Quick edit: So, in this post I talk about the lack of LGBTQ+ and POC representation in the historical romance category in the RITAs, but it’s been pointed out to me that I may inadvertently have created the impression that there is nobody out there writing historical romance with LGBTQ+ or POC protagonist. It wasn’t my intention to create that impression, and that is very much not the case. There are many excellent writers of historical romance fiction writing about diverse voices, both LGBTQ+ and POC, who I would personally love to see better represented in the RITAs.
So around this time of year I’ll usually do a blog post about the RITAs, although as is typical for my blog posts I’m going to start off talking about the RITAs and then spiral out to talk about a whole bunch of tangentially related things. As ever, I should start the post by congratulating everyone who has been nominated, and saying how happy I am to see an increasing number of LGBTQ+ stories garnering nominations.
I’m going to be talking a bit about representation in the RITAs in this post, with particular reference to the historical category, and it’s hard to discuss these kinds of issues without inadvertently either shitting on or apologising for the awards and the people who have been nominated for them. In particular, I’m going to look at the tendency for books nominated in the historical category to overwhelmingly feature white, heterosexual, affluent protagonists from a very small part of the world and a very narrow band of history (because this is something I’ve seen some discussion of on Twitter) and I’m going give some thought to why historicals might trend that way and what it might mean if they do. I in no way intend this to disparage or detract from the achievements of the actual nominees (either this year or any other).
Jackie Horne over at Romance Novels for Feminists ran some numbers on the LGBTQ+ and POC rep in this year’s nominees and noted a small but definite increase in representation in both areas across the RITAs a whole. And, obviously, these are small number statistics—for example there are 4 finalists in YA romance, of which 1 was written by a POC so depending on how you look at it that’s either 1 (not good) or 25% (actually pretty good, at least relative to the average). When you’re dealing with a large number of small groups, each of which probably contains between 0 and 2 of whatever it is you’re trying to evaluate, you’re naturally going to see quite a lot of 0s. Of the 12 categories Jackie ran the numbers for (and she herself notes they are not exact, as trying to identify the racial identity of authors and characters is problematic in both senses of the word), 8 have 0 authors of colour, 4-6 have 0 protagonists of colour (depending on what you think about Sheik romances and how you identify the ethnicity of a character in a fantasy world), and 7 have 0 queer protagonists. So in virtually every case at least half the categories have no representation of the kind under discussion. And if we’re being super mathematical about it if we assume that those three kinds of representation are independent and random (which they almost certainly aren’t but it makes the numbers easier to work with) you would expect roughly 1 category in every 8 to come up with 0s across the board. And, in fact, that’s almost exactly what we see. Of 12 categories, 2 have no queer protagonists, no authors of colour, and no protagonists of colour.
The thing is, those 2 categories happen to be historical long and romance with religious/spiritual elements (what used to be inspirational) and, while that could be a coincidence, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that if you had to predict which categories would be least likely to include queer or POC representation those are probably the categories you’d pick. I’ve also had a look back at previous nominations and those categories have historically tended to be the ones that were least likely to include LGBTQ+ or POC characters or authors. For the record, I’m not going to touch romance with religious/spiritual elements in this post because it’s not really a subgenre I have much insight into or standing to talk about. But I do want to look at historicals and think about why it might be that this particular subgenre seems to skew so much in favour of a particular kind of story about a particular kind of person.
Perhaps the simplest structural explanation for why the nominees of the historical categories tend to be particular kinds of people writing particular kinds of books is that quite often they’re actually the same people. And I should stress I don’t mean that as a criticism—these people get nominated year on year because they write great books—but if you have a small number of big names in a relatively small subgenre (there are usually about 5 nominees in historical long compared to about 10 in contemp or about 8 in paranormal) it’s natural that those people will dominate the awards scene. Of this year’s 5 nominees in historical long, 2 have already won RITAs, and 1 has been previously nominated. Of last year’s 4 nominees, 2 were previous winners and multiple-time nominees. And a similar pattern repeats as you look back. And, obviously, it’s not intrinsically wrong for an award for being good at something to be consistently awarded to people who are good at that thing, but it does make it hard for new voices to compete.
A Conservative Genre
Ironically, this subheading sounds like quite a good name for a historical romance. When the question of why you don’t get more LGBTQ+ or POC representation in historicals arises, one of the lines that often gets brought out (either resignedly or apologetically) is “well, historical is one of the most conservative genres.” And, in one way, that’s a reasonable assertion, and sort of ties back to the previous point about the nominations being dominated by a small group of authors who are already popular—not to suggest that these authors are themselves necessarily conservative people or that they necessarily write conservative books, but small-c conservatism is almost definitionally about liking things you already know you like. And while I don’t want to get into the whole question of whether the market for diverse romances is as big as or bigger than publishers often think it is (especially in particular subgenres which are seen as “conservative”) it does follow that if there is a perception of historical romance as a conservative subgenre that will lead to fewer diverse voices within historical romance and that will in turn lead to less representation and, potentially, less acknowledgement of the diverse voices that do nevertheless exist.
Having said that, within the specific context of the RITAs the question of what it means for historical to be a “conservative genre” is rather more interesting. It’s true that judges get to opt out of … I think (I’m sorry, I can’t quite remember) … 2 categories. But since there are 12 categories I can’t imagine there being that much self-selection amongst RITA judges, especially along the conservatism versus liberalism axis as it relates to those particular genres. I mean, I could see very progressive judges self-selecting out of romances with religious/spiritual elements because they might (not unreasonably) think it likely that they wouldn’t be able to engage with those books on their own terms. And I could imagine very conservative judges self-selecting out of erotic for essentially the same reason. But I just don’t think that even the trendiest and most liberal of RITA judges would specifically avoid historicals. In fact, I can see it going the other way—my trendy liberal experience of my trendy liberal friends is that we’re quite interested in history and historical representation, and are keen to support progressive voices within traditionally conservative media. So I guess what I’m saying is, even if the average reader of historical romance is more conservative than the average reader of contemporary or paranormal romance (and I am no way suggesting that this is really the case) I can’t really see that the mechanisms of the RITA judging process leading to the average judge of a historical novel in the RITAs being more conservative than the average judge of a contemporary novel.
Which leads to something really interesting. Because what I can see is the possibility of the average RITA judge assessing historical romance by a more conservative standards than the standards by which they would judge a contemporary or a paranormal or a romantic suspense. And it’s actually this that I think I want to talk most about because it’s the line of thinking that led me to most inspect my own perceptions and preconceptions.
I’m now going to take a brief digression to talk about Friends.
So No-one Told You Life Was Gonna Be This Way
There was a big kerfuffle on the internet recently about “millennials” watching Friends and getting all judgemental about it. I’d say that this was a storm in a teacup but it wasn’t even that—it was sort of a light breeze in a shot glass. As far as I can tell, some people in their late 20s and early 30s watched or re-watched Friends, and wrote some Tweets along the lines of “hey, this is more racist and homophobic than I remember it being” and then some other people in their late 30s or early 40s lost their fucking minds because some slightly younger people had dared to be critical of a fondly remembered feature of their childhood. I confess that I am framing this incident in a not-entirely unbiased manner.
The reason this is relevant (and I promise it will become relevant) is that it got me thinking , by the usual needlessly circuitous process by which things get me thinking, about our perception of history.
I suspect (and this suspicion is based partly on things people have explicitly said in public, so it’s fairly well-grounded) that one of the problems people have with diverse characters in historical fiction in general but historical romance in particular is that portraying POCs or LGBTQ+ people in a historical setting as having lives which aren’t unmitigatedly shitty from wall to wall feels “unrealistic.” And even if people will accept the idea of a lovestory with a queer or POC protagonist having an uncomplicatedly happy ending some people believe that including that kind of character in a historical narrative feels forced. We see a black guy in a book set in 19th century London and we think “oh they just did that out of political correctness”. You have two lesbians who live together openly in the Regency and we think “there’s no way that could ever have actually happened”. Except, of course, there were tonnes of black people in 19th century London and there were real examples of lesbians openly cohabiting in the Regency. It’s just that we haven’t built those stories into our perception of history.
This brings us back to the Friends thing. My feelings on representation in Friends went through a bunch of loops and iterations. And, ultimately, I do come down on the side of “well, it was the 90s” which is sort of a deliberately double-edged statement in that, on the one hand, I think it’s important not to judge historical periods (and, fuck, it’s depressing to me that the 90s is a historical period) by modern standards but, on the other hand, we need to recognise that acknowledging how far we’ve come since then means revising how we feel about how we were back then. I think a lot of the backlash against those millennials who dared criticise a show from the 90s was rooted in this weird doublethink of people simultaneously wanting to say “it was a long time ago and things have changed” while also still sort of wanting to hold up their 90s selves as paragons of progressive values. Basically, we feel really feel uncomfortable having liked something that was (arguably) racist and so we jump through a lot of hoops to convince ourselves that not only was it not racist, but that also aren’t the people who are calling it racist the real racists. Sorry, I digressed within my digression.
Anyway, on part of my journey to it-was-the-90s-dom, I went down a weird tangent of imagining would it would be like if I was a person in the 22nd century and my perception of 20th century New York was based on the cultural artefacts that came out of mainstream media at the time. And this was partly just a silly speculative exercise but, when you get right down to it, that’s a huge how part of how our perception of history works. My ideas about life in 19th century England come from Austen, Dickens and, perhaps more importantly, the BBC adaptions of Austen and Dickens I watched when I was fourteen, and have very little to do with actual historical scholarship. For that matter, a lot of my knowledge about the Middle Ages, Elizabethan England, the Regency and the First World War comes from Blackadder. And I think the weird thing is because most of us aren’t historians we honestly forget how much of what we believe about the past comes from fictionalised portrayals of it.
Anyway anyway, the spurious analogy that links these two utterly unrelated concepts together is this: if I was a 22nd century reader whose ideas about 20th century New York had come from watching Friends I would have no idea that people of colour were a significant element of the demographics of the city at that time. If I then read a romance novel set in Brooklyn in the 1990s and it had a black protagonist (we’re assuming I live in slightly dystopian 22nd century where our attitudes to race haven’t moved on, like, at all) I would feel that it was a really forced effort to insert diversity into a historical era in which, from my perspective, diversity just wasn’t a thing. 22nd century me might feel similarly about a story set against the backdrop of the Notting Hill carnival, which would radically conflict with the image of 20th century London that I derived from the film Notting Hill.
I mention this because, as I get older, I do become increasingly aware of how flawed and how limited my perception of even comparatively recent bits of history, even the history of my own country, are. Because, the thing is, I do understand the instinct that says “but there just weren’t black people back then”. Even though I know on a rational level that pretty much all historical societies have been far more diverse than we imagine them being I, like most people, am so inculcated in narratives which exclude marginalised people from history that I have to consciously remind myself that those narratives emerge from a particular cultural context and are not just the “right” way to talk about historical periods. To put it another way, the culture, and set of cultural biases, that one is used to feel neutral, and so deviation from them feels artificial. But the only really artificial thing is that feeling of artificiality. It’s like when people complain about the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in stories that aren’t explicitly about LGBTQ+ issues. There’s this perception that making a character LGBTQ+ is an active decision while making them straight isn’t and that you should make the active decision only if required to. But, actually, the choice make a character straight, or male, or white is as active a decision as the choice them LGBTQ+ or female or a POC. And it’s a mistake to assume one of those choices is “political” when the other isn’t.
To put it yet another way, in my country where Dukes are actually a thing, there are a grand total of 30 (6 members of the Royal family, 24 others), and while the amount of Duchies in the Kingdom has varied a bit over the years, this number has remained relatively stable. By contrast, although I don’t have access to hard census data for the 19th century, Google reliably informs me that there were 2,651,939 people in London in 1851. And, if we take the extremely conservative estimate that only 0.1% of them were people of colour, that means that in the mid-19th century there were 2650 POCs in London compared to about 30 Dukes in the whole country. So, from a certain perspective, a historical romance about a person of colour set in England in the mid-19th century is 88.3% times more plausible than one about a Duke. But because we’re used to seeing stories about Dukes in the 19th century and we aren’t used to seeing stories about people who aren’t white or heterosexual in the 19th century, stories about the absolutely tiny number of high ranking members of the landed aristocracy seem natural and normal to us while stories about the proportionally much larger number of marginalised people living in England at the time feel implausible or disorientating, even though they’re actually more reflective of the lives of real people.
As ever this is where I get to the end to the end of a 3000 word blog post and realise I haven’t really got a conclusion per se. Because obviously I’m not actually suggesting we should stop reading, writing or enjoying books about Dukes or, for that matter, white heterosexuals. But I do think we should ask ourselves whether, when we think about historical romance, we are unconsciously thinking about too narrow a definition of history. Taking a step back, it is incredibly strange that our perception of historical romance is so dominated by Dukes in the Regency which, in context, means that it is dominated by 30 people between the years 1811 and 1820. And, again, I should stress that I love Regencies and I’m fine with Dukes, but focusing all of our attention on so narrow a group necessarily excludes people who are often already systematically excluded by traditional historical narratives. And, of course, it is not the job of historical romance writers to fix broader cultural issues, and the way in which societies elide the historical presence of marginalised people is a massive cultural issue. But we do, I think, have a responsibility to be aware that the parts of history we choose to celebrate and magnify are within our control, both as individuals and as a community.
I could be way off base here but my perception is, especially in the 21st century, marginalised voices don’t become marginalised because people actively set out to exclude them. They become marginalised because when we think about romance or history or, well, anything we fill in a whole bunch of blanks without even knowing we’re doing it. When we sit down to write or read or review or judge a historical story we bring with us our awareness of every other historical story we’ve been told and we often lose sight of the fact that those stories were not actually representative of the world as it is or history as it was.
Ultimately I don’t know for certain why historical romance (long) was one of the only two RITA categories to include no POC authors, no POC protagonists, and no LGBTQ+ protagonists. But I think it’s got a lot to do with the fact that we’ve spent centuries telling ourselves that “history” is only about the exploits of a tiny number of wealthy men from European countries. And while I’m absolutely not saying we shouldn’t continue to produce and enjoy those kinds of stories, I also feel that we will be richer as a community and a culture if we learn to celebrate a broader range of narratives.