OPINION: Romance novels need to diversify

EP Presnell

Romance novels are an absolute delight that come in all different forms and include a wide variety of tropes. Whether you’re an ‘enemies to friends to lovers’ addict like me or love a good simple ‘friends to lovers,’ there’s something spellbinding about reading about two characters who are able to overcome the odds they’re facing to be together. And while they are great, there’s a blaring problem in the community of readers and writers of these novels, and it’s that they’re very straight and very white. 

Over the last 20 years, many book genres have been branching out in terms of authors and books that contain characters of color and/or from the LGBT+ community, with one of the biggest genres being young adult (YA). YA books tend to have good representation of these communities and showcase authors writing about their own experiences through a fictional lens, but the romance community can’t quite say the same.

There has been a push for sure. As someone who reads advanced reader copies of books, I can tell you there is a healthy push to have LGBT+ romance novels that don’t fetishize gay men or women, and to have characters with BIPOC (black, indigenous people of color) main characters where they are more than just the color of their skin, but it’s far from over. 

Just this summer, I was shopping at Barnes and Noble and came across a table with 20 different kinds of romance novels, and only one of them was an LGBT+ novel (“Red, White & Royal Blue” by Casey McQuiston which is the romance community’s “look we have representation” go-to book.) The other ones were almost all skinny, white women looking at the typical white, dreamy-type guy they’re destined to fall in love with within the pages of the book. If the book did contain some diversity, it was usually a black woman falling for a white guy or lighter skinned man. 

The point of this though, is that romance novels need a revamp to include more characters and authors of color and of different sexualities and genders, to accurately portray the world we live in. Not only should they diversify, but they should keep to the main point of the book and that is to tell a love story. There doesn’t have to be a big deal about a black person falling in love with a white person because that should be normalized. Two men or women falling in love should not be a momentous thing in the romance novel community because it’s simply two people falling in love. 

My personal favorite romance novel, “Red, White and Royal Blue” by Casey McQuiston masters a lot of these elements effortlessly. It has a very diverse cast of characters with the main character, Alex Claremont-Diaz, being a mixed person with his mother being white and his father hispanic. Not only is it diverse in that sense, but the main relationship is between him and his eventual boyfriend, Prince Henry. McQuiston is also a queer author which allows her to accurately write about the characters and their experiences (Alex’s 10 page bisexual crisis is pretty spot on) without making the whole book this traumatic experience about being bisexual or mixed. 

Characters of a different race, gender or sexuality should absolutely explore their feelings on belonging to a minority community as it best fits in the book, but it should not be their only character trait. 3-Dimensional characters are needed to make good characters and thus a good book, so it is important to acknowledge and healthily talk about these issues the characters face, and to not romanticize or ponder on them for too long. 

No genre is perfect and the romance novel community has a long way to go. Supporting authors who write about their personal experiences to diversify the genre is a great way to support the change because it allows those authors to publish more books. Another way to do this is by calling out authors who inappropriately write about characters or issues that hurt the cause that is being discussed. If you don’t believe your voice can be heard, there have been multiple instances where authors have stopped a book from being published because of its social media outroar, which can stop a bad book from getting spread. 

As a person who loves romance novels, I hope to see the genre grow more diverse over the next decade and beyond to include more characters and authors that represent communities who have been overlooked. Authors have such an amazing platform to create change and understanding amongst their audience that they should absolutely take advantage of it. Perhaps one day we will be able to move from the very white and straight genre that is the romance community and to a more colorful and diverse one that allows everyone to find themselves and get lost in.