Thursday, January 28, 2016

The One Where Wendy Talks About Diversity

I'll let you in on a secret: if you ever want to see a librarian cat fight - bring up the subject of book labeling.  As in the practice of actually putting identifying genre label stickers on physical books.  You think Donald Trump having a snit with Fox News is brain-bleed inducing?  Yeah - librarians and labels

For the record, labels drive me insane.  If Wendy really was Queen Librarian of the Universe (and not just a legend in my own mind) there would be only two (potential) labels on library books - the spine labels (because the books need to be organized on the shelf somehow) and "New" book stickers for recent arrivals.  That's it.  No romance labels, no mystery labels, no librarians making themselves crazy trying to figure out what genre label to put on the steampunk noir novel that features a female detective.  No librarians losing their damn minds and covering the entire book spine with genre labels because they can't make a decision on those cross-over genre books. 

Seriously.  Librarians make themselves nuts over labels and we waste an unnecessary amount of time, energy and money charging up this completely useless hill.  Especially in this world of hyperlinks, metadata, and online catalogs.  It's more pointless now than it was 30 years ago.  And before any librarians show up in my comments section to talk about how the patrons demand genre labels - no they don't.  And the two that do demand them would get over it.  I've survived libraries as a patron and as a librarian that did not do genre labels and oh look, I'm still alive to tell the tale.  But I'm getting ahead of myself...

When I see break-out collections and genre labels in libraries, I immediately think "other."  You are shoving those books off to a corner and treating them as "different."  It also keeps patrons in their cozy, comfortable ruts and gives them tunnel vision.  Yes, if you only read romance and that's all you want (or think you want) to read - going to your one section of the library or just looking for that romance label is easy.  But it also doesn't expose you to the "others" that you might actually like.  Hey, you might pick up that science fiction novel, read the first page and be all like "meh."  But what if you weren't?  What if you were exposed to it, picked it up, read the first page and thought, "let me try this?" 

Which brings us to diversity.  For the sake of disclosure (and because it's honestly no secret), I am the Whitest White Girl To Ever White.  Those who have met me in person will attest that I'm so white I'm practically see through.  So when it comes to the issue of diversity in publishing, writing and reading, this is where I'm coming from.  White Girl from a Comfortable Middle Class, Midwest Background.

When I discuss the romance genre for a librarian audience I, of course, tackle sub genres.  And for the sake of that discussion I always include "multicultural" and "LGBT," even though I personally loathe the practice of making them separate sub genres.  However, the beauty of being a presenter is that you have a captive audience, which means I can expound on  my personal feelings of this practice.

They're not separate sub genres.

How is a historical romance featuring black characters different from a historical romance featuring white characters?  How is a romantic suspense novel featuring a Latina heroine different from a romantic suspense novel featuring a white heroine?  How is a contemporary novel featuring a Chinese hero different from a contemporary featuring a white hero?  The answer is - they're not.  They're a historical romance, a romantic suspense, a contemporary romance.  Period.  End of story.  End of discussion.


There's power in representation

Here's the thing: it's very easy for me to have that opinion as the Midwestern White Girl.  It's easy for me to go to the book shelf and see loads of potential fictional characters who may look like me, think like me, have experiences I can relate to.  If I was a Midwestern Black Girl?  My choices would be much more limited.

There's power in representation.  I hope that at some point in your reading life, or in your entertainment-consuming life in general, you've seen or read something that validated your experiences.  That moment when you think, "How did this author know this about me?"  Like the author personally interviewed you and put your experiences in a story.  That's powerful for all readers, but especially in young readers.  There's huge appeal in reading about someone who is "just like them" and going through experiences that they can relate to.  There's comfort in that.  There's validation in that.  There's the realization that they have value and they are not alone.  That's powerful, amazing, stuff folks.  It's why a lot of librarians get out of bed in the morning and do this job.  It's why a lot of authors sit their butt in the chair and pour out their imaginations on to a blank page. 

Which brings me back to the idea that Multicultural and LGBT are sub genres.  I tell librarians it's about knowing your community. It's important to know your community.  Really, it's the only way to do your darn job with any effectiveness.  That said?  Even with a large POC or LGBT service population I still don't think these are separate sub genres.  I'm sorry - I don't.  I'd rather find ways to highlight these stories in a way that isn't taking the easy way out and slapping a stupid sticker on them.

Because at the end of the day I think labels make librarians lazy"I don't need to know my collection because the patron can just look for the little rainbow sticker" or "All the Urban Lit is next to the Mystery Section."  Instead of sitting on our butts and pointing in the general direction, I don't know - I kind of think we should get back to curating a bit more.  Knowing our collectionHaving conversations with people.  Highlighting books with shelf-talkers and inclusive displays.  Doing a romance display for February (because we can't seem to get away from the Valentine's Day ghetto...) - and tossing in some Brenda Jackson, Beverly Jenkins, Jeannie Lin and KJ Charles right next to Nora Roberts, Julia Quinn, Jayne Ann Krentz and Mary Balogh.

It's all about exposure.  When I'm talking reader's advisory with patrons and we're chatting about books - I do everything in my power to avoid the "R" word unless they drop major clues that they won't get all huffy about my promoting "trash."  After I book-talk a romance (without actually saying the "R" word) and they're still not interested?  Hey, I tried.  But avoiding the "R" word trigger at least gave me a fighting chance.

I think diversity and representation are damn important.  But I also believe very strongly that the books shouldn't be treated as some sort of "other."  Just as the romance genre as a whole shouldn't be treated as "other" by the publishing and reading community at large.  Just as I get annoyed with a Literary Wunderkind sniffing disdainfully over "trashy bodice rippers" - I also get annoyed that somehow a romance novel featuring a lesbian couple is different.  No, it's not. It's a romance novel.

All of this is a long-winded way of me expressing my views on current conversations around the genre.  While I do think signal-boosting the diversity issue is important, and should continue to happen - I also feel strongly that diverse books and authors must be included in the larger genre conversation and not operate out on the fringe.  At the end of the day, it's all romance.  I want to see the entire rainbow represented in book reviews, recommendation lists, and workshop panels.  Not relegated to their own corners - but all together, jumping around in the same big ol' mosh pit.

But maybe this is an overly simplistic world view, especially given my experiences, the advantages I've had in life etc.  But man, labels.  They make me twitchy.  Am I doing a disservice by not intentionally signal boosting the diverse characters in some of my reviews ("Hey, over here!  This contemporary Christmas novella features a black heroine!")?  You could make the argument that I am.  But I feel strongly that the novella featuring the black heroine isn't any different from the novella featuring the white heroine.  At the end of the day they're both romances and my enjoyment (or dislike) of either is not going to have anything to do with the character's race, ethnicity or who they like to have sex with (well, unless who they like to have sex with is an Alphahole - in which case I'll have issues).

My sticking point with the diversity discussion as it currently exists in Romancelandia is that often it devolves into what I call Looking For A Cookie.  Over here! Look at me! I'm promoting diversity! I do think there's a way we (and by we I mean Practically See-Through White Girls like myself) can signal boost and promote diverse books without coming off as misguided or self-serving.  And my way of doing it is moving those books right into the stream of my normal blogging, reading, tweeting, and signal boosting activities.  Could I, personally, be doing a better job of reading more diverse books?  Gods yes, of course I could.  But nobody in the Romance Genre Mosh Pit is immune to the horrors that is Wendy's TBR Mountain RangeJeannie Lin is languishing right next to Marguerite Kaye and the new Beverly Jenkins is smacking me in the face next to the last Laura Lee Guhrke book I still haven't read.  But, and here's the point, they're there - waiting for me.  And I'll get to them eventually.  And hopefully I'll love them all, write glowing blog posts and people who stumble across those posts might actually pick the books up for themselves. 

That's always been the mission of The Bat Cave.  To share what I'm reading (The Good, The Bad, The Why Dear Lord Why?!), and expose other readers to books and authors they might not have been exposed to otherwise.


Meghan said...

This is epic and awesome. *hearty round of applause*

Mrs Giggles said...

I can see both sides in this. There are readers who have their set of preferences, and they may want the option to quickly filter out things and go straight to what they want. Personally speaking, I've had black readers wishing that I have labeled such romances clearly on my website, and some LGBT book fans have wished the same for their favorite books as well. So it's not solely about embracing/rejecting diversity - in such a case, it's more about about convenience.

Me, personally I feel that diversity should be embraced, not forced upon. Shoving LGBT, AA books to people will not make them read those books if they don't want to. Labels are one thing that stand in the way of people trying out new things, I agree, but how do we make them want to try out new things in the first place?

Removing labels may be too simple a solution to a complex situation. You do that, and I'd wager that readers of Goodreads will still shelve books in labeled lists - "Best AA romances", etc. I've heard from authors of romances with black characters who want the AA/MC label, because it helps their books get to the readers that will buy them, and I've also heard from authors who write those books but don't like the label. How do we reconcile all of this?

The answer may lie more in promoting good books that are considered "other" by these readers, instead of telling them that they have to read it because diversity is good. Most people aren't wired that way, they gravitate to what is familiar to them, but they may try a new thing if enough people they know or trust tell them to try it.

Wendy said...

Meghan: Thank you :)

Mrs. Giggles: You're right (because of course you're right). I'm pretty flippant on the label issue, and like you I've heard persuasive arguments from both camps. I can sympathize with readers hungry for AA/MC who want a handy label to help them filter...but....

Your last paragraph. That's firmly where I fall on this topic (and you articulate it so much better in a couple of sentences, where as I rambled on for a whole post and went nowhere). I want more of, what I call, "value" signal-boosting. Tell me about the book. Tell me why you liked it. Or why you didn't. Give me some indication on why this book may or may not be for me. And if you think it's awesome? Shout it from the mountaintop.

Melly Mel said...

Wendy, you are my superhero! This post resonated with me both as a librarian and a romance reader. I will be sharing this post with everyone I know and probably perfect strangers :)

MF said...

Nicely put from the library perspective. Great article.

Wendy said...

Melly Mel & MF: Thank you.

As an added note: I mention the Urban Lit "section" in this post and I should have expounded on how all genre fiction written by POC seems to get lumped in with Urban Lit and/or Street Lit. So much no. But expounding on that further would have made this blog post about 600 words longer and - nobody wants to read that much of my rambling.

The TL/DR version is: Street Lit is Street Lit. Romance Is Romance. They are not mutually exclusive.

Kim in Baltimore said...

Mahalo, Wendy, you earned a cookie! Perhaps a Macadamia Nut shortbread - my favorite from Hawaii. Looking forward to your wise words at RWA in San Diego!

the passionate reader said...

Thank you for this Wendy. I've been thinking about this for the annual AAR poll. We added LGBTQ+ several years ago as a category because we wanted to make sure that "subgenre" was part of our Best Books contest. Next year, I plan to drop it for all the reasons you cite here.

Kate said...

Hear, hear! I've always preferred the topical displays and the "if you liked X, try Y" recs in libraries to genre stickers, especially now that there's so much crossover. It's funny because I live in a town where the branch library is most heavily used by the Asian population, so when I run in there to grab my hold books while the main branch is closed for renovations, I--the middle-class white chick--am most definitely in the minority!

This also reminded me of the utter frustration I felt in cataloging class in library school when my professor insisted that cataloging is a precise, scientific exercise, and yet I could come up with at least a couple real-world examples that agreed with every one of my answers he marked wrong. Grrrr.... Sorry, my point being: each of us may find something different that sticks out in each book and becomes the thing we most relate to or engage with, which is what makes reading such a great adventure in the first place.

Heidi Cullinan said...

The catch-22 is not pointing out diverse books can become a means to continuing to ignore them. But making special categories DOES other.

Honestly I think the only thing we can do is keep talking. We do need to signal boost because people want to hear where they can get their stories. I get mail daily from middle-aged gay men, usually in the back-end of beyond, who found my books at a library and then write me to say they believe in love again. I don't think that's so much a power of my work as a power of seeing himself. Same for my book with an autistic gay hero partnered with a young man with depression and anxiety. The letters I get for that one are long and full of passion, from family members who see their loved ones in books and from people who say, "I'm in this relationship!" Again, most of these reader letters come from library copies.

I feel like the library world has the same issue as the rest of us: how do we let readers know there's a diversity of character and possibility in the books? The conundrum as white ladies is how to include without othering OR ignoring. Same for straight people.

Honestly I wince every time someone labels my book. "And here's Heidi Cullinan, writing LGBT!" Or worse, m/m, which nobody knows what it means unless they already read it. I write love stories, like you said.

So I don't know. I really don't know the answer. I think the thing is we have to keep quietly putting diversity into place without comment, AND we have to let people know when diversity is present. "This great historical romance set in the old west features bi-racial, bisexual characters. It's also a fascinating look about living with diabetes." Authors should reach for more diversity too, though not making it token diversity or an effort to cash in on what they feel is a trend.

What I do love, though, is this conversation. I feel that's the only thing we have. To talk about these sorts of things. Over and over and over.

Jazz Let said...

I was told by one of my local librarians (in the UK) that they are told which labels to put on by the publishers. The publishers are clearly not very consistent as the same author writing the same kind of books can be found in both general fiction and the genre fiction sections. This is the worst of both worlds as those days when you don't have time to browse and want some reasonably predictable reading you may have three different places to check.

PJ DEAN said...

As a reader and an author, I loathe labels but I understand that employing that method when searching makes it easier to place a book. But then again not. People tend to stick with the routine, comfy stuff they like. I read the review blogs and a constant refrain among readers who say that they truly are interested in different stories is "I can't find diverse romance with blah, blah, blah elements." How does one address that? I refuse to list my stuff under "multicultural" because it's a dumping ground for what is perceived as "other." I write Sci-fi/paranormal and historical and I'll be damned if institutions don't lump my books into that "multicultural" wasteland anyway. Very frustrating. I see no reason to shuttle my historical romance off to that section because the hero and heroine do not match. Or that I, as the author, am not White. The truth be told, that's the real issue. The color or sexual orientation of the author - not the characters in the books! I know of several such writers who hide those facts about themselves to try to get a fair break. Those of us who don't, have their work unfairly judged by skittish folk hiding behind "Is it for me? " Will I understand it?" It's a love story. What's hard to grasp? So insulting. A historical is a historical. Sci-fi is Sci-fi. There are White, straight authors writing all across genres and niches, with all kinds of characters and combinations, and their works get listed as "romance" period, without the labels! The same courtesy should be extended to ALL romance writers. My advice to readers is remember the NAME of an author, not if the author is the one writing about mermen.

Unknown said...

I think there's also something to be said for the use of tagging and keywords. I don't understand why 'LGBTQ' or 'POC' can't be done as tags in whatever cataloging system you're using rather than stickers on the back of the book or a special section of the library. I mean, with computers it's SOOOOOOO much easier than with the old card catalogs.(She says, showing her age. Though, those were mostly gone by the time I got out of high school.) It seems like this offers the best of all worlds - if you've got the steampunk mystery with a Vietnamese, queer heroine and a large romance plot, then you shelve it in 'fiction' and you tag it in the on-line database with all those words, plus POC and Diversity and Speculative Fiction and Science fiction and probably asian and a bunch of other things including a reading level. It's not like any library search system I've seen recently won't let you go 'steampunk + POC + mystery' or even 'romance + !supernatural + LGBTQ' (the ! indicating 'not'). It lets people find what they want. It makes people specifically admit it if part of their goal is to avoid POC or LGBTQ or any other kind of diversity.

(I mean, I do think non-fiction works better divided up into categories, but even that can have problems. And reading-level kinds of categories make sense - picture books, whatever we're calling chapter books aimed at children this year, even YA.)

Unknown said...

This is actually a really interesting question. As a reader, I love everything. I read everything. There are times when I really want to read IR romance and I want to be able to find it. There are times that I want to read African-American romance and want to find it quickly. I've got more gay romance than I know what to deal with, but there's always room for more :D.

BUT, I'm also a writer, and I don't want my books to be DISMISSED for the same reason that I want to FIND them quickly. If readers love book 1, with two white MCs, will they love books 2 and 4, which are both IR? Or will they skip those because they "don't relate," or "aren't interested in that type of book?" If it's a series, do I get the benefit of them being placed together, or would a library want some way of differentiating between the books in the series because of the race of the MCs (it's gay romance, so I'm sadly assuming they'd already be shelved in one segment of other at the outset).

Or maybe, as a black author, I'd get shelved in another category altogether because of that? Who knows? I'm just going to go back to editing now....

Wendy said...

Kim: Yep, definitely San Diego. Presenting still up in the air, but I'll be at Librarians Day + conference.

Dabney: I've appreciated how AAR has grown in the past couple of years, the new reviewers that have come on board - it's not easy, I know.

Kate: I think there's a way to highlight diverse books in an inclusive way without othering. It's just that librarians get lazy. We want to slap a sticker on it and not "deal." I'm much more a fan of end caps, shelf talkers, displays, hell - even book lists printed on bookmarks. There's a lot we can do without othering.

Wendy said...

Heidi: I loved everything about your comment, but wanted to pull this out specifically: "I think the thing is we have to keep quietly putting diversity into place without comment, AND we have to let people know when diversity is present." So much that. +1

Jazz: That's how it tends to operate in bookstores in the US. The publishers assign a designation and that's the section they go in in the bookstore. Libraries here can basically do what they want - but if they do genre labeling? Yeah, they probably go off those publisher assignments.

PJ: Thank you for commenting and bringing up your VERY important point about labeling based on author, not necessarily content of story. I've seen this in practice and it is INFURIATING!

Unknown #1: Oh, library cataloging systems. I was chatting with two librarian friends on Twitter today and joked that this could be a whole separate blog post. I'll be blunt: current cataloging systems are not very good. They ARE getting better, but it's been slow moving. Also you have to factor in that implementing cataloging improvements cost libraries money (usually a lot of money) that we don't always have. These are all excuses though. The good news is that I think as more libraries move to digital collections, learn to embrace metadata, responsive design etc. - we'll see improvement. But like most things - it's taking time.

Unknown #2: And your comment perfectly illustrates the complexity of this issue. Because you WANT readers looking for these books to easily find them, but you also don't want to shuttle them off to some sort of "other" status. It's a struggle for me, as a reader, blogger and as a librarian. Which means trying to find that middle ground, because I really truly do believe in "the mosh pit." Romance is romance is romance.

Rosalie Morales Kearns said...

Wendy, you ask, "How is a historical romance featuring black characters different from a historical romance featuring white characters? How is a romantic suspense novel featuring a Latina heroine different from a romantic suspense novel featuring a white heroine? How is a contemporary novel featuring a Chinese hero different from a contemporary featuring a white hero? The answer is - they're not. They're a historical romance, a romantic suspense, a contemporary romance. Period."

I'm glad you go on to mention the power of representation, and I believe someone mentioned the importance of signal-boosting when there IS a book with a POC character. Because my answer to the question I've quoted is, The difference is that I would WANT to read the ones with a POC character. It's a MAJOR draw for me.

Unknown said...

only quibble i have i guess with anything is that it hard to find LBGT or anything LBGT anything in a library. if one wants to find anything or come across anything of the kind of readings one want , one has to browse the shelfs. so i guess it doable . but i never think of LBGT as being part of the regular population of books. but that just me i guess. so now i know why sticker lables are not used that much.

Telcontar12 said...

Some nice observations in the post & the comments on the use of "labeling" books & the way readers use them. Readers aren't choosing a book from a blank state, they know what they've read, what they've liked from what they've read. And if the reader wants to read more of the same, meta-information like data or tropes hinted at in the blurb help the reader to label the book as "probably will like this" or "probably won't". (Personally, I like my books with wallflower heroines or heroes).
I guess a lot of the onus is on the reader: regardless of whether librarians serve as arbiters of genre labels, readers can use things like GoodReads to get a label; and even things like the title/cover, author, blurb will indicate what kindof book it might be.
(Of course, related is that the genres themselves aren't just an issue of vanilla-or-chocolate flavours. Different genres have different emphasis on narrative elements like plot/characters/setting, so).

Reading is good. The post mentions a reader being able to identify with the character is important. (Perhaps not such an issue with Para/SciFi, though?). Also hinted at is that, reading provides the ability to read from another's perspective, get into the head of someone different from yourself.
Again, it's good if the onus is on the reader. Maybe one reader likes alpha-hole characters, another reader doesn't. Onus is on the reader to read a book they're not sure they'll like: sometimes they'll like it, sometimes not.

It's kinda funny, though, with the romance-genre labels.
"Contemporary" indicates the setting of the romance, as does "Paranormal" and "Historical".
"Multicultural" and "LGBTQ+" don't remark about the setting, I guess that's why you say "they're just romance". I guess this applies to genre-labels like "Young Adult", "Erotic" and "Inspirational", too.

Bona Caballero said...

Thank you very much for such an insightful post. At least I now begin to understand certain things that didn't make sense to me. It was one of those things I 'label' 'this is a very USA issue', I'm an ignorant and I don't get it because I don't live there.

At least now I understand that it has to do with 'representation' and that many people enjoy their books more if the main characters have the same skin colour as they have. It's not my case, but at least now I understand why this is so important for many people. And that if someone like them appears in a book, they feel 'validated'.

Don't get me wrong, I love diversity in my reading, it's only that I understand diversity in a different way. A Midwestern white lady is as foreign to me as a Nigerian black girl. So, for me, diversity has more to do with culture, languages and geography. What's wonderful about books -to me- is that they take you to places and realities different from yours. I read books written by authors from all around the world (well, more or less), that belong to different cultures and times and written (originally) in different languages, and I just love it. It comes naturally when you read Literature and different genres. And perhaps it's because in Europe we tend to translate more books?

What I find very sad is that, in Romanceland, the stories are set only in a couple of countries and one culture the white anglosaxon, English-speaking culture. I find it a 'poor, trite' genre. It's like fast food, a very limited experience.

Black or latino or Asian voices in romance novels will certainly improve it as a genre. Romanceland is not doing anybody a favour giving exposure to 'different' voices. IMHO, it's just the opposite. People like Beverly Jenkins or Jeannie Lin or the LGBTQ authors are enhancing the genre.

BTW - that 'labelling for dummies'? I guess it's another foreign thing. At least, in my local libraries, they use the spin labels and that's it. The only 'genres' are -poetry, drama, novels, essays. But they use no label, only put them in different shelves. So I understand your frustration. It sounds a time-consuming useless work.

Wendy said...

Rosalie: Noted. I was saying to someone else about signal boosting - sometimes it comes down to me not being a better writer. I need to find a way to insert that information into reviews so readers specifically looking for it can find it - but without awkward transitions or "othering." The last thing I want to do is write "Oh, by the way, the heroine is Vietnamese!"

Unknown: The easiest way to find LGBT is the online catalog. Depending on your library's software - the first thing you want to do is find the Advanced Search option, which will bring up multiple search boxes. Change two of those boxes to "Subject." In one box put something like "Lesbians" or "Gay Men" and in the other box put "Love Stories" - and you should get some hits. There's a move to change the "Love Stories" subject heading to "Romance" - but that's currently in transition, so I'd try both and see what you get. I tested it out on my large library system's catalog and got a variety of hits.

Wendy said...

Telcontar12: I've seen libraries go insane with labels. To the point where you can pick up a book and the spine is covered with labels. An example? How about a Gothic romantic suspense that has paranormal elements? So you have the Romance label, the Mystery label, a Supernatural label all cluttering up the book spine. It's madness. If you're going to label, pick on and stick with it.

That said, there's a world of difference from a reader saying, "I don't care for erotic romance" to a reader saying, "I don't like books with black people in them." Diversity isn't a trope, like say...secret babies or billionaire Doms. You see this confused sometimes with authors who write characters with disabilities. That hero who is in a wheelchair? He's a person - not a trope.

Bona: Yes, Americans have a long, complicated history on the issues of race, ethnicity and diversity.

I never get tired of hearing about how/why people read or what they are looking for when they read. I don't necessarily look for characters I can relate to - like you stated, I like exploring outside my tiny corner of the world. But when I do hit upon a book where an author speaks a truth that applies my situation, or my life? It's kind of magical. I hope that all readers find that at some point in their reading lives.

Mrs Giggles said...

Labeling is going to be increasingly tricky as how we view the concept of gender continues to evolve.

Right now, it's still not that messy, as the bulk of the LGBTQIA+ books still fall under "G" with "L" straggling far behind while "B" is still mostly about MMF menages of the cringe-inducing "two gay men that still for some reason need a woman to feel complete" trope.

But if we do see more of romances with trans characters, people who identify as genderfluid or neutroi, etc, we really have to either rethink the current labeling system or tell everyone else to read to make the effort to read the synopsis instead of relying on labels to hold her hand!