Every few years — hell, maybe it's every few months — someone tries to set themselves up as the arbiter of what romance novels have validity and deserve to be representative of the genre. Whether it's declaring historical romance dead and hailing the rise of New Adult, suggesting the New York Times review these authors and not those books for a "smarter" presentation of romance, penning pieces about the "new" heroines of "new" feminist romances, or dismissing Harlequin as outmoded and out of touch compared to independent authors...someone is always trying to reinvent the wheel to their specifications. It would be kind of funny if it weren't so divisive. Given how much gatekeeping we already have to deal with from publishers, do we really need the extra elitism and attempts at taste-making?
Romance has been blazing trails since the 1970s. We could even go all the way back to Heyer and Austen. I'm not going to go over the ground that many academics and romance historians have already tread. I'm just pointing out that none of this is new. The writing and reading of romance has always, always, been a feminist act for its time. And trends within the genre have always been cyclical. Alpha heroes and strong women who push back against them didn't just crop up five years ago. Neither did heroines in their late teens/early 20s. Neither did super-filthy, boundary-pushing love scenes. (Bertrice Small's Wild Jasmine had an f/m/f scene with anal sex. In 1992.) You're not bringing sexy back, Justin. It never left.
What has changed is the rise in previously marginalized voices telling their own stories and being welcomed into the mainstream. That welcome is not happening quickly. Much like the growth and explosion of romance written by and for black women throughout the '80s and '90s and into the 2000s, it's largely happening in spaces that white het cis vanilla people don't pay attention to. We're seeing kinky romances written by kinky people. Queer and trans romances by queer and trans voices. Romances featuring disabled characters by people with disabilities. And, of course, more diverse romances by people of color. People who didn't have perspectives, and control of the narratives, are demanding that page-time and that shelf space now. But, guess what? We're still not reinventing the wheel. It's the same wheel. It's just on a wider path.
The ebook revolution has thrown the doors of romance publishing wide open. You can literally find anything you're looking for. That doesn't mean it didn't exist in print, in 'zines, in somebody's drawer, in 1983. Sandra Kitt's interracial romance The Color of Love came out in 1995. Beverly Jenkins' Night Song came out in '94. Rebecca Ryman — aka Indian writer Asha Bhanjdeo — released Olivia and Jai in 1990. To pretend diverse romance just manifested into existence because it's "trendy" right now — and I see this from proponents and detractors alike — is ridiculous.
What gets forgotten in all of this, though, is readers. They are voracious. And every book has an audience. And whenever someone steps up to say "read this thing, not that thing," there are thousands if not millions of readers who still want that thing. (My only caveat to this paragraph is when people want a racist thing or an abusive thing. Fuck those things.) Readers know the wheel, too. You can dress it up. You can bedazzle it. It's still the wheel from 40 years ago, and you're not fooling anyone. To shift metaphors, all you're doing is updating the locks on the gates. You're not changing the readers...you're changing their access. You're deciding what deserves to be read, who deserves to be on that bookshelf. And for what...? Who does that really benefit?
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