Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Call Is Coming From Inside The House: RWA, Ethics and Terrible Optics

Folks, I've been kicking around Romancelandia a long time.  I started reviewing for a now defunct website (The Romance Reader) in 1999.  I started this blog in 2003. I attended my first RWA conference in 2002 - and have attended every single year since 2006.  RWA has always been an imperfect organization and there's been plenty of stuff for me to side-eye in the past 20 years.  A few examples? How about the fact that I (and many other reviewers/bloggers) "hid" their identities as such in the early days.  I was lucky. I could simply lead with the "I'm a librarian!" thing.  I knew I'd get love as a librarian. As a blogger and/or reviewer? Um, maybe not so much.  However, starting in 2007 (San Francisco) I started to disclose it more. 1) Because it was the worst kept secret anyway and 2) Because a new crop of romance authors, who grew up with review sites on the interwebs meant attitudes were changing.  Still, it was a Big, Hairy Deal when I was awarded Librarian of the Year in 2011. Because it truly did signify that things had changed. Someone could go from being "the enemy" to getting an award from the organization.

(The irony isn't lost on me that during a workshop at conference last year an agent said one of the reasons author income was down was because of "free library books" - so my days of getting love as a librarian might be taking a turn...)

I was there for if you're self-published you're not published at all, if you're only published in eBook you're not published at all, erotic romance isn't romance, LGBTQ+ characters can't have happy endings, and various RITA shenanigans over the years.  RWA has earned every single black-eye they received, but I did see change within the organization. Sometimes that change was slow - but it was happening. Presumably.

Last night we reached a bridge too far for many, many people. Author, and former Board member, Courtney Milan was sanctioned by the RWA Ethics Committee.  I'm going to direct you to this series of tweets by author Alyssa Cole and encourage you to read the documentation.

While change has occurred within RWA, the fact remains that this decision is yet another message in a long line of messages that marginalized, #ownvoices authors have been receiving for years.  RWA made promises to do better. I attended a round-table discussion at the start of last year's conference and heard the frustration in the voices of some authors of color who were being asked, yet again, to be patient, give the organization time, that they were working on it.  The simple truth is that you can only hear promises so many times, have those promises go unfilled for so many years, before you finally receive the message.

We did finally have two black writers win RITAs last year, but it wasn't without conflict.  A peer-judged contest is always going to be problematic on it's face (it just is), and once Kennedy Ryan and Minx Malone were announced as winners the Nice White Lady Brigade came out to question it.  In short, I don't blame authors of color and #ownvoices authors for being tired. Many of them have joined and worked with RWA on either the national or chapter level, believing that to enact change they need to be a part of the process. Volunteering for the organization is NOT easy. It's a huge time commitment.  Time taken away from their family, friends, THEIR OWN WRITING (!).  These sanctions, the optics of when said sanctions were dropped (2 days before Christmas when the RWA offices are closed), and giving Milan two weeks to respond DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON is...well, the optics suck y'all.

Since you're here reading my blog, I'm going to presume that you give a damn what Wendy thinks.  Well, I'm here to tell you.  Look, first things first, Ms. Milan and I are not friends. We follow each other on Twitter. I've probably engaged with her in the past (but not recent memory I don't think) - I mean, we know who each other is, we greet each other cordially when we run into each other at conferences - but we don't DM each other on Twitter, don't exchange emails, we don't exchange holiday cards. I'm neither a minion nor flying monkey so just stop with that noise before you open your mouth.

I attended the diversity training that RWA recently held, a requirement to judge the RITAs.  These types of trainings are not new for me, having been through various sessions at The Day Job. If Library Directors have a "platform" - my boss's platform is one of inclusion, equity and access.  This ain't my first rodeo. What this sanctioning of Milan is basically saying is that RWA's decision to bring forth this training is nothing more than lip service.  If Milan is being sanctioned for calling out racist content and an editor who has a problematic history within the community, then what recourse does that leave judges? What recourse does that leave the rest of us who aren't former Board members?

The argument by the complainants that the Davis book was published in 1999, and the author is a "historian" are laughable at best.  Yes, 1999 was 20 years ago. Yes, the genre has grown (some) over the years. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't call out problematic content.  I DNF'ed a book just a few months ago that was also published in 1999 because the hero had rape on the brain and the heroine was scared of him. Then there's this book from 2004 that I read in 2016 that used an Indian Prince secondary character as a token prop to help the white heroine confront her traumatic past which is insulting at best, racist AF at worst.  Yes, both books were published "a long time ago" by major publishers - but this sort of thing is not isolated to "the good old days of romances."  Problematic content should be called out and it's up to readers, authors, and lovers of the genre to evaluate said problematic content.

As for the "I'm a historian" argument - there's so much wrong with that it's hard to know where to begin.  For the record, I have a bachelor's degree in history (it doesn't matter much but apparently that counts for something in some corners so there you go). History is written by those coming from a position of power.  Case in point, I just finished listening to Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom by Catherine Clinton. I sought this book out specifically after reading some less-than-stellar commentary about the recent Tubman movie and when I realized that what I learned about Tubman during my school days was more "Tubman as symbol" than "Tubman as person."  What I wanted and what I got were two different things - but the author did her best. The fact is Tubman was born a slave and was illiterate. She was property, not a person, in the eyes of the law and society. Her history pre-Civil War is basically lost. There would have been no perceived value in documenting it. Once she escapes to freedom and begins her work on the Underground Railroad, the nature of her clandestine work would limit the historical record. She was a wanted woman with a price on her head. It didn't behoove her or anyone working with the UGRR to keep records. Records would get you killed.  Also, let's take a moment to acknowledge that Harriet was black and a woman. The work of women (let alone black women) has been devalued since the dawn of time - to think the UGRR was exempt from this is simply foolishness.

In short, what we know about history is...what we know about history.  To think we do know everything about history is ignorant. So much is lost, so much is not preserved, and the people who preserve history, the people who chronicle history can do so because they are coming from a position of power.  It's why charges of "historical accuracy" by the pearl-clutching historical romance brigade set my teeth on edge.  Just because you didn't know something or just because your wee little brain is unwilling to accept that marginalized people could have moments of joy in their lives doesn't mean it's wrong or untrue.

So where does that leave us?  Well folks, it's time to pick the hill you want to die on - and that includes yours truly.  I judged four RWA contests in 2019. I signed on to judge the RITAs in 2020.  And now?  Part of me thinks I should honor my commitment to the RITAs if only to throw a wrench in the Nice White Ladies works.  However, I attended that training in good faith. On a Sunday afternoon. When there was other stuff I could have been doing. Should I honor a commitment to an organization who thinks so little of the time I've given them?  I will likely continue to volunteer to judge some chapter contests, for chapters that I feel are demonstrating that they are walking the walk.  But that too may dry up if the people currently in leadership positions within those chapters get fed up and walk away.

I'm an affiliate member of RWA (a special designation for booksellers and librarians) which is a non-voting body.  I literally just renewed my membership a couple weeks ago.  The cost is minimal, so I'm likely to ride out my membership for 2020 and reevaluate in 2021.  I'm also seriously looking at the conference in San Francisco which, dagnabit, I was looking forward to.  Right now I just don't think I can do it. There's too much water under the bridge on this. Too many years of broken promises and "be patient" and "be the change." Look, whether or not you personally like Milan, whether or not you consider her a friend - this is some sort of hill for RWA to decide to die on.

What does it mean for non-members and readers?  I hate to say it - you can write to RWA but if you're a non-member your letters may be dismissed out of hand. We could start by stop giving oxygen to the RITAs when the finalists are announced and I offer up this one small piece of tangible advice: There's still joy to be found in the genre. Seek it out, embrace it, and promote the hell out of it. Talk about the books and authors you want to talk about. Ask the hard questions. Be open to discourse. Blog about it, tweet about it, post reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Agitate for the genre you want to see, the genre you want to be a part of.  Vote with your time and dollars. Recommend books to your local libraries. Yes, it's exhausting.  Yes, it's thankless AF.  But if not you, then who?

Edited to Add 12/24/19: RWA has released the following statement via their Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Edited to Add 12/27/19: Lynn wrote a good, comprehensive piece for AAR, along with updates that have spun out the last couple of days.  It's a clear, concise rundown without inflaming passions (IMHO).  If you need to catch up or don't quite understand what all has happened - it's a good place to start.

14 comments:

Riikka said...

Thank you for this post. I briefly checked Cole's post this morning and this truly is some next level BS especially after all that's been discussed regarding RWA and diversity in the last few years. Smh

Jen Twimom said...

Great post, Wendy. Thank you. You've given so much of yourself to the genre, and I do value your thoughts. And I agree with them. Thanks for giving voice to these thoughts.

web said...
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Wendy said...

Thank you for reading and the comments. RWA has just released a statement, which I've included at the end of my original post.

azteclady said...

I am reeling. Still hoping it's literally my imagination, that it's impossible this BoD voted this way on this matter, then believing it with ease, because white woman tears. Then back to, how they hell do *these* people on the BoD can sit with themselves with this vote?

A lot has come out regarding the process by which complaints even make it (or not) to the ethics committee, and what (if any) of the evidence the committee sees is shown to the BoD, but it basically boils down to: the process is designed to protect the racist bigoted white ladies, and it works.

Stephsco said...

Thank you for sharing this. Your history with the organization brings a lot of perspective. That statement RWA made to walk it back...yeaj that's not helping.

PK the Bookeemonster said...

This appears to have blown up very quickly and with such things per usual people not directly involved have chosen sides and declared all out war. Sadly, it's a sign of our "outrage" times.

I've read the tweets and documents per the links you provided. It seems to boil down to someone committed the crime of liking a tweet. In the US, we have the right to express ourselves and that person had an opinion and publicly expressed a shared "like." Someone else disagreed with that opinion which is also their right to do ... But she took it beyond that. Her actions smack of vendetta and not productive action. She made it personal against the other person and any associates rather than against an institution or public policy with with she disagreed. She attributed I believe falsely a whole lot of negative attributes on someone I assume she didn't even know. She could have put her talents to better use. Had she done that, I'd join in the applause. She chose differently. Hate the issue, do something about the issue .... The person with which you disagree isn't the target. Effect change that way; become a Bully the other way. Responding with hate even against something hateful, only creates more hate in the world. Instead of attacking a person, create the lesson with her art, for example, write an amazing book or article or whatever, amazing characters showing this issue differently to the public. It is so much more powerful.

So, before the attacks that will surely follow, this is just my own opinion that I am sharing publicly. It doesn't jeopardize any one else's opinion and you are as free to have yours.

Michelle said...

I am also a librarian (and a college history major :), and was thrilled at my acceptance to judge RITA's for the first time. Out of courtesy for all the new authors, I was planning on honoring my commitment, but now am uncertain what I will do. Many authors I respect have resigned as judges (to say the least), and I don't want to been seen as agreeing with their poor decisions.

Wendy said...

I've updated the my post to add a link to a piece that Lynn wrote for All About Romance. It's a clear, dispassionate post that includes A LOT of the updates that have happened since my original posting. It's a good place to start for more background or if you're confused by what all has happened in the last (holy crap) 3 days.

PK: I found the original complaints against Milan disingenuous because it wasn't just two liked tweets. I personally stopped following that editor ages ago because her Twitter likes were a trash fire of hate. I'm not saying everybody should hug it out and like everybody - but recognizing folks basic humanity isn't too much to ask IMHO. Also, I WOULD love to know this publishing house that yanked away a 3-book contract from Davis. Does this publisher even exist? Is there a reason (legal or otherwise) they felt they couldn't name said publisher in the complaint? That whole thing doesn't pass the smell test IMHO.

The long and short of it for me is that RWA botched this ethics complaint from the get-go and the lack of transparency is troubling. That's the rub for me - as is word getting out about other ethic complaints that never even made their way to the committee and the folks who filed them told "there's nothing we can do" and to drop them, move on.

The whole thing is a bloody mess.

Wendy said...

Michelle: I don't think anybody would think that about you. I only decided yesterday to withdraw from the judging pool. The resignations and the lack of transparency of the ethics complaint (forming a secret ad hoc group) tipped me over the edge. But up until that point, I was waffling. Frankly the contest needs good judges who can judge the entries with clear eyes. I've always found the fact it's a peer-reviewed contest that authors have to pay to enter not the greatest - but recognize that with a genre as big as romance the options are limited to make the process manageable. I had voiced my opinion for years that they should let librarians in to judge, and barring that - hell, at least let the former Librarians of the Year judge - and they did that in 2019. Full disclosure: I judged in 2019 and had a great experience. Which is why I gave myself the holiday to stew about 2020.

So yeah, no stellar words of advice here. Assuming RWA can get their house in order, I'm not discounting judging RITA and renewing my membership in 2021. As is, I plan to continue judging some chapter contests next year for chapters I feel are "walking the walk" towards a more inclusive, equitable RWA.

PK the Bookeemonster said...

I appreciate the discussion here. It's nice when there can actually BE a discussion. :) I'm not in the world of romance writing; I read it along with a mix of other genres and I'm not familiar with these particular authors.

To those who are questioning whether to stay involved in the organization, my humble opinion is to stay, keep commitments, or even get more involved. Change happens because people come together from within the organization with like minds and not avoid the problems or leave it to others who maybe don't have the same vision. Be the change you want and spread it to others.

Thanks, all. :)

Michelle said...

Update: after reading the petition, I signed it and declined to judge the RITA's.

Mrs Giggles said...

God, I am OLD, but come on, being published in 1999 isn't an excuse for rapey heroes. 1979, MAYBE, as it's the era of Sweet Savage Love, but 1999, nope. The genre had started to move on from raping the heroine into love by then.

Wendy said...

PK: Generally speaking, I agree with you. Work from within, be the change, and all that. But I also don't blame some for walking away. You can only hear promises of "we're working to do/be better" so many times before you get fed up. I think if RWA went into true "crisis management" mode and worked hard to be transparent - some folks could be swayed. But as it is, RWA keeps stepping in it every time a new missive is released. Sigh. It's seriously a mess.

Michelle: I hear ya. Between the PEI training (which said one thing) and the unfolding of recent events - it all smacked of "talking out of both sides of their mouth" to me - and that was my bridge too far. But I had to take some time to really mull it over.

Mrs. Giggles: Yeah, I was floored when I got to that scene in my aborted TBR Challenge read. I'm prepared for stuff like that in Old School bodice rippers, but by 1999 the genre had largely moved on.