Drama over romance writers
Authors organization cancels its awards amid a ‘firestorm’ over race and diversity
If there are soap opera fans out there who aren’t romance novel fans, the recent events surrounding the Romance Writers of America could very well convert you.
The public callouts and calls for resignations, and the scale in which it unfolded, caught the attention of publishers, had people choosing sides, and made writers hopeful that the narrative on inclusion, diversity and equity in the genre would change. The series of events led to the cancellation of RWA’s 2020 RITA awards ceremony. And when the nonprofit trade association, whose mission is to advance the professional and business interests of career-focused romance writers through networking and advocacy, canceled its annual version of the Academy Awards, the move brought the complaints about a lack of diversity in the genre to a head.
Authors, fans and professionals have been advocating for more diversity for years. “The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing” tracks the genre’s publications written by authors of color annually, and the needle isn’t moving dramatically from year to year in the billion-dollar industry.
Before 2019, no black author had ever won a RITA. As reasons for the canceling of the RITAs, RWA cited on its website “the romance community losing faith in RWA’s ability to administer the 2020 RITA contest fairly” and the contest not reflecting “the breadth and diversity of 2019 romance novels/novellas.”
Chinese American author Courtney Milan in August called out Kathryn Lynn Davis’ 1999 book “Somewhere Lies the Moon,” saying on Twitter that it was a “racist mess,” highlighting sections that she said depict 19thcentury Chinese women as submissive and demure.
Davis, who is white, filed an ethics complaint with the RWA (one of two against Milan, the other by author Suzan Tisdale) alleging “repeatedly or intentionally engaging in any other acts of a violent, harassing or intimidating conduct that objectively threaten a member’s career, reputation, safety or wellbeing.” Davis went on to say that the consequence of Milan’s alleged ethics violations was the loss of a three-book contract with a publisher.
At the time, Milan served as chair of the ethics committee. According to an RWA statement, “Milan was asked to voluntarily step down as the Ethics Committee Chair to eliminate any conflict of interest, which she did, and the Board appointed additional Committee members and a new Chair.”
The RWA Ethics Committee then recommended that Milan be censured, be suspended from RWA membership for one year and receive a lifetime ban on holding any position of leadership on the RWA, National Board or on an RWA Chapter Board. Fellow writers and RWA members spoke out.
But then the RWA’s executive deputy director, Carol Ritter, rescinded the vote on sanctions for Milan. Ritter sent Milan an email saying: “Dear Courtney, at a meeting today that identified a gap between policy and progress, RWA’s Board of Directors rescinded its vote accepting the findings of the Ethics Committee report and its consequent penalties against Courtney Milan pending a legal opinion. RWA reiterates its support for diversity, inclusivity and equity and its commitment to provide an open environment for all members.”
Publishing houses like Avon and Harlequin said Wednesday that they will not attend or sponsor this year’s RWA conference. Avon’s statement: “In support of inclusive publishing, Avon Books will not invest in a promotional sponsorship nor have a presence at the Romance Writers of America national conference.”
Numerous RWA members have resigned, including Ritter and RWA’s president, Damon Suede, after a petition to recall him was sent to RWA. Suede had served on the RWA board of directors since 2015 and as president-elect from September through December.
Author Sonali Dev, of Naperville, Illinois, whose work has been referred to as Bollywood-style love stories, has been a member of RWA since 2010. She said in an email that the backlash around RWA’s moves is a positive thing. “I’m personally impressed and heartened by the fact that publishers (including Avon and Kensington, my publishers) have pulled support from the national conference,” she said. “In terms of what it means to the romance industry, any exposure of bigotry is a good thing. It gives voice to those of us who feel marginalized, and it exposes systemic problems for those who’ve been in denial. I can only hope that translates into publishers and readers responding with their wallets.”
Author Beverly Jenkins wrote in an email that she “no longer has confidence in RWA leadership, due to the seemingly unethical methods undertaken in its treatment of Courtney Milan.”
As the president of the RWA NYC chapter, writer Adriana Herrera said in an email, this is a pivotal moment for romance as a genre. “The issue of diversity has been at the forefront for years, and yet, as we have seen over the last couple of weeks, our largest professional organization is so plagued with systemic racism, the leadership seems to prefer to see it collapse than confront these issues,” she said. “I am encouraged by the response of the industry and hope this means we will see publishers invest more in marginalized voices.”
The fallout from the callout has been referred to by the RWA as “the most painful and tumultuous in its history.” The RWA, in a statement, on its website now acknowledges the “significant failures of RWA over the course of several years to meaningfully address issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, and deficiencies in our communications and transparency with membership.”
The organization has since hired an independent law firm to conduct an audit of the ethics matter that will include interviews with key individuals as well as findings and recommendations on improving its process and sharing findings with members; vowed to bring on a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant who could assist RWA with diversifying board and staff recruitment, as well as design and structure future membership programming and events; and launched an evaluation and potential revamping of RWA awards programs with the help of experts and members.
“The last few weeks have brought to the forefront issues within RWA that many marginalized members have been alternatively whispering and screaming about for years,” said Laurel Cremant, president of the Cultural, Interracial and Multicultural Special Interest Chapter of Romance Writers of America, in an email. “The CIMRWA chapter’s very existence is evidence of systemic issues within the organization and publishing, as a whole. The fact that a chapter had to be created focused on promoting diversity and inclusion, and advocating for (our) own voices, works, and authors to be treated fairly and equally is, I think, the best indication of the issues that led up to this recent firestorm. I believe some of the root causes have been a lack of transparency, accountability, empathy, and sincerity.
“For years we’ve had discussions about what needs to be done, but given platitudes when the real work needed to be done. Accountability was always swept aside for some random deadline or event, and we were stuck in an endless cycle. If RWA actually takes the time to address and implement true change, then I see a path forward.”
People attend an autograph-signing event during the Romance Writers of America annual conference in New York in 2011. The group has canceled its 2020 RITA awards ceremony.