Tolerance is one of those words that balances right on the line between positive and negative. We speak of tolerating something bad — that is, of enduring something we would otherwise like to avoid. In other contexts, we refer to tolerance as an aspirational value, as in racial tolerance, for example. This definitional dualism (or even duelism, perhaps), has always made me slightly intolerant of tolerance. However, I can’t think of a better word to describe the conditioning that I think occurs in the relationship between Romance fiction and its readers.
Let me give you two recent examples of this conditioning. One is nicely articulated in Sunita’s recent post on her personal blog regarding what she calls “the rise of the published first draft.” Sunita believes that a pressure to write more and faster has led to the professional publication and reader tolerance of books that are not polished in regard to conceptualization, writing, and editing:
After decades of reading genre fiction, literary fiction, and the classics, it’s obvious to me that genre writers are no less talented. Rather, they are writers who have chosen a genre that expects them to publish more quickly and more frequently. But we’ve taken “publish faster” to its extreme already. It scares me to think we’re trying to speed up the process beyond this point.
. . .
In the end, though, the burden of stopping this race to the bottom lies with readers. We’re the ones who buy the books, pay the publishers, and tell the authors how wonderful they are. If, as a reader, you’re willing to squee about a shapeless, under-written mass of book-like product, we’re all going to pay the much higher price of driving the carefully written and produced books out of the market.
The very next day, Jane posted a Dear Author column on BEA, in which she noted that
Harlequin would love to publish more multicultural books but haven’t received many manuscripts featuring characters of color. They really want to see those manuscripts. They indicated that Abby Green’s The Stolen Bride,featuring a Bollywood actress, was well received.
That comment initiated an interesting discussion on whether the mainstream of the genre’s readership welcomes multicultural Romances, with some anecdotal author evidence suggesting they do not, despite anecdotal reader evidence that they do.
In both cases, I would argue that there has been a conditioning of sorts that has, in one case, cultivated mainstream tolerance of lower production standards, and, in the other case, cultivated mainstream intolerance of certain characteristics in Romance protagonists and settings.
I realize that some might be critical of my decision to talk about production values and multicultural characters/settings in the same post, but I am doing so deliberately, not to diminish the importance of the second issue, but because what I want to offer as a strategy to combat the second issue is, I believe, better illustrated in tandem with the first.
Since I came into the online Romance community (about ten years ago), I have heard the complaints about editing errors and the declining quality of paper, ink, glue, and other elements of the published book. Over the past couple of years, though, and with the rise of digital books, those complaints have exponentially multiplied. Now, in addition to the original problems, readers are voicing frustration over scanning errors, missing pages, typographical and spelling errors, and beyond, to more substantive problems with story-editing, conceptualization, and mechanics of writing.
Tensions between voice, storytelling, and prose style are always going to produce arguments about whether a book is objectively “good” or not, but I don’t know if there’s much room for argument about the seeming ubiquity of production lapses (Carolyn Jewel has an interesting post about the digital formatting of her own books). And still, despite all the complaints, these books continue to sell, sometimes even at bestseller rates. In fact, one of the reasons I switched from MMPB to digital was the increasingly flimsy quality of paper books, and sometimes I feel like the joke is on me, because I think I’m buying even more books now.
But perhaps the fact that books continue to sell despite diminished production values is not so surprising when you consider the fact that these errors are so common now, especially for those of us reading digital books. Sure, there is still substantial variation among books and publishers, and it’s not impossible to find well-produced books. But when established publishing houses are implicated in the downward trend, readers are essentially being conditioned to tolerate lower production values through their persistent, extensive reproduction. I know this is true for me, because when I come across a book that is beautifully produced (e.g. Bancroft Press’s The Understory), I take note. It used to be the reverse, but despite my continued frustration over the scanning, typographical, and other production errors, I am becoming accustomed to them, to consider them the norm. And I wonder – with a significant amount of worry – if there will come a point when I will no longer notice them with the alacrity and indignation I do now.
I believe there has been a similar — but even longer-term — process of conditioning going on with multicultural Romances; namely, that the mainstream readership has been conditioned to see certain types of books as the norm. Now, let me say right here that I’m not arguing that there is a lack of prejudice against multicultural Romance. We have all seen reader comments indicating a discomfort with protagonists who are not white. However, we have seen reader comments in the other direction, as well, from those who desperately and vocally want more non-white protagonists in their Romance.
But even that desire does not preclude prejudice, because to some degree I would argue that we all prejudge the genre books we read, in part because so many of the tropes in Romance have become expected and familiar to us. And depending on the circumstances and the reader, something that readers perceive to be outside expectations can backfire. Whether a reader prejudges a book in a positive way and is then disappointed and gun shy, or whether a reader prejudges a book in a negative way and misses out on what would have been a positive reading experience, the end result appears to be the same: an unsold or poorly received book. When fewer, not more, books outside the norm enter the market, judgments are even more exaggerated and damning. And when some books are not even shelved or sold in the Romance section, based only on the race of the author and/or her characters, readers are being told that some books are different, that they are not like the others, which can lead to further marginalization.
One of the problems with reader conditioning, beyond the fact that readers may become intolerant, is that it often leads to an erroneous conclusion that what readers will tolerate is the same thing as what they want or what they will ultimately enjoy. In the case of production errors, I think this is obvious: just because readers tolerate certain errors does not mean they don’t want more. And in the case of those readers who do not pick up on every error, does anyone really believe they would complain upon receiving an outstandingly produced book? What are the downsides to sound grammar, editing, and formatting/printing?
In the case of protagonists and settings that fall outside the genre norm (and as many have pointed out, it’s not all multicultural protagonists and settings that lie outside the genre mainstream), the argument gets a bit more complicated, even though I think the principle is similar. There are, absolutely, readers who will remain intolerant to multicultural protagonists and settings. However, I emphatically believe that there are many readers in the mainstream who can be re-conditioned to embrace much more in the genre than they currently might. I think we see that on a small scale every time a book that is praised for being “new” takes off (catalyzing a bunch of copy-cats, of course). And in the same way that we see a diversity of opinions and desires in the online community, why should we assume that there is not such diversity in the offline sector of the Romance reading community? The impulse to characterize those readers as more socially conservative is, I think, a common error that perpetuates resistance to challenging the status quo.
In fact, I think you could argue that the digital divide, which is growing again and continues to privilege white folks with economic means, indicates that an even more diverse readership offline awaits a more diverse genre. Without a doubt, real world internationalization is creating more and more cultural overlap and integration, so beyond the economic possibilities for more multicultural Romance is the social good of evolving in the same direction as our inevitable globalization.
The question is, who should bear the burden of responsibility for this re-conditioning?
In the case of production values, I agree with Sunita that the burden is largely on readers; in this case, our tolerance sends a message to authors and publishers that we are fine with the status quo being set by those who produce books. Authors and publishers should bear part of the burden, but as long as they are saving/not losing money by lowering production standards, will they spontaneously embrace a higher standard?
In the case of multicultural Romance, however, I believe that the burden shifts toward authors and publishers. Yes, I know commercial fiction is about commerce. But given the profound diversity in the United States alone, shouldn’t the ultimate genre market be bigger than it is now? And yes, I know that authors have anecdotal evidence that multicultural Romances does not sell as robustly. Of course, we also have anecdotal evidence that a name that sounds ethnically different (Nalini Singh, for example) or the race of an author and her characters (e.g. Brenda Jackson) is not a bar to sales and popularity. And then there is the innate social good of diversifying the genre, a good that has facilitated every push for greater racial and cultural integration. It’s all about effecting a paradigm shift by reconditioning reader expectations, such that not only will current readers diversify their reading, but new readers can also pick up books that better represent their cultural identity.
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.
I understand that this is a controversial proposition, but I think it is the only way to effect a necessary paradigm shift. Are there risks and short-term losses likely? Yes. And I don’t think anyone who does not aspire to diversifying the genre should feel obligated to write toward that end. At the same time, authors and publishers who do support that goal can materially and substantially contribute to the change, and in this case I believe they have much more power than readers to do so.