How Far We’ve Come
“And—this one’s a big no-no—you can’t use the word penis.”
That was a surreal phone call. I was talking, for the first time, to my very first romance editor.
It was January, 1993, and I stood in my kitchen getting revision notes—and discussing exactly what words I could use for male genitalia—with a woman I’d just met. (“Hello, how are you? How nice to . . . What’s that . . . ? Oh, you did just say penis. Yes, I’m taking notes . . .”)
My hero’s penis had made several solid (pun intended) appearances in the love scenes in this, my very first soon-to-be-published romance novel. But now I was being told—specifically, to my bemusement—that using its anatomically correct name anywhere in my book was forbidden. It was, at that time with that publisher, an unbreakable rule.
(Whatever would I do, I remember wondering, if I wrote a book with a hero who was a urologist? “Tell me, Mr. Smith, about the burning sensation in your, ahem, member?” Okay. The chances of that scene actually showing up in a book was unlikely. Still, my mind raced. Surely there was a situation where the publisher would agree that using the word penis was appropriate and necessary. I silently flagged it as a potential edge to push.)
Meanwhile, the conversation turned, yes, to oral sex. I’d apparently gone too far and included a passionate scene that wasn’t properly euphemistic for this publisher’s perception of what category romance readers wanted back in 1993. I was asked to revise the scene in question by vague-ing it up. Kissing and licking were okay—I simply had to be inexact in describing the body parts that were being kissed and licked.
Oh, and for the culmination of my love scenes? Don’t use come or came too often. Release was nice. Exploded worked, too.
And remember: Never, ever, ever call a penis a penis.
We’ve come a long way, baby.
This month marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of my very first romance novel. Future Perfect was released (Not that way! And yes, it was printed with nary a whisper of the dread word penis) by Meteor Kismet in August, 1993—back when the romance genre was still in its tender don’t-say-that teenaged years.
When I look back at the long strange journey of my career—started twenty years ago in my kitchen with that eye-opening phone call, I’m impressed by just how far our beloved, once-stilted and rule-laden genre has progressed.
Because a lot of crazy shite went down in the past two decades. And while the changes from euphemistic to more realistic language are obvious and easily marked, there were many other amazing changes, too. I’m one of many romance writers who pushed and pulled at the edges of the envelope of acceptance to make this kick-ass genre as open, as affirming, and as available as it is today.
In turn, we (romance writers and readers alike) helped our country grow and embrace our own diversity. For the record, that’s why I write romance. Yeah, sure, my goal has also always been to entertain. And earning a living rocks, too. But if I can at least try to make the world a better, more inclusive place while I’m at it? I’m in. Because I happen to believe, wholeheartedly, that it’s our diversity that makes America great.
And what better format for teaching the acceptance and celebration of diversity than a romance novel—which is the ultimate story of overcoming the fear of the “other.”
You see, our caveman instincts teach us to fear all those terrifying “others.” While most of us no longer live in dread of being slaughtered by a rival tribe, we still often react as if the possibility looms. We focus on our (mostly cosmetic and shallow) differences, and we hide behind false beliefs and carefully taught hatred, rather than take the risks needed to overcome ignorance and discover the real truth—that we share far more similarities than differences with even the scariest of strangers.
Romance novels, however, have always been stories about people who Just Say No to fear and willful ignorance. Our heroines and heroes take incredible risks with their hearts and emotions—and sometimes, particularly in romantic suspenses, they even take risks with their personal safety—in order to make that precious connection. In fact, it’s only if they take the risk that we reward them with the grand prize of an HEA, and a life filled with love and joy and brilliant, beautiful hope. But first they must be courageous and stomp out their previously held (un)truths—by getting to know a scary “other.”
Once upon a time, in the truly early days of the modern romance genre, when nearly all romance novels were set in Wonderbreadlandia, where everyone in town was white and straight, and they all celebrated Christmas, and never, ever uttered the word penis, that “other” was the hero, simply because he was male. It was beauty and the beast, with the role of the beast played by the plundering pirate, the Scottish Laird, the dangerous gunslinger, the Native American warrior . . .
Wanna hear something really messed up?
When I first started writing, the majority of all “interracial romances” were historicals featuring a white heroine and a Native American hero.
As far as contemporaries went, back in the early 1990s, I couldn’t find any interracial romances. In fact, I couldn’t find any books that included secondary characters of color—let alone heroes and heroines.
True, this is anecdotal, based on my experience, and thus non-scientific, but I assure you that I searched (without the help of the internet, which didn’t yet exist in a usable format), and in 1992/93, in the suburbs of New York City, I found none. I’m sure, somewhere, contemporary romance novels with Black characters existed (perhaps printed via small press?), but they were few and hard to find.
Since I couldn’t find the book I wanted to read, I decided to write it myself, as part of my “Tall, Dark & Dangerous” series about a team of Navy SEALs.
But get this: When I wrote that book—called Harvard’s Education, a category romance published by Silhouette Intimate Moments in 1998—it had the dubious distinction of being the second book, ever, in the history of the 884-book SIM line, to feature an African American hero and heroine.
Go on. Take a minute to let that sink in. I’ll wait.
When I pushed to write Navy SEAL Senior Chief Harvard Becker’s story, I was told that I could—absolutely—write this book. If I wanted to. But. (In fairness, I must state that my editor was embarrassed and apologetic about that but—and completely wonderful and supportive. The restrictions were the corporation’s. She was on my side.) But, I was told that in anticipation of no one wanting to buy this book (!!!), the publisher would print significantly fewer copies. In fact, my print-run for Harvard’s Education would be half that of a “regular” SIM. And oh, we should also expect to get hate-mail.
It was. And we did.
We also got a very loud message from all of the readers who were thrilled to see a Black couple on the cover of a category romance, when Harvard’s Education sold out close to immediately upon publication. (Side note: When HE was finally reissued in 2004, it became one of my bestselling categories. I was not surprised.)
But the best reader-email I received in 1998, after this book was first published? It was from a member of the military, who was super-psyched to find a romance novel with a hero who was . . .
(Wait for it . . .)
Yup. This reader was jazzed to find a book where the hero was enlisted, rather than an officer. Because up to this point, all of the romance novels she’d read featured heroes who were officers.
There’s no doubt about it—in the late 1990s, the world was so, so ready for a far more diverse romance genre.
Despite that eagerness of readers to embrace diversity, publishers had to be pushed and prodded and convinced to take risks. And sometimes they just couldn’t do it.
January, 1998, saw the release of another of my category romances, Love with the Proper Stranger, in which my FBI agent hero had a young sidekick named Daniel. After I handed in my first draft, I was gently told that I might want to change Daniel a bit, in order to write his book as a sequel.
Being the Vulcan-loving, IDIC-supporting idiot that I was, I didn’t understand at first. What? Change Daniel? Why? He was a fun character. He was earnest and clever and heroic and loyal and smart and courageous and . . . and . . . and . . .
This book’s relationship between the gruff hero and his young sidekick was an early prototype of Max Bhagat and Jules Cassidy from my Troubleshooters series, except the sidekick character, Daniel Tonaka, wasn’t gay. He was, however, late-1990s romance novel gay, aka Asian American. It took me a while, but I finally realized exactly how and why the publisher wanted me to “change” Daniel.
(I didn’t change him, and I was not asked to write the sequel. I was not surprised.)
It’s not an accident that, a few months later, when I wrote The Unsung Hero, the first book in my Ballantine-published, mainstream Troubleshooters series, I included a major romantic subplot with a young Asian American graphic novel artist and the girl of his dreams.
They had sex in the book, and everything.
The Unsung Hero came in at the coveted #1 spot on RWA’s Top Ten List of Favorite Books of the Year 2000. So take that—social and corporate racism! FYI, I also got the word penis into the book four (4) times, with nary a urologist in sight. Boom!
Meanwhile, throughout the romance genre, many other authors were pushing these very same boundaries, too, and perceptions and expectations were slowly starting to change. The internet helped readers become more vocal about books that they liked, which also helped the publishers become more willing to take perceived risks.
In 2003, Gone Too Far was released. This was Sam and Alyssa’s book. And yes, that would be white Sam and black Alyssa’s book—as it would have been known had I written it just five years earlier. But GTF was not marketed as an “interracial romance.” It was marketed—and reviewed—as a romance. Period.
And the book that’s my all-time bestselling romance to date? 2006’s Into the Storm, which features an Asian American heroine (and a height-challenged, red-headed hero). Biff! Pow! Bam!
Hot damn, romance writers and readers! We sure came far, in a short amount of time.
It’s not over, not by a long shot, but inclusion and acceptance of characters of color within our genre has greatly improved.
I’ve seen the same incredible growth in the second decade of my career, in the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender characters in mainstream romance novels, and with the rise of the LGBT romance subgenre.
My favorite romance of 2013 has a hero and a hero. This book—Glitterland, by Alexis Hall—is not my favorite because it’s m/m. No, it’s my favorite because it’s a beautifully, gorgeously, deliciously written romance novel, with that oh-so-familiar theme of risking everything by opening oneself up to a relationship with an “other.”
(More about that book, Glitterland, at the end of this piece.)
Because even though this blog is already too-freaking-long, I have to talk about Jules Cassidy, my gay FBI agent hero.
Jules first appeared in the second installment of my Troubleshooters series, in 2001’s The Defiant Hero. At that time, the only LGBT characters I’d encountered in genre fiction were either a) the serial killer; b) the asexual, witty best friend/hairstylist; or c) completely, angst-fully in the closet.
So I followed my write-the-book-I-want-to-read rule, and I created Jules as a well-adjusted out, gay, kickass-heroic FBI agent, with the intention of bringing even more variety into what I saw as our diversity-hungry romance genre.
I was gentle as I embarked on Jules’s multi-book journey. I introduced him, intentionally, as the recognizable “witty best friend.” And over the course of many books, I let Jules be wonderful and heroic and loyal and smart and courageous and capable—again and again and again. See, I knew that I was not “preaching to the choir.” I knew that many readers of military romantic suspense (my subgenre) were/are socially conservative, so I took my time, and I let them get to know Jules. Slowly and carefully, I revealed that he had a live-in boyfriend. And then I had that boyfriend break his heart—showing my readers that a gay man’s heart breaks the same way everyone else’s does.
I threw Jules together with Navy SEAL Sam, and I intentionally made Sam a little squeamish and homophobic at first. But after Sam gets to know Jules—after Sam takes the risk and opens himself up to learning more about this “other” that he fears, he discovers that Jules is a trusted teammate and a good friend. He finds that he and Jules are more alike than they are different.
Recognize that theme?
My hope was that the romance fans who read my books would be willing to take that journey along with Sam. I hoped that they, too, would set aside their fears and ignorance about Jules’s “other-ness.”
For some readers, I was asking too much. They couldn’t—or wouldn’t—take that risk.
But countless readers did. I’ve received countless emails from readers whose hearts and minds and views were changed about important issues like gay rights and equal marriage—simply because they took a chance and got to know Jules.
In 2005, almost ten years ago, I wrote Hot Target, and gave Jules a romantic subplot that culminated in 2007’s All Through the Night, a New York Times bestselling mainstream romance with a hero and a hero—in which Jules marries the man of his dreams. (Shameless promotional note: I wrote ATTN as a way to contribute—immediately—to the gay rights organization MassEquality, which at the time was fighting to retain equal marriage rights in my home state of Massachusetts. All of my earnings from this book, in perpetuity, including subrights such as audiobooks, continue to go to MassEquality. If you buy only one of my books, buy this one and support this great organization.)
Meanwhile, slowly but surely, faster and faster, picking up steam, more and more authors started including LGBT characters in their romance novels. More and more publishers were willing to risk getting hate-mail, because more and more romance readers were showing those publishers just how much they appreciated diversity in the genre—by using their words and their wallets.
And somewhere, over the past few years, together, we crossed the tipping point.
This past year (2013, for those of you reading this blog in the year 2525, if man is still alive . . .) J.R. Ward’s paranormal romance with a hero and a hero hit the Times list at number one.
And DOMA was (wonderfully, beautifully, hugely!) repealed.
Today, LGBT characters are here to stay. Today, LGBT romance is an incredibly hot and happening subgenre—when just a few short years ago, I held my breath, waiting to find out if popular review websites would shun my book, Hot Target, because it included several steamy kisses between my most popular character, Jules, and the love of his life.
Needless to say, I cried with joy when Hot Target won the Border’s Group award for “Best Selling Hardcover Romance of the Year.” But that wasn’t the best thing that happened.
Five years ago, my niece, whom I adored, told me that she’s a lesbian. We had a terrible fight, I said some truly awful things to her—and I haven’t seen her since. After reading your books, I called her and apologized. She’s forgiven me, and now she’s back in my life . . .”
I voted today in favor of marriage rights for all residents of Minnesota. Two years ago, I would not have done that. But your books opened my eyes, my heart, and my mind. Today I am celebrating the power of love with a diverse group of new friends . . .”
Romance teaches us by example to take the risk, to consider the fact that there might be something yet to learn—if we set aside our fears and get to know the “other.”
And the happy ending isn’t always riding off into the sunset with the Navy SEAL of your dreams.
Sometimes it’s having your favorite niece and her girlfriend at your table at Thanksgiving. Sometimes it’s dancing at the wedding of new friends. And without a doubt, for all of us, it’s knowing and believing that love conquers fear.
Just look how ridiculously far we’ve come.
Glitterland, by Alexis Hall
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Release date: August 26, 2013 (TODAY!)
Publisher’s info: riptidepublishing.com/titles/glitterland
Alexis’ website: www.quicunquevult.com
(Alexis also created Read-A-Romance content – you can read it here: http://www.quicunquevult.com/read-a-romance-month )
I rarely-to-never give cover quotes. I have to really love a book to say things like, “Wow, I loved this book.” But I’m saying it now. Wow, I really loved Glitterland.
It’s my favorite romance of the year—and it’s entirely possible that it will shake down to be my favorite romance of this decade. It was that good.
I laughed, I cried, and I got lost in the gorgeous, delicious writing of this debut author.
This book has the length and the feel of a category romance—with one exception: it’s written from the first person point of view of the main character. (That first-person voice is wildly entertaining. Go read the excerpt. Now. I’ll wait.)
If you love romantic dramadies, you should read this book.
If you love romance novels, you should read this book.
If you love good books with realistic, memorable characters, you should read this book.
And, if you’ve read my books and you loved Force of Nature or Hot Target or All Through the Night, if you are a fan of the Jules-and-Robin story arc throughout my Troubleshooters series, but you haven’t yet picked up another author’s m/m romance because you weren’t quite sure of where to start—start here.
Glitterland by Alexis Hall.
You’re going to love it, too. I know it.
Questions for Suzanne:
What is the craziest or ugliest object in your house, and why do you keep it?
Uh-oh. I don’t keep crazy things, and ugly is in the eye of the beholder.
With that said, I do believe that I’m currently the craziest thing in the house. I can’t figure out a way to discard myself . . .
If there was a movie about your life, what would it be called? (And just for fun, who would play you?)
It would be called “WTF, Over?” which is a popular response of U.S. Navy radio operators. Or it could be called “Charlie Foxtrot.” That would work, too. Martin Sheen would play me. Don’t ask.
What is the best non-monetary gift you’ve ever received?
Kindness. I’m left particularly verklempt when I experience kindness between strangers.
A good example: Whenever I hold a booksigning event, I always bring along a box of prizes (dozens of backlist originals, T-shirts, audiobooks, and other fun things), and hold a free raffle. Everyone who attends gets a ticket and dozens of readers get a chance to win one single prize of their choice, in the order that their ticket is drawn.
Well, at one event, I happened to bring along a copy of my book, Get Lucky, which was out of print at the time. One reader was very excited—and very humorously vocal about how badly she wanted to win it. She sat on the edge of her seat while ticket after ticket was called—none of them her number. The woman sitting next to her—a stranger before the event started—had the good luck to have her number called, and she happily claimed Get Lucky as her prize. And then, with a big smile, she turned and gave it to the other reader, who was speechless at such kindness.
There may or may not have been tears from more than one of us in the room.
There’s a song that I love that goes, “In the end, only kindness matters . . .”
If you have to pick one romantic scene or couple to recommend to a first-time reader of YOUR books, which would it be?
I’m afraid that’s an impossible question for me to answer. I have trouble suggesting anyone read a scene out of context, because it’s something I personally dislike doing. As a reader, I want to start at the very beginning, whether it’s book or series.
So I’d not-quite-answer the question by recommending The Unsung Hero, which is the very first book in my on-going Troubleshooters series about Navy SEAL Team Sixteen and their friends at the private-sector personal security firm called Troubleshooters, Inc.
You are reading this essay at ReadARomanceMonth.com. Viisit the About Read-A-Romance Month page to learn more, or the Authors & Contributors page to see a list of all the great romance writers who are celebrating the romance genre during the month of August.
Suzanne Brockmann is generously donating an ARC of DO OR DIE to give away! We are setting up a special email address to facilitate this drawing. In order to enter this EXCLUSIVE drawing, please send an email to Brockmann@readaromancemonth.com. (Domestic Only – so sorry! These things weigh a ton.) This drawing will close at 11:59 pm EST on Aug 31st. (Please remember that the ARC will not be available for a few weeks; it will be sent to the winner when it is. Also, only one entry per email address. Thank you.)
Suzanne is also generously donating two copies of Harvard’s Education and two copies of Glitterland for U.S. readers and two copies of Harvard’s Education for International readers International readers enter here. To enter the domestic contest, either leave a comment here or enter the weekly drawing on the contest page. Or both. (Only one entry per commenter per post, though – multiple comments on one essay does not give you more chances.) Comment entries must be posted by 11:59pm EST Aug 26 to be eligible, though winners will be announced at a later date.
Also visit the Awesome Contests page to register this week to win a Kindle Paperwhite and “A Month of Romance” (31 books) from Amazon Montlake, or the Grand Central Grand Prize, an iPad mini. If you love romance, then this is the place to be!
Suzanne Brockmann is the New York Times bestselling author of over fifty romance novels, and the co-writer and co-producer of The Perfect Wedding, a feature-length indie romcom movie with a hero and a hero, that will be available via on demand in November, and on DVD and via streaming in December, 2013, all from Wolfe Releasing.
Movie website: www.ThePerfectWeddingMovie.com