Link Roundup: Race in Romance

June was a good month for discussions of race and ethnicity in the romance genre. Here are some links:

June 6: Requires Only That You Hate posts Heterosexuality’s Just a Phase: The damage of romance:

Feminism is intersectional or it’s bullshit: this saying meant nothing to me once upon a time, because I thought we were all united by the desire to smash the patriarchy. But because any movement that’s gained traction will always be dominated by those with the most power, being inclusive to all is never a natural, default thing. It’s always going to prioritize the needs and wants of the dominant, and in this case that tends to be straight white women from the first world. It’s going to make everyone else wait forever–and there’s a reason many women of color have abandoned the “feminist” identity outright in favor of womanism. I haven’t yet, but I’m not going to bloody well put up with people telling me romance is feminist because it makes certain groups of women happy, and I should just wait my turn.

This isn’t feminism I recognize.

Comment from Karen Scott:

I think you consider yourself a bastion of feminism, but actually I think that your rant is the opposite of feminist. To me, feminism is really about choice. It’s about being allowed to read and write whatever genre you want to, without recrimination and finger wagging from people screeching about how your mind should be more open.

You say that romance books have helped otherise you, because they basically told you that in order to live a happy life, you had to be white and straight. I have to call bullshit on that I’m afraid. At eleven years old, I read romance books, and recognised them for what they were, enjoyable works of fiction that helped me escape into other worlds for brief periods of time. I don’t hold them responsible for the way I think, or the way I see myself.

The majority of books that I read as an eleven year old featured people with a different skin colour to myself, but that didn’t mean that I considered myself unlovable because I was black. Luckily for me, my life education came from my parents, rather than my Mills & Boon books.

Just as reading Flowers In The Attic didn’t make me look at my brother in a sexual way, reading romance books didn’t make me hate the fact that I was black.

June 16: At Karen Knows Best, a post by Karen, On J. R. Ward’s Use of the Hip Hop Culture, sans the Blacks:

Comment by author Roslyn Holcomb:

Ward is giving white women access to the fantasy of big black cock without them having to deal with the loss of privilege that comes with actual, you know, blackness. And yes, it’s so fucking racist it should be wearing a sheet. Next!

In the “Walking the Talk department,” KKB has a new reviewer, Michelle, who is going to be “reviewing multicultural books”. Her first post was on Stranded, by Eve Vaughn.

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June 19: Dear Author posts Cultivating Tolerance, A Multicultural Solution”

For mainstream reconditioning to occur, however, more books that challenge the status quo have to be published, and they have to be published within the Romance mainstream. That authors like Suzanne Brockmann can sell non-white protagonists also suggests to me that popular, seasoned authors need to be leading the charge to write more books that challenge the status quo, because those authors’ fans are legion, and their inclination will most likely be to read those books. And publishers need to stand behind these books, as well – to market them as Romance, plain and simple, and to market them along with books that already have mainstream acceptance. And most important, these efforts cannot be a one-off; there must be a long-term, dedicated campaign to recondition the mainstream genre readership to regard multicultural Romance as normal, just as it is in our real life world beyond the books. There will always be books that don’t live up to reader expectations, that generate criticisms that they’re stereotyped or unrealistic. However, that issue is much more likely to sideline multicultural Romances when their representation in the genre is scarce.

A comment from Las:

I tend to believe authors when they say that books featuring POC characters don’t sell as well. The online community likes to talk a lot about multiculturalism and production values, but all the talk doesn’t seem to translate into sales. POC characters don’t seem to sell outside of specific subgenres (like paranormals, and I have a particularly cynical theory as to why that is); and shitty production values don’t seem to negatively impact sales, in fact I think they might help (Hello, 50 Shades!). So while I, as a reader, am entirely frustrated with the state books and won’t tolerate certain things, I can well imagine that if I were an author or publisher/editor I might not do things all that differently.

And another from Holcomb:

As for well-known or established authors breaking the stained glass ceiling so to speak? That’s already been done, and continues to be done, however, it doesn’t seem to broaden the readership of multi-cultural romance in general. Brockmann did it and continues to do so, but it doesn’t seem to have translated to greater popularity of the genre. We just have people defensively clinging to their love of Sam and Alyssa as demonstrative of their ability to embrace “the other.” Besides, readers seem to have no problem embracing multicultural romance as long as it’s written by white authors. It’s not the characters they’re rejecting, it’s the authors. So what we’ll wind up with is a cultural appropriation situation whereby the only authors who profit from the genre willbe white.

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June 20: Jill Sorenson, Romantic Suspense author, on Multiculturalism and Romance

I can’t speak for other authors, but that is my feeling about my audience. Readers have said that they don’t look for authentic depictions of culture in romance. Too often, they are disappointed by stereotypes.

Two personal examples. My husband has a lot of female cousins in their teens and twenties. They read exactly what other girls their age read: Twilight. The Hunger Games. Harry Potter. If they’re looking for better representation, I don’t know about it. They do tease me about the sexual content in my books, which they approve of. ;)

When I was at the RT Convention last year, I signed books next to Kerrelyn Sparks. She had so many fans, many of them young Latinas. I sat there, unnoticed, with my gritty romantic suspense featuring a twenty-something Latina heroine. What could I do? Those girls wanted fun paranormals. They didn’t even glance at me. *weeps*

I didn’t know how to reach that demographic. I still don’t.

What I do know is that my readers have begged for stories featuring Eric Hernandez from The Edge of Night and Maria Santos from Caught in the Act. But those books haven’t sold like hotcakes, so I’m on the fence about writing sequels. I feel like I need a breakout hit first.

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June 22, Does The Romance Genre Owe Society, a thread at the All About Romance forums started by dick. I’ll quote in full one of my favorite comments in that thread, by noirfemme:

I don’t think the issue has anything to do with the romance genre “owing” society, but the fact that a great majority of us live, interact, love, like, hate, see, work, play with people of different ethnicity, religion, cultures and cultural values, etc on a daily basis, but when we crack open the spine of a romance novel, the default–normalized, I should say–image of Romance (passion, sex, love, marriage) is that of a white couple.

Throw in the mania for small town romances that nine times out of ten, are completely homogenous, and the exoticness or Otherization of non-whites (usually Greek, Italian, Hispanic–basically ethnic groups who’ve been brushed with the dark, passionate, hot-tempered lover stereotype), and I have to hold a mirror up to what this means for and to readers, writers, and the cogs of the publishing industry.

It’s arrogant to claim that what’s being published is what sells and you should look around or look outside the genre for a particular element–if that’s the case, then stop complaining about Regencies or vampires or erotica taking over the genre. It’s erroneous as well since there are romance novels featuring non-white protagonists–you just don’t see them promoted or placed in the same venues as Linda Howard or Eloisa James because TPTB in publishing automatically assume the average romance reader (white, middle-aged, suburban) has absolutely zero interest in romantic suspense or contemporary romance or even historical romance with non-white protagonists. Or worse, those books aren’t even acquired (and even worse, not even written) because romances with white protagonists (aka default) are easier to market and promote since it’s “normal”.

The question asked is why can we send white characters to the moon, see them mate with all sorts of mythological creatures, overpopulate Regency England as dukes and earls, watch them battle it over a lawsuit, etc etc, but:
a) POC are absolutely erased from the picture
b) the thought of including people of color makes people’s knees knock in fear
c) people get angry whenever the lack of POC is pointed out–and why the knee-jerk response is to accuse others of trying to “force” them to read books with POC

This topic also, in a roundabout way, exposes the troublesome aspects of the genre’s racial hegemony: white authors dominate, ergo white characters dominate, ergo POC feel marginalized, ergo POC remove themselves from the romance genre and/or mainstream romance areas, ergo the genre remains dominate by white authors and white characters. It also denies the presence and history of authors of color in the romance genre–the RWA was founded by a powerful black editor, Vivien Stephens, black authors were there in the 80s, and there are black authors whose backlists are just as long and varied as Nora Roberts and Susan Elizabeth Phillips–and I would say the dismissal of this topic also denies and silences the voice of the romance readers who might not be white behind their internet handles and blogs.

Also, this from Eliza, which warms the cockles of this educator’s heart:

After reading and thinking about this thread I have a different perspective, I think: Yes, the the seemingly dreaded “thought-provoking” has occurred.

First, I want to avoid the terms “owe,” “tolerance” or “acceptance” for the purposes of just this particular post.

Next, most everyone is using either the term “escape” or “entertainment” for why they like romance.

My first question is why does it seem that hardly anyone is hearing that this is exactly what NoirFemme and Not Quite Nicole WANT TOO? Seems reasonable to me.

My second question is why diversity within romance entertainment isn’t possible? Seems entirely reasonable to me.

My third question is why a homogenized community is necessarily any more entertaining than a diverse one? (Comfortableness? Puh-lease. Some of those small town books seem like something out of “1984” or a Stepford community to me–unbelievable boring, not to mention intrusive of any personal privacy. Obviously this last statement is JMO.)

Next, even for fun, why would a reader not WANT to read about all kinds of people, especially when quite a few have complained vociferously about the unrelenting sameness of recent romances?

WHO SAYS a romance with a diverse cast has to have any more of an agenda than any other romantic comedy, a romantic suspense, a paranormal, a historical, or anything else? Why can’t there be diversity AND genre choice–as light or as serious as any of the other romances?

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June 28: Defense of Interracial Romance: A Call to Action, by Roslyn Holcomb

we’re going to need our fans now more so than ever. I remember when MM romance first started. People who loved that genre set up blogs to review their books because mainstream blogs wouldn’t. Now MM is huge. Their goodreads group has thousands of members. There’s no reason we cn’t do the same. We’ve got to stop begging them to include us and get out there and get our own. You don’t want to start a blog there are other things you can do. If you read a book and like it at the very least post it on Facebook and/ or Twitter. We have absolutely no excuse for not promoting and supporting our own genre. Buzz is what it’s about these days. They’ve got hashtags and whole sites for their books. There’s no reason we can’t do the same.

***

Finally, this is from a 2010 discussion at Romance University, featuring several folks, including the late great L. A. Banks, but I couldn’t help but throw it in, because I have read a few Kimanis, and I have a hard time understanding what make a Kimani a Kimani romance. Here are two different answers, in a comment by Patricia Markham Woodside (quoting a divergent view from Glenda Howard):

[Kimani Executive Editor Glenda] Howard said, “The key differences are the ethnicities of the hero and/or heroine.” I disagree, and I think this statement contributes to a misperception in the minds of readers. It’s in part why readers don’t read in this sub-genre as much as we would like.

If ethnicity were truly the only difference, then it makes sense that a reader might ask herself the importance of buying multicultural romance. Same stories, different faces, right?

But multicultural romance is much more than different faces. It’s romance painted with different hues. Instead of primary red, yellow, and blue, perhaps it’s crimson, gold, and navy. What makes the difference? Not just the ethnicity of the characters, but their worldview which is steeped in their culture and environment. I find that romances featuring African-American protagonists, like Kimani Romance for example, tend to have more urban settings and different types of professions–athletes and business executives vs. ranchers and small town sheriffs–than what I find in say, the Love Inspired or the American Romance lines. Beyond the superficial though, multicultural stories that are well-told give a glimpse into the characters’ culture by way of their dialogue, their thoughts, their actions and responses that may differ as well.

On the flipside, I rarely see the type of faith-infused stories like I find in Love Inspired in multicultural romances. The closest one I’ve seen in a while was Jacquelin Thomas’ Chocolate Goodies release earlier this year. They are few and far between. Are writers not offering them or do they not fit with the guidelines for what we believe multicultural romance, at least in category romance, to be about?

If readers think they might get something more than white faces filled in with darker crayons, i.e. a different type of story, they might be more inclined to buy. Of course, the book buying issue is more complex than this, but I just think this is one factor.

Patricia W.’s comment generated some good discussion.

***

What threads/posts have I missed? Please let me know in the comments.

I’ll conclude with an Adrienne Rich quote: “Until we know the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves.”

17 responses

  1. You’re so brave to have read that AAR thread. I heard about it on Twitter and gave that a wide, wide berth. AAR’s band of cultural throwbacks and holdouts discussing the state of POCs in romance would’ve given me an ulcer.

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  2. It’s going to take me hours and hours to read through all those comments, but thank you for posting them. It’s fascinating stuff. On a personal level, I got a little bit of flack from a couple of beta readers (and one reviewer) about a very late reveal in my first book that my heroine is bi-racial, specifically half-Japanese. I didn’t answer the reviewer, of course, but it led to some fun conversations with my beta readers. My heroine’s name is Akira, her childhood neighbors have Japanese names, she’s from California, she’s described as having dark hair and dark eyes and being pale — how can the fact that she’s part Asian come as a surprise? What else would she be? And why does it matter? But two of my beta readers thought it needed to be mentioned upfront.

    I didn’t agree and didn’t make any changes, because we’re mostly in her POV and to me, there was never a time when she would have been thinking about her ethnicity. It did make me wonder how many other readers would be bothered by it, though, and I suspect that if I’d been writing with any interest in traditional publishing, I might have wimped out and never mentioned it. But I think from a writer’s perspective, when you want the widest possible audience (or if you want the widest possible audience), it probably feels pretty scary to step outside the majority ethnicity.

    Similar problem, imo, the weakest character in that book is African-American. I can justify why he is the weakest character, with the least personality,* but at the same time, I did really worry that he would seem like a stereotype. I didn’t have the same fear at all about other minor characters who were white: maybe my real estate agent seems like a stereotypical single white business woman, maybe my waitress seems like a stereotypical white low-income teenager, but if someone said so, I’d shrug it off in a way that would be harder to do with the black character. A charge of racial stereotyping is on a whole different level and given our culture, writing outside your race feels risky — even when you aren’t trying to appeal to the widest possible audience.

    * I can justify this from a story perspective, not an authorial perspective, but the explanation would just be confusing to anyone who hasn’t read the book. Or would require a ton of background.

    One last thought on the difficulties of diversity: I got a review yesterday on my second book that said, “I stayed very confused if Ty was a man or a woman———-could be because I was reading too fast. That kind of drove me crazy especially when Ty wasn’t a main character.” It sort of made me laugh. Here’s Ty’s introduction: “In his mid-forties, he was tall, blond, and handsome, in impeccable physical condition, and the perfect image of a professional security expert. But he was also damn good at his job and an old friend.” Where does the confusion come from? Answer: Ty’s gay and he’s married. His husband’s name is Jeremy and they have a toddler. The only possible way to ever be confused about Ty’s gender is if his sexuality/relationship status is so far outside your ken that having a husband automatically means you’re female. For any author, but especially the self-published ones, reviews matter, so here I am, getting dinged for being confusing when what I really am is diverse! I’m not worried about it, but that’s because I write weird books and mostly do it for fun with no expectation of ever achieving “success”. (In quotes, because I don’t really like the definition that says success =money & bestseller lists, I prefer success = having fun & telling entertaining stories.)

    Anyway, sorry that this got so long. It’s obviously a subject that interests me but not one that has easy answers. I think a comment in the Dear Author thread suggesting that writers needed to drive the change coupled with the Woodside quote that about the different worldviews just sort of crystallized my feeling that from a writer’s perspective — a white writer’s perspective, anyway — diversity is scary and risky and challenging. All of which makes it fun, imo, but I can see that if I really hoped I’d ever make a living from writing, I might feel differently.

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  3. Thanks for this; I’d missed some of these links. I really like your closing (another reason to mourn Rich). I am definitely guilty of thinking multicultural romance is a good thing but not always making the effort to seek it out and read it.

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  4. Speaking purely from the reader point of view, I didn’t notice that some of Brockmann’s h/hs were biracial couples until reading this blog post (I mean I did, but not that it was significant). I have always noticed the yucky thing in mainstream romance where they Otherise Arabs, people from mediterranean countries, and Native Americans, and have tended to avoid those books. I’ve noticed a few books lately with mixed race heroines, and it feels more comfortable and reflective of my daily life. I hope publishers open up to having characters from more diverse backgrounds.

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  5. Thank you for the links, I’ve read a couple of the articles already, but wasn’t aware of the rest. It’s a very important issue and I hope people continue to talk about it, because it’s one thing if it’s a simple case of non-white authors not submitting writing because they haven’t written any, but another entirely to have a priority for white-centric fiction at the expense of non-white and with the problem of whitewashing book covers when the characters don’t meet the preference.

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  6. “because it’s one thing if it’s a simple case of non-white authors not submitting writing because they haven’t written any,”

    I don’t think that’s a simple case at all.

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  7. Thanks for the link, Jess. We are always up for a good discussion at AAR. I, too, missed some of this online and I will be catching up thanks to your post.

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  8. @Sarah Wynde: What’s the title of your book? I’d like to read it.

    I didn’t agree and didn’t make any changes, because we’re mostly in her POV and to me, there was never a time when she would have been thinking about her ethnicity.

    FWIW, I feel you were right to stick to your guns. As a mixed race person, I rarely think about mine when I’m alone. Only times I do are a) when other people ask me what I am (or similar), b) when I watch films or read novels, c) when I’m in a race-related discussion, and d) when I deal with awkward stuff, such as shopping for make-up (it’s still hard to find the right tone foundation).

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  9. @Maili: I really wasn’t trying to promote my own book, but I’d be happy to send you a copy if it sounds like something you’re interested in. The first one’s A Gift of Ghosts and if you like the look of it, send an email to wrafferty at gmail and I’ll send you a Kindle or epub file (tell me which you prefer in the email). Race is really not an important part of it, though — it’s a cozy little ghost story that just happens to have a half-Japanese heroine because I a) liked the name Akira, b) think Japanese ghost traditions are intriguing, and c) find Marie Digby beautiful in the way I wanted my heroine to be beautiful.

    And thank you for validating that Akira wouldn’t be thinking much about it. I used to live in northern California, and ethnicity there seems really different than it does on the east coast, much more casual. In my son’s elementary school (a charter school), the teachers were talking about needing to encourage more diversity but when we actually sat down and looked at the numbers, we had about 40% multiracial students. No one really noticed that as diversity, we just took it for granted.

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  10. Eep! It’s weird (in a good way!) seeing myself quoted.

    Is the AAR thread a major train wreck? I like those two posts you quoted, but I would assume this type of discussion would not go well there. Even the thread title kind of annoys me.

    I;ve really miss your link roundups.

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  11. @Ridley:

    AAR’s band of cultural throwbacks and holdouts discussing the state of POCs in romance would’ve given me an ulcer.

    There were a number of commenters I disagreed with, but it’s no worse than reading long threads on any other website.

    @Sarah Wynde:

    my feeling that from a writer’s perspective — a white writer’s perspective, anyway — diversity is scary and risky and challenging. All of which makes it fun, imo, but I can see that if I really hoped I’d ever make a living from writing, I might feel differently.

    I appreciate this, just as I appreciated others’ comments in the threads I linked to the effect that writing is scary, per se, and that just about anything an author writes about can be subject to severe criticism.

    Also, it’s a lot easier to do the right thing when doing so accords with our own self-interest. And that’s not a criticism of anyone. I would apply it to myself first and foremost.

    @Liz Mc2: Me neither. I was thinking about a couple of things. Like, maybe start a multicultural romance challenge (or find one), reading one a month, like SuperWendy does with the TBR challenge.

    Another idea was to try to find a book I could really champion, the way Kristie championed Judith James’ Broken Wing a few years back, and get a bunch of bloggers to all read it review it the same week.

    I’m sure there are lots of better ideas, but those are two that came to me.

    @Des Livres: @Des Livres:

    I hope publishers open up to having characters from more diverse backgrounds.

    Me too. Although it seems we need readers to be more comfortable, and also authors. It’s a three legged table.

    @Charlie: Glad it wasn’t too repetitive.

    @Violetta Vane: Agreed. Just today I met with a physician who explained that he “doesn’t see race. I see the individual.” *headdesk*

    @SandyAAR: I liked that discussion, and in general enjoy AAR, even when I strenuously disagree with the posters.

    @Maili: Thanks for weighing in with your perspective. I was curious about that.

    @Las: Las, as a general rule, I would print out, frame and then commit to memory 95% of your comments in Romanceland.

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  12. I would say the dismissal of this topic also denies and silences the voice of the romance readers who might not be white behind their internet handles and blogs.

    My answer to this? Only if you allow it to silence you.

    Jessica, it seems as if ‘diversity’ was the word of the month. I’m afraid that as soon as I read the word “tolerance” used in a post, I walked away because to me that means “having to put up with something that one doesn’t necessarily agree with.” What’s the point exactly? What was the point of some of these posts? To promote POC by having ‘mainstream’ writers ‘include’ more POC in their works so ‘mainstream’ readers can learn to tolerate POC in their romances, I think.

    Because I am Latina and an immigrant, for many years for me, reading about ‘diversity’ meant reading and learning about other cultures, like the English, the Irish, Scotish, and yes… Middle (small town America), the American South, Australia, Canada… you know, the ‘norm’ for ‘mainstream’ readers. Yet, I never felt that I had to ‘tolerate’ anything… for me, it was a matter of learning about and understanding different cultures, different from mine — how history made those cultures unique — but always looking to find common ground. That all-important human factor.

    Publishers will not print and produce, or accept scripts by POC writers or about POC unless they see interest by the reading community and that is correct. But if the works that are out there are not read, and most of the time not even acknowledged, that’s not going to happen. It’s all good that mainstream writers are being encouraged, but in my way of thinking that is the easy answer when it comes to ‘diversity.’ How about reading and reviewing published works by POC/writers with the same care, interest, and enthusiasm as it is done for ‘mainstream’ writers. How about reading and reviewing romance books by gay writers, latino writers, african american writers? Or as everyone is so fond of quoting “Others.” They are out there. So yes… diversity. I guess after so many years of reading romance and discussing/analyzing this same subject, I would like to see more action and less “discussion” about it. My 2 cents. :)

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  13. Pingback: Five Things on Fr—Saturday « Kate McMurray

  14. @Jessica: At the moment I hunt good books to read by checking your blog, Dear Author and Smart Bitches, book smugglers a bit as well as trailing sadly around Amazon. (am open to recommendations re other good hunting grounds).

    If I read an enthusiastic review of a book that looks good, I will follow it up. So please, blogger people, if you find some great books with non-anglo protagonists, please tell us about them! I will go and look at Kimani romance. any recommendations?

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  15. @Des Livres: I don’t really (loved certain books, like Meredith Duran’s debut, with a mixed race hero, but read very few MC roms) but think the AAR thread has some recs, and I am pretty sure DA has done some recs posts on multicultural romance. And I am sure SBTB has done threads too, and there is a Goodreads group if you are on Goodreads, so I would start there.

    @Hilcia:

    How about reading and reviewing published works by POC/writers with the same care, interest, and enthusiasm as it is done for ‘mainstream’ writers. How about reading and reviewing romance books by gay writers, latino writers, african american writers? Or as everyone is so fond of quoting “Others.” They are out there. So yes… diversity. I guess after so many years of reading romance and discussing/analyzing this same subject, I would like to see more action and less “discussion” about it. My 2 cents. :)

    First, thanks for sharing your perspective. I agree with you, that it is easier to discuss and harder to actually do, as with any political or politicized view we hold. And I am certainly guilty of that as well, having read very few romances with POC as heroes or heroines.

    I think it’s probably better to discuss it than not, though. One thing I learned following all these discussions is that action has to come from a few places, and I think the different posts focus on the different sources of change — authors, readers, publishers. So, for me, I feel like I have a better understanding of what my potential role could be as a reader and reviewer of romance.

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