There’s been some discussion about Kirkus Reviews’ coverage of romance novels in the past few days. We are listening and greatly appreciate the feedback. The editors of Kirkus are always thinking about diversity—all kinds of diversity—when we make our assignments. It’s our mission to cover books by authors of all races and ethnic groups, by LGBTQ authors, by disabled writers, and by women and men. We also cover books from a diversity of large and small publishers, books in translation, and a wide range of genres and sub-genres. We acknowledge that characters and authors of color and the LGBTQ communities are underrepresented in the romance category and would like to state firmly that no reviewers or bloggers paid by Kirkus Reviews have ever been instructed or encouraged to ignore any group. There is a problem in the industry, however, and we would like to be part of the solution. As such, we are taking immediate steps to expand and improve our coverage and will be sharing those plans in the coming weeks. —The editors of Kirkus Reviews, Jan. 29, 2016 (Bobbi Dumas' original post appears below.)
Before you go any further, I invite you to read last week’s post on my resolution to read more diverse romances this year, as well as author Courtney Milan’s smart, eloquent response. (Comments are at the very bottom of the page. You have to scroll through a few past posts to find them.)
Because she brings up some very good points, I’ve decided to address them as a separate post and as a sort of open-letter response.
Again, as I responded on Twitter, thank you for your thoughtful and detailed response.
I would actually love to continue the conversation. As I made clear in last week’s post, I do think I can do more, and that is my intention for this year.
Let’s start here: I write about diverse books and diverse authors because I enjoy the ones I get to read and I think highlighting authors and titles that are often left out of the conversation is the right thing to do. Should I include more diverse books and authors as a matter of course? Yes.
Since I’ve already said I was going to read more diverse authors and titles this year, this seems like an obvious step.
I also write about a lot of books I haven’t read yet, but hope to. I do that for all kinds of books from all different writers. Like most readers, my TBR pile is way too tall for my liking and plenty of readers and writers discuss books they’ve heard about that are great but haven’t had time to read. Rebekah Weatherspoon writes a great column like this over at Ever After Romance.
When I hear from readers that they bought a title or two and enjoyed them, it makes my day—no matter what titles they may be. Sometimes these books are my suggestions, sometimes they’re passed along from other writers, readers, or bloggers whose recommendations I trust.
Yes, it’s best if I’m able to read them. But if I can’t, should I not mention them at all?
Regarding your specific questions:
Yes, I’ll have an even broader cross-section of writers in Read-A-Romance Month this year. In the end, last year there were (I think) 11 authors of color or who write LGBTQ titles; three authors who had mainstream series that included books featuring either multiethnic or LGBTQ characters; and Lorelei, the 2015 “token reader” is of diverse ethnic background, plus one of the participating librarians, Christyna Hunter, who also writes for the USA Today/HEA blog, often mentions her physical challenges and advocates for romances with characters who have physical disabilities.
As for the structural barriers “to getting attention for books that are outside what is currently considered ‘mainstream’ ” and how I came to be aware of them, much of that is through reading other people’s posts and tweets (including yours) and through conversations I’ve had with individuals who regularly concern themselves with these issues. I reposted Alisha Rai’s Storify post in last week’s column, and if I were to list names as to who the influencers were, it would be long. Nearly 20 come to mind off the top of my head. Let me know if you’d like me to share those.
Other influencers? One of my best friends, who is of Apache, Chinese, Spanish, and Caucasian descent, and born in Mexico. Early last year, when we were trying to come up with romance novels written by or about Latina women, we realized how woefully short the list was, and how difficult it was to find them.
That was a pivotal moment for me, and one of the reasons I started following this more closely. I found many of the posts that came out after RWA illuminating.
You also bring up good points about reviews and how they can influence the culture of writing and publishing. This is very true, and I have been talking with my editor about increasing the diversity of the romance section at Kirkus. I hope we can continue to work toward making that happen and I’m glad the conversation has started.
Regarding any upcoming New York Times reviews, I guess everyone will just have to see what titles we choose to cover. I believe that will come out next month. (The titles were confirmed last fall.)
Moving on, in your comment you ask a lot of questions as to what I have and haven’t done in order to increase the diversity of my reading list. Let’s address those.
Do I ask for diverse titles? Yes. (Always complicated by the issue that not a lot of these are traditionally published.)
Should I ask for more? Yes.
Are there that many more to ask for? There seem to be more coming out late this year and in early 2017. (Certainly let me know if you have some good suggestions!)
Have I tried to get smaller presses—especially those that publish LGBQT titles—into the romance review stable? Yes.
Has it worked? The jury is still out.
I’d also like to address your point regarding your character Rose in Talk Sweetly to Me. For one, I think a black female mathematician* in Victorian England would have been outside the norm, right? I mean, even you imply that in creating the character. Also, while black people may have lived in Victorian England, we can see from the way the doctor treats Rose and her sister that they weren’t exactly respected members of Victorian society.
(* I have a friend who wrote a book about a white female mathematician in Victorian England who got called out by readers who said the character was unrealistic. So I think it’s more about the scope of Rose’s whole character, rather than the simple fact she was black, that makes her “amazing.”)
You ask if I think my readers are all white, and it’s a good question. Based on the interactions I have with readers on my RARM Facebook page, I would guess that a majority of my followers aren’t all that diverse. I also know that I see readership fall during RARM when I have lesser-known writers, no matter who they are, diverse or not. I think there are a lot of influences on sales and yes, many romance readers stick to their comfort zones, whether those comfort zones are based in genre or gender, time setting, worldbuilding, or race.
And yes, I think there are a lot of readers who will never, ever pick up a gay romance. Or a romance with a Black or Latino protagonist.
Do I wish that weren’t the case? Yes. Absolutely.
Do I think the number who will is growing? Yes. And my hope and efforts are going toward seeing it grow faster, which was the intent behind Celebrating Diversity in Romance Month. I hope that spending a month highlighting 31 authors many RARM readers might not have heard of will prove to be valuable.
I suppose I look at it from the point of view that if even one book gets sold, because I introduced a reader to a new author who sounded good to them, then it has some value. This was an opportunity to introduce my followers to a bunch of new authors who are often left out of the conversation. I brought this idea up to a number of diverse writers and industry insiders, and all of them liked the idea. Most of them loved the idea. Not one of them said “Don’t do it.”
I really do see your point about talking about these books simply as books rather than highlighting them as diverse books. On the other hand, I also see value in talking about books that correspond to specific events that also celebrate diverse books, like Romance Slam Jam or Queer Romance Month.
I don’t think these are easy questions, and I think plenty of people choose to ignore them completely. I appreciate the fact that you decided to expand the conversation, Courtney. Thank you.
If you’re ever interested in sitting down for coffee sometime at a conference, I’d welcome that too.
You make very good points and I’m listening.