Naked City: Thoughts on Urban Romance
By Alexa Day
Two weeks ago, on The Toast, black author Brittany K. Allen described her feelings about urban romance and whether or not her writing has a place there. I was a little off balance when I finally discovered the post last week — the struggle to get by in a post-Bowie world has been difficult — but I had a tough time deciding how I felt about Allen’s take on the popular subgenre.
Maybe the trouble, for me, is right at the beginning of the post. Allen, who has written romances with motorcycle clubs and stepsiblings, is asked by her publisher to write an urban romance. She agrees. She likes her publisher. Besides, she explains, “homegirl needs money.”
This is, of course, a perfectly legitimate career choice. I feel homegirl. I need money myself. And honestly, it isn’t any of my business. I personally don’t read or write the urban romances, but I’m glad they’re out there. My position has always been that romance has a story for everyone, so I really like the idea of romances set on the streets of the inner city, replete with thugs and side bitches (if the titles are to be believed).
So why does Allen’s decision bother me so much?
It goes back to her publisher. I can’t know for sure at this distance, but it certainly feels like he asks her to take this project on because she’s black. In my head, his question amounts to: “Hey, you’re black. You can write thugs and side bitches, right?”
That does bother me.
And then I’m bothered that I’m bothered.
I brought a lot of my own baggage to Allen’s article. A black author has to struggle with any number of stereotypes. The most popular for me lately has been that I must be self-published. It isn’t a put-down at all. I’m not self-published, although I do look hard at that option from time to time. I just wonder what leads so many people to that conclusion. I’m also grateful for the change. Before this question, I used to have to deal with “Is it true, what They say about black guys?”
Seriously. Someone asked me that question once immediately after we were introduced.
So much of life as a black writer, a black professional, a black person, is about gracefully dealing with those stereotypes. I hate the thought that any publisher thinks we can/should all be writing urban romances just because we’re black, but Allen is right. The subgenre is thriving.
Allen writes, on the one hand, that “girls like me … learned early that to get by in this world, one must mold and flex with the tide of other people’s expectations.” On the other hand, however, “[t]o write to perceived type is to pay lip service to the institutional prejudice that keeps minorities exactly where the groups in power expect them to stay.”
The trouble, then, is not with the existence of urban romance, which enjoys a spectacular popularity with a market that has more choices than ever. The trouble is the presumption that skin color dictates any one writer’s potential for success in that subgenre (or any other), and not individual voice or talent or the peculiar drive that leads one author to one story and another author to another.
Allen also writes about the girls who grew up without seeing themselves in fiction or popular entertainment. Girls who were never altogether sure why they were unlike their peers but who faced occasional reminders of their status from a “system that is forever diminishing us.” I’m one of those girls — I grew up that way, at least — so Allen’s words definitely resonate with me. But I’m learning that those girls are peeking out into the fictional world from more places than I’d imagined. Those girls are everywhere, and I’m grateful they’re finding their reflections in romance. Even in urban romance.
Allen does write that urban romance her publisher requested. She brings her own unique voice and perspective to the story, and she enjoys creating it. I long to provide you with a link to it, but she doesn’t mention a title, and none appears on her website.
Urban romance is a big step toward diversity in our chosen genre. I honestly don’t know if the romance community fully embraces urban romance as a subgenre. I hope it isn’t getting side-eye from its more mainstream counterparts. I suspect urban romance speaks to more readers than any of us supposes.
But I also hope this industry is swiftly moving past the presumption that an author’s race is the only thing that qualifies that author to succeed in urban romance, or in any of the subgenres, for that matter. That’s not a good look. For any of us.
Follow Lady Smut. We’ll break you right out of that box.