It’s no secret that I like historicals. No, change that. I love historicals. Yeah, I complain about the proliferation of Regencies. But when all’s said and done, I look at my list of treasured books, and the vast majority are historicals.
My second preference would be for paranormals and fantasy. Contemporaries, I’m afraid, are a very, very distant third. I used to think this was due to several reasons, like the fact that historicals are my first love and that I love the escape into a separate world. And those are still true. But the other day, I had an epiphany, which, frankly, I should have had a long time ago: One of the main reasons I don’t read as many contemporaries as I do historicals is that 99.9% of contemporary characters are white and Christian.
My issue isn’t that I don’t qualify as either white or Christian. After all, human emotions are the same all around the world. And heck, I’m 100% Chinese, and I identify more with Eve Dallas than characters in The Joy Luck Club. (Not an exaggeration.)
No, I’m talking about the disparity between what I see and what I read, particularly in urban-set contemporaries. Where are skins of all colors sweating on the subway? Symbols of all creed and faith pouring out of office buildings? Schoolchildren from a multitude of cultures? Groups of friends that are ethnically, racially, culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse? Do I read about any of this in contemporaries? Nope. And considering what a melting pot North America is (which is where the majority of contemporaries take place), I find that odd. No, actually I find it a problem.
The question is why this phenomenon, as I perceive it, exists. Do I blame the old horse about authors writing what they know? That couldn’t be the case, because then no one would get anywhere; it’s called imagination. And anyway, some authors do write racially diverse characters, and for proof I can submit Suzanne Brockmann’s Alyssa from the Troubleshooters series, Marjorie M. Liu’s Mirabelle Lee from The Red Heart of Jade, two heroes from Anne Stuart’s Ice series, some of Jade Lee’s Blaze titles, quite a few of Susan Fox/Lyons’ contemporaries, and a Singaporean heroine in Kelly Hunter’s Her Singapore Fling. Are there more? Sure. Are they the exception? Yes.
There are also authors and lines like Harlequin’s Kimani Press that specialize in African-American characters. However, I think these books exist in part because blacks weren’t anywhere to be found in the first place. As far as I’m concerned, not much has changed.
So it’s not authors, at least, that I know of. Is it the romance readers, then? Are we all just a bunch of pathetic 50-year-old white Christian spinsters who wear gloves and yearn for true love? Am I a Mars Bar who wants to be deep-fried and sprinkled with peanuts? The answer to both is no. Is the racial status quo all we want to read about? There’s the rub.
Mostly though, I’m back to blaming the old enemy, the vertex of the publishing triumvirate that invariably ends up on top: Publishers. Books are a business: People want to make money, ergo, publishers will put out what they hope people will buy; ergo, this is what they think readers want.
For the record, I don’t want a token Asian girlfriend or black buddy. And I’m not asking authors to pander to political correctness by writing about a small town in northern Manitoba with a population that’s 25% Caucasian, 25% African-Canadian, 25% Aboriginal and 25% Asian because that would be hugely unlikely. But geez, if you’re writing about four absolute bestest pals who get together and start a flower shop/knitting circle/wedding business, would it absolutely kill the story to make one of them Jewish? Or black? Or Korean? Or (and here’s another can of worms) Muslim?
I think publishers ultimately want safe. Writing a historical or paranormal with racially diverse characters, that’s risky, but hey, if you have to transport yourself back 300 years, or imagine a vampires and demons roaming the world, an Asian police detective paired with a Southern werewolf gentleman is a mild stretch. (This, by the way, actually is the pairing in Eileen Wilks’ Lupi series.)
But take away the distractions of vampires and historical distance, and I’d bet most publishers would rear in shock. “Wait, your hero’s last name is Tanenbaum? I must have misheard – did you just say your heroine’s family comes from Sri Lanka? Well, I applaud your, ahem, imagination, but I’m afraid your characters just aren’t viable in this economic climate. They’re just not what readers want. Where would Judith McNaught be if Julie Mathison (Perfect) were an orphaned black girl? After all, you’re not trying to be Amy Tan; you’re only writing a romance novel.”
Okay, I made that whole thing up. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s close to the truth.
Now it’s your turn. Do you agree that contemporaries lack racial diversity, and do you think it’s a problem?
– Jean AAR