Love Hate – My Contentious Relationship With Contemporary Romance

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Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary romance – both the erotic and non-erotic kind.

I’ll admit it: contemporary romance is my thing.

Somehow, I fell for the genre despite being utterly uninterested in romance in my day-to-day life. My favorite books are “neighbor next door” romances, the ones where the couple is made up of two folks that I could imagine riding the bus with or chatting with about comic books. My favorite movies are romantic ones – I even ditch my “no comedies” stance for rom-coms because I love the idea of love that’s funny.

Hell, I’m still half convinced that the scene in Captain America: Winter Soldier where Sam and Steve were talking after their run was something plain out of a meet-cute. The film was good, but my brain is still so sure that what should’ve come next was something cute and fun that ended with Steve and Sam adopting a Greyhound and moving into a townhouse in DC.

So yeah, I love contemporary romance.

It’s a great genre because it’s real.

The characters in contemporary romance stories are supposed to be people that you know, people that you can identify with. They’re supposed to have an air of realism because that’s the draw of contemporary romance: these characters and scenarios seem to scream, “Hey, this love is normal love. It could happen to anyone! It could happen to you!”

Except of course, if you’re a person of color or you’re not cisgender and heterosexual.

(And if you’re both a person of color and you’re not cis or straight? Head straight to the “niche” sections of the romance genre because your identity is even farther away from being absolutely accepted and normalized.)

Then, your place in most contemporary romance stories is that of the sidekick or villain, maybe the family member of a main character if you’re lucky. You get to show up once or twice (usually as a heavily stereotypical background character) before disappearing. What you don’t get is the chance to shine in the forefront unless you’re lucky enough to be in a book written by diverse writers or written about diverse characters.

Pretty early on in my quest to read all of the contemporary romance I could get my hands on, I came to terms with how I kind of don’t exist in many of the stories I read. In my experience as a reader, people like me (African American, queer, neurodiverse, and nerdy as hell) don’t exist in the popular books of contemporary romance.

People like me don’t exist in like ninety percent of heterosexual contemporary romance.

We don’t exist in most queer romance stories.

We don’t even exist in romances set in places where people of color are the majority.

I kind of expected that there’d be a serious lack of characters of color in things like paranormal romance and urban fantasy because well… people find it far easier to humanize and romanticize vampires, zombies, and werewolves than they do to humanize actual people of color.

But contemporary romance?

The genre dedicated to current times, people that feel relatable and like you could walk to your local bar and have a drink to them? I was expecting a bit more.

Unfortunately, the biggest of the big sellers and the contemporary romance stories that are marked as the top of the genre – well they seem to view representation in a similar vein as whoever was in charge of the casting for Friends, How I Met Your Mother, and basically every other television show that assumes that people of color don’t exist.

Now that doesn’t mean that I’m giving up on the genre or that all contemporary romance has been this bland, beige, and boring mess where people of color are stuck as the help and where LGBTQIA characters are set to suffer.

Early on in my sojourn through the wonderfulness of the genre, much of the books I read were like that.

Heck, these days, many of the books that the review blogs and twitter accounts I follow recommend for contemporary romance kind of drop the ball on significant representation. The books that Amazon links to or the ones that I get from in my emails from publishers are largely some of the same.

It took work for me to figure it out.

Yeah, while some (many!) of the reasons why contemporary romance looks so blah at the immediate glance are tied up firmly in racism and heterosexism, I needed to be looking harder diverse books by diverse authors. I needed to ask myself why I was looking at straight, white, cis authors to tell me stories about myself or stories about characters that were like me and mine. I needed to get off of my digital butt and go looking for the books that had to be out there.

Within the past year, I’ve been doing the legwork and I’ve put my (now canceled) Kindle Unlimited membership to very good use. I’ve been reading, tweeting, and following authors that write about diverse characters. Contemporary romance is of course my main draw and I’m just basking in the amount of authors I’ve found whose books and stories are just out of this world when it comes to the kind of book that I want to read.

The good thing about my new quest for diverse (and dare I say realistic) contemporary romance is that once I started looking, I couldn’t help but find the good stuff. I’m going to link to some of my favorite authors at the end of this post because I can’t talk the talk and not show that I’ve made it pretty far.

I do think though that the industry has a long way to go. I don’t go to any of the big events (because I am a little fish and barely a book blogger) but I’ve been following along online as my tweeps go to these events. So many publishers and writers want to get the credit for being diverse and pushing diversity in their books while doing the actual bare minimum.

Most of my diverse faves come from diverse authors working with smaller companies or who are self-published and that’s fantastic, but the big publishers and the big authors out there need to get their act together and realize that our diverse world and its readers deserve truly diverse books.

Now before we wrap this up, I’d like to shout out a few of my favorite contemporary (erotic) romance authors who’ve definitely kept me from running out of the genre screaming with anger:

  • Rebekah Weatherspoon (especially Sated, the third book in her FIT Trilogy which has one of the cutest and kinkiest relationships I’ve read and a heroine that I 100% ID with)
  • Alisha Rai (her book Serving Pleasure was one of the best that I read in 2015 and she has a really sweet social media presence)
  • Sonali Dev (who has two books out that have made me BAWL while reading them)
  • Jenny Trout (secretly, I want to be her when I grow up because she’s the best. Jenny Trout writes about BDSM, kink, and essentially humanity in a way that’s accessible. If you like realistic May-December M/F romances where the hero is significantly older than the heroine and it’s handled super well, check out The Boss (which is a free ebook and the start of the series) because it’s AWESOME!)

If you’re reading contemporary romance, what are some of the ways you feel the genre has let you down? Have you found your way to some diverse gems that reawakened your love for contemporary romance? Any queer contemporary romance recs?

Tell me more because I’m always interested in different POVs and cool authors!

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About Zina

Zina writes about comics, nerd history, and ridiculous romance novels when not working frantically on her first collection of short stories and complaining about stuff. One day, she'll settle down and write that novel.
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