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What Will and Won’t Fly in Multicultural Romance with Shelly Ellis
Posted By Robin Covington On January 16, 2013 @ 12:01 am In Genres,Inter-racial Romance,Publishing Career,Readership,Weekly Lecture Schedule | 34 Comments
As a reader, I am all about equal opportunity-you write a good romance and I’ll read it. While I don’t favor historical romance in general, my bookshelves/Kindle cover every genre and every subject matter in romance. I know I lean towards contemporary and LGBTQ romance when I want to lose myself in a story but I also avidly read multicultural romance and as a woman living a multicultural romance – it does speak to my heart. But, like every sub-genre it has it’s canon and rules and I am thrilled to have Shelly Ellis here today to give us her take on the subject.
My love of romance novels began like many romance aficionados: I inherited it. At around 13, I graduated from my Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley Twins paperbacks to my mother’s hardbacks stacked on her dresser. They included my future favs like Zoya by Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts’ MacGregor Series, and Until You by Judith McNaught.
So when I decided to write romance, I knew that I wanted to craft stories just like my idols—but with a twist. I wanted to write about African Americans, and in my view, not only would that require a change in setting and characters, but also a change in sensibility. Because though some things stay consistent in romance—love, passion, tension, and ultimately, happily-ever-after—writing multicultural romance requires something a little different.
“I think the stories are different,” says fellow multicultural romance author, Cheris Hodges. Cheris published her first romance in 2003 and has since released more than a dozen novels for African-American audiences. “You can work in a layer of the black experience that you can’t in the mainstream.”
But, hey, not everyone agrees—like author Phyllis Bourne. She’s been writing romance since 2005 and now writes for Harlequin’s Kimani imprint, its African-American romance line.
“If you pick up a multicultural romance and read the back cover copy, it isn’t about multiculturalism,” she argues. “It’s about the powerful CEO, the sexy M.D., the runaway bride, the office romance, etc… the same descriptions that are on the back of ‘mainstream’ romances. The characters are African-American, Asian, or Hispanic, but their journey to happily-ever-after is the same.”
But what do editors think? What are they looking for when they receive multicultural romance submissions?
“At the end of the day, strong, developed characters, great writing, and a unique voice are the most important things in any story—regardless of genre—so I wouldn’t say there’s a huge difference between mainstream and multicultural fiction,” says Mercedes Fernandez, assistant editor of Dafina Books at Kensington. “A good story should transcend race. But, I would say that as an editor, perhaps because of my penchant for reality television shows, I tend to gravitate towards more fast-paced, dramatic stories and I think readers of multicultural fiction tend to look for those elements as well.”
Drama with a capital “D”… OK! Got it! That’s important. But are there any other things you may or may not traditionally find in multicultural romance that differ from mainstream? I always wondered about the conspicuous absence of the domineering Christian Grey-types (a la Shades of Grey) in popular African-American romances. Where are they?
“I read plenty of strong, powerful alpha males in black romances. I love to see an alpha male being brought to his knees by his love for the heroine,” Phyllis says. “However, there’s a difference between a properly motivated hero taking charge and one being controlling for control’s sake. I can’t speak for other African-American readers or writers, but as an African-American woman I don’t find a domineering hero appealing.”
Cheris admits that in one of her novels, she tried to create a domineering alpha male, but “readers didn’t really like him. And when you’re writing about a black couple, there is a certain level of love and respect you want to show. Outside of a black couple like Michelle and Barack Obama, you don’t really see too many positive black couples in mainstream media. You don’t want [your hero] pushing [the heroine] around and putting her in handcuffs.”
So ixnay on the Christian Grey… Next issue: where are the heart-wrenching, passionate male/male romances in African-American fiction? These romances seem to be gaining more traction among mainstream but not multicultural readers.
“I think that is a reflection of the black community in general,” Cheris says. “Generally, there isn’t much acceptance of gay romance. We are not as open with dealing with these issues. A lot of us aren’t going to read it.” She pointed to famous authors like E. Lynn Harris, who even when he approached the issue, “they weren’t openly gay men. They were the ‘down low’ brothers. You don’t really see black gay romantic couples and frankly, I’m not sure if the book industry is ready for it.”
So with these slight differences, is it a challenge for multicultural romance authors to crossover to mainstream? Judging from sales numbers and fan base, I think so, and Cheris and Phyllis agree. But they say it has more to do with the marketing of the multicultural romance than the content.
“I don’t think white readers get the same exposure to African-American romances that black readers get to mainstream books. I buy both on my e-readers,” Phyllis says. “However, books suggested to me by the online stores are overwhelmingly white. In stores, African-American romances are often shelved separately.”
Not only are separate book sections and book recommendations a challenge, but also bookstore search engines.
“It has a lot to do with the fact that when you type in ‘African American romance’ in search engines, you’re going get page after page of books that aren’t by romance authors. They’re street lit,” Cheris explains.
And though ‘street lit’ can have romantic elements, the genre often has a tone that is more urban and admittedly rougher than many mainstream readers may prefer.
Despite these obstacles, Mercedes says she’s always on the lookout and rooting for multicultural books that have crossover appeal.
“It’s great to have multicultural characters and writers out there become household names,” she says. But, Mercedes notes, having “crossover appeal depends on so many factors—the content of the book, the timing of the release, and that magical word of mouth buzz from readers that will make consumers take a chance on a new author amongst other things. When all those things come together, it’s fantastic— but, unfortunately, not every book will experience that crossover success. So, it’s also about having realistic expectations.”
Okay – so if you write or read mulitcultural romance – what is your take on Shelly’s post? If you don’t read it, why not? What unknown sub-genres of romance do you want to explore in 2013?
On Friday, we have Lynne Silver with us to discuss cool tips for organization
Shelly Ellis began her romance writing career when she became one of four finalists in a First-Time Writers Contest at 19 years old. The prize was a publishing contract and having her first short-story romance appear in an anthology. She has since published more short stories, two novels, and was chosen as a finalist for 2012 African American Literary Award in the romance category. Shelly will release her first women’s fiction series in May 2013 with the novel, Can’t Stand the Heat, followed by The Player and the Game in September 2013.
When she isn’t writing novels, or reviewing articles during her day job as a magazine editor, she’s harassing her husband to finish the nursery for their first baby who is due in April.
Visit her at her web site www.shellyellisbooks.com, on facebook at http://www.facebook.com/shelly.ellis.524 , and on twitter at @ellisromance.
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 Multi-Cultural Romance Sub-genre: Hot? Not?: http://romanceuniversity.org/2010/05/17/multi-cultural-romance-sub-genre-hot-not/
 How to Survive and Thrive in the Publishing House Slush Pile with Shelly Ellis: http://romanceuniversity.org/2013/04/17/how-to-survive-and-thrive-in-the-publishing-house-slush-pile-with-shelly-ellis/
 Diversity in Fiction by IRMC Books: http://romanceuniversity.org/2011/10/10/diversity-in-fiction-by-irmc-books/
 Catching the Wave: A Wrap Up on 2012 with Michelle Monkou: http://romanceuniversity.org/2012/12/28/catching-the-wave-a-wrap-up-on-2012-with-michelle-monkou/
 Weekly Lecture Schedule January 14-18, 2013: http://romanceuniversity.org/2013/01/13/weekly-lecture-schedule-january-14-18-2013/
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