obligatory RITA post

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.

Subheadings incoming!

Big Fish

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.

So Anyway

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.


35 Responses to obligatory RITA post

  1. Jo says:

    I really found this to be an incredibly thought provoking post. I felt your discussion of the “Friends” kerfluffle to be spot on and even though I’m an early Gen X-er, I would probably be more in the camp of the Millennials who felt the show was racist. In fact, lately, I’ve had that ‘holy crap, this is really misogynist/racist/you kind of name it’ feeling a lot in going back and watching or reading stuff I remember really liked from high school and college.
    I think your dukes versus blacks statistics make a great point about historical perspectives that tend to assume things being a certain way. Maybe it’s time we all took a step back and took a second look at those assumptions.
    Awesome post!!!

    • I honestly have very mixed feelings about friends – like there’ve been episodes that I’ve looked at and gone “wow, you would never get away with that today”, there are episodes that I’ve looked at and gone “actually, that’s pretty okay even by modern standards” and, most confusingly, there have been quite a lot of episodes that I’ve looked at and gone “I’m sure that was a stereotype at the time but we’re so far away from that it doesn’t even make sense.”

      Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

      • Allie says:

        I’m not on Twitter much so I wasn’t aware of the recent Friends kerfuffle, but as someone who was 14 when the show first premiered (and who followed pop culture) I find it weird that the fact that its racist and problematic is somehow a ‘new’ idea. I specifically remember several mainstream news articles written in the 90s that commented on how weird it was to have a show about 6 people in NYC with all of them being white.

        I also remember the Friends cast going on Oprah and Oprah made a comment that was like, “Maybe you all could someday get a black friend,” as a ‘joke’ but it was clearly a pointed comment about how weirdly white the show’s version of NYC was. The people who are now surprised that the show had serious issues were apparently only half-aware in the 90s. Not to mention how screwed up its men/women dynamics often were.

        • cleo says:

          I was 22 or 23ish when it came out – I’d just moved to a big city with my college roommate so I related to Friends. And I also remember Friends being criticized, alone with Seinfeld (and possibly Mad About You), for being so white in such a diverse city.

          I also remember that Friends and Seinfeld were up against basically the same line up with POC characters on Fox – Living Single and Martin Lawrence.

  2. Juliette says:

    About the dukes … I know, right? There must be many authors who have singlehandedly written more dukedoms than ever existed. And when you consider most of the 30 dukes at any one time would be already married, not to mention that a proportion of them might be far from young and stunningly gorgeous, where can all these hot unmarried dukes have come from? Were they being farmed offshore? Or created by mad King George for just long enough to inhabit a romance before being cast back into the ranks of commoners?

    And then people say it’s a stretch to believe there were people of colour in a city that was teeming with people from all parts of the world … but hey. If that means we are due 88.3 historical romances featuring people of colour and more (883?) featuring LGBTQ+ characters for every one featuring a duke, that’s a lot of books to look forward to 🙂

    • I mean, obviously the 88.3 thing with a pinch of salt. But I do often find putting numbers on things helps me get a perspective on them. It is kind of weird to realise that have almost certainly at this stage been more fictional English Dukes than there have ever been real English Dukes, even I suspect going right back into history. And, again, I have no problem with people liking to read or write books about members of the hereditary aristocracy (although I admit to having a nerdish bee in my bonnet about people not quite realising how big a deal a Dukedom is) but I think it’s illuminating that something we take as standard is so much rarer than something we allow ourselves to forget existed.

  3. A bit earlier than the period you’re mostly discussing but:

    In 1768 Sharp and others put the number of black servants in London at 20,000, out of a total London population of 676,250. (Others, depending upon the year and the source, put the figure somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000, although the accurate figure is probably closer to 15,000.) These numbers were augmented by sailors, by students sent to study in Britain, by musicians who had become de rigueur in English military and domestic orchestras and bands, later in the century by refugees from America who had fought on the loyalist side in exchange for promised freedom in Britain or land in Canada, and finally by the natural growth of the community.

    And if anyone wants to find out more, the whole book that came from (Gretchen Gerzina’s Black London: Life Before Emancipation) is free for download at https://www.dartmouth.edu/~library/digital/publishing/books/gerzina1995/.

  4. The problem is that most people don’t even seem to see that there is a problem – when last year’s awards ceremonies should have been a massive wake-up call. I mean, how is it possible that a veteran of the genre like Beverly Jenkins has never received a RITA award?

    It’s disgraceful.

    And frankly, by now I no longer bother entering my books in the historical categories (and I know that I’m not the only one) because what’s even the point?

    • I think you’re very right that the problem is people not realising it’s a problem, and that’s frustratingly circular. Because it’s one of those fundamental, axiomatic things where there’s not really anything you can say to change someone’s mind. I mean, as far as I know, no author of colour has ever won a RITA and I kind of feel that people will either think that’s a problem or they won’t, and there’s not really a middle ground there.

      • Simone Spencer says:

        There have been a few AoCs who’ve won (Sherry Thomas, Courtney Milan, Weina Dai Randel, Pintip Dunn), but yes — it’s a shockingly low percentage. The biggest challenge with all of this is that the whole setup of the RITA judging process makes it impossible to change the results because 1) People have to self-nominate, and 2) There’s no process for ensuring diverse books are entered or diverse judges are judging. The RITA is silly, and carries little weight beyond romance because of this (on top of, already being mocked because ha ha good romance is an oxymoron) — RWA has to start again. More rounds of judging, diverse panels of skilled judges who understand all aspects of the genre, and a prioritization of elevating the best books, whether they’ve been submitted for the award or not.

        • Thanks for the clarification – I should have fact-checked that assertion better. I think I was aware it was very low and had conflated a bunch of different statistics about author identity, character identity and so on.

          For what it’s worth, I’m not sure that this specific issue is one that can be fixed structurally. Awards are inherently flawed things and this goes well beyond the RITAs. I mean, I think what the judging process really needs is a cultural change in the industry around how much value is placed on books by or about marginalised people.

  5. Diana says:

    I’m a little surprised you didn’t mention the RITA process because I think it might have something to do with why the same authors and the same kind of books win year after year. Not that they aren’t good books written by talented authors but they are chosen from a tilted playing field. 2000 slots open, entry fee from $50 (RWA MEMBER) to $170 (non-RWA), first round judging is by other RITA entrants (keeping in mind there are authors who enter and Judge every single year), second round adds in RWA PAN (Published Author Network) members (same pool of people who enter and judge year after year but now ALL are RWA members). Third round exclusively by RWA PAN members (a large portion of which have a long history with RWA and each other). All judging is subjective by nature, people like what they like and they are going to like it year after year. This years’ repeats & multiple finals in RITA/GH are an indication that it’s time for some new blood in the entry/judging pool.

    • As always, there’s loads of things I don’t get quite get around to talking about in my posts because they run very long to begin with. I’ve written before about the slightly arbitrary nature of the RITA judging process, and obviously RWA members are not necessarily a representative cross section of anything except RWA members. I honestly don’t know if a group of judges that is filtered by the requirement to be a member of the RWA is likely to skew more or less conservative in its judgements of historical fiction than an assortment of other romance readers.

  6. Great points here, Alexis. Love your # crunching re dukes vs. POC in London during the Regency…

    I think the RITA historical judging problem may be exacerbated by the fact that anyone who enters a book in the historical category is not allowed to be a judge in that category. Which I totally understand from a fairness point. But it means that people who don’t write historicals, who generally know a less more about history than those who do, are judging historicals.

    • That’s an interesting point, although the flip side of that is that people who write historicals are perhaps more likely to have a set of idea of what a historical should be like. And, obviously, just because you’re not entering a historical in a particular round of the RITAs that doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t write or read it. And, of course, that particular feature of the judging process would affect other genres as much or more so.

  7. Kamala says:

    “…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.“

    Yes! Yes! Yes!

    This seems to be a huge issue now, in the US at least, and people don’t seem to recognize or acknowledge that we are changing for the better in some ways. Or they don’t seem to recognize that we are changing at all. I see it in Facebook posts – people criticizing historically important 20th century figures for not thinking and behaving exactly like we do now. Of course I can’t think of any examples off hand…

    And, ha, from a childhood filled with British classics in print and TV, for the longest time it was hard to believe that Britain even progressed much past 1945. Learning history from Blackadder – yup! And Jewel in the Crown even brought me into 1950s empire collapse.

    How distributed were POC in 19th century England? I mean, mostly in London and other bigger cities or did POC live in the gossipy villages of J Austen land? I will have to look this up somewhere. I don’t expect an answer here. I will admit i’ve learned a lot from historical and contemporary novels.

    • I should stress that I know absolutely nothing about the historical demography of the United Kingdom. My experience of the country as it is today is that the cities are far more diverse than the countryside, although Laura’s post above details the numbers of POCs working in domestic service, which would of course be distributed in a way that’s wholly foreign to modern sensibilities. So my very uneducated guess would be that you’d be very unlikely to find a POC just living a shopkeeper in a small village in Sussex, but potentially much more likely to find one working as a servant in a large manor house just up the road. And obviously coastal cities and towns (and London, of course) would have been likely to have quite established communities. Again, no idea what I’m talking about.

    • Oh! To go one better than all those Dukes: “Maharajah Duleep Singh, the exiled young ruler of the Kingdom of Lahore, takes up residence at the Grandtully estate in Perthshire” in 1855. (https://twile.com/story/EAAAAOZcih0Wn8DJhqksVBTmoJSLIRAzd9CCVjoHTmvGSSZx)

      That’s pretty rural! Not so rural: “the first African American known to have studied at [Glasgow] University, [was] James McCune Smith. He graduated MD in 1837. While studying in Glasgow he worked with the Glasgow Emancipation Society.” (https://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/medicine/aboutus/history/19thcentury/)

      And just because I came across this not so long ago, though it’s later than the Regency Dukes, some info about the first mosques in the UK: https://historicengland.org.uk/whats-new/news/Mosques-listed.

    • burntcopper says:

      Pretty well distributed. There’s photos of pre-ww1 rural yorkshire village schools with 3 clearly poc kids. It’s in the ‘not many, but one or two wouldn’t be uncommon’ field. Though I suspect in the 19thc you’re also more likely to get Indians in the more rural places – who were also referred to as ‘black’ back then, which can obscure the demographics.

      during the Elizabethan period, one bloke famously wanted to sell all the black people in England but it was pointed out that given how integrated they were in pretty much every village across England there might be a bit of protest.

      it just got whitewashed.

  8. My question is: how many books written by POC and queer were entered? I never received a RITA untl the LTA last year because I never entered. Back in the 90s, I knew my chances of being a finalist were zero to nil, so why put myself through that. When I gave keynote in 2016 there was a record number of POC and queer finalists. Was this due to the judges? The numbers submitted? I was hoping it was a trend, then last year? Nope. Back to “normal”. This year “normal” too.

    • Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to any of this. My somewhat cynical perspective is that very often if you have a record year for representation in pretty much any context people have a tendency to see that as job done and think they’re allowed to stop trying, or–worse–to backlash because things have gone “too far the other way”(something very similar happened with the Hugos over in SFF). Which is incredibly depressing. And while I sincerely hope that a lot of people realise that the lack of representation in the RITAs is a bad a thing in general it’s hard to know what can practically be done about it–which is not to say nothing should be done, or that this is just the way it is, just that it’s an incredibly complicated and upsetting situation.

  9. I understand your dismay. I truly feel it, as I write Diverse Regency Romances that focus upon the Blackamoor communities and their intersection with majority societies. Those who don’t know the history think love and romance for Blackamoors is historical fantasy. I’m at loss on how to change those hearts and minds, other than to keep writing my stories.

    Blackamoors built communities throughout England but 10,000 were concentrated in London. I’ve done a great deal of research on this, and you can checkout my website http://vanessariley.com for details and tidbits.

    • Thank you very much for the link to your work and the update on the numbers.

      From our conversation on Twitter, I realise that I might have inadvertently created the impression with the post that there was nobody out there telling those stories, or that those people didn’t exist, and that was, of course, not at all my intent.

      As you say, a lot of people genuinely believe that the idea of people of colour or LGBTQ+ people existing in a historical universe is pure fantasy, and I was trying to address and respond to those ideas, although I may not have done that as clearly or as well as I could have.

  10. Gwen says:

    How far have we come from the 90s though, really? The Big Bang Theory is the current group comedy sitcom, and there’s only one POC and no queer characters. In one episode Raj asks “where is the line?” because they make so many jokes about gender, race, sexuality, it makes people wonder what is ok to joke about.

    Sorry, a tangent on a tangent.

    • I’ve never actually watched The Big Bang Theory, but I’ve heard a number of problematic things about it and certainly I agree that, in some ways, we’ve made less progress since the 90s than we think we have. Not least because progress is subjective, doesn’t always trend consistently in one direction, and is subject to backlashes.

  11. Simone Spencer says:

    I’d also just add that this is a problem throughout historicals, not only long historicals (also, that long historical finalist list is so small, it makes me wonder who is really writing that long anymore? More than 90,000 words?!).

    • I agree it’s a problem throughout historical, and to a degree throughout romance. Because the jumping off point for this post was Jackie Horne’s analysis over at RNFF I started from the basis of her (as she admits, necessarily flawed) criteria of whether represents POC authors, POC protagonists or LGBTQ+ protagonists and historical short does actually have a slightly better track record in this area, although, again, we’re looking small number statistics and complex issues here.

  12. Katarina says:

    You got me thinking of the literary precedence – because there are PoC in actual classic British literature, they’re just rarely allowed to be main or even major characters. So somehow that perspective shift is seen as unrealistic – a sort of “they can be there, but they must stay in their exotified, silent place.”
    And then I thought about PoC ancestors of famous authors, like Alexandre Dumas’ grandmother and Alexander Pushkin’s great-grandfather. And honestly, the life history of the latter, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, is as dramatic and duke-like as any romance novel.
    So basically, yes, I agree with all of this.

  13. Jeanne says:

    “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.”

    This observation is so on target. Listening to the discussion at my book club last night your words were in my head as various movies and novels were recommended as period background for those who weren’t familiar with various events of WWII.

  14. Wendy Loveridge says:

    I loved this post. Thought provoking and (as always) fair. For the record, it was your book, Glitterland, that started me on the road to enjoying queer romance. For so long I have been ‘pissed off’ with, mostly American authors’, vision of a doook on every street corner in England.
    IMO the RITA judging system is unfair (and sorry, Alex) but there are some consistently bad books by crap authors being nominated.
    Unless they adopt a cross-section of judges, from all walks of life (and especially not minority, narrow minded authors judging other authors) the RITAs and other such awards will cease to mean anything and the big publishing houses will always win. As always, you’ve given me a lot of food for thought. Keep on doing what you’re doing.

  15. Lennan Adams says:

    I have thought about this a bit, but had only gotten to the “Surely there were a few POC and queer people in the olden days that had happy romances” ;p and not the fact that dukes (and the like) are so over represented. Your point about Friends is so good. <3 This plus the RITA statement and the discussions around that right now really have my brain whirling. I end up reading all of the historicals (that I know about) with queer people in them but I will seek out more with POC. I am amazed by your insight, as always–I never considered that this was a problem of how we view history, not just what the general public wants in their romance.

  16. Pingback: What happens next? – Spellbound Scribes

  17. B says:

    Thanks for this post- it helped me understand part of this problem in a way I just didn’t before. I should say that very rarely do I read in this subgenre, so I hadn’t necessarily given it much thought and I’m not particularly knowledgeable on it. That said, I suppose I fell into the category of thinking that including more demographics felt forced- though not from the perspective you mentioned. You seem to be proposing that historical romance be, you know, historical. It hadn’t occurred to me that that might be a goal.
    I know we call it “historical” but, in my own personal thinking, that may as well have been a nonsense word that translated to “that category with all the dukes, and sometimes highlanders”- something that was vaguely based in reality, but with a passing resemblance only. It was never that I thought black people didn’t exist then/there, but that I thought the proposal was that we add in black dukes. Which did seem like we’d be making believe pretty hard.
    Having read this, I know get that wasn’t the point being made at all. I might be the only person who thought that way- that the name mattered not at all and the point was stories about aristocracy. If I’m not, I suspect that what draws many readers to those particular stories is the fairy tale aspect (which is why they remain unbothered by the improbable number of hot, single aristocrats)- and they might see actual history as a problem for the fantasy. Not to say that they should or shouldn’t see it that way, but just that it might be part of the resistance.
    Again, I might be the only person anywhere who was simply discarding that we call this “historical”- but that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. You’ve reminded me that words matter, and that I should be critical of anything purporting to be history.

    • Sae says:

      Thank you for your comment, B: it expressed some of the things I was thinking in regard to this post but didn’t know how to put into words without pulling away from the main point. I.e., that in addition to conservatism and big fish in a small pond, I also think the fascination for the fairy-tale fantasy –> narrow focus on a tiny minority of elite from one particular (granted, English-speaking) country –> the preponderance of Regency romances in the historical romance category for RITAs –> lack of diversity in historical romance RITA nominees and awards. And that in reading those stories, people don’t necessarily forget that the other classes and other types of people existed outside that narrow focus… although they certainly aren’t helped in remembering, either.

      So, in agreement with Alexis, don’t do away with this type of story entirely, but maybe instead make a separate sub-subcategory for stories about 1800s British aristocracy until/ if interest wanes… and then “historical” could be (hopefully) a broader, more inclusive category?

      Ultimately, I appreciate you, Alexis, for writing this post to begin with, for analyzing and discussing the issue, for coming to your conclusion, for provoking thought. I, too, want there to be better representation and attention to diverse stories set in a historical era that have a happy ending. And I agree that it can only benefit us as individuals and as a community to have our horizons broadened.

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