Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Opinion: An Open Letter to a Bookish Charity


I discovered you in my quest to find new homes for some of my books, and thought highly of your mission to distribute book to people on the streets across Australia. At first, it seemed we would be a perfect fit. You only wanted books in good condition; I already had a 'to go back to the Salvation Army store' pile and a 'good quality' pile, so I'd give the quality stuff to you. Except that, on further research, I realised you wouldn't want them, because, while my pile has historical fiction, non-fiction and speculative fiction, it also contains many romance and chick-lit novels. GASP!

I know that this is not going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, because "out of respect for your customers", you do not accept romance and chick-lit, or other inappropriate and pernicious influences such as religious materials and guides to getting rich quick and/or losing 10 kilos in 10 days.

Perhaps you fear that, if you did accept romance novels, you'd be swamped with tattered Mills & Boons and old school romances with dubious covers and even more dubious expressions of consent. Except that you have already stated that books must be in "near new condition", so anyone who did so would be showing a blatant disregard for your guidelines and the work you do.

Therefore, I can only assume you have made a moral judgement on the content of romance novels, in general but in specific as to their suitability for people who are homeless. It can't be that, despite greater visibility of men sleeping rough, you are unaware of the large numbers of women who are homeless. There were 45,813 women who were homeless on census night in 2011, which accounted for 44% of the total number of people experiencing homelessness. I cannot believe that, with the removal of government funding from domestic violence and homelessness services over the intervening years, that things are any better now.

Speaking of domestic violence, 55% of women state this is the primary reason they have presented to homelessness services, and I suspect this is where your reasoning for banning romance lies, given that you have also disallowed true crime books, and books that deal with drugs, depression and suicide.

And, of course, there are undoubtedly women who, after experiencing intimate partner violence, do not want to read books that centre relationships, some instances and sub-genres of which may normalise controlling or other problematic behaviours. But I also know many readers in the online community who have experienced domestic and/or sexual violence, and who read romance and chick-lit for exactly this reason. As romance author and scholar Maya Rodale said:
Unlike any other literature, romance novels champion women who defy expectations, they validate their interests and experiences, they declare women deserve love, respect and pleasure, and they reward them for refusing to settle for second best. 
They are escapist and provide a guarantee that everything is going to be okay, which can provide comfort in a world that offers no such assurances, especially to women.

Thus far, I've spoken exclusively about women, but statistics from America show that only between 82-84% of romance novels are bought by women, so perhaps your male clients would also appreciate the choice of a few romance novels now and again.

I can only assume that you think that romance is trashy, anti-feminist, not what your clients want, and potentially detrimental to their wellbeing. I don't even know what to say about the exclusion of chick-lit, because I'm finding it hard to see any objection there but undisguised literary snobbery. It's true that there may be sub-genres, tropes and themes that might not be the most suitable, but this is also true of literary and other genre fiction, all of which you accept without caveats.

If you get in contact, I would be happy to help sort through/read any romance novel donations and pull out ones that contain anything that might be triggering, and I'm sure there would be other people willing to do the same in other cities, including some of your current workers and patrons. Maybe that's not the best answer - I don't know - but surely it's better than completely removing choice and agency from your clients, as you are currently. After all, the entire purpose of your organisation is to counter the dehumanisation that can occur when people sleep rough, and yet you are treating your clients in a paternalistic and infantilizing manner. Unless you have asked your customers if they would like to read romance and chick-lit, and the vast majority said no, in which case I apologise. But somehow I suspect you haven't.

I still greatly admire the work of your organisation, and, although I can't make a donation without spending a sizable amount of time re-sorting my books, I'll send my serious literature friends your way.


P.S. You'll never see this, of course, and I'll never be brave enough to send it to you, so...I guess we'll never know what could have been. Keep up the otherwise good work.


  1. I'm pretty sure I know which charity this is, because I've visited their site a few times to check if the guidelines have changed. I wonder if it's because they think some romance themes could be triggering to some people? But then I'm not sure why chicklit would also be declined and why crime fiction wouldn't be on the list. The only other thing I can think of is sexual content. :(

    1. I fully understand the concerns about triggering and no-one should be exposed to things that adversely affect their mental health, but, as you say, other genres deal with the same/similar themes. I feel like sexual content is where there problem is as well, and yet that also occurs in 'serious' fiction (often in far more problematic ways!), so I guess they just don't like romance and chick-lit because it's too low-brow. Maybe they stuck up the guidelines and never really revised them or talked them through but, whatever their reasoning, it's sad.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...