Authors 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.
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.