If you have no idea what RWA is or why it was already down, here’s a quick recap:
Once upon a time, Romance Writers of America was kind of a big deal. Like, everyone who was anyone in the romance industry was in RWA. Their annual convention was a whole-ass thing, they had tons of regional chapters, it was how you networked, improved your craft, learned all those other skills that aren’t writing but you gotta do as a writer. When bad stuff happened in the romance community, they were a powerful voice to help individual authors who weren’t loud enough to advocate for themselves.
And because the general writing community is pretty darn shitty about romance writers, it was a safe space.
Or, we thought it was.
Okay, there have always been issues in RWA, because there’s always been issues in the romance community. Lots of little and not-so-little stuff, but I think the elephant in the room was always diversity. It’s a problem throughout the publishing industry, not just romance, but there was literally a time when RWA asked its members if it should no longer include gay romance — and that time was 2005. Their annual awards, the RITAs, were notoriously biased toward white, hetero, cis characters and authors even beyond how biased the industry is in general.
And then the Courtney Milan incident happened.
I’m not going to go into the whole thing. Claire Ryan blogged the entire thing as it happened, and it is an amazing read. But to sum it up extremely briefly, two complaints were filed against Milan, the former Chair of the RWA Ethics Committee, over tweets she made calling out diversity issues. According to the complaints, she’d damaged careers by naming names, and the current ethics committee dismissed all complaints but one but still removed Milan from RWA for a year and banner her from ever joining another committee.
At which point, Milan posted a shit storm of documents and communications proving that RWA, its board members, and its president in particular, were doing pretty much everyone dirty, not just Milan, not just diversity issues, but everything. Like, the president was ignoring complaints about a publisher refusing to pay royalties because it was his publisher, and of course they paid him. Again, if you want the details, check out that blog.
The important thing here is that RWA completely fell apart. They had to get an entire new board of directors, a bunch of their chapters left them, they had to cancel their annual conference that year (although it was 2020, so that ended up being a non-issue), and they got rid of the RITAs, making a fresh and supposedly diverse start with the VIVIANs.
The inaugural round of VIVIANs were awarded this weekend.
You might have an inkling about where this is going.
I’ve been on twitter a bunch lately, and I mostly follow other writers. Leading up to this weekend, it’s been mostly Olympics stuff. And then all of a sudden out of nowhere, it’s 100% FUCK RWA again.
As it turns out, their winner in the category of Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements is a historical romance. It’s set in the 1890s, and the hero was a soldier. At Wounded Knee. The book literally starts off at Wounded Knee.
You know, the Native American massacre.
One more time: the inaugural year of the new awards they promised would be more diverse and inclusive, RWA gave an award to a book where the hero massacred Native Americans.
And it’s bad. I read the first page because I am a rubbernecker. I got as far as a mention about how natives had killed off the hero’s whole family before I quit, grabbed my pitchfork, and joined the twitter mob. Because if it’s a story about a man making amends for this atrocity, it’s a problematic character. One the author wasn’t wise in picking, but we’ve all made bad choice. But as soon as there’s any sort of justification, as soon as there’s the faintest whiff of blame placed on those who are massacred, like maybe the hero would have never done this if the natives hadn’t killed his family, it becomes a problematic author.
And to be clear, I did find out from those who read the book that the hero never regrets killing natives, he only regrets killing women and children alongside the men. Also, yes, blames is put on the side of the natives. Not all of it, of course, but the “wrongs were committed by both sides” sort of thing.
Nope. Fuck right off with that.
Oh, RWA already knew there was going to be a massive backlash about this. They were warned when the finalists were announced. People pointed out that this was a major problem, and then those mass Native American graves were found at multiple North American schools, and then they gave this award out.
And put out a statement about how inspirational romance must contain a plot arc where only through faith can the hero redeem himself for his moral failings or crimes against humanity. I’m not exaggerating in any way. Their new description of inspirational romance includes the phrase crimes against humanity.
But back to the finalists thing. This book wasn’t the only finalist, of course. There were I think four of them total. I was curious about what crimes against humanity happened in the other books, so I checked out the second on the list, Hadley Beckett’s Next Dish. And I was confused, because I wasn’t sure how two chef’s in a cooking challenge could possibly commit a crime against humanity.
The short answer is, of course, they don’t. The book is actually sweet and adorable and both characters are flawed, her just enough that she’s not obnoxiously perfect and him not so much that he’s committing crimes against humanity. The story was funny, the characters endearing, their issues relatable. They’re celebrities, but they’re living relatively normal lies. We all know people we can compare to them. And it was sexy! Nothing graphic, of course, and they don’t have sex at all in the book, but it wasn’t like the characters’ sexuality was being hidden. It took me a little while to get into it, but I got into it and absolutely loved the second half of it. Also, the spirituality element is there but super gentle, and that’s coming from someone who’s had their share of issues because of religious zealots.
This is what I want the subgenre to become. This is the sort of thing that anyone could enjoy. It’s not preachy, but it’s absolutely inspirational. And there’s zero hate. Because the thing is, I don’t mind the concept of Christian romance. I love Christmas romances. And I’m fine with clean romance even if I don’t know how to write it. But there was a point where I had seen too many faith checks in them, where it wasn’t enough for the people to be good, they both had to be Christian for them to be in a relationship, and that’s hate.
There was no hate or crimes against humanity in Hadley Beckett’s Next Dish. There was absolutely no reason for RWA to pick that other book except nothing has changed and nothing will change.
(I didn’t read the other two finalists, so please don’t take this as an endorsement or condemnation for them.)