I’ve seen a lot of discussion in the romance writing community on twitter today about this Nazi Romance that was recently nominated for a Rita, sort of like the Oscars for romance novels. It was nominated for not one, but two awards: Best New Book and Best Inspirational novel. I sort of had to do a double take when I first read someone’s tweet. Nazi romance? Is this some sort of a joke? Like Dino Porn? But no, it’s real.
So many writers have spoken out about this book, and the odious nature of its tropes and anti-Semitic stereotypes: the romanticizing of the Holocaust; the “hero” as an SS officer; the “Jewess” who undergoes a conversion to Christianity at the end. I haven’t read the book, so I hesitate to be its critic even though the premise alone disturbs me deeply. I think other people have spoken up about the text itself in ways that are far beyond what I can do as a reader and writer of romance. Please do read Katherine Locke’s piece on the book if you get a chance. It speaks not just about this book, but the problematic representations of the Holocaust in general in popular media. It articulates passionately why such stories are not just racist, but deeply painful and insulting to the people they seek to represent. Please also read Sarah Wendell’s letter to the RWA.
For me, the discussion on twitter has raised some interesting questions about what it means to write romance in 2015 in a discourse still so bound by conservatism, outdated power dynamics, and sexist tropes. Growing up, I often spent summers at my grandmother’s house, reading stacks and stacks of my aunt’s trashy romance novels. I cringe to think of some of the deeply chauvinistic narratives my pubescent mind consumed: stories of rape, physical and emotional abuse, fetishization of the Other. It was a different time for romance, some might say. But was it? Given the big story on twitter today, it doesn’t seem like we’ve come very far.
It would be irresponsible of me to compare the SS Officer in charge of a concentration camp in For Such a Time to the billionaire hero Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey, and yet at its core the same power dynamic is at play in these books, the same abuse of power, the same stories of control and Stockholm Syndrome at work. Yet, according to the sales of both of these books, readers still desire these narratives. They are still what turns us on somehow.
I’m not here to shame anyone for what they like to read or whack off to (but actually, no, seriously, if you read Nazi porn, we can’t be friends), nor is this a cry for censorship. This is ‘Murica, and you can write all the batshit crazy stuff you like. But I was talking with a friend about this book today, and she brought up a great point. Someone wrote this book. And gave it to beta readers. And gave it to an agent. Who gave it to a publisher. Who gave it to editors. Who placed it into the hands of the larger public. And there was a board of several people who nominated this book, and so on. “This is why we need diverse books,” she said. “This is why we need diversity in publishing. Because this is how deep Antisemitism and racism goes. Because at no point did one person say, ‘Hey, maybe this SS officer as the romantic hero is a bit problematic.'”
Awards are powerful things. They tell a story about what we value. They tell us where we’re going, but they can also tell us where we’ve been. Conversion and Stockholm syndrome narratives are very old stories, and in many ways writers of romance are still cycling through the same tropes I found in the musty pages of those 70s era grocery store paperbacks. And why shouldn’t they? They sell. Readers like them. Even I like them. I have struggled with my own questions about what it means to be a feminist…and write romance. I know my own complex webs of desire often intersect at the corner of Chauvinistic Blvd and Alpha Male St. Like Roxane Gay discussed in her recap of one Outlander episode, we cheer for Claire when she holds a knife to Jamie’s throat and vows to kill him if ever he hits her again. And yet, Gay admits, “I would let Jamie spank me among many other things. Being a feminist is hard.” No truer words, Dr. Gay.
Yet, what makes Outlander still so very revolutionary as a romance novel is that it critically explores this unsettling space of desire and questions the old tropes. And this, in my opinion, is what we need to award romance writers for doing.