Drama over ro­mance writ­ers

Au­thors or­ga­ni­za­tion can­cels its awards amid a ‘firestorm’ over race and di­ver­sity

Orlando Sentinel - - EXTRA FAMILY & LIFE - By Dar­cel Rock­ett drock­[email protected]­bune.com

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.”

TINA FINEBERG/AP

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.

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