Smut Reporting

Dumpster Fire in the RWA: Racism, Critique and Institutional Power in the World of Romance

Over the past few days, Romancelandia has been a mess. For those readers who are not knees deep in the world of romance, we wanted to provide a quick and dirty primer (plus point y’all to more detailed sources of information), as well as talk about why this is important. 

The short version of the story is as follows:

Romance author Courtney Milan calls out racism when and where she sees it. Generally, she focuses on practices of publishing houses or on book criticism. Sometimes her language is salty. 

Suzan Tisdale and Katherine Lynn Davis therefore filed an ethics complaint with the Romance Writers of America (the top professional organization for romance novelists), claiming that Milan engages in behavior injurious to the RWA. 

On December 23rd, the RWA censured Milan for calling out racism. Author Alyssa Cole announced the decision (and shared the relevant documentation) on Milan’s behalf.

In the outcry that followed, several things became apparent:

The RWA has since rescinded the judgment pending legal counsel, and the organization issued a statement yesterday that reasserts its intention to focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion but does not specify the means by which it intends to course correct or regain trust. However, half of the board has resigned, along with other top members of the organization.

If you want more detail, or want to continue to follow this story as it develops, Romance Sparks Joy has put together a comprehensive accounting of events, new information and commentary as it unfolded.

**Edited to add: Author Claire Ryan has compiled an extremely detailed write-up of events and analysis in chronological order, and continues to update it with new information daily.

You might be wondering why we care about this, given that we are not members of the RWA. 

First, books are not made in a vacuum, and we think it’s important to be aware of the institutions which act as gatekeepers in determining which authors receive support. We need to acknowledge that there are decision makers behind curtains – and they’re not only publishers – who are determining what has merit.

Second, our position is that we do our best to support diversity and inclusion within the romance genre (we want to read love stories with happy endings about all kinds of people!), and we find RWA’s apparently systematic lack of adherence to its own Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion policies problematic. We have to put ourselves in a place that listens to marginalized voices because we’re privileged and we don’t always know when something is wrong, but when we know better we can do better. 

Third, as book reviewers, we are concerned that Milan was censured for critiquing a book – because her book criticism was deemed a personal attack on the author. In book review land there’s a lot of discussion of cancel culture and the proper etiquette of negative reviewing, but the truth of the matter is, engaging in book criticism sometimes involves calling out bad writing or problematic tropes or racist language and should not be deemed inciting, no matter how salty your critique is. 

So what are the next steps? 

Erin had trained to be a RITA judge this year, but it has become increasingly likely that she will resign. Typically she would prefer to effect change from within, which was why she signed up to be a judge in the first place, but the continuous fallout since Cole’s initial tweet has seriously dented her confidence that the contribution she might make would be meaningful or, frankly, appreciated.

For those of us who are not RITA judges, SuperWendy put it best in her response to the incident: 

I offer up this one small piece of tangible advice: There’s still joy to be found in the genre. Seek it out, embrace it, and promote the hell out of it. Talk about the books and authors you want to talk about. Ask the hard questions. Be open to discourse. Blog about it, tweet about it, post reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Agitate for the genre you want to see, the genre you want to be a part of.  Vote with your time and dollars. Recommend books to your local libraries. Yes, it’s exhausting.  Yes, it’s thankless AF. But if not you, then who? 

So that’s what we’ll continue to try to do in our small way. Agitate for the genre we want to see.

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