January 10, 2020

When love turns sour: Romance awards cancelled amidst ongoing race row

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The RITA is considered the highest award of distinction in English-language romance fiction. With 13 prize categories, up to 2,000 novels are submitted to the Romance Writers of America (RWA) who announce the winner at their annual black-tie awards ceremony at the RWA Annual Conference, which has been happening since the 1980s.

This year however the RITAs have been cancelled as the RWA deal with the fallout of accusations of racism.

The controversy broke out in December, when Chinese-American author Courtney Milan publicly criticised passages in Kathryn Lynn Davis’ Somewhere Lies the Moon, calling it, as reported by the New York Times, a ‘racist mess’ for its depictions of Chinese women:

“…including a description of “slanted almond eyes” and a quote from a character describing them as “demure and quiet, as our mothers have trained us to be.” “The notion of the submissive Chinese woman is a racist stereotype which fuels higher rates of violence against women,” Ms. Milan wrote on Twitter.”

In response, Davis filed an ethics complaint with the RWA, who represent almost 10,000 writers, saying Milan’s cyberbullying has cost her a publishing contract. The RWA ended up making the decision to suspended Milan from the organisation for a year, and barred her for life from holding a leadership position.

Following the controversial decision, eight board members resigned from the RWA late last year including president Carolyn Jewell and over 300 books were withdrawn from the contest. Although the RWA eventually reversed the decision, instead hiring a law firm to conduct an audit of the process, the damage had been done. This week two more board members have handed in their resignations. Romance publishers, including Avon and Harlequin, have ceased sponsorship and will no longer attend the conference.

A petition calling for the resignation of Damon Suede, the organisation’s current president, has been submitted, and over 50 literary agents have signed a letter saying they will not attend any RWA events until “new leadership is installed at the national level.”

Milan’s high profile has caused the controversy to explode: she was in fact chair of the RWA’s ethics committee, and is an extremely vocal advocate for diversity and inclusion within romance publishing. Sharing documents and letters she received from the RWA on Twitter, she has hundreds of supporters, the hashtag #IStandWithCourtney becoming popular and resulting in backlash turning against the RWA. In response, the organisation recently put out a statement addressing this ‘upsetting and tumultuous time’ saying:

“It was never the intent of the Board to suggest that members cannot and should not discuss, call out, or criticize instances of racism or other forms of discrimination. Indeed, we have tried to provide opportunities for members to do just that, and again, we apologize that we have caused members to think otherwise.”

It seems many RWA members and supporters will not rest until Damon Suede is removed from his current position. While that may placate, it will not fix long standing diversity issues not only within romance publishing but within publishing as a whole. A survey carried out by US bookstore The Ripped Bodice revealed in 2018 only 7.7% of authors at the top romance publishers were authors of colour. How far can this recent uproar go to fixing an almost institutionalised problem?

 

 

Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.

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