Where do I start with the issues surrounding the Romance Writers of America? *sigh*
No, seriously. Where do I start?
For those who got to actually relax and enjoy the holidays and are just now paying attention, I wanted to provide a primer on the situation. But trying to “sum up” the depth and breadth of the chaos and problems and “you’ve got to be kidding me” reactions had me staring at a blank monitor screen for hours yesterday.
So let me instead first start with why this matters. Why should any writer who doesn’t write romance care about a situation that could be dismissively considered “in-fighting”?
The Romance Genre Leads the Industry
The romance genre and those who write or read it are often laughed off as being the realm of sexually frustrated housewives. It doesn’t matter how much the evidence states otherwise—some will make jokes regardless, just because it is a female-dominated genre.
The romance genre dominates the publishing industry, so RWA's implosion matters to all writers. Click To TweetHowever, the romance genre is also the powerhouse of the fiction world, a multi-billion dollar industry. For some publishers throughout the decades, the profits from their romance lines were what kept the company afloat, allowing all that “serious” literature to even exist.
That power and size has also created countless situations where the romance industry led the way. The innovations sprung from the romance genre carry through to the entire publishing industry.
Ebooks and ereaders/Kindles? Romance authors, publishers, and readers embraced them first, making them popular enough to change the whole industry.
Self-publishing? Romance authors were there first, showing everyone else the way. Even today, many of the best marketing insights and examples come from those in the romance genre.
The successes of the romance industry help every other writer, no matter their genre. Without a strong romance industry, the entire publishing industry would suffer.
RWA: Voice of the Romance Industry
With a membership of almost 10,000 romance writers and industry associates, the Romance Writers of America has been the voice of those working in the industry for almost 40 years and one of the biggest (if not the biggest) writing organizations in the world.
Unlike most other professional writing organizations, RWA welcomes not just published authors, but also unpublished writers—in addition to agents, editors, librarians, and other associates. Their focus on educating and connections has been essential to many now-successful authors, and that education also trickles down to writers of every genre through workshops and writing blogs and whatnot.
That large membership has also given RWA clout to address issues like #cockygate, where an author tried to prevent any book from using a word she’d somehow managed to trademark. Without RWA’s authoritative smackdown discouraging the practice, authors in every other genre would have soon suffered from the same problem as well.
In other words, the support that RWA has given to the romance industry has helped writers all over, whether member or not, whatever the genre. So with the threat of RWA collapsing under its own stupid, destructive decisions, the whole publishing world might lose an advocate.
However, that brings us to the start of RWA’s problems…
But They’re Not Supportive of All Romance Writers
Even though one of RWA’s founders was a Black woman, editor Vivian Stephens, the trade organization has historically failed to welcome, support, or advocate for writers from often-marginalized groups.
Hundreds (if not thousands) of examples of that failure exist, including:
- Last year was the first time a Black author won RWA’s prestigious RITA award, and finalists (much less winners) of any color have been disturbingly rare.
- In 2005, RWA asked the membership to define romance as between one man and one woman, and although this push was rejected, some RITA judges still refuse to accept LGBT+ romances, labeling them “not a romance” and causing their disqualification.
- The entire “inspirational” romance subgenre is assumed to be Christian only, and throughout even the umbrella of the whole romance genre, stories centering other religions are sometimes challenged.
- Writers with disabilities are often dismissed when questioning whether chapter meetings or conferences are “disability friendly,” and many writers think disabled characters need to be “fixed” before their story’s ending can truly be happy (implying that people with disabilities can’t ever be happy).
At the same time, many members wanted—and tried to make—the organization to do better. Over the past few years, the membership has been electing Board members with more diversity and wider experiences and perspectives. This past summer, members elected the most diverse and inclusive board yet, giving many hope that the organization was headed in the right direction.
Now with that context, let’s try to “sum up” for those who haven’t been following the scandal on Twitter…
The Many Layers of the RWA Implosion
On December 23rd, news broke that RWA had suspended and banned Courtney Milan, bestselling author and former board member, as the result of two related ethics complaints. The complaints focused on Courtney’s Twitter threads pointing out racist writing in a writer-turned-editor’s book (even though she was far from the only one pointing out the issues). An outcry against the punishment erupted, especially on Twitter, where the hashtag #IStandWithCourtney trended.
Why is the RWA implosion more than just “in-fighting”? Click To TweetAt this point, some defended the complaints (even though critique—even from fellow authors—is just part of being a writer). After all, many have expressed a dislike for Courtney’s outspokenness or aggressiveness over the years, so they saw the punishment as justified. Plus, the complaints claimed serious damages, such as loss of contracts, and threatened lawsuits.
So this was just a case of she-said/she-said, right? Or just another example of Social Justice Warriors Gone Mad or the “cancel culture,” right?
Not quite. This is a story of racism, yes, but also of entitlement, ego, power, lies, cover-ups, and more…
Failed Policies and Procedures
Those of us who dug into the legalese, the many pages of complaints, Courtney’s formal responses, and the report of findings by RWA’s Ethics Committee saw discrepancies that revealed issues going far deeper. Even though one of the complaints contained the chilling phrase about Courtney, “She cannot be allowed to…use her voice to urge others to follow her lead,” those protesting the situation weren’t focusing only on defending her personally.
At every step of the process, RWA failed to follow their own policies and procedures, as they:
- allowed a publisher to file a complaint against an author
- didn’t require proof of damages
- processed the complaint despite RWA’s Ethics Code specifically making exceptions for criticism of a book and for messages on social media
- forced Courtney to resign rather than recuse herself as chair of the Ethics Committee
- set up a secret second Ethics Committee (with who knows what qualifications for judging ethical issues)
In other words, the complaint should never have been allowed to be filed at all, much less passed on to this secret shadow committee. And that was just what was known in the first 24 hours.
History of Issues
In addition, the outcry freed others to share their stories of valid ethics complaints that were ignored by the RWA staff. The RWA staff (which are long-term paid positions, unlike the volunteer Board and Committees) were also at the center of many newly shared stories of discrimination over the years.
(A daily update of the quickly changing situation and links to many stories can be found here. For additional news, Romance Sparks Joy has compiled a Twitter Moment with all the most import Twitter threads here. A new article from Vox also includes much of the backstory other media coverage is missing.)
More Failed Policies
By the 48 hour mark, 9 board members had resigned in protest (and in a shocking lack of transparency, apparently the President did too, which was announced only as an aside with no details or a resignation letter). By that time, the Board had been able to see the actual complaints and Courtney’s responses on Twitter like everyone else and perhaps for the first time fully understood what it was they’d been forced to vote on (rather than relying on only the President-Elect’s word for the details behind the Ethics Committee 2.0’s recommended punishment).
As RWA chapters and members pointed out the discrepancies, RWA’s answers just created more policy holes. They defended their decisions by saying there was more to the judgment than anyone—including Courtney—ever saw, which of course, violated her right to respond to every claim.
Conspiracies and Cover Ups?
In the 2 weeks since, the problems have compounded. RWA’s messaging has ranged from “sorry, we’ll do better” to “shut up if you know what’s good for you.”
Add in an utter lack of transparency, silence from the President-Elect (now President) Damon Suede and most of the remaining Board, and outright falsehoods and threats when they do speak (implying RWA would fold and go into receivership if members force recalls or resignations), and we have the current situation where much of the membership has lost confidence in the President, Board, and RWA staff.
Topping it off, this past weekend, Kathryn Lynn Davis (one of the complaint filers) backtracked, admitting she hadn’t lost a 3-book contract after all and claiming RWA staff had “encouraged” her to file her complaint. (Oh, and her book at the center of the Courtney’s Twitter critique that she was so defensive about? Surprise! She’s now edited it for its racist writing. *sigh*)
Ignoring…and then Maybe Progress???
A recall petition against the President has been submitted (twice), 19 former Presidents and board members have requested answers to policy discrepancies (and been ignored), huge numbers of chapters and members have demanded an investigative audit (and been ignored), agents have cut off their partnership with RWA (with no response), and so on.
My letter to the RWA Board can be found here, and as I mentioned on Twitter, given my epic-length blog posts, my letter is not surprisingly of manifesto-length. *smile*
Last night, RWA canceled their annual RITA contest, but not before over 300 authors had pulled their stories (many from underrepresented authors) and many judges withdrew from their commitment.
My email withdrawing from RITA judging can be found here. (Obviously, I sent my letter this past weekend, before the RITA contest was, indeed, canceled.)
RWA Could Be Great for the Industry, But…
My point with all this is that romance authors are used to innovating, breaking barriers, and getting things done. It would be nice if RWA can be salvaged so whatever remaining clout they have could be put to work for everyone.
None of us are perfect, and we all make mistakes. I’m sure I’ve said or written some insensitive (and maybe even harmful) words over the course of my 950+ blog posts, multiple workshops, and various books. For that, I am sincerely sorry, and I ask for the chance to learn and do better.
As with many newsworthy scandals, it’s not the mistakes, it’s the cover-up or the doubling-down. Too many times, we get defensive when confronted with our mistakes. But remember, we are allowed to make mistakes as long as we’re sincere in listening, learning, apologizing, and changing to do better.
RWA has yet to take those necessary steps. If—and obviously, that’s a big if—RWA can recover, they could become leaders in how to tackle these big issues. They could confront problems and make progress.
But given how deeply into the structures, membership, and permanent staff of RWA these issues seem to go, many have understandably lost all hope. And for a genre built on the hope for a happy ending, that fall from grace is a tragedy.
P.S. My follow-up post details the steps I see for how to fix RWA.
Had you heard of the RWA issues before this? What pieces had you heard about? Were there any here you hadn’t yet heard? Have you been following the situation, and if so, what do you think about it? Do you have any questions about the issues or events?Pin It