Open Letter Regarding Kate Breslin's "For Such a Time", and Diversity in Romance

Posted on August 9, 2015 by Richard Goulter
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So, Sarah Wendell’s Letter to the RWA regarding “For Such a Time” came to my attention; shortly after Suleikha Snyder’s rundown of RWA did.

Snyder’s Post

Snyder’s post is easier to summarise: She first says how great it was to meet with friends at RWA, then goes on to lament her other experience she describes as “a convergence of microaggressions.”. Credit where credit is due, Snyder’s smug condescension and angry tone are on point:

And they had to share a nomination slate with a Christian romance set in a concentration camp with a Nazi hero and a Jewish heroine who converts at the end. It finaled in two categories. TWO. And I have no freaking clue how. Was no one Jewish involved in the awards process? Do we really need, in this day and age, to have a Jewish person tell us that concentration camp romance is deeply fucked up? Shouldn’t that be, like, COMMON KNOWLEDGE?

Wendell’s Post

Wendell’s begins with an ostensibly much more neutral tone, although manages to share many of the same attitudes.
Key points:

Common Thesis

Before replying to these points, I’ll note that both share the same thoughts: “The romance community is becoming more diverse, and this book is offensive, shouldn’t have been nominated, or even written.”.

I find this attitude to not only be toxic, but also exclusionary, and not what reading is all about.

On Diversity in Media and Romance Novels

Diversity in content isn’t controversial at all. If there are a wide variety of books to read, it benefits the readers, so then not every book involves a handsome billionaire/duke ending up hitched to the hitherto unnoticed wallflower. Lack of monotony is nice. Perhaps more importantly, it’s good if everyone can find a book they like.
– Reading a book is quite special, though, since it let’s you into the mind of the character. The cliche is the reader has experienced many lives by reading through books. And there’s nothing particularly special about putting your feet in the shoes of someone very similar to you.

– I don’t, however, think that just because a book is written and is different necessitates that the book should sell well, or even win awards.

The word “diversity”, as used by Snyder and Wendell, and the social justice crowd, tends to refer to people of different identities; namely: sex/gender, race, and sexuality. They’re also referring to different aspects: diversity in authors, diversity in characters, and diversity in readers.
(I’ll say, personally, as a man who reads romance novels, it’s kinda funny that the lack of men reading, or writing, in the romance community isn’t brought up as a problematic aspect of the romance community; “for women, by women” is a statement of pride rather than an exclusive statement.).

A key concern for Wendell is that the ‘insensitivities’ of this book may make others feel uncomfortable; that people should be uncomfortable with this book, and it should go away.
A key concern for Snyder is that discussion of ‘diversity’ makes the many feel uncomfortable; that people shouldn’t feel uncomfortable with diversity, and those who are should adapt or go away.

– What troubles me is the thought “Romance ought to be a welcoming community / but not for people like this.”; “Diversity is wonderful / so long as people think how I think.”. Because a community homogeneous in its thought, which excludes attitudes it doesn’t like, sounds nothing like diversity to me.

Problematic Romance Novels

Diverse or not, a story featuring a Nazi and Jew romancing, set in the Holocaust is obviously offensive, right?
– Well, be honest: even if the characters were on equal footing, wouldn’t you then complain about Jew-sploitation; that the author was appropriating experiences which weren’t her own, and making money off of an awful period in human history? I’m sure someone would have said it.

But, please, let’s not wash over Romance Novels as if each is a paragon of virtue.

I don’t mean “sex before marriage omg” or “man-slut ends up with the girl”:
If “imbalance of power” is a problem for relationships, it’s unfortunate that “romancing the (fake) governess” is such a common trope. Similarly, the “forced-into marriage” trope is problematic in terms of consent.
In terms of more specific examples:
Judith McNaught’s “Whitney, My Love” is a love-it-or-hate-it novel featuring (apparently) a hero who physically beats the heroine.
Lisa Kleypas’ “It Happened One Autumn”, features the hero forcing himself on a resisting heroine; Kleypas then somewhat corrects this in “Scandal in Spring” emphasising this behaviour as bad, which is followed by a scene where the heroine locks the hero in a room, putting the key down her pants (keeping a non-consenting hero in the room).
Loretta Chase’s “Lord of Scoundrels” features the heroine shooting the hero, a somewhat extreme (and uncriticised) example of intimate partner violence.
Sherry Thomas’ “Tempting the Bride” features the hero giving the heroine a novella wherein he describes having sex with the heroine while she’s restrained (against her will) to a bedpost.
etc. etc. – These examples just from the top of my head. And I’ve not read as many books as some others have.

This shouldn’t become a game of Problematic Olympics.
Or, rather, I think that to scream & shout “hey, that’s offensive, don’t write that!” stifles creativity. – The above books are all outstandingly good books, it’d be a shame if they weren’t read for having problems.

I’ll admit I have no faith that cries of “that’s offensive” will be used with discernment.

Different Attitudes Amongst Diversity

I imagine neither Snyder nor Wendell would be a fan of George Carlin’s (somewhat pro-feminist) “don’t let people control what you can or can’t say”.

In any case, it seems an underlying assumption is that “offending others is bad; and making people uncomfortable is at odds with creating an inclusive environment.”. Holding this at the same time as thinking “making the establishment feel uncomfortable is progress” seems a bit inconsistent to me.
What’s certainly not clear is how writers from different (and even conflicting) viewpoints are to express themselves without offending others. “Communal Harmony” vs “Individual Expression” is a conflict any diverse community deals with.

Snyder’s attitude is certainly a not-here-to-make-friends righteousness; and when what’s under discussion is of politics, religion or ethics/morality - subjects people often disagree with each other on - an attitude like that doesn’t foster welcoming for those who differ from the norm.
– Rather than “everyone can think what they want to, so long as it’s behind closed doors, not offending anybody”, it would be nice if people with conflicting viewpoints could come together and discuss things with civility.

– In that regard, it’s deeply, deeply disappointing that both Snyder and Wendell think it would be better if the book weren’t written.
It would probably be worth buying a copy of this RITA-nominated book, if you haven’t already: Kobo, Amazon Kindle.

Where to Go From Here

Just a reminder that Romance Novels are happy books.
Getting angry with each other and yelling is probably not a constructive effort.

Read a book you hated? (I know I have.). Good! This means your reading includes a diverse range of authors.
Discuss, complain, write angry blogposts if you like. – But don’t aim to silence or other voices; especially not under the guise of “diversity”.

“Don’t be a dick” is always great advice, especially when interacting with others online. I’d love to see more examples of people transcending disagreements, understanding one another and discussing different viewpoints without righteous hobnobbery.
Clearly I need to work on this, just as Wendell might. (Jonathon Haidt is one of the few I know of who can do this well. A relevant, humourous TED talk. Prob’ly the most important link on this page, and it’s left all the way at the bottom..).

Update: Corrected a few egregious spelling mistakes.

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