094. Romance Adaptations: The Curious Case of Julia Quinn's Bridgerton
Who profits from "diverse" romance adaptations? Are white authors making room for creators from marginalized backgrounds to tell their stories? What's lost in translation to screen? Listener questions inspire me to dig into how romance novels differ from romances adapted for the screen. Then, I examine the curious case of Julia Quinn's Bridgerton adaptation, sharing statements she's made on whom she could imagine (not) getting a happily ever after in historicals and a never-before-heard interview with Kianna Alexander recounting a panel from 2017.
Who profits from "diverse" romance adaptations? Are white authors making room for creators from marginalized backgrounds to tell their stories? What's lost in translation to screen?
Listener questions inspire me to dig into how romance novels differ from romances adapted for the screen. Then, I examine the curious case of Julia Quinn's Bridgerton adaptation, sharing statements she's made on whom she could imagine (not) getting a happily ever after in historicals and a never-before-heard interview with Kianna Alexander recounting a panel from 2017.
- Sign up for the email newsletter list | Website | Patreon | Twitter | Instagram | Goodreads | Email: Andrea@shelflovepodcast.com
- Shelf Love episodes with transcripts
- Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction by Jayashree Kamble
- The Strand Panel on YouTube
- Laura Vivanco has a blog post where she collects some anecdotes from folks on Twitter with additional insight into the accuracy of how Julia Quinn has represented history in these anecdotes.
- Publisher's Weekly 1 month post-Bridgerton Sales
- Nielsen Julia Quinn Sales
- Julia Quinn's books
Contributors to this episode:
Andrea Martucci: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to episode 94 of Shelf Love, a podcast that unpacks romance novels with nuance. In conversation with scholars, readers and other experts, Shelf Love contextualizes, the popular romance genre within the broader critical discussion of identity, culture, and love.
I'm your host, Andrea Martucci, and this episode is a bit of a smorgasbord of recordings about the topic of romance novels adapted for the screen.
This episode has two main themes.
Theme one is how is a romance novel a distinct media that impacts how one interprets or experiences the story compared to film or TV? Related to that how do genre expectations of romance novels differ from romance adaptations on the screen?
Theme two is more about the business of novel adaptations and how quote unquote progressive casting and production choices may rehabilitate a story or an author and who gets credit for and who reaps the financial spoils of these choices.
First, I'm going to share some listener questions about romance TV and film adaptations that I recorded in January 2021. Then, as you might expect from these themes, I'm going to be talking about Julia Quinn's Bridgerton adaptation.
I've collected some excerpts from previous episodes. And also I have a never before heard interview with Kianna Alexander that I recorded also like back in the winter.
And of course I will be jumping in between those interviews and excerpts to thread the needle on that theme.
And with that, let's jump in.
Andrea Martucci: Okay. I have a question from Essie here, "are there any books you want to see on screen?"
Andrea Martucci: So first of all, Essie thank you so much for sending the question and you guys should all check out Essie's podcast. It's called Love, Essie (E-S-S-I-E) . And Essie talks a lot about Nalini Singh, as well as other general romance topics. And I also want to say thank you to Essie for continuing the conversation about a few episodes that I've had this year.
Okay. So Essie's question once again was, "are there any books you want to see on screen?" Oh boy. Okay. So look, this is going to be a complicated answer because. There are books that if you told me they were going to be on screen, I would be excited about.
For example, Alyssa Cole has hinted, I believe, that some of her books, I assume Reluctant Royals might have some adaptation coming out and I would be very excited to see that. There are lots of books that would fall into that category for me, where if it happened, I'd be like, yes, I'm excited to watch that.
However, ah, okay. So here's the thing with adaptations. I experience this with a lot of TV shows where people are like, Oh, this is so romantic, in [00:03:00] this TV show. And then I don't watch a lot of TV: I'll watch a couple of episodes. And I'm like, okay, like these people, like I could get behind them getting together.
But then the nature of TV specifically is to create conflicts to keep them apart, like over the course of a season or the whole series. And I just never, I'm never satisfied by it. And I'm like, Oh gosh, I have to go through hours and potentially wait months and years and decades to see this happen.
I understand why people have fanfiction because they're like, Oh my God, I just want to see the people get together. But. I'm like, I would just rather read a book, like I just want to read a romance novel. And so I think there's like the nature sure of serialized television makes this harder.
And so then if you're talking about films, movies that are 90 to 120 minutes long and you get to see that relationship happen over the course of the movie, I could maybe get more behind like movie adaptations. However, I always feel, I feel like I'm really missing a lot of the emotional story.
And I'm trying to think which films and not necessarily adaptations of romance novels, but which films I actually find to be the most romantic, like which one's actually made me feel the most of their emotions. And I hate to be stereotypical, but I think that 2005 Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley and Matthew McPhadden, I think does a really good job with this, where a lot of the choices in the film help the viewer understand how these characters are feeling. And some of it is the closeup of the hand clench thing, or lingering on reactions. Or there are some really interesting things done in the ballroom scenes where they're in the middle of this crowded ballroom, and then everybody's gone and it's just the two of them dancing and looking at each other.
And it's just a really effective way of showing how the characters are feeling about each other in this moment. And. Dr. Jayashree Kamble actually explains this phenomenon that I'm expressing really well. So I want to share something from her book, Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction.
So the beginning of Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction Jayashree is basically defining what is a romance novel. One of the things I find specifically very interesting is what she has to say about adaptations of romance novels, and how they illustrate the differences between the mediums and how that impacts really the consumer's experience of the romance and how talking about the differences exposes what romance novels are doing and why visual mediums struggle to do it as well. The example that she's talking about is the Nora Roberts Midnight Bayou adaptation, which I believe was on like the Lifetime channel.
And so this is from page seven. "While a novel may thus [00:06:00] contain a description that forces readers to exclude some of the items in their mental storehouse of visuals, it leaves the final image to them. Movies can not replicate this novel trait of flexibility in adopting various narrative styles and moods in the same way.
What is most significantly novel about the romance novel Midnight Bayou, however, and absent in the movie text, is the use of perspectives of point of view that can tap into interiority, particularly through the narrated monologue, which is Dorrit Cohn's term for quote "a character's mental discourse in the guise of the narrator's discourse." Cohn talks about the narrated monologue as a narrative style where a character's interior voice is retained in the third person perspective that is usually employed by an omniscient narrator."
Later on page eight, she's saying that a scene with its "multiple modes of representing consciousness performs a triple function. It allows the reader access to what [ the character] feels [the metaphor of being hit by a sledgehammer] and thinks [she is beautiful and familiar.]"
And so the point that she eventually makes after going through these examples is that a novel tells events and shows thoughts, and feelings. And the TV movie of Midnight Bayou shows events and tells feelings.
And my takeaway from this was that we've lost the pleasure in thinking and feeling another person's thoughts and feelings, and that's what you lose in an adaptation.
I think about this a lot when I think about adaptations, basically what I am not getting from the film or the TV show that is exactly what I really enjoy in a romance novel. And to me, I would much rather read a romance novel.
When you're a really big fan of a particular book or series, I think it's really thrilling to see that translated. It's sorrow and joy intermixed, right? Because maybe the way something is represented is extremely different from how you pictured it. And that could be upsetting. Or maybe it's exactly the way you wanted and it's thrilling to actually see it, in quote unquote in real life, as opposed to just in your mind's eye. And to see the longing looks instead of just imagining the longing looks or whatever the case may be.
However, sometimes, it loses something to me. And I'm not saying it always has to lose something. I'm just saying maybe a lot of executions lose something for me. And so I'm kind of like, Oh, don't ruin the thing I love, and I love a good romance movie. I love a good romcom where you see the characters fall in love over the course of a movie.
But I see them as two distinct forms. I don't know if I am clamoring for that to happen.
Andrea Martucci: Did you know that you can support Shelf Love on Patreon? We've got a hopping Discord chat going on, and I'd love to welcome you to the community. You can support [00:09:00] Shelf Love starting at just three dollars a month by visiting patreon.com/ShelfLove.
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Andrea Martucci: This is related then to a question that Jhen asked. So this is Jhen as in, have you met Jhen, who's the host of the Monogamish podcast. Jhen has also joined Shelf Love on multiple episodes. And Jhen asked: do you think there will be more romance novel adaptations out this year and the next?
And so I know that multiple romance novels have been optioned for film. I know that some are probably already in production. And so could conceivably come out in 2021 or 2022. I also know that there's a lot of romance novels that are getting optioned right now. And my understanding of what that means is that it's like the first stage of potentially getting adapted.
However, there's a lot of stages in between, so it's not a sure thing. It's just like expressing interest in potentially doing something. And then a lot of things have to fall into place. And my impression of what I'm seeing happening is that what we're really seeing is the power of these huge media corporations that have interests across many different types of media. A giant media company that has books, they have film, they have TV, they have newspapers and magazines and all of these things. And similarly like agencies, talent agencies are also representing talent across multiple mediums and across multiple channels.
So there's a thing that's happening here where it's almost like if something is a good story, then how can we leverage this everywhere? And we've seen this, maybe less in romance and more in, like we saw Game of Thrones started as really popular books and became, you know, TV show and then I don't know, comic books and you can then merchandise that the crap out of it.
I have mixed feelings about it because I'm also seeing some romance novels get acquired specifically because they seem like they could be adapted. Like they're written in such a way where it seems like they're almost written like a screenplay, more so than a romance novel. And so there's synergy.
It's like, wow, let's acquire this book because it would be a really good film. It's very cinematic. I can see it happening and that can be really good. Like [00:12:00] wow, the writing here is just so crisp and amazing that I can just really picture it, or it could be like a screenplay.
And there are some really great screenplays. And then there are some screenplays that really need to be translated to screen to make sense. They really need a director's vision.
And I think my question is just when the things readers of romance love about romance get stripped away so that story can be successful in other mediums, maybe don't do what we're here for romances for.
And so this is not, I'm not talking about anybody's story in particular who has been optioned in this way. I think it's very clear that some romance publishers are going in this direction. But there's a lot of energy being put into moving their business in this way.
And. I hate to be cynical, but it's a lot of times the centralization of media is not always actually good for the consumer. And I think that as we have seen in the movie business, what starts happening is, Oh, we know superheroes are big, so let's make more superhero movies. I think what I worry about happening with romance is, Oh, Bridgerton was successful.
By the way, trigger warning, Bridgerton has a sexual assault in episode six and my understanding is it's not resolved in a way that is emotionally satisfying. Like it's swept under the rug. That's my understanding. And I think what's particularly troubling about the sexual assault is that it is perpetrated by a white woman against her Black husband.
There's some very troubling dynamics there. And various people have written about this already. But FYI, if you're going to go watch Bridgerton, be aware of what you're getting into, and also be aware that a lot of people will not talk about this in this way.
They will make excuses for what Daphne Bridgerton, the white woman in question, does and why it's justified and why it's not actually sexual assault or rape or problematic. And I think it's important to call it what it is. I think that there are plenty of people who will still enjoy it while acknowledging that what they've viewed was sexual assault. Like for example, I watched all of Game of Thrones, there are various scenes of sexual assault and sexual violence and violence generally in Game of Thrones.
Do I enjoy those scenes in particular? I don't know, but like generally I enjoy the story and what's happening makes sense in the narrative for the most part. I think that what's troubling about this in Bridgerton is that it is not addressed as sexual assault in the text of the story. And that's, I think what becomes problematic.
I think particularly readers of romance have come to understand certain conventions about the romance genre[00:15:00] and I think certain readers of the genre have a very hard time reconciling that they enjoyed a story generally that contained a sexual assault. And I think that is problematic because of the narrative of romance novels that tell us that these people are meant to be together.
And so I think that the narrative encourages the consumer to justify what happened, because we're told this is a love story. We're told these people are in love and that they have their best interests at heart or that they are justified in doing what they're doing. But at the end of the day we know that they're going to end up together.
And so I think that undercuts the violence of what occurs. I think that there's a lot going on that explains why people don't really want to talk about that.
So anyways, Bridgerton came out and what I worry is that then the takeaway for studios is that we need more period dramas. We need more regencies. We need more of the same, rather than we need more of the same, which means we need more romance novel adaptations generally.
I think that romance readers are being optimistic to believe that one type of romance novel finding success means that success is going to translate in decision makers' minds about romance generally.
Because I think we have to remember, and I think there are many reminders of this, perhaps, especially in how the sexual assault of Simon in the Bridgerton's is handled, that TV rules are different because they're not working in the same structure of romance novels.
I think that then when you translate that same conversation over to TV and film, I think that they are used to stories where the same rules do not apply. The same structure of romance is not there. So, sure it's a romance novel adaptation, but who's adapting it? It's not a room of savvy romance readers. It's a room of savvy TV writers who may have read some romance novels, or a lot of romance novels either. But I just don't think that they're working in the same sandbox really.
So just like we've seen a million Pride and Prejudice adaptations and every other Jane Austen novel, I wouldn't be surprised if yeah, we see a whole slew of Regency adaptations. And there are some really amazing historical romances and Regency romance series that would be fantastic.
It's not really a zero sum game, but I think that because of how expensive it is to produce these TV shows or films that there are incentives to go with what feels like the sure thing, which is something very similar to what has succeeded in the past.
And that's going to mean that we're going to see more of the same. And maybe some of those things are gonna be really amazing adaptations, but I worry about big [00:18:00] picture, what's going to get adapted. I worry about the voices that are going to be adapted. I worry about how sensitively those different voices will be interpreted, because I think that we saw a lot of missteps with Bridgerton that were touted as really progressive, that then seemed to ignore a lot of cultural exigencies.
People kept asking me if I was going to do a Bridgerton episode. And I guess I just talked a lot about Bridgerton. I have a lot of thoughts about Bridgerton.
I've watched two episodes and if you enjoy Bridgeton, my opinion of you has not changed. However, I will say that I personally was a little bored and I was really disturbed at how poorly the costumes fit. One thing you need to know about me is that I sew my own clothes.
And when one sews one's own clothes, something you learn about is fitting to your body and how clothes are supposed to fit. And it's really challenging. You gain a greater awareness of how things fit and when they don't fit what's going on. And for a lot of reasons, I'm just like, what the heck is going on with those under bust seams that are cutting every character who has breasts, like right across the chest. What is happening guys? Come on.
Andrea Martucci: All right now, we're going to shift to this episode's second theme. Whose story is being adapted and who is profiting from that? Let's talk about the business of romance adaptations.
First, when a story makes the jump from the page to the screen, the story may change in order to appeal to the TV or movie audience.
What happens when the story changes to quote unquote become more diverse? While it may seem like producing a story with a more diverse cast of characters can only be a good thing, what about when the original creators are cis het white women? Why adapt this story and then make changes that fundamentally impact the story rather than acquiring intellectual property that is already telling that story?
Especially when that story might be written by writers who have marginalized identities and who historically have fewer opportunities to get the platform or equitable payment to tell those stories.
Here's an excerpt from episode 92 with Diana Filar about white American immigrants in romance novels. We talked about another romance to screen adaptation, Christina Lauren's romance novel, Roomies.
There is currently a movie in production.
Andrea Martucci: I found this article with an interview with the folks producing this. Jenna Dewan is producing this movie? And what they have talked about is that Calvin McLoughlin is now Mateo Perez. So, (Diana: Oh!) Yeah. So this is a quote from the article I found, I'll put the link in the show notes. "In the movie Holland's hero will no longer be Irishman Calvin McLoughlin. Instead, Christina [00:21:00] and Lauren have re-imagined the character as a Latino immigrant named Mateo Perez. About the change, Lauren Billings told Entertainment Weekly, "Christina and I, and all the producers felt like the issue of immigration is one we needed to be facing head on with the story. And we had an opportunity and responsibility to do that."" end quote, Christina added that quote, "it was the way the story needed to be told," end quote.
So by the way, Christina Lauren, two people named Christina and Lauren, an author duo.
However, Christina and Lauren are not Latino immigrants. This is maybe not their story to tell and maybe there's somebody in the writers' room who is better able to tell that story authentically. I think that this is the larger question in romance adaptations and adaptations more generally.
Diana Filar: Yeah. I was going to say is this similar to like the conversations that were happening about Bridgerton before it came out? I'm less familiar with that, but there's a way in which you can read non specificity. You could give it a generous reading. And I'm critical, but I think there's a way in which reading generously is also useful.
Like maybe it's non-specific so as to allow them to actually figure it out. Am I wary of that because of the history and the past? Yes, of course.
Andrea Martucci: If you're going to take a story though, that is explicitly about immigration and, this isn't a minor part of the story. This is like the entire major crux of the plot and everything, and then change this. And now it's going to be a story about a very different type of immigrant. Like they are explicitly saying no, we wanted to talk about the issue of immigration that is more culturally relevant right now. If we want to tell that story, should we not adapt that story from a story that is already about that? And perhaps written by somebody who intentionally set out to tell that story and had some information about it?
And this is the issue with Bridgerton, right? Is you can say, oh, isn't it great that we have, diversified this text that was all white? And it's like, you haven't diversified the text that's all white. You've taken white characters and have actors playing them who aren't white.
Diana Filar: There's definitely quote unquote racial blindness at play.
Andrea Martucci: I think the other issue then who is benefiting from the racially diverse casting. It's Julia Quinn who wrote a book full of white characters.
And so I think that then when you look at this, if there's going to be a film about this, should it be based on a text written by two white women , about two white characters, neither of whom is of a marginalized racial or ethnic background. Is there not a story that exists that can tell that story that doesn't have to have that sort of shoehorned in and again, maybe they're going to do a fantastic job adapting it and truly changing the story in a way to cover that adequately.
But then you start getting into who's profiting from this, like which stories are getting [00:24:00] adapted. And if there's only going to be one story about this, which is a sad state of things to begin with, should that opportunity not have gone to somebody who could speak to this more authentically?
Diana Filar: Yeah. And I think part of the frustration around this, or at least my frustration has to do with what we've already been talking about, is there's recent history for them to see and maybe learn from and go off of. So maybe not just Bridgerton, but there was like a whole hubbub, I guess the end of 2019 and early 2020, about Jeanine Cummins' American Dirt. That was like already a whole thing where we have the sort of story of migration from Mexico told by a woman who now says that one of her grandparents was from Puerto Rico, but who otherwise...
Andrea Martucci: What does that have to do with immigration from Mexico?
Diana Filar: And her husband is maybe an immigrant, but like from Ireland or something. So yeah, there's these false parallels that were made to back it up. The story in and of itself is problematic. A lot of the conversation around that was instead of reading this book, read these other books by actual Latinx writers or Latinx American, Latinx immigrant writers like, Valeria Luiselli or Erika Sanchez, that kind of thing. Because in some ways the novel American Dirt, it's only using those stereotypes of when you say Latino immigrant, you think of a certain thing. And it's a, almost like a trauma porn kind of thing. It was a bestseller.
Andrea Martucci: And who did the publisher decide was going to write this breakout book that they put a lot of money into making a breakout book, right?
Diana Filar: The conversation not just of who else you should read, but it's also Latinx writers with debut novels, or even second, third novels, they don't get as much press, they don't get advances that kind of thing. It's about resources. It's about putting your money where your mouth is.
Andrea Martucci: Let's talk about money. The first way authors can profit from a romance adaptation is obviously whatever fee they're paid for the right to adapt the work. Without knowing all the details it's also likely that the author is paid some royalty share based on the TV or movies success.
There's also another way authors can profit from romance adaptations: book sales.
When I worked on my research project earlier this year, which was primarily about how romance adaptations influenced people to start reading romance and change stereotypes about romance readers, I did a bit of research into how romance book sales are impacted by TV and screen adaptations. And vice versa.
The first Bridgerton book came out in the year 2000, which is 20 years before the Netflix adaptation released.
It's undeniable that the book series was successful over its first 20 years without the adaptation, especially as far as romance series go.
The Netflix adaptation brought mainstream awareness to the series. However, the story they were exposed to on screen was basically an unabashed alternate reality version of the Regency [00:27:00] period, versus the world in the books, which was clearly an attempt to represent the time period in a way that rings true to what most people think Regency England was like.
And I'm not saying that that world that meets most people's expectations of what the Regency period was like in England is actually historically accurate. I'm just alluding to the fact that there is this conception of what it was like, which was primarily the idea that everybody was white and everybody was straight.
I'm going to share some actual data on book sales in a moment. But first I'm going to share a brief excerpt from episode 78 with Jodie Slaughter. In this excerpt, we're discussing how after the Bridgerton adaptation came out, the publisher re-covered The Duke and I, book one in the Bridgerton novel series, with a Netflix tie in cover.
Here's what we had to say about that.
So they rebranded the Bridgerton books with the cover.
Jodie Slaughter: What the fuck. Yeah.
Andrea Martucci: The cover has the people from the adaptation, which (makes a dumbfounded sound, Jodie and Andrea sputter and laugh) There's a - the cover -
Jodie Slaughter: there there are no Black people in these books.
Andrea Martucci: You can't just like change the cover. It does not actually change the story, and this is the can of worms I don't want to get into, when you change race, it starts adding another layer of cultural complexity to the character choices.
Jodie Slaughter: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And if, I don't know, I didn't watch the show and nor did I read the books. But what I'm guessing from the critiques from the show is that they did not add any nuance to the show or much, I guess
Andrea Martucci: Is this a questionable decision given the choices on the show, given the actual text it was built from? Is there something deceptive about putting the characters from the TV show on the cover of this book? Definitely what's going to happen is people are going to walk into their bookstore and they're like, Oh, I just saw this on TV. I liked it. Maybe I'll pick up this book.
That's what they're hoping will happen.
Jodie Slaughter: Yeah.
Andrea Martucci: Jodie and I recorded that back in January, 2021, and at that time, it was unclear just how much of an impact the Netflix series would make on book sales. However, we could already see that the first and subsequent books in the series were already topping the New York Times, Amazon and USA Today bestseller charts.
Just about a month after Bridgerton debuted on Netflix Publishers Weekly published an article stating that in that month, Quote "HarperCollins' Avon imprint reports that it had sold a total of 750,000 copies of books from the series."
Now, how does that compare to how the series sold on its own before the adaptation?
According to her media kit, Julia Quinn has over 10 million books in print. Now that's all of her books and her website says that she has 43 books total. And they're obviously not all Bridgerton books. The numbers are a little hard to compare apples to apples, [00:30:00] given that the 10 million books in print doesn't seem to include digital copies, plus you can't exactly portion out what percentage of that 10 million were of Bridgerton series, or if that 10 million includes post adaptation sales or just pre adaptation and it's a little out of date. So this is all kind of directional
Regardless over her 25 year career, Julia Quinn wrote 43 books and had 10 million books in print. Within one month, she sold books that amounted to 7.5% of the total sales from the previous 300 months.
Here's another data source for a little bit more context. According to Nielsen, in the year ending April 24th, 2021, which would include about four months of post adaptation, Bridgerton sales, and eight months prior to the adaptation coming out, her book sales increased 3000% over sales in the previous year.
Let me math that out for you. Let's say she sold 2 million books between April 2020 and April, 2021. That may be an underestimate. That means that between April 2019 and April 2020, the previous year, she would have sold under 70,000 Bridgerton books. And then a year later sold 30 times that.
Fair to say that the adaptation had a significant impact on her book sales. And she's definitely getting decent royalties on those.
Should authors get paid for their work? No question. Yes, of course. But what is selling these books?
The story Julia Quinn wrote 20 years ago, or the Netflix adaptation, which presents people of color in starring roles and presents a world that was re-imagined in kind of significant ways. The updated book covers themselves are even falsely advertising that the story inside matches what was seen on screen with the Netflix tie in covers.
Beyond the fact that she's profiting from a story that was praised for its color conscious casting and diverse cast, which is problematic in and of itself, it's even more troubling given Julia Quinn's own statements about including characters of color in her stories.
I'm going to talk about Julia Quinn, specifically, and statements that she's made publicly, because she has been quite public in making statements like this. And also, I mean, Bridgerton is kind of a big deal in terms of how it's impacting our perception of romance adaptations right now. I'm not saying Julia Quinn's the only person who feels like this. I'm sure there are many other authors who feel this way, whether they've said so publicly or not.
And honestly, some of them have said so publicly too. So I'm not just picking on Julia Quinn here, but it's salient to the topic of Bridgerton specifically.
This is something that's talked about on Twitter and in private back channels quite a bit. And I think it's important to the conversation. I just want to say, I obviously have my own feelings about her statements and she's entitled to her opinion. [00:33:00] Uh, and if she hadn't gone on to make a lot of money as a result of a TV adaptation that seems to be successful in large part because of its inclusion of people of color, I wouldn't be talking about this now.
Back in 2017, the Romantic Times conference had an off-site event at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta, Georgia. I'm going to let Kianna Alexandra tell this story because she was there. Kianna is a Black romance author who has published romance in multiple sub-genres, such as historical, paranormal, and contemporary since 2009.
Kianna Alexander: So it was an offsite event, but Avon sponsored part of RT and it was happening at the Margaret Mitchell house in downtown Atlanta.
And the panel was completely full of Avon authors. I think probably about six or seven. I remember Lenora Bell being there, Lorraine Heath, Cathy Maxwell. And I think there was some other people on the panel who I just can't remember. But Beverly Jenkins and Julia Quinn were sitting right next to each other.
And the things that she said were in response to a question asked from the audience.
It was a pretty full room. Most of the chairs are full and there are people standing in the back. And the question that was asked from the audience was something along the lines of why Julia Quinn's books didn't have many characters of color or queer characters, even though they obviously existed in that time period.
And the answer that she gave was something along the lines of well I write about, these happy, love stories about people who were living a very comfortable life and had all these good things going on for them. And I don't think Black people and homosexuals were living that way during the time that I was writing. And I don't want to write about that. I don't want to write about the kind of life they were living.
And I can remember looking around me at the group of people that I was with and seeing their reaction. I was with a group of other Black female historical romance writers who basically came because Beverly was there.
And typically conferences like this, if Beverly is doing something we're going to be there. It was just a matter of trying to digest what she said. And I saw a lot of confuzzled looks around me and I, myself was like, wait a minute. What, what does she even? And I think somebody in the audience called her on it and she was just like No that's what I believe. And I'm not going to change it. Like she's very much like sticking to it.
I remember somebody saying, wait a minute, that's not right. And I also remember Cathy Maxwell trying to flag her down. There was a little bit of light flailing going on Cathy's end.
Where you see like your friends stepping out in front of a bus and you try to grab their collar, but they're walking too fast. And she gestured for a little while okay, don't say that, stop it's bad, you're putting a foot in your mouth. But you could see the moment where Cathy eventually gave up . She was on a roll and didn't want to stop talking.
But I think she could tell that she was saying something that at least she ought not to be saying. I just thought it was really extremely bold to sit next to Beverly Jenkins and say that as if she hasn't been researching African-American history and Black history all over the world since forever. And as if she couldn't refute that statement, [00:36:00] like the same moment it came out of her mouth.
And I think it also discounts the rest of us sitting in the audience, which I'm sure, Julia Quinn probably doesn't know who the hell we are, but it doesn't matter. We do exist. There were five or six of us together who all have either done historical research or who've actually published historical romance and historical fiction to refute what she said.
The lack of awareness for me was so stunning that it just stayed in my brain all this time.
I don't know if there's an interest in growing or changing, or learning something different than what she believes. And some people are like that.
They just have these closely-held beliefs and there isn't anything you can tell them, no amount of research or evidence or science that you can show them, that's going to change their mind. And that may just be, that might just be where she is.
I can understand what people would think that the credit would go to her for the casting of the show, because if they know she wrote the books, they would immediately assume that. People who are outside of the industry or who are like casual watchers of the show, or even readers, the books may not have ever thought about, the casting in the stories themselves.
So I can understand why they would think that Oh, this is great. The casting I, myself, with my knowledge of her, I would lay the credit for that at the feet of Shonda Rhimes and whoever works for her in the casting department. I think that they had enough wherewithal to know that it was going to be to their benefit to cast the show this way, regardless of the fact that the books don't look like that at all.
Andrea Martucci: Now, in case you think this was an isolated, one time comment there's a panel that took place at The Strand bookstore. Also from 2017. The panel was called Feminists Take on The Romance Genre, and it was hosted by Bustle Books. Bustle editor, Cristina Arreola moderated, and the panel featured Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, M aya Rodale, and Sarah MacLean.
These are four white historical romance authors. I transcribed this from YouTube, but I'm not going to share the audio since I don't have rights to it. I'll add the links to the video in the show notes. And, um, you can definitely go check to make sure that I represented this accurately.
Around 45 minutes into the panel, the issue of racial diversity in historical romance comes up via Sarah MacLean's statement that the genre needs to be more intersectional in response to the moderator's question about the feminist gains the romance genre could achieve in the post-Trump world.
Eloisa James shares an anecdote about how she tried to write an Indian heroine and realized that she needed to own what she could and make space for things she can't write, ending by saying that they, referring to those of them on the panel, need to quote, "make space for other authors up here who aren't us" .
Then Julia Quinn jumps in. I cleaned this up slightly for clarity, meaning I removed a few sentences that were unnecessary, but this is straight from the transcript. Quote.
Andrea reading Julia Quinn transcript: " I really have to echo that. [00:39:00] Somebody asked me that question recently about introducing more diversity into my books. And it's difficult because first with the time period that I write in, I mean some say, oh, well, it really was diverse.
"I'm like, well, not among the Dukes. It's tricky because you read the Civil War romances and you're like, isn't it interesting that the heroine always seems to feel that, (and this is her exact phrasing as an aside) , her slave is really truly her equal and I'm thinking, well, she wasn't raised that way. She'd have to be pretty remarkable to figure this out on her own.
"So if she's going to feel that way, you need to explain to me how that came about. And a lot of times they didn't. And so, you know, I think, okay, I want to introduce diversity into my books. Maybe put a Jewish character in there. There were Jews in England at the time, but you know what? A lot of people really didn't like them. And for me to explain why my characters, who I like to think are fundamentally good and kind and true, suddenly find these people to be perfectly fine, and yeah sure. Marry them. No problem. You know, we don't care. I'd have to come up with a really good explanation of how that came about and that might have to be the story more than the actual love story.
"So it's tricky to do. And I, for all the things I can do, I don't know what it's like to be in another person's skin. And I especially don't know what it means to be in another person's skin when their skin is so different from mine. It's hard enough at times just to write being a man, because I do write from the male point of view too."
Andrea Martucci: Less than four years after this event, ironically, Julia Quinn is profiting off of an adaptation of her book that stars a Black actor playing a duke, which she said was impossible to explain in a romance without taking over from the love story.
I could spend all day parsing what she said in this short segment, but I'll let her words speak for themselves and leave you with this.
What does it mean when a writer has this worldview, feels comfortable expressing it publicly often, and then is rehabilitated or reframed publicly as having a different worldview and is then profiting from it?
To be clear, nobody is asking Julia Quinn to write queer characters or people of color in her books. Given how she indicates she feels their lives would be like in historical settings, I don't think anyone is proposing that as a solution. So maybe a better question is, if TV and film studios want to produce romance adaptations with diverse casts, why is the intellectual property of queer writers and writers of color who are already writing these stories, why are they not getting major deals to adapt them?
Any example can get complicated really quickly, as we can see from using Bridgerton as an example. The cans of worms that I have resisted diving into in this and other episodes could fill a book, but even if we just focus on where the money is going and which stories are forming the basis for the movies and shows that get the biggest [00:42:00] platforms and the most mainstream attention.
I'm going to ask: is space being made for writers with marginalized identities to tell their own stories? I wish I could be more excited about the boon of romance adaptations that some seem to think is around the corner, but I'm just not sure that what we're seeing now is pro gress.
I asked Kianna if she would share her experience as a reader of the romance genre, who encountered books that didn't just have all-white casts of characters, but also presented worlds that erased the existence of people of color entirely.
Kianna Alexander: As a Black person, I've had to do that my whole life to be able to read stories that didn't have anybody who looked like me in them and still find a way to relate. So it's not something that I thought about until I was pretty deep into my own writing career. I knew that I wanted to write partly because I didn't see people who look like me in the kind of stories I wanted to read.
But this is something that we do as Black people all the time. We have to take ourselves and mentally insert into television shows, into films, into books. Because for such a long time, we just were not there, but we had to find a way to relate to that experience, even if it wasn't familiar at all. So for me, this isn't anything new.
Andrea Martucci: Thanks for listening to episode 94 of Shelf Love.
Thank you to Jhen and Essie for your questions and thank you to Kianna Alexander for speaking with me for this episode. Here's where you can find Kianna online.
Kianna Alexander: You can find me on Twitter at Kianna writes. @KiannaWrites. And you can find me on Instagram at @KiannaAlexanderWrites. My most recent release actually came out today, After Hours Attraction from Harlequin Desire.
Andrea Martucci: I also want to thank Jodie Slaughter and Diana Filar for joining me in previous conversations related to this topic. If you're looking for more information about any of the topics mentioned here, check the show notes for resources.
A transcript and show notes for this episode can be found on ShelfLovepodcast.com If you have any thoughts on the show, I would love for you to reach out to me. You can send an email to Andrea at Shelf Love Podcast dot com. This episode is produced by me, Andrea Martucci.
Thank you to Shelf Love's editorial advisory board members, Katrina Jackson, and Tasha L Harrison. That's all for this week.