Whilst racism controversy in the romance fiction genre is nothing new, there has been recent controversy over the awards for romance novels. The most famous awards for romance fiction, the Ritas, have been cancelled in recent weeks after a large collection of authors withdrew their books down to an ongoing disagreement concerning racism in the Romance Writers of America group.
More than 300 books have been withdrawn by authors in protest with how the Romance Writers of America (RWA), an industry group with more than 10,000 members, handled an investigation into the racism of one of their authors.
Members have been critical of the RWA’s decision to punish author Courtney Milan after she challenged racist stereotypes perpetuated in passages of Somewhere Lies the Moon by Kathryn Lynn Davis.
This decision by the RWA has been most heavily criticised with a string of resignations from the RWA’s board of directors and public outcry from many major novelists
Supporters of Milan have cited her long career of confronting the marginalisation of black authors by the RWA. As a well-known activist who confronts a lack of diversity and inclusion within romance publishing of BAME authors, Milan is known for her regular Twitter threads on racism and work on the board of directors to make the trade group more inclusive. She is someone who has criticised racism in the romance industry for a long time and most recently called Davis’ novel a “racist mess” for its portrayals of Chinese women. Milan has been instrumental in creating change in the RWA, having drawn attention to the RWA leadership’s role in marginalising black authors.
In response to Milan’s complaints, Davis filed formal ethical investigations with the RWA, alleging that Milan was a “bully” who had affected the success of her work. The RWA judged that Milan “engaged in conduct injurious” to the organisation and suspended her for a year with a lifetime ban from holding a leadership position.
This decision by the RWA has been most heavily criticised with a string of resignations from the RWA’s board of directors and public outcry from many major novelists like Nora Roberts. Due to the negative public response, the RWA backtracked and said that they wouldn’t discipline Milan. However, for many, the damage had already been done and the RWA made it clear how they treat allegations of racism in fiction. Some suggested that the decisions to discipline Milan represented the desire of white members to silence and push out anti-racist activists.
With so many authors withdrawing their work from the contest, the RWA board of directors were left with no choice but to cancel the Rita awards
An outpouring of support for Milan flooded social media as #IStandWithCourtney was trending on Twitter. The RWA acknowledged that the organisation is currently “at a turning point” and recognised that they “have lost the trust of our membership and the romance community.”
With so many authors withdrawing their work from the contest, the RWA board of directors were left with no choice but to cancel the Rita awards as the results would not reflect the diversity of romance novels published in 2019 and would not be able to reward “excellence in the genre.” Ten members of the RWA board of directors resigned from what has been the most racially diverse board of directors in the history of the group.
She criticised the decision to punish her for calling out racism but not disciplining actual racism
As a genre, romance fiction has been under intense criticism for many years and the RWA has been embroiled in debates over how the industry recognises authors of colour. The decision to discipline an author of colour for calling out racism seems to only have sparked further debate and confirmed issues of marginalisation in the romance industry. Milan noted that the RWA previously failed to take action to discipline members after complaints about racist and homophobic comments on social media. She criticised the decision to punish her for calling out racism but not disciplining actual racism.
Milan stated “people saw it as an attempt to silence marginalised people”. Sadly, it seems as though the RWA has a lot of work to do to rebuild its reputation and work to ensure that marginalised members feel more included. Issues with how they investigate racism and complaints are clear but the decision to cancel the Ritas was most definitely the correct thing to do.