Finding Diversity in the Content I Consume: Romance Novels
One of the best pleasures in life is curling up with a good book. I love to read just about anything, but some of my favorite reading content comes in the form of mass market romance novels. I know what you’re thinking. You mean those cheezy paperbacks from the grocery store that have a shirtless muscle-head and a fawning woman on them? Well, essentially yes, and I can tell you why. They are fun and easy to read and they offer an amusing escape from reality for a little while. Who doesn’t love to be swept away by a good love story?
With all the changes going on in the world, it has prompted me to take a closer look at the content I consume and who is generating that content. When I look at romance novels, I see a traditionally white female cisgender space, which is no accident. These books have always been marketed to that specific audience, and the statistics can prove it. Eighty-four percent of romance readers identify as female, mostly between the ages of eighteen to fifty-four. Eighty-one percent of readers are white.
The romance novel industry is a billion dollar industry, making up twenty-nine percent of the fiction market. People may laugh off romance novels as trashy or worthless, but there is serious money to be made in the genre.
With the popularity of self publishing, consumers have more agency than ever in deciding what types of content they wish to see. It has never been easier for authors of all kinds to put their work out in the world to be found by like-minded people craving the types of content they are creating. This is the time that we need to make room for other points of view. The content is out there, and we need to find it and support it.
With this idea in mind, and a nudge in the right direction from one of my current favorite romance authors, I decided to indulge in something new and different.
Unmasked Heart by Vanessa Riley
I’m a person who likes to start at the beginning, Unmasked Heart was a natural starting point for me. Riley self-published the book in 2015, and it is the first novel in her Challenge of the Souls series. Like many people, I’m usually strapped for time, so I chose to purchase this book from Audible so I could listen to it while doing chores.
Synopsis (with only a few spoilers)
Gaia Telfair is a quiet, unassuming young lady who has always felt like an outsider in her family. She is treated differently by her father and feels that she looks nothing like her siblings. One day, her father reveals to her, in a rather cruel way, that Gaia is the product of an affair her mother had with a African man who was getting an education in England. Having been raised to fit in with “good English society,” Gaia is shocked by the revelation. She struggles with her new identity, and is desperate to find a place where she can be happy and really belong.
William St. Landon, The Duke of Cheshire and a widower with a young special needs daughter, runs to his family’s country estate to escape a looming scandal. He is being blackmailed over his late wife’s infidelity, and he is being pressured back into marriage by his annoyingly persistent cousin. All William wants is what is best for his mute daughter. He hears through the locals that Miss Telfair is gifted with special needs children, having instructed her autistic little brother with great success, and he is determined to have her teach his daughter.
William begins an unlikely friendship with Gaia, and eventually proposes a marriage of convenience. Will Gaia tell William about the circumstances of her birth? Can William uncover his blackmailer? I’m not gonna ruin it for you! You’ll need to read the book yourself!
My Take on the Book
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Riley does a great job of painting a Brontë-esque portrait of Regency Era British society, and she doesn’t shy away from topics such as slavery, racism, and how special needs children were treated at the time. I found the take refreshing and honest, which is something we need right now. I’m tired of books that don’t paint an accurate picture of the past, and this one gets a big thumbs up from me.
The characters are endearing and believable in their motivations. The pacing was decent and the plot was full of action. Honestly, I think that the biggest thing I disliked about the book didn’t even have anything to do with the actual content. I got the audiobook, and I have to say that the narrator was awful. I kept getting hung up on the fact that she constantly pronounced the word mulatto as mew-LAtto, and it was distracting. The audio quality was also sub-par. This is currently Riley’s only work to be available on audiobook, and I sincerely hope that any other works made into audiobooks can get a little more love.
I will definitely be reading more of Riley’s books. Much of her content is available on Amazon Kindle, either for free or for less than a dollar. I find that a small price to pay to support a BIPOC author that I enjoy. These stories deserve to be told. I’m willing to put my money where my mouth (or keyboard) is and show the romance novel industry that there is a desire for diverse content.