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Jenkins and Cole, who are black, and Rai , who is south Asian, had been fighting against these barriers for years. Their success — as authors of critically acclaimed love stories sold in Walmarts and drug stores across the country — had not made them any less vocal. The moderator started referring to a previous time when romances had been less diverse, but Rai cut him off.

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And the issue was not really diversity. The audience giggled. I thought about it. By this point, the audience was guffawing and Jenkins was bent over with laughter. Jenkins straightened up. The conversation shifted to other implausible but time-honoured turns of phrase: looking daggers, panther-like grace. Everyone laughed, and there were cupcakes, and at that moment in the bookshop, in front of this multiracial panel of bestselling writers, it might have been easy to think that the future of diverse romance had already arrived. Except, the authors kept warning, it had not. R omance readers compound the sin of liking happy, sexy stories with the sin of not caring much about the opinions of serious people, which is to say, men.

They are openly scornful of the outsiders who occasionally parachute in to report on them. Coverage of the romance industry often dwells on the contrast between the nubile young heroines of the novels and the women who actually write the books: ordinary women with ordinary bodies, dressed for their own comfort.

That observation — combining creeping horror at the idea that middle-aged women might be interested in sex, with indifference to the fact that male authors are rarely judged for failing to resemble James Bond — is typical. Part of the intense scorn romance authors face is the result of their rare victory.

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They have built an industry that caters almost completely to women, in which writers can succeed on the basis of their skill, not their age or perceived attractiveness. Romance writing is one of few careers where it is possible for a woman to break into the industry, self-taught, at 40 or 50, alongside or after raising her children, and achieve the highest levels of professional success. Not only possible; typical. Just like the Oscars in film, a Rita award is the highest honour a romance author can receive, and winning can mean not only higher sales, but also lasting recognition from peers.

And just like the Oscars , the Ritas have become the centre of controversy over unacknowledged racism and bias in the judging process. Last year, however, many observers felt that this was sure to change. The book had already won a number of awards and made multiple best-of-the-year lists. When the Rita awards finalists were announced in March , An Extraordinary Union was nowhere to be seen.

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The books that had beat Cole as finalists in the best short historical romance category were all by white women, all but one set in 19th-century Britain, featuring white women who fall in love with aristocrats. What followed, on Twitter, was an outpouring of grief and frustration from black authors and other authors of colour, describing the racism they had faced again and again in the romance industry.

Then, of course, there were the readers. In response to the outcry over the Ritas, the RWA went back over the past 18 years of Rita award finalists and winners. During that time, the RWA acknowledged in a statement posted on its website, books by black authors had accounted for less than 0. According to the current president of the Romance Writers of America, a black woman has never actually won a Rita. The romance novel industry found itself facing a similar crisis over racism and representation as Hollywood, or the news industry, or the Democratic party.

But one thing that sets it apart is that it is facing this challenge as an industry dominated by women — specifically, white women. Would anti-racist activism, and the backlash against it, play out differently in an industry run by women — and, in particular, by women who were writers and readers, who by definition loved stories of joy and reconciliation? T he backbone of the US romance community is the nearly local chapters of the RWA, which provide mentorship and peer support for women embarking on the long and lonely work of novel-writing.

A few dozen white women gathered in a classroom at a small for-profit college outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, and the meeting began, as it always does, with the good news. The most exciting update had been saved for last.

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There was applause and cheers. Nancy Lee Badger, the chapter president at the time, seemed as excited as Meredith. A Rita finalist in their chapter! At age 74! At the end of the meeting, with a few minutes left, I asked the members what they made of the Rita controversy. Many of them, it turned out, had been following the debate closely, and their reactions were divided.

A younger woman in a gingham shirt pushed back at this.

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A woman in a polo shirt noted that when All About Romance, an independent romance review site, had released its list of best books of the year, there had been no black authors on it. The site had subsequently tried to correct this, but in their correction, they confused the names of two of the most famous black romance authors, Brenda Jackson and Beverly Jenkins. Some of the white authors were less convinced that the lack of black Rita finalists and winners was proof of any racism in the judging process.

It was hard for anyone to win a Rita, they argued. They themselves had entered, they had not won and they were not complaining. Badger did not say much during the meeting, but she had talked to me earlier on the phone. But, she noted, there were already plenty of rules to encourage an inclusive environment.

Badger was not a southerner — she grew up in New York — but she had been disturbed by efforts to get rid of the statues. I asked what connection she saw between the debate over the Rita awards and the effort to take down confederate monuments, which had sparked conflict in cities across the US.

In both situations, Badger said, only a small group of people were objecting, but in response everyone would be forced to change. While her own feelings were conflicted, Badger did believe the controversy was important enough to set aside time for her chapter to talk it over with a journalist, and some of the members felt that the anger over the lack of diversity within romance was fully justified. This was a point that many of the women kept returning to — the fact that everyone in the room that day was white.

A long-time chapter member mentioned that one of these former black members, a writer named Kianna Alexander , had been part of the chapter for three or four years. There was a clear reason why Alexander was no longer coming to their meetings, the woman said, and it was purely logistical.

It was about an hour-and-a-half drive south from where the romance writers group met to the small North Carolina town where Alexander lived with her family.

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I drove the route in the darkness that night. Alexander had promised to meet me in the morning for breakfast. Individual choice! Through the s, many romance novels had stayed relatively prim, with the sex mostly implied. Authors experimenting with more sensual stories still had to negotiate with editors determined to uphold what they saw as moral standards. In the 80s, as Reagan and Thatcher dismantled the welfare state, romance heroines found themselves drawn to domineering corporate heroes.

But these innovations in the genre are taking place within an industry that is still overwhelmingly white. K ianna Alexander lives in a modest home south of Raleigh, North Carolina. Across the street, her neighbours have a set of Confederate flags on display, and when she walks around her rural neighborhood, Alexander tries to remember always to bring her ID, to prove, if anyone questions her, that she actually lives there.

Alexander told me that she had once been very involved with the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers group but, during the election campaign, that had changed. A decade into her career as a published author, Alexander has worked her way from smaller independent presses to contracts with major publishers, including Harlequin , the most famous name in romance publishing, and she is an unabashed champion of the genre. Despite her success, Alexander knows all about the barriers that make it more difficult for authors of colour to succeed.

On the morning we met, we visited her local Walmart to look at the book section. Her latest Harlequin romance was on display, but it was not placed with the other romance novels. Instead, it was on a separate shelf marked with a neat label: African American. Many black romance novelists told me they had found bookstores and large retailers stocking their work in a special black section, far away from shelves that the majority of romance readers will be browsing. On a previous visit to her North Carolina Walmart, Alexander had asked a manager why the books were arranged that way.

He said it was for the convenience of readers, who liked being able to easily locate the books they wanted. In no way is our intention to discourage all shoppers from perusing all titles available to them, but to highlight authors from all backgrounds and provide better opportunity for sales.

The process started with the publisher. But the Harlequin line that Alexander wrote for, Kimani , was grouped by only one thing: race.

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The heroes in Kimani books can be any race or ethnicity, Alexander said, but Kimani heroines, like their authors, are black. Alexander and many of her fellow black authors have long had mixed feelings about Kimani.

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  • Some black authors told me they believed that for some readers a dedicated black romance series really was a quick way to locate what they wanted to read. But, like being shelved in the black section, black authors also believed that being part of a segregated line limited their sales, cutting them off from readers of other races who might also enjoy their work. Some former Harlequin authors even alleged that Kimani had been given separate and unequal treatment by the publisher: less marketing, fewer chances for authors to promote their books.

    In May , Harlequin had announced that it would be gradually phasing out five lines , including Kimani, for financial reasons. If the publisher had quickly integrated black authors into its other Harlequin lines, this decision could have garnered broad support. For almost years before that, the company had rarely published romances with black heroes and heroines at all. In , when Harlequin published its first black romance by a black American author, many readers got their books through a subscription sent directly to their homes.