The short answer is–they don’t have to. There is no dearth of talented white authors spinning out tales of romance or romantic suspense to please readers of all stripes. In fact, for decades, readers of all races who wanted their romance fix relied on white writers to provide it. So where is the quid pro quo? Why aren’t white readers flocking to read books written by black authors–or Latina or Chinese or (insert an ethnicity here)?
There are those who would be quick to point to racism as a quick answer. To some degree, this may be true. There are some folks for whom patronizing anything black is less desirable than poking out their own eyes. I can’t do anything about those people (who probably don’t read this blog anyway) nor do I think this is the majority of the American population. The more likely culprit is the politics of race–which can be just as pervasive and insidious.
What do I mean by that? Let’s take a look at how books by black authors (not just romances) are handled by the publishing industry. Once the folks in New York figured out that not only do black folks read but they are willing to spend a lot of money on books, several publishers developed special divisions or lines, manned by black editors. These titles were (and still are) promoted to mainly black audiences, regardless of genre. Many review sites (particularly those for romance) hired black reviewers to handle the influx of black books. Black books began to be segregated into special African American sections for easy browsing.
For the black writer, this treatment is a double-edged sword. Having a black editor to whom you do not have to explain language choices or convince of the reality of certain situations because you share a commonality of experience can be a blessing. However, when the same manuscript goes to the invariably white copy editor, all advantages gained can be lost. Promoting your book to the black community is a boon, since everyone assumes your core readership will be black folks. However, that leaves a large segment of the population that may very well be interested in your title untouched. Being reviewed by only black reviewers suggests that only black readers can read, understand and appreciate books written by black authors. A separate section for black books promotes ease of shopping for black readers, but shouts to non-black readers that whatever books are stocked there are not for them.
In many ways, this is the same way the ubiquitous title of women’s fiction can impact on how books are shelved promoted and ultimately purchased. The label women’s fiction tells male readers this is not a book for them (whether that is true or not for a particular book) and relegates a novel to a lesser status than simply calling it a mainstream book. There is no similar category for men’s fiction (just as there are no special sections in book stores for say, European or Jewish or Chinese romances). However, two main differences exist between the women’s fiction market and the black market–at least where romance is concerned.
First, the women’s fiction market is large enough to provide a decent living for its writers. The same is not necessarily true of the black market. Secondly, most black books (and romances in particular) boast no significant difference to those written by white authors EXCEPT for the race of author and characters. For the most part, there is no more significant difference between a romance or mystery or fantasy novel written by someone black as there is one written by a Latina, Scotswoman or Jew. There are subtle differences but nothing so out there that your average person of any race couldn’t enjoy them.
So what’s the answer? I’m not sure I have one. I do know that I abhor segregation of any kind. History has already proved that separate is not equal. In my opinion, both readers and writers are short-changed by publishing practices as they are now.
What’s your opinion?