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Romance Novels Pixabay.jpg

The Battle Over the RWA and the Future of Literature

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Miscellaneous | January 6, 2020 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Miscellaneous | January 6, 2020 |

Romance Novels Pixabay.jpg

If you’re a lover of romance novels then the chances are that the past few weeks of your life have been consumed by the unfolding drama and subsequent implosion of the Romance Writers of America. In the space of less than a month, the RWA, arguably the most prominent group in the romance industry, has completely and utterly destroyed its own reputation, leading to multiple resignations at the highest level, a strange coup for power by one man, and the formation of a new professional organization for writers in the genre. I’ve wanted to write this post since the story began but between the holidays and the sheer speed with which it all unfolded, I had trouble keeping up and finding the time to do it justice. It’s now reached the mainstream media, with coverage on sites like The Guardian and The AV Club, and it’s hard to avoid how snide so much of that reporting is. Sadly, this is nothing new for romance, but given the magnitude of what’s happening and the insidious implications involved, I felt it was only fair to give this story the respect it deserves. This isn’t just about romance novels — this is about the future of literature as a whole.

On 23rd December, 2019, the RWA suspended best-selling romance author Courtney Milan. This came after Susan Tisdale, another author and co-founder of Glenfinnan Publishing. filed an ethics complaint against her on August 27th. Said complaint came after Milan, among many others, criticized Tisdale and Glenfinnan for having former Borders romance buyer Sue Grimshaw on staff at her company despite her well-documented history of racism, Trump and ICE support, and other such problematic rhetoric. As shown by many of her liked tweets, the evidence was hardly hidden.

When Tisdale tried to defend her continued work with Grimshaw through a video where she just straight-up lied about Grimshaw’s liked tweets (The full transcript of Tisdale’s response can be found here), Milan was one of many prominent voices in romance to call BS on this. She tweeted that this was about more than Grimshaw’s tweets and how her past as a buyer showed her unwillingness to stock authors of color. Milan accused Tisdale of ‘gaslighting us’.

Tisdale’s complaint said asserted that Milan’s words hurt her business and that various authors had refused to work with her company for fear of backlash. She provided no proof to support this. Milan was then asked to resign (not recuse herself) as chairperson of the Ethics Committee by outgoing RWA president HelenKay Dimon.

Milan faced another ethics complaint the following September from writer Kathryn Lynn Davis, who claimed that she had lost a three-book deal because of Milan’s criticisms of one of her earlier books and its stereotypical treatment of its Chinese characters. Milan, who is an Asian American woman herself, had called the book racist. Once again, Davis provided no proof of this.

The Ethics Committee of the RWA convened in November and found against Milan on one of four points. They recommended a punishment of one year’s suspension of membership and a lifetime ban on holding leadership positions in the RWA. The RWA Board voted to accept those findings and censure Milan with a 10 - 5 vote, with one abstention.

This news came as a shock for various reasons. Milan served on the RWA Board for four years and was key in helping to promote inclusivity in the genre and the institution at large, an area where romance as an industry has often been sorely lacking. Until this all happened, she was also charing the ethics committee. She is a woman of color who has vocally called out racism and bigotry in this business, one dominated by white women, and instead of being supported in that, she was censured by the same organization she used to work with. They chose to officially support the notion that white women were the victims of ‘racist bullying’. They did this by essentially going behind everyone’s backs. As noted by Ruby Lang, the RWA decided to do this by forming a secret ethics committee to handle this nonsense complaint.

So, not only did they lie about the ‘unanimous decision’ of this panel, they had to get it by subterfuge and lies. This all happened right before Christmas, clearly with these folks at the RWA hoping that the holidays would mean nobody would pay attention. As noted by Aja Romano, it also happened on the day of the deadline for RITA submissions (the top prize for romance authors), so nobody could withdraw in protest or get their entry money back.

Twitter exploded, with romance readers, writers, and editors alike tweeting in solidarity with the hashtag #IStandWithCourtney. Members started quitting, staff resigned, and calls came for an investigation into what happened, because it was clear to everyone that something was rotten in the state of the RWA.

Authors who contacted the organization for explanations were sent a letter from RWA President Carolyn Jewel that, to put it bluntly, only dug the hole deeper. The letter said that the ‘complaint that was made public was only the starting point and does not represent the totality of what the Ethics Committee considered’ and the RWA was grateful that ‘Ms. Milan shone a bright light on the ways RWA had failed authors of color or from marginalized groups, and I will always be grateful to her and to everyone who demands that we do better.’ A strange comment to make given that the group had just punished her for doing the exact thing they’d celebrated her for. Once again, this did not resolve the matter at hand and the rot at the heart of the RWA only festered further. Milan also tweeted that, while she was on the ethics committee, certain complaints never made their way to her, meaning that some were being filtered by RWA staff.

On Christmas Eve, the RWA tweeted to retract their decision.

On Boxing Day, the RWA Board issued an open letter to members, announcing that nine board members, including Jewel, had resigned. The new president-elect, Damon Suede, would be in charge moving forward. It claimed that Suede and the remaining members of the board ‘will be looking for a strong, diverse group of new leaders who have the ability to think strategically and believe in the mission of the organization.’

The issue gets even more tangled from here. Author Adriana Herrera tweets about how the RWA, on top of its shoddy treatment of Milan, has been dragging its feet for close to a year over dealing with indie press DreamSpinner, who have been withholding royalties from their writers for many months now. This is a problem because the new President-Elect, Damon Suede, has an upcoming book being published by DreamSpinner. Further resignations happen, and people begin coming forward with stories about Suede’s own allegedly bad behavior.

Suede released a statement to the chapter presidents privately with further information regarding the ethics process, which was helpfully dissected by Cole McCade.

Leslie Kelly noted how dramatic changes were made to the rules of the RWA ethics committee in October, which specifically changed the date of the committee chair selection so they’d be able to get in a new head who wasn’t Molan, and gave Suede the ability to hand-pick said chairman and ‘select and present to the Board for approval a slate of candidates for membership on the committee and appointment to a two-year term.’ So yeah, that seems all above-board, right? Further accusations of his slimy behavior come out, including claims by Alyssa Day that Suede had spread lies about her to get her to drop out of the race for President-Elect of the RWA.

Various people and groups began demanding that Suede resign. Even Nora f**king Roberts, the queen of the genre, blogged about having lost trust in the RWA. The CIMRWA — the Cultural, Interracial, Multicultural Special Interest chapter of RWA — announced on December 27th that they had enough votes to institute a recall vote against him. No action has yet been taken.

Hey, remember way back at the beginning on this post when we mentioned that ethics complaint from Kathryn Lynn Davis? The one where she claimed Milan’s criticism of her lost her a three-book deal? Yeah, that was a lie. In an interview with The Guardian, she said that she was ‘encouraged’ by the RWA to file a formal complaint against Milan and that she did not have and lose a written book contract. Davis feels that she was ‘used’, but it’s hard to feel sympathy for her given that she still wanted to demand an apology from a woman of color over her work being called out as racist. Suzan Tisdale also said the punishment was ‘a little harsh’ but reiterated that she had wanted an apology from Milan, which, seriously, why the hell should she have had to do that? She did nothing wrong!

The RWA has faced criticisms for years over its often lackadaisical approach to dealing with complaints and how let down many members have felt, especially those who are women of color. Aja Romano’s wonderful post has a more in-depth run-down of this, but some ‘highlights’ include the lack of action taken over RWA authors doxxing, bullying, and threatening other authors, members being discouraged from filing complaints, and black speakers at RWA chapters being paid less than white speakers.

Romance is not a niche genre. It is a multi-billion dollar industry that has frequently blazed trails for the rest of publishing, especially when it comes to indie presses and self-publishing. Even as fiction sales decline in other areas, romance readers remain loyal, all in the face of endless mockery from the rest of the biz. It’s a genre run almost exclusively by and for women, but one that has historically had major blind spots regarding issues of race, gender, sexuality, etc. Authors like Milan have been working tirelessly to change that, supporting and advocating for marginalized voices. They’re making this genre better and futureproofing it in a way that it needed. Unfortunately, there are too many voices in the community who see criticism and calling out of entrenched bigotry as being ‘just as bad’ as bigotry itself. These are the voices, the folks with the thinnest skin, who decided to punish someone who wanted to make the genre more welcoming instead of looking within themselves and questioning their outdated ideas and rhetoric.

Romance is not the only part of publishing dealing with these issues. It’s something that is rooted within every part of the industry. Just look at which authors get the biggest advances, which ones are offered the most shelf space, and those decreed to be ‘important’, and the chances are you’ll see a lot of white men with elite educations. This is not the world we live in so why should our books reflect that? The RWA should have been setting an example and speaking out against those voices trying to undermine those diverse voices. It’s 2020. We should be beyond vile racist stereotypes in romance and treating non-white, non-straight, non-cisgender readers as non-entities. Now, what we have is an organization that has proven itself to be unfit for purpose, currently headed by an inept leader who seems to have engineered various crises to ensure his status as top dog. We all deserve better than that.

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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.

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