That time a major writers’ organization collapsed

HI, all —

So I’ve been thinking a lot about the meltdown — hell, complete and utter implosion — of the Romance Writers of America, which is one of the largest professional organizations for writers in the country.

I’m not SAYING this is actual footage of RWA over the past two months, buuuuuut…

And it has been subject for years — rightfully so — to criticism for its lack of diversity. This caused it to explode in a very public manner recently. Ironic, since it was founded by a black woman — Vivian Stephens — in 1980. Stephens wanted an organization that would be supportive of writers not taken seriously by the larger writing community.

That said, in 2018, RWA acknowledged that no black author had won a RITA, the yearly award given by RWA that in Romancelandia is like the Oscars of romance writing. Finally, in 2019, two black authors won RITAs and RWA agreed to hire a diversity consultant, but debate over the systemic issues within the organization continued.

Briefly, and if you’ve been under a rock, the great RWA implosion started in December when the organization attempted to punish a writer for speaking out against racism. Basically, the author, Courtney Milan (who is Chinese American), publicly (on Twitter) criticized another romance book for racist stereotypes about Chinese women.

Milan is widely known for her unwavering commitment to diversity and inclusion within romance publishing (and life in general). She’s known in this regard for her Twitter threads about racism and her behind-the-scenes work while serving on the RWA board of directors. Milan was crucial in getting RWA leadership (some?) to see how the organization had excluded writers of color — particularly black writers — and helping it implement some changes in that regard.

So the news that Milan would be punished for speaking out about racism rocked Romancelandia and when the news broke on Twitter (right around Christmas), Milan’s supporters took to the platform in giant waves of awesome righteousness and got the hashtag #IStandWithCourtney trending.

Very soon thereafter, several members of the RWA board resigned in protest, many of them POC (it was one of the most diverse boards in history) and members started leaving, too. Publishers and agents started bailing from the 2020 RWA conference, and so many writers and judges bailed also that RWA ended up canceling its storied RITA Awards for 2020. Suffice it to say that misstep after misstep on RWA’s part occurred in the aftermath, and lots of tone-deaf things occurred, including some other possibly shady stuff.

What happened to Milan was the tip of an iceberg of systemic racism and queerphobia that has been simmering mostly out of the larger public view. So what RWA tried to do to Milan was a flashpoint for a lot of authors and readers fed up with RWA’s continued systemic issues. They weren’t having it anymore. And in the face of such sustained protest and beautiful anger, RWA literally collapsed to the point that there’s now an outside audit going on, the executive director and new president resigned (the latter is another story in itself and there’s all kinds of inside baseball for other stuff, too), and most recently, the entire board resigned and a special election will be held next month.

If you have the time, here are a couple of roundups of oh, so much:

Claire Ryan, “The Implosion of the RWA

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, “WTAF, RWA

Discussions are ongoing, too, on the #RWAshitshow hashtag on Twitter.

At any rate, I’ve been following peripheral discussions for the past couple of years about the lack of diversity at RWA, and I’ve been glad to see people supporting writers of color/queer writers.

I was a member of RWA for maybe three years, until last year. I tried to engage with it — I even served as a first-round RITA judge one year — but there weren’t resources for queer writers or books and the LGBTQ authors’ group within RWA that I was also a member of didn’t offer me much because almost all of the authors in it wrote M/M (cisgender M/M, it seemed). Which is fine if that’s your jam, but there wasn’t any room made for F/F writers and books or queer writers of color and books with queer characters of color and it bothered me.

So I decided not to renew in 2019 (I mean, it ain’t cheap to be part of that organization) and instead followed writers like Milan on social media to see what, if anything, would change with it. And frankly, with romance publishing in general because there are a lot of great discussions happening about that, too.

About a month after my membership expired, I got an email from RWA wanting to know why I hadn’t renewed and they included a survey. I filled it out, and said several times in the questions that offered more room to comment that I didn’t feel welcome as a queer writer who focused primarily on F/F and that RWA really didn’t have any kinds of resources available for writers like me. I also volunteered my services several times (provided my contact info, too) to help educate them on F/F fiction and get them hooked in with other queer writers, pointing out that cisgender (white) heterosexual romance was no longer the only game in town and there are many, many romance books with really diverse characters and really good diverse authors and why weren’t they encouraging and celebrating that?

I submitted all of that after spending a while writing my suggestions and gentle critiques.

You know what the response was?

And I thought about all the authors I didn’t know about who had been experiencing similar things with RWA. And all the authors who had experienced overt racism and/or queerphobia and went through proper channels to lodge complaints and they probably got the same response I did above. Or maybe their complaints were dismissed in a terse email. I thought about all the years that this organization — started by a black woman as a haven for writers — had toxified into a reflection of the racism that defines the origins of this country and is woven into its fabric.

But the thing that I noticed during this implosion was how many people in the writing community supported Milan and other writers of color. How many white people did. Publicly, passionately, prominently. They were not having this bullshit anymore in this community or this organization, and it felt…larger, somehow, and I wondered if this situation is also a reaction to the really horrible times in which we live, in which the crusted scab of history has been again ripped away from this country’s face to reveal the infection of racism underneath and how bad it is and how deep it goes.

There was something really powerful in the coming together of these writers, readers, and writing-adjacent parties to stand for something greater than themselves, to reflect an ideal that seems tenuous, but doing it anyway because it’s the right thing to do.

In the midst of all the uncertainty and the anger and disappointment, I got a sense that people are ready for something new, for something better. And though it might be relatively small in the cosmos — a professional writers’ organization that does the hard work of diversity, equity, and inclusion — but maybe, just maybe, it could have repercussions beyond that.

You never know what can take root on the rubble of the past.

Stay engaged, stay alert, and vote your ass off. Happy Friday.

10 comments

  1. Yes, I admit it, i’ve been living under a rock. Missed this whole thing. Interesting because I’ve been very aware of the whole cultural appropriation thing, American Dirt, etc. Anyway, this was fascinating, so thanks for telling us about it.

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  2. I’ve resigned my membership in RWA and also in my local chapter (Calgary RWA). The local chapter one hurt, but as the diversity liaison, seeing the comments coming back on the two surveys we ran to find out chapter opinions on RWA’s clusterfuck of bigotry… well, let’s just say that the chapter had a LOT more vocal bigots than I realized. Our whole board is resigning (we had the most diverse board in our history too — South Asian prez, Black VP, queer VP, etc.), and we expect that the NWLs will take over. But we’ll create something else, something deliberately inclusive to everyone but bigots.

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      • Our new group already has a domain name and a private FB group (all in the last 24hrs). So we’re moving quickly. I think it’ll be a smaller group, more intimate. And we’ll make sure it stays inclusive. I look forward to a group where I don’t have to be with people that I know are homophobic and racist. I’m expecting it’ll be a lot more relaxing.

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  3. I’ve never been a member and am not an author, yet I have been following the whole debacle closely. The drama has been intense, the warriors in the fight for diversity are noble, and the implosion is what I hope will happen to a certain administration and its minions. This is an excellent roundup of the whole affair.

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  4. Wow Andi, thank you. I am a reader, not a writer (except in the corners of my mind), so I had no idea this bigotry existed. Heck, I barely learned about RWA. [Maybe it should be renamed RW(white)WA.] Anyway, I am drawn to lesfic b/c of the diverse store lines, characters and authors that speak to me. I have seen this implosion happen in so many orgs that it’s discouraging. And yes, sometimes trying to ‘fit’ in has no reward. Hopefully, all you wonderful writers will create an org in your collective, diverse imagine. And I will continue to support you by buying and reading your terrific works. Please keep us posted.

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  5. Andi, thanks for being aware of the importance of representation. And thank you for promoting diversity and inclusion. Whenever I read info/blurbs about RWA, I never saw articles about writers of any color. Once I saw something about an RWA queer writers’ group. You know, the old Plessy v. Ferguson practice…separate but equal. And so it goes…er… went.

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