold fiancée turns out to be a lesbian (which makes the hero blackmail the wedding planner into marrying him...); the heroine's manipulative fiancé who makes her feel all unwomanly turns out to be gay. Perhaps the language Melanie Milburne used to make her point was extreme, but she is not exactly wrong: These tropes were repeated over and over again by many authors, and readers gobbled these books up.

Kate Cuthbert: As an addendum to my earlier thread, please see below from Calla Wahlquist, the writer of the article and a romance advocate in her own right. Calla was a moderator at the event as well as an attendee.

Calla Wahlquist: Apologies - I wrote this brief and it was intended to be a brief, a quick what we learned note from a few panels. I included that quote because it snagged in my brain and because I found Melanie so impressive. I agree that context is important and will update that bit.

The Guardian article has been updated to include a note saying "This piece was updated on 13 September to contextualise a conversation about consent in the Romance as Resistance panel" . The relevant part now reads:
In earlier days of the genre, she said, consent was not always handled well because of societal restrictions on women agreeing to and enjoying pre-marital sex. That made coercion, a kind of not-quite-rape, a bodice ripper trope. Romance now is clear about consent, but there is a legacy.

“It takes a village to rape a woman and romance writers are part of that village,” Milburne said.

It’s a tension inherent in a genre – filled with women many of whom consider themselves feminist – that is regularly painted as both challenging and upholding patriarchal ideas.
For comparative purposes, the earlier version of the article can still be viewed here, via the Internet Archive.

Friday, September 06, 2019

A Quick Post about Defining Romance

This topic's cropped up again on Twitter, so I thought I'd add something:

That's an author, Vannetta Chapman, arguing that the definition of romance should not hinge on whether or not the story has a Happy Ever After or Happy For Now ending, due to a preference for Frank Norris's definition. Frank Norris was (as pointed out by Ella Drake) a racist, sexist author who died in 1902; re romance, he wrote

["Now, let us understand at once what is meant by Romance and what by Realism. Romance, I take it, is the kind of fiction that takes cognizance of variations from the type of normal life. Realism is the kind of fiction that confines itself to the type of normal life" (215).]

Norris's definition is extremely broad and may end up encompassing a huge swathe of fiction. Indeed, as Gillian Beer has noted,
One problem in discussing the romance is the need to limit the way the term is applied. All fiction has a way of looking like romance and in a sense this is just, since all fiction frees us into an imaginative world. (5)
One way to deal with this is to add more subdivisions, as Northrop Frye did. His classification system is similarly based on a work's relation to reality but with more gradations. In Anatomy of Criticism (1957) Frye divides fiction into five categories (or modes), on the basis of the nature of the protagonist (whom he refers to as "the hero"):
If superior in degree to other men and to his environment, the hero is the typical hero of romance, whose actions are marvellous but who is himself identified as a human being. The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established. Here we have moved from myth, properly so called, into legend, folk tale. (33)
His other categories are "myth", the "high mimetic", "low mimetic" and "ironic" modes. [I've included a link to the full description below, and I've written at length in For Love and Money about how Harlequin/Mills & Boon romance novels can fit into almost all of these categories. By the way, if you're in the US, there's an auction starting on 8 September to raise money for RAICES and the Young Center.

One of the items in the auction is a set of Kindle editions of my two books about romance: For Love and Money and Pursuing Happiness: Reading American Romance as Political Fiction.]

Frye's romance mode draws on, but expands on, what is,
In the narrow literary sense, [...] the name given to a particular genre : the narrative poems that emerge in twelfth-century France and quickly make their way around Europe [...] These popular poems were known as romances because they were written in the vernacular, or romance, languages derived from Latin [...], as opposed to Latin itself [...]. These poems are typically concerned with aristocratic characters such as kings and queens, knights and ladies, and their chivalric pursuits. They are often organized around a quest, whether for love or adventure, and involve a variety of marvellous elements. (Fuchs 4)
None of this, however, is particularly relevant when outlining what the modern romance reader expects (and demands) from a novel marketed as a "romance". And given the sheer variety of modern romance novels, and the way in which they can incorporate elements from so many other genres, I think it's unwise to insist that this modern form of romance only "takes cognizance of variations from the type of normal life".


Beer, Gillian. The Romance. London: Methuen, 1970.

Frye, Northrop. "Historical Criticism: Theory of Modes", Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. 1957. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Fuchs, Barbara. Romance. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Norris, Frank. "A Plea for Romantic Fiction", The Responsibilities of the Novelist, And Other Literary Essays. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1903. 211-220.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Shaping Submissions via Omissions

As a follow-up to yesterday's post, I thought I'd expand a little on something Azalea Dunn has brought up: the issue of how publishers' guidelines and lists of requirements can shape which manuscripts are submitted to them (and, by extension, to some extent, which authors do the submitting of those manuscripts).

For example, here's Glenfinnan's page outlining "What we accept":

So, they're accepting
  • All types of Historical Romance: Highlander, Regency, Medieval, Victorian, Tudor, Ancient, Roman, etc.
  • Paranormal (historical, romance)
  • Fantasy (historical, romance)
  • Time Travel (historical, romance)
  • Historical Fiction (with romantic tones)
  • Contemporary Romance (ie: small town romance, inspirational, sweet, or a bit steamy)
"Highlander" is not a period of history, so this says something about the publisher's approach to Scotland and the Scots. As Azalea Dunn observes, there are other deductions which can be made about the kinds of historical romance the publisher is expecting to receive:

["I mean they say all types of hist rom, but look at what they include.  Eras that are pretty narrowly European.  I mean, they could mean other eras and places but if I was looking for a publisher I wouldn't feel welcome reading this. And they're not the first publisher to frame their historical romance requirements in this way.  Most of the time they use terms like Regency or they'll say Britain and its colonies.  Fine...but that leaves out a good part of world history. And it's subtle things like this that made historical romance such an unwelcoming space for aoc.  I'm not close to being the first person to point this out.  Harlequin got called out for something similar years back iirc. I don't expect any publisher to give me special treatment.  But, if the CEO of a publishing company is confused over why non-White hist rom authors aren't submitting?  This might be one of the reasons. Because if I have to read hist rom submission guidelines and wonder if they'll accept my setting, era, or non-White characters?  I'm not going to feel safe.  I'll feel like submitting will be a waste of my time and keep it moving."]

Which brings me to the final item on Glenfinnan's list: "Contemporary Romance (ie: small town romance, inspirational, sweet, or a bit steamy)". This suggests a distinct lack of interest in contemporary romances with urban settings. Obviously, "small town romances" vary (as Janet discussed here) but as Ridley states, in "your average STC [small town contemporary romance] [...] you have a fantasy world where everyone’s white, straight and Christian and problems are solved by applying Good Old Fashioned American Values." Which, yet again, is likely to pre-sort the kinds of authors who'll submit to this publisher.

[Tweet by romance reviewer Jen, February 2019: 'If publishers don't want their "small town" romances to read as idealized, white supremacist MAGA havens--- then they should stop making every [...] book they promote in that way be about white m/f couples in all white towns and authored by white cishet authors.]

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Racism and the Corporate Romance Buyer: a "little fiasco" involving Sue Grimshaw

There's been a lot of discussion about readers and publishers and who has the greatest role in blocking the publication of particular books/preventing them becoming a success. There's also been discussion about how the RWA awards (which can help boost an author's career) might be shaped by racism and homophobia.

Recently, another type of player has been under discussion: the corporate book buyer. In particular, Sue Grimshaw. In 2007, Grimshaw was interviewed at Dear Author and the importance of her role was explained:
Sue Grimshaw is the romance buyer for BGI. She buys for Borders, Borders Express and Waldenbooks. Since she began her position with BGI, Ms. Grimshaw has increased romance book sales for BGI by 20%. She is a fan of the genre and is devoted toward getting the romance books into the hands of the romance buyer.
Can you share a little about how you came to be the buyer for romance for Borders?
Prior buying the Romance genre I bought for our non-fiction and children’s categories. Five years ago when our Romance Buyer left the company for a job in NYC, I jumped at the opportunity to interview for the position & thankfully got it! I am a voracious reader of the category and read anywhere from 3 to 5 books per week. I totally love the genre and enjoy seeing authors succeed.
What is your role as the romance buyer for Borders/Waldenbooks? I.e., what exactly is it that you do!
The merchandising structure in the company begins with the buyer who reports directly to a category manager, who manages various categories in a segment of our merchandising business. Each buyer has a seasonal/financial plan that they build and adhere to. The decisions are made by the buyer then supported by the category manager.
My position includes all of the responsibilities pertaining to buying: purchasing and marketing books, placement in stores, financial plans, industry support, which includes but is not limited to attending conventions and chapter group workshops. [...]
What books are you looking for to stock in the stores? Does it differ from region to region? How can readers affect what is stocked in their stores?
To put it simply, I am looking for books that I think our customer base would be interested in.
The next year "Sue Grimshaw, buyer for romances at Borders for the past 7 years, was awarded the 2008 Vivian Stephens Industry Award from RWA." Down in the comments section at Dear Author, though, strong concerns were raised about the practices at Borders and about Sue Grimshaw's role in upholding them, particularly the way that romances by African American authors/with African American authors were shelved not in the romance section, but in the African American section:

Black romance
Borders tolerates and puts forth some of the most racist industry practices towards black romance authors with no reason or rhyme for it coming from Grimshaw who has been directly queried about it by black romance authors.
AA response
Borders treats black romance authors as Southern black bus riders were treated several decades ago. Plenty of folks said blacks shouldn’t complain because lots of blacks got to ride buses down South. Lots of folks didn’t notice blacks had to sit in the back. Some could rationalize it that black bus riders didn’t want to sit up front with the other riders anyway. And what was the black’s problem? They were on the bus too (carry a lot of segregated AA romance).
Black authors writing romance aren’t considered romance authors by Borders, but put in a racial category of fiction. The romance specialists don’t deal with the black romance authors. Blacks are not a part of Border’s romance initiatives.
[I've truncated the comments, but you can follow the links to read them in full.]

Matters came to a head recently because Grimshaw was announced as an editor for Marie Force's publishing company. Thanks to Grimshaw's Twitter account, concrete evidence was available of the kinds of tweets Grimshaw "liked". This was not simply about one tweet: there was a consistent pattern to the tweets Grimshaw "liked." Grimshaw subsequently removed much of these from her timeline but Ella Drake has screenshots of just a few of the liked tweets, which she summarised as including "likes of "Trump's [...] tweets, ICE raids, articles calling Elizabeth Warren a hate monger".

On 16 August Marie Force announced that she and Grimshaw had parted ways:

However, Grimshaw remained employed as an acquisition editor at Suzan Tisdale's Glenfinnan Publishing and the bio there continues to stress Grimshaw's influence in romance publishing in a variety of roles:

["With more than a decade in the publishing industry Sue has done it all. From bookseller to buyer, acquisitions and developmental editor with a proven successful history of working with New York Times bestselling authors ensuring accuracy and quality of content, Sue knows what readers want to read. Now freelancing with Glenfinnan Publishing, Sue manages her own editing services at www.editsbysue.com."]

Concerns were then raised with Suzan Tisdale, who responded on 24 August with a video. I have transcribed this in full below. Although, as you can deduce from her comments at the start, Tisdale would no doubt prefer you to watch her video, I feel a transcript is useful for analysis and for those unable to watch/hear a video or who simply prefer text. I've inserted screenshots of commentary, followed by the text of those comments in square brackets.
Hi everybody, it's me, Suzan Tisdale and I decided to do a live video so that you could see my face, hear my tone of voice. Sometimes when we write things, you can write one sentence that can be taken twenty different ways by twenty different people and I want to try to avoid that. So this is regarding Sue Grimshaw and the little fiasco, I guess is what we could call it, that's going on regarding Sue. This all started because Sue liked a tweet by Diamond and Silk. Now, for those of you who don't know, Diamond and Silk are two lovely African American women who are conservatives and huge supporters of President Trump.
[LV: Just to provide more context, Diamond and Silk have their own show on Fox News: they are not simply a random couple of people (lovely or otherwise) with strong opinions.]
The tweet that she liked was one where Diamond and Silk were discussing white supremacy. Suddenly we've gone from "Sue Grimshaw is a great acquisition editor, congratulations Suzan, great decision you made bringing her on" to everyone, well not everyone, to some people, accusing her of being a racist and a bigot.
[Jayce Ellis notes that "Suzan pointed to *one* tweet by them as the genesis of this "fiasco" (her words). Not the ones by Pence, or C. Kirk, or any of the 700 that Sue Grimshaw deleted over the course of a night, but the one by Diamond and Silk. And she made sure to point out that they're African-American. Multiple times she referenced it. They're ganging up on Sue for liking a tweet from BLACK people. Can you even imagine it? We're so often in publishing accustomed to people using Blackness as a shield. Well, my Black friend said it's okay. Well, I'm married to a Black man and have Black kids so I can't be racist. And on and on. This time, Suzan used it as a cudgel."]
And I'm here to tell you that Sue is neither of those things and I know this is going to piss a lot of people off, and I know it is, but I felt compelled to do this. Sue is no more a racist or a bigot than I am.
[Jackie Barbosa: 'True, Suzan, true. It's just that you aren't NOT a racist. I'm sure you don't see yourself as one, though, which is why you don't think Sue is one, either.']
She is a conservative woman but not the kind of conservative woman that you might be conjuring up images of. The last time I checked, this was America, and we were all allowed our political opinions and Sue is a Christian, she has conservative leanings, but that does not mean that she's a skinhead or a member of the KKK or an antisemite or anything like that. OK.

[Inserted screenshot of a response by May Peterson, pointing out that 'What people like you keep failing to understand is that it isn’t skinheads, Klan members, etc, the extremists that you think of as “truly bad” that are the problem—the problem is nice, normal people who support harmful ideologies and systems of society.']
She's a lot like me. We have conservative fiscal values but liberal social values, OK. I just don't understand how liking a tweet by two African American women who were discussing white supremacy makes anyone a racist. And it's probably going to surprise a lot of you but I have liked some of Diamond and Silk's tweets, I have liked some of their videos, because I, I am open to all opinions, OK.
I am a fierce, fierce, independent. I have no political party and I don't like discussing politics, especially in today's current political climate. Now here is my personal opinion, just my personal opinion on politics: both sides, regardless of what letter's behind their name, want us, the people of this country, to hate and despise each other. It boils down to a couple of things: my team's better than your team, OK. The Republicans want you to think that Democrats want everybody to be able to run around naked and bark at the moon, in public, and whatever, they just want you to think that liberals are bad, bad people, who want, you know, excessive gun control and they want to become socialists and bla, bla, bla. The Democrats want you to think that the Republicans are evil and they want babies to starve. OK. So, they've pitted us against each other, and they only do that so that they can maintain all the power that they have accumulated over the years. So when we're hating on one another, and hating each other and despising whatever political views, you know, the other people have, we're not paying attention to them and all the crap that they're pulling.
[LV: Tisdale seems to have produced a conspiracy theory in which politicians on both sides of the US political system are intent on stirring up hate. Be that as it may (and bearing in mind that not everyone involved in this discussion is even from the US), party politics are not the issue here. As Janet Lee Nye has observed, "Problem is not being conservatives or Christians. The problem is a history of problematic behavior towards people of color."]
Each of us has a standard of conduct and morals that we live by. Each of us. And it is not up to me or anyone else to tell anyone that they're wrong for thinking or feeling the way they're feeling. It is not up to me or anyone else to tell anybody how they should live their lives. Unless they're hurting children or they're calling for the annihilation of a race or group of people. That's where I draw the line. Those idiots can flip and bite me.
[LV: Re "hurting children" it's possibly worth pointing out at this point that one of the screenshots of Sue Grimshaw's "likes" preserved by Ella Drake includes news of a raid by ICE.
Many of those detained had children, whose misery was recorded by the media. And since reference was also made to Grimshaw's Christianity, it may also be worth noting that 'Mississippi’s Catholic bishops joined with the state’s Episcopal, Methodist and Lutheran bishops in condemning the Trump administration’s Aug. 7 raid on seven food processing plants in the state to round up workers in the country illegally. Such raids “only serve to … cause the unacceptable suffering of thousands of children and their parents, and create widespread panic in our communities,” the religious leaders said in an Aug. 9 statement' (Catholic Philly). More details of individual statements made by the religious leaders can be found here.]
So, as far as it goes for Sue Grimshaw, she is a lovely person and instead of calling for her head on a fricking platter, I would suggest that people try to get to know her better. There's a lot of misinformation going on out in the Twittersphere. Someone, I believe, said that when Sue worked for Kmart that she refused to buy books by authors of color. Sue didn't buy books for Kmart. She bought cosmetics.
[LV: As these tweets by Courtney Milan from 17 August demonstrate, it was Grimshaw's position as the romance buyer for Borders which was of concern.]

["Sue Grimshaw was the romance buyer for Borders, one of the biggest buyers for romance. She received the Vivian Stephens industry award for her work buying romance. She was capable of making a romance novelists’ career by putting their work front and center around the country. [...] And the corollary to being able to make someone’s career with favorable placement? Is the ability to break it by not buying the book at all.

We don’t know. We don’t KNOW. But for decades, Black romance authors heard there was no market for their work.

But we heard that in a time period when one of the major bookstores was being headed by a person where we now have serious doubts as to whether they could review their work. If you were not in Borders, you would not have a career."]
Now, as far as Glenfinnan is concerned, yes, Sue will remain an acquisition editor. When we receive a manuscript from anybody for Glenfinnan, we don't know who's written it, 98% of the time we don't know the author. It's just a blind submission. The only thing we look at, ever, is the manuscript. Is it beautifully written, is it funny, is it compelling, is it intriguing, is it written well? Those are the only things we look at, ever, under any circumstance: it's the manuscript.
[E. E. Ottoman observes that 'There is literally no single bigger red flag for me than a publishing professional claiming that they "only care about the quality of the writing" when talking about gatekeeping, systematic discrimination and diversity in publishing' and Jessica concurs, adding that 'This [is] dog whistle pitched language for "its not MY fault WOC aren't any good".]
If it is compelling and beautifully written or funny or intriguing or whatever, we move to the next step, which is reaching out to the author. And again, 98% of the time we don't know who that author is, we wouldn't have a clue what color of their skin is. It doesn't matter: what matters is the writing.
[Alisha Rai draws from her own experience to illustrate how "There is no such thing as a blind submission": "I heard this line a lot when I first started. But when I was submitting (my very marketable, it did pretty well when it finally was published!) first book in 2008, the repetitive feedback I got from NY was that I needed to change my character’s ethnicities and hide my own. I didn’t lead my sub with my ethnicity. I didn’t have an internet presence then. It was as blind of a submission as it could be. And yet SOMEHOW the acquirer could suss details like my name or the character’s races out! A mystery! So be wary of a publisher who says this. Maybe she means “We don’t know what color or orientation you are, so long as you write white and straight characters!” but that’s not a publisher you want. Or a publisher that can do their fucking job, which is selling your books.]
So I would ask everyone to please just take a deep breath and stop and look at the whole great big picture. Sue's not a racist and she is not a bigot. She is a really nice lady and I've talked to her lots of times.
And this is what boggles my mind: when I first made the announcement that Sue was going to be acquisition editor, not one person, not one person, came to me and said "Ooh, Suzan, that was a bad idea, did you know x, y, z". No-one did that, not one single person came to me and said anything bad about Sue. Suddenly, because she liked that tweet, suddenly, people are coming out of the woodwork saying "Oh, I've known for years that she was a racist and a bigot". Why didn't anybody come to me? If that was the honest-to-God's truth, why didn't somebody come to me? Nobody did. Not one single person. Because that's not true. It's just not true.
[Courtney Milan: "Uhhhh why is @SuzanTisdale gaslighting us? At this point people have talked about Sue’s editorial behind the scenes. I have heard from multiple people at this point that she explicitly had issues with race being mentioned in books."]

We are each of us entitled to our political opinions. Each of us. And gone are the days where we could have polite civil discourse to discuss politics. We can't do that anymore. The moment anybody opens their mouth with a political opinion, especially in the Twittersphere, there are a thousand people ready to jump on that individual and call for their heads to roll.

Sue is one of the nicest women that I have ever had the pleasure of working with or talking to.

Glenfinnan is important to me. We take all manuscripts. The only thing we're not taking right now is erotica, because I simply don't know how to market that. We will take LGBTQ books if, if, the story is compelling and beautifully written and a wonderful story, OK? We will take books by authors of color if the writing is beautiful, intriguing, funny, compelling, whatever. But we never look at those things. We don't care about your sexual orientation and we don't care about the color of your skin when it comes to writing.
[LV: There is, as OMGReads observes, a significant pause part-way through that sentence, between "color of your skin" and "when it comes to writing".]

What we look for are authors who can tell a great story. Because that's what it all boils down to: it's the story, it's the writing. And sometimes it is the message that the author is trying to get across. Those things are really, really important to us.

Now, I'm sorry if this is going to disappoint people that I'm not presenting to you Sue Grimshaw's head on a platter. I'm not going to do that. I think that we are all adults and we should be able to have these important conversations without getting upset. And again, this all boils down to the current political climate in this country, that has been this way for years and years and years. Both sides of the aisle want us pitted against each other. When you and I are taking time out of our busy day to argue about these things, to hate on one another, to despise on one another, again, we're not paying attention to what the actual politicians are doing. And that's what they want in this country. They want us hating each other. And I don't hate anybody. I don't. I hate paedophiles, I will tell you that. I hate paedophiles. Don't like skinheads. Don't like KKK members. I don't like anybody who wants to hurt a child or see the annihilation of a specific group of people. That I can't stand. That is when I will get up on the table and shout at the top of my lungs that these people are idiots. But Sue has done none of those things, absolutely none of those things.
[Courtney Milan: 'if your line of acceptability is “calling for the annihilation of a group of people” but you don’t have an issue with systematically excluding a race of people from bookstores and publishing contracts? Then you are DEFINITELY a racist.']

So that is my public response to the current outcry over Sue. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me. I would be glad to have these discussions with you. But for now, Sue remains, until someone can show me something worse than her liking a tweet by Diamond and Silk.

That's all I've to say on that. I love all of you. I hope everyone has a great day and God bless each and every one of you. Goodbye!
That's the end of the video. I have checked the transcript repeatedly in order to ensure its accuracy, but I'm willing to listen to the video again if anyone spots a serious error.

Edited to add: For the sake of clarity, and because it has subsequently been mentioned on Twitter that when Grimshaw was a romance buyer for Borders this did not include purchasing African American romance, I thought it might be useful to provide a bit more information. Obviously I can't guarantee the accuracy of all this, since I'm reliant on what I could find online, but here is what's available via LinkedIn:
The dates of 1995-2011 (16 years) as Romance Fiction Buyer at Borders Group followed by a position as Category Specialist & Editor at Large at Penguin Random House (2011-2019) fits with information on the Penguin Random House website, on a page about
Sue Grimshaw, Category Specialist and Editor at Large, who celebrated her fifth year with the company on March 28, 2016!  Get the scoop on Sue by checking out her interview below:
Describe your role at Penguin Random House.
My title is Category Specialist and Editor at Large. I’m an acquiring editor for the digital division for the Loveswept and Flirt imprints and have also acquired for Bantam during my five years of employment.
Why did you decide to join Penguin Random House?
The first sixteen years of employment in the book industry were as romance buyer for Borders Incorporated.  A year before their closing, Scott Shannon contacted me asking if I’d be interested in working in a new division. The timing was perfect.
However, it seems that at Borders, the Romance Fiction Buyer was not responsible for African American romance. A comment here suggests that these novels were handled separately, by a Borders employee called Sean Bentley. Elsewhere, I've found reference to an article in the
May 2008 Romance Writers Report [...]. It was a decent article, but one thing in particular struck me and that is that “literary segregation” (not my term) is being practiced in the name of sales-without-data. [...] The article cites Sean Bentley (Borders Group International) as portraying several interesting things (his direct quotes will be in “” marks; otherwise, I’m just quoting the article):
Most Borders stores shelve fiction and nonfiction books by and about black people in an African American section…Bentley says the exception to the rule is science fiction and thrillers by African American authors, since “their readers are more likely going to be looking for sci-fi or thrillers, rather than books that reflect their ethnicity.”
This gives more context to the comments by "Black romance" and "AA response" which I quoted at the start of this post. It's not got a direct bearing on the current discussion of Grimshaw's Twitter "likes" and Tisdale's response. However, it does paint a picture of a system, of which Grimshaw was an important part, which normalised the segregation of African American romances. Moreover, this history is important to bear in mind when Tisdale refers to novels being "compelling" and "intriguing", as though these are objective qualities. They clearly are not given that Borders' policy of shelving AA romance separately (particularly when it treated AA "sci-fi or thrillers" differently) demonstrates that AA romance was considered inherently not compelling or intriguing to white romance readers.