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Saturday, December 03, 2005

Does color matter in romance novels?

Author Renee Luke raises the question in her column at Romancing the Blog and has received some interesting comments. Luke describes an encounter she had with a white shopper in a bookstore who expressed some curiosity about Luke's recent novel, Chocolate Kisses. The woman, in her fifties or sixties, asked about the plot and when Luke described the tale as "an African American erotic tale of friends who love each other but fear risking their relationship by giving into their attraction," the older woman responded: “So, it’s a regular romance, but their skin is brown?”

Luke was a little taken aback by the question. After all, what makes a romance a "regular" romance? Depending on your culture and expectations, the definition of "regular" varies. African-American romances are not cut from the same cloth. Many feature mainstream characters that any ethnic group can identify with. Still, some AA romances do have their "flava," but whether this flava is appealable to the masses depends on how open the readers are to a variety of tastes. Some folks will only stick with the standard meat and potatoes and will not stray far from it.

To a lot of readers, the color of the hero/heroine does matter when gauging whether to purchase a particular romance. In the case recounted above, the white shopper was candid when she told Luke she just couldn't relate to African-American characters. Luke saw that the woman was holding several historical romances and countered: "But you can relate to dancing at a ball or marrying a duke?" putting the woman's hesitancy in perspective. The woman then smiled and asked the author what she would recommend by way of AA romances; she bought three.

The encounter ended pleasantly enough, but it did illustrate the racial myopism some shoppers have when it comes to black fiction. Although this reluctance is probably pervasive across the various genres penned by black authors, it is even more so with romance, where sexual fantasies drive the tales and women want to be able to picture themselves in the arms of the hero. For some white readers, they have no trouble fantasizing about a Native American brave or a half-breed Arab sheik, but they draw the line when the hero is several shades darker.

One commentor was very upfront about the issue: "I don’t read black romance FOR THE ROMANCE because in general, I’m not attracted to black men."

Although the point may seen racist, to me it really isn't. Everyone has her preference and the commentor elaborates that she also isn't attracted to blond men either. To her credit, she admits she has bought books featuring AA males and blond males before. But again, they are not her initial preference.

The question remains whether she would be as reluctant with an interracial story featuring a non-black man and an AA woman. Or would she have trouble picturing herself as the heroine simply because of a difference in pigmentation. Yet, many white readers don't seem to have a problem with Suzanne Brockmann's interracial pairing of a black woman and white male. Brockmann is white as is a large percentage of her audience.

Black readers do suffer from their own myopism, but many of us have opened our eyes and imaginations and have been able to delve into the character's skin no matter the color (or gender, for that matter). As an avid reader, I have looked through the eyes of an Asian concubine, a white male profiler in 19th century New York, a 13-year-old white glasswright in a fantasy world and have not been put off by their differences to me. Strangely enough, a lot of readers were very enthused about Memoirs of a Geisha, even though penned by a white male. So does it make a difference when the tale is written by a white author like Brockmann or Patterson who has a mystery series featuring a black detective, Alex Cross?

If the answer is yes, that the audience can accept a "black" romance or mystery more from a white author than a black authoer, then the issue is no longer just a matter of preference. It is straight out discrimination against the black author, who could very well have penned the same tale, but who wouldn't have gotten the same audience response.

This is a quandary that can make or break an author, especially if she is black. I'm hoping that more eyes can be opened to a rainbow of colors and a variety of tastes when it comes to fiction. Because in the end, we're all red beneath the skin.

Sharon Cullars Coffee Talk at 12/03/2005 01:17:00 PM Permanent Link     | | Home


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