Thursday, March 06, 2008

Racism and Romance

I've debated whether or not to post about this very touchy subject on my very non-controversial blog, but it has come up several times this week, and has just been on my mind lately.

Author Tess Gerritsen has a very interesting blog post highlighting the case of author Millenia Black. Tess gives a very concise description, so I'll simply quote from her blog post. I do encourage all to hop over to her blog to read the post in its entirety, and also click Tess's link to Monica Jackson's blog. Monica has done a tremendous job in bringing the issue of segregation in the writing (specifically romance writing) community to the forefront.

Here's the gist of the Millenia Black situation, per Tess Gerritsen:

Author Millenia Black (pen name) wrote a book called THE GREAT PRETENDER. The characters in the book were not African American. The book first appeared as a self-published novel, with a cover depicting two wedding rings in flames, and it sold well enough to attract the attention of a mainstream publisher (Penguin) as well as foreign publishers. Translation rights were sold to Turkey and Poland. Penguin soon learned that the author was African American and decided to market THE GREAT PRETENDER as an African-American novel, with a cover design depicting two non-white women. This was done against the author’s wishes.

Now the author has sued. She feels that being categorized as an African-American author has limited her sales and has banished her books to the “African American literature” section, rather than the general fiction area, of bookstores.

Of course, I have very strong opinions on this subject since I fall into the category of authors whose books are segregated based on my race, instead of being shelved with the rest of the books in my genre. I understand Millenia Black's frustration. It is extremely safe, though unfortunate, for me to assume that the vast majority of the romance reading population will never read my book simply because they will never find it while browsing the shelves of their favorite bookstore. I believe they would enjoy the story. It's is, after all, a romance novel, with the same elements of love, heartbreak, and the eventual happily ever after romance readers expect in their stories.

But, my characters happen to be black. Their skin color isn't referenced on every other page. In fact, I think it is mentioned only a couple of times in the entire book. Yet, even in the year 2008, that one fact will make it virtually impossible for my romance novel to reach a huge percentage of the audience for which it was written.

Over the past week or so, I've wondered what difference does it make to talk about this issue on blogs. Anyone with an inherent sense of equality would have to agree that segregating books based solely on race, which is the policy with several national booksellers, is wrong. But it has been that way for some time now, and I do not see it changing.

I should stress that I've seen this mainly with African American writers. Tess Gerritsen is Asian American. So is another of my favorite romance authors, Gennita Low. Not only are their books shelved with the rest of the books in their genre, but these two non-white authors are allowed to write about white characters. I have three completed novels featuring white characters, but have been told by some in the industry that I will have a hard time selling them if I don't change the characters' race to African American. How blatantly unfair. But it is reality.

Will this blog post and countless others on this subject make a difference? Those ultimately responsible for changing these practices--the booksellers and publisher marketing deparments--will never read my blog. Will it take a lawsuit like Millenia Black's to make some in this industry stand up and pay attention? Is there enough incentive for things to change? After all, publishers are still making some money off of their African American romance writers. Does it really matter that this practice of segregation is stifling the careers of African American authors?

Today, instead of raging against the unfairness of it all (and, believe me, this post was not written in a fit of self-righteous rage), I've decided to just sit back and ponder what it would be like if this world were truly as forward-thinking as many believe it to be.