Thursday, January 28, 2016
The One Where Wendy Talks About Diversity
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.
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 collection. Having 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 Range. Jeannie 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.