Romance Writers of America, a trade group with more than 9,000 members that administers the annual RITA Awards, announced Monday that so many writers and judges had pulled out of its 2020 competition that it had no choice but to cancel the contest entirely. Many of those who dropped out had “lost faith” the competition would be administered fairly, the group said in a statement, and their refusal to participate meant the contest would no longer “reflect the breadth and diversity” of writing published in the past year.
The lack of diversity within the romance writing community — and the tendency for booksellers to shoehorn novels featuring black characters into a separate “African American” category — has been a contentious topic for years, as the Guardian and Publishers Weekly have reported. Romance Writers of America was founded in 1980 by a black woman, Vivian Stephens, who wanted to create a supportive environment for authors who weren’t taken seriously by the larger writing community. But in 2018 the group acknowledged no black author had ever won a RITA prize, the industry equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize or Academy Award.
Though two black women received RITA Awards in 2019, and Romance Writers of America promised to hire a diversity consultant, debate over the broader systemic issues continued. Then, in August, Courtney Milan, a prominent romance writer and outspoken advocate for diversity in the publishing community, posted tweets about “Somewhere Lies the Moon” that set off the current uproar.
Calling the novel a “racist mess,” Milan, who is Chinese American, highlighted a plot line featuring Asian characters with “slightly yellow” skin and “slanted almond eyes,” and noted that the book depicted 19th-century Chinese women as demure, quiet and compliant. “The notion of the submissive Chinese woman is a racist stereotype which fuels higher rates of violence against Asian women,” she wrote. “It is hard not to be upset about something that has done me and my loved ones real harm.”
Davis, the book’s author, responded to the criticism by filing an ethics complaint with Romance Writers of America. “These attacks on me have resulted in my losing a three-book contract with a publisher whom I cannot name because they fear having their own name linked with Ms. Milan’s,” she wrote, claiming the tweets amounted to “cyber-bullying.”
At the time, Milan served as the chair of Romance Writers of America’s ethics committee. Suzan Tisdale, a romance writer and publisher who works with Davis, questioned the appropriateness of allowing Milan to hold that position in a complaint of her own. “This is akin to putting a neo-Nazi in charge of a UN human rights committee,” she wrote, arguing Davis had been unfairly smeared as a racist after she “immersed herself in the Chinese culture for six years.”
The twin complaints lodged by Davis and Tisdale, who are both white, became public knowledge in December, when Romance Writers of America decided Milan had violated the group’s core mission of creating a “safe and respectful environment.” Just days before Christmas, Milan was informed of the sanctions she would face: a one-year suspension from the group, and a lifetime ban from any leadership positions.
When another author, Alyssa Cole, broke the news on Twitter, an immediate outcry erupted. Using the hashtag #IStandWithCourtney, romance writers expressed outrage at the idea that raising concerns about racism could be considered an ethics violation. Romance Writers of America witnessed a mass exodus as its president and eight of its board members handed in their resignations.
Among the high-profile authors weighing in was Nora Roberts, who wrote in a blog post that the debacle “brought to light a long-standing and systemic marginalization of authors of color, of LGBTQ authors, by the organization.” No longer a member of Romance Writers of America, the best-selling writer said she became disillusioned in 2005, when top leaders drafted a statement defining romance as between a man and a woman.
“I would not be a part of this kind of discrimination against the LGBTQ community,” Roberts wrote. “Jesus, it’s fine to have a character fall in love with a freaking vampire, but not someone of the same sex?”
Facing a cataclysm of criticism, Romance Writers of America announced on Dec. 30 it was reversing its decision to censure Milan, and said the group did not intend to suggest members were barred from talking openly about racism. “We have lost the trust of our membership and the romance community and we must find a way to rebuild that,” a letter to members said. “It’s going to be a hard road, maybe one of the most difficult we’ve traveled since our inception.”
But writers continued to revolt, even as the organization continued to reiterate it was committed to diversity and inclusion. The new president, Damon Suede, was hit with a recall petition, and more than three dozen representatives from regional offshoots of Romance Writers of America demanded the group’s top national leaders resign, calling their handling of the controversy “shameful.” Meanwhile, numerous authors publicly announced they would withdraw their work from consideration in the coming RITA Awards.
Even the writers who had complained about Milan’s tweets expressed some level of regret. Tisdale told the Guardian she had only wanted an apology and thought the punishment was too harsh, while Davis walked back her initial claims that she had “lost” a book deal, telling the outlet that the discussion about her contract had only been postponed. She claimed Romance Writers of America’s leadership had encouraged her to file a complaint and she felt they had “used” her.
Amid the tumult, Romance Writers of America’s choice to call off its annual contest was one decision that was well-received.
“Letting go of the 2019 RITAs was a hard decision, but the right one,” Milan tweeted on Monday night. “But it was the easiest of the hard decisions. Now go make some more.”