Plot Twist: Romance Writers of America

burning cityAuthors who write romance are required to include a few stumbling blocks in the path of their protagonists on the way to their happily-ever-after. But their largest professional organization, Romance Writers of America, has hit a stumbling block so high that the group’s survival is in doubt.

It all started back in August, when Courtney Milan, a Chinese-American romance writer and past member of RWA’s board, tweeted withering criticism of a book put out by Glenfinnan, a small publisher, over passages involving a Chinese character in Somewhere Lies the Moon by Kathryn Lynn Davis. The book was first published 20 years ago, but Glenfinnan republished it in 2014. Davis and her editor lodged a complaint about Milan’s tweets with the RWA board.

Here’s where the story starts going pear-shaped. RWA president Damon Suede reportedly bypassed the organization’s standing Ethics Committee and appointed a secret ethics committee to handle the complaint against Milan. The first any regular members knew about it was just before Christmas, when the RWA board accepted the secret committee’s recommendation that Milan be suspended from membership for a year and banned from ever holding another leadership position.

Davis herself thought the punishment was too harsh. She has been quoted as saying all she wanted was an apology. But Milan’s friends were livid, and of course other romance writers also had their say – including Nora Roberts, who quit RWA years ago over what she considered the organization’s lack of attention to LGBTQ issues. Some members also organized a petition calling for Suede’s ouster.

As the complicated plot unfolded, half of the RWA board resigned; the group canceled its 2020 RITA Awards ceremony because several nominees withdrew their work; at least two major romance publishers have pulled out of this year’s national conference, which means the conference may not go forward at all; and Suede has resigned.broken heart-1952347_640

Milan’s defenders say she has done much good for RWA in fighting against systemic racism in the romance genre. Publishers say they want to release more books by authors of color, but protagonists in romance novels are still overwhelmingly white.

In a statement issued on January 9, the remaining members of the RWA board outlined the organization’s plans to address the issues going forward. It plans to hire a diversity and inclusion consultant to improve the awards program. It also intends to hire an outside firm as auditor to discover how that secret committee got appointed in the first place, and to advise RWA on how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Romance isn’t the only genre affected by calls for more diversity and inclusiveness. In 2013, a group of right-wing authors calling themselves the Sad Puppies tried to take over the nominating process for the Hugo Awards. The Sad Puppies and an offshoot group, the Rabid Puppies, wanted to preserve the nominations for traditional sci-fi and fantasy works – by which they meant to squeeze out speculative fiction dealing with sociological issues and those written by authors of color. The effort eventually failed when the World Science Fiction Society, which awards the Hugos, changed the nominating process to thwart the Puppies’ efforts.

It’s a fact of our modern world that these sorts of clashes will continue to crop up, including in publishing. We can only hope that organizations for authors – as well as society as a whole – will be able to navigate these stumbling blocks and find their own happily ever after.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

12 thoughts on “Plot Twist: Romance Writers of America”

  1. These secret undertakings are exactly the sorts of things that need a light shone on them so they can be revealed and stamped out. There’s so much diversity in the world; why shouldn’t that diversity be reflected in the books we write? I can still remember back in the early 80s when I sent my first book, a Western romance about a half-breed, to Harlequin, and they responded saying they liked it, but couldn’t the heroine be an all-white woman who just happened to be raised by Indians? I was surprised, but not. The character’s heritage was a major aspect of the story, so…. NO. The book was later published by Dorchester. Yes, romances are a flight of fancy, but there’s no reason they can’t have very real and diverse characters. Great post, Lynne.

  2. As I am unfamiliar with the original comments that brought all this to a head I can’t speak to the specifics. On the other hand I do believe it’s high time we address the issues of diversity in healthy, positive ways. I do see more of it in other genres so maybe this is a wake-up call for Romance writers. We authors ought to be leaders in this area,

  3. I’m not sure what will happen with RWA,but it’s important for writers to have places to congregate and organizations that back them. RWA took legal action on behalf of authors a couple of years back during cockygate. And there’s a crisis now that RWA had been assisting with (a small publisher restructuring and not paying its authors), but it’s unclear if they’ll still help now. And that’s ashame.

    Organizations have to represent all their members, or they’ll call apart and be unable to represent any of its members.

    1. I agree with you, RJ. Author organizations are vital for writers. RWA has done a lot of good over the years. Maybe that’s why this episode seems so terrible.

  4. I’ve never been involved in a big writers’ group like that, so wasn’t aware of all this kind of stuff, but found the post really interesting. Thanks Lynne! Just from what I’ve read here, sounds like the folks in RWA are taking the issues to heart and, I hope, even if it takes awhile to correct, the organization regains its apparent purpose to present fiction regarding romance ? Last I saw, seems like everyone of every color and persuasion’s involved in it. Even us, ie wife & I, near 70 year olds, lol! ?

  5. Two problems here. The real one is diversity in characterization, which is a topic worth discussing.
    The second is the tendency of people who get into positions of power and abuse that power for their own personal satisfaction. Which has nothing to do with anything important, and organizations that allow that sort of event are doomed and deserve to fade away or explode as they usually do. The organization that did all that good work in the past has already been gone for some time. Good riddance to whatever replaced it.

  6. “In 2013, a group of right-wing authors calling themselves the Sad Puppies tried to take over the nominating process for the Hugo Awards. The Sad Puppies and an offshoot group, the Rabid Puppies, wanted to preserve the nominations for traditional sci-fi and fantasy works – by which they meant to squeeze out speculative fiction dealing with sociological issues and those written by authors of color. The effort eventually failed when the World Science Fiction Society, which awards the Hugos, changed the nominating process to thwart the Puppies’ efforts.”

    This is confused and muddled at best, outright false at worst.

    1) The Sad Puppies were not “right wing” to anyone but the far left. Rather, they were centrists, perhaps traditionalists, who wanted to put adventure back into the various awards which had become increasingly politicized. They weren’t trying to squeeze out spec-fic dealing with sociological issues or persons of color. Rather, they were trying to get at least some traditional adventures back into the running that had themselves been squeezed out by the “all-politics, all-sociology, all-the-time” crowd.

    2) They did not try to “take over” the nominating process for the Hugos. That was the Rabids, later, which were 3) not an off offshoot of the Sads in anything but name appropriation and inspiration. In fact, those who had begun the loose Sad movement made perfectly plain that they never coordinated with the Rabids or had anything specifically to do with the Rabids. The two were as different as North and South Korea, and painting them with the same brush makes as much sense as imagining the two Koreas are the same.

    Here’s some reading by one of the founders of the Sads (not the Rabids) to get some more accurate perspective:

    Here’s an interesting post by a woman author from the “wrong side” who attended 2015.

    Bottom line, as most often happens, the moderates got drowned out by the extremists on both sides, and history was written by the (ostensible) winners–and you reprinted it here, clearly cobbling from the Wikipedia article, the citations of which are all written at least two years after the fact by people on only one side of the controversy. But that’s no more what happened than the children’s story of the “first Thanksgiving” or Disney’s “Pocahontas” reflects the real history of the European settlers and the indigenous peoples.

    Also, why put the Puppies controversy in at all, into a post about the current RWA situations? The two situations are utterly different. The Hugos (WorldCon) and the RWA are completely different types of organizations. The analogous organization to RWA, SFWA (Science Fiction and fantasy Writers of America) has had neither RWA-type problems nor WorldCon-type problems. The situations share almost nothing in common–not even apples and oranges, but more like apples and hand grenades.

    This has to make me wonder if the rest of the post about the RWA situation is accurate. I’ve read a lot on various forums about the RWA situation and I would be hard-pressed to write a summary I was confident was accurate. I hope everyone reading articles such as this one maintains a healthy skepticism and does their own reading and research, rather than simply accepting what they’re told.

  7. I’ve been watching the forum on RWA’s website. Thank you for providing this back story as an RWA member, I was not aware of how it all started. I am very saddened to see the nasty mud slinging going on. However, there is also some good stuff being discussed.
    Let’s remember that publishers like HQ are a business. They publish what they think will sell. I was approached by a well known HQ agent who wanted to sell my manuscript, but only after I stripped out and watered down some plot elements that weren’t HQ material. I thanked the agent for their time and self published.
    The market will determine what sells and what doesn’t. Many of us self published authors are carving new paths and providing readers with diverse stories.
    Sadly though, it looks like a great organization dedicated to education, networking and advocacy is going to be ripped apart.

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