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Diversity in Romance Books: Authentic Representation or Just a Checklist?

An internet sensation

The romance genre has exploded in recent years due to BookTok and Bookstagram. And with this explosion came the aftermath of questioning diversity. Romance books centred around white, allistic, heterosexual couples are at the forefront of the genre with little exploration into more diverse cultures, ethnicities, and sexualities.

Slowly but surely we’re seeing change, but more often than not, diverse representation is more like a checklist with very little research driving the inclusion of diversity. For some authors, inclusion is basic— having a character that isn’t white should go beyond the occasional reminder that they have “chocolate skin”. When the only language an author uses to portray a person of colour is describing their skin tone using food, it’s pretty lazy writing, suggesting very little research and care has gone into the character. Even worse, for example, is when writing about a disabled character, the author plays into harmful stereotypes, using language that disabled people have vocalised as problematic and inappropriate— like the term “wheelchair bound”.

Whatever the author's intentions may be, this type of writing just feels like an obligatory tick being checked off the diversity list. It also feels like a safety net, so these writers can say they've included diversity even if it's just the bare minimum. Representation needs to be elevated beyond the basics. There should be an exploration of identity, culture, and history driving the characterisation.

It begs the question… if you’re not a part of the groups you’re writing about, should you be writing about them in the first place?

A slippery slope...

Depending on who you ask, the answer to this question will be very different.

Some authors don't feel equipped to write about diverse, marginalised groups that they're not a part of for fear of coming across as offensive. This can be a fair argument. But when a writer omits the existence of diversity altogether in favour of white familiarity, aren't they still being harmful despite their intent? This is what happened to V.E. Schwab in her fantasy romance The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. The eponymous Addie travels across the 'world', spanning centuries... and only ever encounters white people. I also put 'world' in inverted commas because she only ever travels across Europe and North America, omitting countries and cultures that aren't white.

It's one thing to feel like you may mishandle writing about a marginalised group for fear of offending them. But it is another thing entirely to never acknowledge their existence at all.

With thorough research, sensitivity readers before publications, and an author who truly cares about authentic diversity, I think it is achievable for authors outside of said marginalised groups to write characters from within these groups. Because if straight white people only exclusively wrote about straight white people, how can change be enacted?

Representations matters

Seeing yourself represented in the books you read can bring you unsurmountable, undiluted joy! As someone who is diabetic and autistic, when I read The Mistletoe Motive with an authentic autistic heroine and an accurately depicted diabetic hero, I kind of wanted to cry. Just a little bit. When time and care are put into authentic representation, it not only impacts readers but elevates the author as a writer and a person. And helps lessen the uncomfortable restraints of never seeing yourself represented in the media around you.consume constantly

Ultimately, if you're not going to commit to authentic diversity... don't bother.

So, here are six romance books with authentic, diverse representation!

  • Always Only You by Chloe Liese - as an OwnVoices author, Liese naturally writes authentic representation in regards to autism. The heroine, Frankie, has autism as well as a physical disability.

  • The Charm Offensive by Alison Cochurn - reality-tv script-writer Dev Deshpande falls for the new awkward and emotionally closed-off star, Charlie Winshaw.

  • Set On You by Amy Lea - our Chinese-American heroine, Crystal, is a plus-size influencer and fitness trainer, who promotes self-acceptance and destigmatises gym stereotypes.

  • The Unexpected Fall by Anna Salcedo - the heroine, Genesis, is Puerto Rican while her enemy, Will, is Japanese. We get insight into both cultures as they're filtered throughout the novel.

  • Who'd Have Thought by G. Benson - pansexual nurse Hayden Pérez finds herself in a marriage of convenience with the cold, stoic neurosurgeon, Samantha Thomson.

  • Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert - chronically ill computer geek Chloe Brown employs the help of a wild, motorcycle-riding handyman, Redford Morgan, to complete her bucket list.

Our next steps

Listen - when an underrepresented group vocalises an issue with how they're being represented within the media, listen to them! From personal experience as an autistic individual, when I had once spoken out about how the portrayal of an autistic hero in a book I read played into damaging stereotypes and was spreading misinformation, I was dismissed. One comment told me "Bigger issues are going on in the world right now than how an autistic character is written in a book." Another said "This isn't an essay about autism. It's a romance book." But it does matter! Representation is all around us to consume constantly. And when we consume misinformation, we're more likely to spread it. Cue a vicious cycle. But if we take the time to listen, change becomes easier.

Accountability - hold each other and ourselves accountable! Not being fully versed in diversity doesn’t make us bad people, and neither does admitting our own ignorance. It’s actually an amazing skill to have, to be self-aware enough to call yourself out and hold yourself accountable.

Education - educate yourself! Don't rely on people from underrepresented groups to do the educating for you. Imagine how exhausting that is for them? Constantly battling and begging to be seen, heard, and understood? It is not their job to educate you, so try to take some of the weight off of their shoulders.

Authentic diversity can only be achieved through elevation and cooperation, together.


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