With the champagne all drunk, the countdown completed, and kisses exchanged, the book has officially closed on 2019. It was very good year for several of the writers here on the blog who successfully launched books into the hands of eager readers; it was not, however, such a good year for Romance Writers of America.
As Jeanne mentioned in her post yesterday, the implosion of RWA started on Christmas Eve when details about the RWA’s handling of ethics complaints against popular author Courtney Millan were made public. Following what happened next has been like watching an accident on the side of the road – horrifying, but hard to look away from.
While media coverage has focused on Milan’s comments about the racist elements of a specific book, the chain of events initially began months before with a series of tweets highlighting concerns about the biases of a specific acquisitions editor at a publishing company. Many twitter followers appear to have weighed in on the subject, sharing their views, and at some point, both the publisher (who hired the acquisitions editor) and the author of the book that was called out filed ethics complaints with RWA.
What ensued was a series of events that I doubt even the most creative fiction writer could have come up with: Shadow ethics committee. Re-written policies. Resignation. Censure. Backpedaling. Mass resignations. Uproar. Chapter statements. Petitions. Cancellation of the RITAs. And thousands and thousands of tweets. If someone was intentionally trying to destroy the organization, I don’t think they could have done a better job. And RWA has seemed intent on fanning the flames.
“. . . a professional organization so committed to lighting itself on fire that they’re guzzling gasoline behind dumpsters and juggling cigarette lighters.” ~ Facebook post
There are many aspects of all of this that I find troubling, not the least of which was RWA’s censure of an author who was expressing a personal opinion on social media. Now, I may be missing something here, since not all of the information regarding the complaint(s) is publicly available, but RWA policies exclude social media, so I’m definitely confused. I’m also confused about why a complaint by a publisher was considered at all, since RWA’s role is the support of writers.
What I have found even more troubling is how much of the discussion around this issue has centered on Milan’s comments about the racist elements in a particular book, and the language she used to express those comments, rather than the incidents of racism that numerous authors have experienced and spoken out about. The posts in the RWA PRO loop on the subject seemed to fall into two groups: (1) writers demurely clutching their pearls saying “language, ladies, language” and (2) marginalized writers doing their best to make themselves heard and understood. I’ll let you guess which of those two groups the PRO liaison tended to comment on.
“The PRO advisor keeps emphasizing civility and conveniently refuses to acknowledge racism. It’s infuriating.” ~ Twitter post
So now, here we are.
- After more than 300 books were pulled from RITA contention, the contest was cancelled on Monday.
- This story has been reported in the New York Times, the New York Post, NPR, the USA Today, and more; RWA’s reputation has been badly tarnished.
- The Nancy Yost Literary Agency withdrew their RWA membership and requested a refund of dues; other agents/editors have followed suit.
- There have been numerous calls for an independent audit of RWA and a firm has been hired (though there are concerns abut how “independent” or “comprehensive” the audit will be).
- There is an open investigation against RWA by the Texas Attorney General.
- The fate of the 2020 RWA Conference in San Francisco remains in question.
If there is anything that is positive about this entire mess is that a lot of things have been brought into the light that have been hidden (or at least haven’t had the visibility that they should have). There are some real, thought-provoking discussions going on about the treatment marginalized writers have been experiencing for years and years and years.
Can RWA as an organization be saved? I really don’t know.
Can we all learn something from this whole mess? I really hope so.
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Want some context around why this matters to more than just RWA members? Check out this link.
Why Does the RWA Implosion Matter to All Writers?
Want to broaden your perspective around diversity, power, and inclusion? Check out these two links.
How “Good Intent” Undermines Diversity and Inclusion
Why Didn’t They Talk To You Privately? On “Call Out Culture” and Power Differentials
Want to have see all of the chronological details in one place? Check out this site.
I’ve been following this story closely (you’re right – it’s just like watching a car crash on the side of the road) and it’s just nuts. Every day seems to bring up something new.
PS – Thanks for posting the links to the pieces on “good intent” and “call out culture”!
You’re welcome Holly. Hope you found them helpful.
I definitely did!
The links were great, thanks, Elizabeth. I too have been watching this, mostly from the advantage point of Claire Ryan’s blog, so I appreciate the pointers to these other sites. I love the quote about guzzling gasoline behind Dumpsters and juggling cigarette lighters. That’s just what it’s looked like. Who knew that an organization that looked so solid could so completely disintegrate? Unbelievable, except there it goes, right in front of us.
It has been educational to see which authors have spoken out on this and which have been silent. The posts on the PRO loop have been eye opening as well. I’ve worked in the Diversity & Inclusion field for more than a decade, so I’d like to think I have at least the inkling of a clue. Others – not so much.
Great links, Elizabeth!
What really worries me is how much responsibility board members and officers have — it seems to me that many of them (especially those who resigned) had a sincere desire to serve the membership of the RWA. It’s not an easy ride in the park — they were expected to keep abreast of differences in equality, financial matters, all the rules and by-laws, legal aspects . . . . And I can only imagine keeping ANY group of writers heading in the same direction is about as easy as trying to chase a herd of cats into the house. Writers tend to have their own ideas . . . great ideas, fantastic ideas, unbelievable ideas. Who, after taking a peek into this whole mess, is going to take on that kind of responsibility? Only people with very narrow vision, or a huge desire to serve and see justice done, I’m afraid.
It may be very difficult to find the next round of officers, even if RWA manages to survive. But, there sure is a lot of justice to be done, so maybe it won’t be that difficult.
What happened to RWA, anyway? One of the founding members was a black editor named Vivian Stephens. https://www.bgsu.edu/library/pcl/named/stephens.html Diversity was a huge thing from the beginning, it seems. I think it’s still a huge thing; but apparently, being “civil” is even huger now. I don’t know what to think about that.
I’m saddened by these events. I used to, naively, think that we were gaining ground on diversity and inclusion, but it seems like every step forward is met with some mainstream opposition (read: non-marginalized) group forcing two steps back.
I hope RWA can figure a way out of this mess or that another organization able to correct this nonsense can take it’s place because (and this is entirely selfish) the RWA Conference is one of the biggest learning/motivational events for me every year – at least the years that I’m able to go.
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