The Romance Writers of America (RWA) – the world’s leading guild of romance writers – has effectively imploded, and the future of the organization and its values are at stake, along with its major role across the North American publishing industry.
A rapid number of events, starting with the censure of Asian-American bestselling author Courtney Milan, have occurred involving the international industry organization over the past three weeks, culminating in the resignations of both its president, Damon Suede, and its executive director, Carol Ritter, on Thursday. “It’s this ugly, raw, wound that’s surfacing, and on the whole, people are pretty upset,” Calgary RWA chapter president Emily Varga said.
Since it was founded in 1980, RWA has grown to more than 9,000 members, and holds a massive annual conference and its own annual awards, the RITAs. The first Canadian RWA chapter was founded in Ottawa in 1985, and there are now four more across the country. “I met my agent at RWA and I met my then-publisher at RWA,” said Ottawa chapter president Lucy Farago.
However, diversity, inclusion and the less-than-equal treatment of non-white authors have all been serious issues at RWA for many years, exemplified by how visible minorities continue to be stereotyped in titles by white authors. Toronto RWA chapter president Farah Heron, who made her novel debut with The Chai Factor last year, said she was tired of seeing Asian women portrayed as submissive in romance novels. “It chips away at you over time,” she said.
In late December of last year, this issue garnered a new level of attention after news broke the organization was disciplining Milan.
Last summer, Milan openly criticized depictions of half-Chinese characters in the book Somewhere Lies the Moon by Kathryn Lynn Davis on Twitter. Milan, who is half-Chinese, called the portrayal a "racist mess.” The RWA Ethics Committee found Milan to have “engaged in conduct injurious” to the organization. The ruling came with a punishment of a one-year suspension of membership and a lifetime ban on holding leadership positions within the organization.
There was massive, immediate backlash. Authors and RWA members flooded Twitter, especially after learning ethics complaints may have been filtered by RWA staff, leading to the possibility some did not reach the organization’s Ethics Committee.
In one example, a RWA member from Calgary who writes queer romance entered the RITAs last year. The author received feedback from the judges that the novel didn’t qualify because the story was between two male characters. Varga said the author reported that experience to the RWA but received no response. “There are systemic issues our members have had entering contests,” Varga said, pointing out that RWA has a significant number of members like her who are lawyers and had expressed concerns about the organization’s bylaws and protocols for ethics complaints.
Even though the RWA soon rescinded its ruling against Milan, there was still a cascade of negative consequences, including the resignation of authors who had previously signed up to judge the RITAs, authors pulling their books from RITA consideration, the resignations of members and directors-at-large, the withdrawal of at least 36 agents’ support from future events, significant global press coverage, as well as public support for Milan from superstar authors Nora Roberts, Neil Gaiman and N.K. Jemisin.
Dozens of RWA chapters across North America, including in Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa, issued public statements condemning the organization’s senior leadership and the actions against Milan. Several publishers also pulled their support from RWA and its national conference, including Avon, Berkley Romance, Entangled, HarperCollins Canada, Harlequin, Kensington, St. Martin’s, Gallery Books and Tule Publishing.
Last Tuesday, the 2020 RITAs were officially cancelled, citing the contest’s inability to “reflect the breadth and diversity of 2019 romance novels/novellas.” Two days later, RWA announced Suede and Ritter would step down from their positions, though Ritter would have a transition period of several months.
But the statement about the resignations did not include an apology to Milan nor go into detail about what happened. “Telling us that they’re going to be transparent and honest is not the same thing as showing us that they will be,” Heron said.
What has happened within RWA isn’t just about the future of a literary genre that has frequently been subject to misogyny and stereotyped as being frivolous or not as prestigious as other kinds of fiction, despite its massive sales. “This is about our livelihoods and our careers,” Heron said.
The situation has also highlighted how badly the romance genre and the publishing industry at large have treated non-white authors, even best-selling ones. Until 2019, there were no black winners at the RITA awards, despite several authors such as Beverly Jenkins and Alyssa Cole earning critical acclaim and appearing on several bestseller lists.
For many RWA members, most of their involvement and loyalty has been through their local chapter’s monthly meetings, training and writing seminars. Some chapters are considering no longer officially affiliating with the national organization. And even with the resignations at the senior level, Varga and Heron said many Canadian chapter members are not planning to attend the national conference in San Francisco this year due to the significant number of author, speaker and publisher withdrawals, and the cancellation of the RITA awards.
“You can get all these brand new or unreleased books signed by the author,” Heron said, calling the free giveaways one of the best and most fun parts of the conference, despite the long lines. “Those [major] publishers not coming means that won’t happen.”
Varga, Farago and Heron said the organization has a lot of work ahead of it to regain the trust of its members, including an actual apology to Milan and greater transparency about what happened. Varga said the choices RWA makes now, and which group it aims its changes toward, will determine its long-term future.
“Are you trying to make the people who say racist things happy?” she said. “Or are you trying to make people who call out racism happy?”
There’s also the possibility of starting an entirely new organization for romance writers with a new set of bylaws, board of directors and values. It’s an outcome many members aren’t thrilled about but understand might be necessary.
“I would be sad to see the organization go,” Farago said. "But if it needs to go to fix it then that’s what has to happen.”
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