Luckily for me, fellow romance scholar Jayashree Kamble live-tweeted during the panels, and put her tweets together on Storify; you can find her tweets here.
|"Feminism and Romance" panel: Alisha Rai, Sarah MacLean|
Maya Rodale, and Carla Neggers. Photo from Alisha Rai's tweet
There are a few things that I'd like to add to Jayashree's thoughts. Maya Rodale, moderator of the first panel, "Romance Novels as a Feminist Trope Throughout the Centuries," opened the discussion by asking her fellow panelists "Are romance novels feminist?" Kamble suggests in her tweet that the response was "hell, yes" (or perhaps that was Kamble's answer?), but panelists' actual comments were more nuanced. There was a bit of silence at first, that funny pause that sometimes happens at the start of a panel talk when no one is quite sure who is meant to speak first, and Rodale interjected a few more questions "Are romances bad?" "Romances are written by women for women, about women, no?" MacLean and Rai then jumped in to note the difficulty of answering any of these questions with a simple "yes" or "no," especially given the breadth of the romance field at present. Carla Neggers, who has been publishing longer than any of the other panelists, added historical context, talking about many of the limits placed on romance authors when she was just beginning her career, and how many of those limits are no longer in place.
"How has the romance genre evolved over the past few decades?" was the next topic Rodale asked panelists to consider. The greater diversity of the genre, particularly in regards to the inclusion of romances featuring LGBTQ protagonists and protagonists of color. Rai had perhaps the best line of the night, though, when she noted that diversity still has a looooong way to go in the largely still-white world of romanceland: "We say evolution, but evolution is too slow. We need revolution." #weneeddiverseromance, indeed.
Sarah MacLean, who is white, did not disagree, but framed the issue somewhat differently, suggesting that the genre is on the edge of a huge shift, moving inexorably towards a more inclusive stance. Other panelists noted that diversity took hold first in the ranks of the self-published, and is only gradually (if at all) effecting the look of the pub lists of the big 5 romance publishers. It would be a cool research project, my academic self thinks, comparing the numbers of POC and LGBTQ characters in books by those publishers over the past 5, or perhaps 10, years...
Readers' often judgmental stance towards romance heroines formed another topic of discussion, but soon segued into thoughts about the prevalence of the billionaire hero in contemporary romance published in the past few years. MacLean put forth a theory that I've heard in other venues: that romance is a fantasy, and today, given the tough economic times and the dual role of worker and homemaker that the majority of American women have to play today, the fantasy of being swept away by a man who has so much money that you'll never need to worry about paying the bills again is vastly appealing. Rodale concurred, focusing on the alpha male in billionaire romance not only being able to meet the heroine/reader's economic needs/worries, but also being able to address her other desires (sexual, emotional), desires that in everyday life often have to be pushed to the side. I get this argument, but I'm wondering why books in which the women are billionaires themselves, and fall in love with appreciative guys, aren't nearly as popular? Is there some gendered sense that a rich woman will be exploited? That a rich woman is somehow bad? That she must have had to do something not quite feminine in order to achieve wealth? That being a billionaire is hard work, but loving one is not? I'd love to hear readers' thoughts about this...
The question of happy endings—does romance require them, or can the genre take them or leave them?—concluded the first panel. Most audience members seemed to be in the former camp, despite Rodale's citing of many romance-writing and -reading friends who are happy to live without the HEA, or even the HFN. I wondered if there is anything inherently feminist, or anti-feminist, about the restrictiveness, of the HEA—what do you think?
|"Erotic Writing and the Role of Women" panel. Photo from Alyssa Cole's tweet|
The second panel, "Erotic Writing and the Role of the Woman," featured an entire panel of romance writers of color, a rarity at RWA or other meetings, unless the workshop/panel topic is about diversity (more about this in Friday's post). Feminista Jones, a sex-positive social worker, activist, blogger, and now BDSM romance novelist, moderated the discussion with fellow erotic romance writers Suleikha Snyder, Rebekkah Weatherspoon, and Jordan Silver.
I thought it was fascinating that all of the writers except for Jones began their writing careers penning fan fiction, then discovering through traditional or, more often, through self-publishing, that what they were giving away for free could be earning them money. Does the slash tradition of fan fiction make writers more comfortable with erotic romance publishing? Does the independence of fan fiction (no editors, no publishing houses) lead fan fiction writers more easily to self-publishing?
This panel, like the earlier one, talked about the changes in the romance genre over the past 20 years. The rise of self-publishing; the shift from heroines with no sexual agency to heroines whose sexual desires are affirmed; the rise of queer romance, and sex-positive romance—just a few of the changes the panelists noted.
A fascinating exchange occurred between Jordan Silver, who declared that she wasn't a feminist, that she liked alpha males and wanted to be taken care of, and Feminista Jones, who spoke about the often fraught relationship between black women and feminism (many black women feeling that feminism is a white girl thing, without any real relevance to their lives). Jones argued for a broader understanding of feminism and its focus on equality for women, no matter their race or ethnicity. The discussion highlighted a point made earlier in the evening, that there is no one black voice, no one black identity; the three women of African descent on the panel were all coming from different backgrounds and different cultures, and one's experience did not mirror that of the others'. Only when we have enough books with people of color will we be able to move beyond the assumption of a monolithic black identity.
Jones also spoke about the feminism she tried to portray in her BDSM romance, Push The Button, which she wrote partly in reaction against the misconceptions about the BDSM lifestyle she saw in the popular 50 Shades of Gray novels. A member of the BDSM community herself, Jones wrote Push to present the everyday life aspects of a s/D relationship. When I read Push, I didn't find it that feminist, to be honest. After hearing Jones speak, though, it's clear that she herself has a strong grounding in feminist ideas, and I'm curious to know more about how she sees those ideas playing out in her novel. I've emailed her to see if she might like to guest post here at RNFF; will keep you posted...
The panelists also discussed the difficulties in finding homes for their work with traditional publishers, in large part because of the paucity of agents and editors of color in the industry. I've seen far more younger editors in the business than there were when I worked in publishing (in the late 80s and the 90s), but until people of color hold positions of power within what are often very hierarchical publishing houses, the lack of real investment in the stories of writers of color is all too likely to continue.
Two other great comments from this portion of the evening: Feminista Jones took major issue with the idea that black women are not deserving of love; her goal in writing romance, she says, is to "show black women being adored." Suleikha Snyder mentioned that in one of her Bollywood novels, she had great fun writing one white character in her otherwise all Indian cast, ironically turning the tables on all of the token (insert minority identity here) portrayals found in the majority of American-published romance.
During the Q & A period, two questions white readers often ask of authors of color came to the fore: how do I find more books by writers of color, and how do I, as a white writer, include characters of color in my work without stereotyping/being offensive? The panel turned the first question back on the audience—rather than giving them places to find POC romance, the panelists challenged audience members to help create a publishing and consumer environment in which such romances will not be hard to find. Buy books by writers of color; use social media to promote writers of color; tell publishers that you want romances by writers of color. Don't let publishers off the hook by letting them continue to say that such romances do not sell.
The panelists were gracious in offering advice in response to the second question. Ask questions with thoughtfulness and respect, do research, run your stories by beta readers of color, even just make friends with people from cultures and ethnicities to which you yourself do not belong. What they did not say, but what I would like to add, is that it is not the responsibility of writers of color to make us white writers feel safe when writing about people outside our own cultures. We have to take a risk, be willing to make mistakes, be willing to be called out on them, learn from them, and keep going.
Just as writers of color have been doing all along.
More on Friday about the RWA National conference, and topics of interest there to feminist romance readers.