Why the RWA Controversy Matters

It's not just financial: It's a matter of cultural capital as well.

As 2019 was winding down—just a few days before Christmas, in fact—romance novelists and their fans were stunned to learn that the Romance Writers of America, a networking and author advocacy group that also oversees the RITAs, the genre’s most prestigious award, had filed a sanction against bestselling novelist Courtney Milan, accusing her of violating RWA’s ethics guidelines when she publicly described another author’s novel as a “fucking racist mess.” Many of them defended Milan online, demanding an explanation. (Full disclosure: I count myself among Courtney Milan’s fans, and have been an extremely vocal critic of RWA’s actions.)

Two weeks later, the organization faces an existential crisis: There will be no RITAs presented at this year’s national RWA conference, which is the genre’s equivalent to Comic-Con. Most of the major romance publishers in the United States won’t be participating in that conference, either. And the executive leadership has been forced to resign, after complaints about their handling of Courtney Milan’s case led to a recall petition—and serious questions about whether a writer had enlisted his publisher in creating a data trail for a book that never existed, so he could become RWA president.

It’s a big story, with a lot of twists and turns. If you want the full details, Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (which should always be the first place you look whenever you’re trying to learn about romance fiction), produced a comprehensive timeline with regular updates. If you’d like to read a narrative feature, Maureen Lee Lenker at Entertainment Weekly filed a story just after the cancellation of the RITAs, but before the RWA’s top brass resigned.

Lenker also does an excellent job of explaining why this is an important story:

“The RWA’s stated mission is ‘to advance the professional and common business interests of career-focused romance writers,’ but its recent actions and the increasing number of reports of incidents of racism, homophobia, and more suggest that it has been failing to honor that mission for all authors, instead privileging the concerns and feelings of white authors. If RWA is to survive, it has some major soul-searching to do… addressing and untangling decades of systemic bias.”

In many ways, what I have to say is an echo of what Wendell and Lenker have already written, and for that matter what Courtney Milan and other writers have been saying for a long time now. So if you’re at all familiar with romance fiction, this newsletter might be old hat for you. If you aren’t, though, I hope you’ll find what follows helpful.

The first thing you have to understand is that romance fiction is essentially the backbone of commercial book publishing—in and of itself, it brings more than a billion dollars a year into the industry. It’s a genre that speaks to a large audience, and to which that large audience eagerly gives its attention. So it matters what gets published. And though romance fiction has made significant strides in recent years, what gets published is still, largely, centered on the interests of heterosexual white women. (There’s also a class aspect to be considered, but I’m not capable of doing much more than waving in its general direction.)

Novels written by heterosexual white women for heterosexual white women often did a poor job of representing people of color (or queer people), if they bothered to include representations of such people at all. The critique from Courtney Milan that started this controversy, for example, was a public breakdown of how a novel from the 1990s, recently republished, had relied extensively on stereotypes of Asian women as “demure and quiet.” Some writers have been able to push back against this legacy by creating more positive characters, but there’s still a great deal to be done in this regard, for all marginalized communities.

In part, that’s because there’s still a profound need for greater diversity and inclusion behind the scenes. As long as romance publishers continue to think in terms of, say, “African-American readers” or “LGBTQ readers” as niche markets that can serviced with discrete, finite efforts, they will continue to define the mainstream in ways that predominantly cater to heterosexual white women, and writers who can effectively cater to that audience will reap the rewards.

Yet so much of what we’ve seen in the culture at large over the last decade indicates that “the mainstream” is, in fact, becoming much more diverse, or at the very least capable of absorbing much more diversity—that stories with “universal” emotional appeal, for example, aren’t always centered around straight white people any longer.

(Let’s be clear, again: I’m not saying we’re anywhere near a multicultural utopia, just that important progress has been made, and much remains to be done.)

As Maureen Lee Lenker points out, an organization that expresses concern for “the professional and common business interests of career-focused romance writers” needs, in the 21st century, to address the interests of writers from diverse backgrounds. It needs to advocate for a cultural space in which those writers can thrive, and it needs to take a stand against trends within an industry that might keep them from thriving.

Those trends include systemic biases that view one group of people as somehow “less than” an arbitrary mainstream ideal, or even somehow “separate but equal,” where we all know that “equal” means “given whatever scraps remain after everybody at the big table gets their share.”

It’s more than a financial issue, though. It’s also a matter of cultural capital.

In the past, I’ve raised the idea that every novel is, in essence, a philosophical argument about the way the world is, or the way it should be. Sometimes it’s an argument by negative example, but for the most part—and in the romance genre in particular—it’s a positive assertion that human beings have the right to enter into “relationships that unfold in emotionally and physically fulfilling ways,” making their own choices about what that means to them.

If you shove stories about non-white characters, or non-straight characters, off to the side—if you suggest that such stories don’t deserve a fully equal standing in the romance genre as a cultural sphere—you are denying the writers of those stories, and their readers, full participation in human society.

This newsletter is grounded in the idea that we write in order to discover what matters most to us, and to carve out the freedom to truly engage with it, to build a life around it to whatever degree we find ourselves capable. If you believe that’s true, you ought to believe that it’s true for every writer, including ones from backgrounds different than your own.

A professional writer’s organization in which racist and homophobic attitudes are allowed to flourish, in which writers are denied even the opportunity to challenge the existence of such attitudes, is an organization that has failed all but a handful of professional writers.

Romance Writers of America has an opportunity to become a very different type of writers organization in the years ahead. As a fan of many romance writers, some but not all of whom are RWA members, I hope they’re able to do that—but, if not, I hope that writers will find another instrument to achieve the cultural and professional equity they deserve.

(Full disclosure: I’ve never been a member of RWA, in part because, as big a fan of the genre as I am, which includes co-hosting a reading series for romance writers for more than a decade, I’ve never written in the genre… yet.)