Is Jane Austen the Antidote to Social Media Overload?

From JSTOR:

It’s exhausting to live in a world of constantly swirling social interaction, in which you never know who you’re going to hear from, or how you’ll live up to the pressure to respond. It’s uncomfortable to know that you can be assessed and measured by very public metrics, which amount to a transparent calculation of your worth. It’s stressful to hew to the standards of public discretion, knowing that any violation of propriety will be held against you forever.

These are the pains of living in the social-networking era—but they are also the pains of living in the world described by the nineteenth-century novels of Jane Austen. That’s why her well-loved books are worth revisiting at our particular moment, in search of wisdom on how to cope with the pressures of the digital age.

. . . .

The parallels between our world and Austen’s jumped out at me when I recently returned to her works after many years. When I first read Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at the age of fifteen, the World Wide Web had yet to be invented. When I picked up her next novels in my mid-twenties, it was still many years before the advent of blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

But I recently yielded to a sudden and acute Austen craving, which plunged me into six weeks of gorging on her work, this time in audiobook form. Austen’s words poured over me as I puttered through my daily tasks: Emma gossiping as I glanced at my morning email, Eliza Bennet whispering in my ear as I plugged my devices in to charge each night.

. . . .

 Indeed, as I plunged into Austen’s England from the very device that normally connects me to Facebook and Twitter, her world and ours looked more and more alike.

The similarities begin with the sheer volume of social interaction required of both English gentry and social media users. In addition to their month-long visits (does anyone want an Airbnb guest who stays that long?), Austen’s characters indulge in a daily exchange of “calls.” In “Jane Austen’s Speech Acts and Language-Based Societies,” Candace Nolan-Grant describes this practice as

the convention of calling on one’s acquaintances, which requires either conversing with the members of the household for at least fifteen minutes if they are home, or leaving a card if they are not. Calling on acquaintances typically does the following: announces that the caller deems his or her host worthy of notice and feels some obligation to call; obliges the host(s) to receive the caller and to return the visit; and opens (or closes, depending on the tenor of the visit) doors for further social intercourse.

At first, I envied Austen’s characters this daily face-to-face social interaction: I often go weeks without seeing even my closest friends in person, staying in touch via Facebook or SMS instead. But I soon found myself wondering how the inhabitants of Austen’s world put up with this constant pressure to socialize—until I realized that we face just as much demand for interaction, albeit in digital form. Austen’s characters may face a nonstop parade of callers, but at least they don’t have to deal with Facebook friend invitations and an endless series of requests to connect on LinkedIn.

Of course, if our inboxes are overflowing, it’s often because we’ve followed the many admonitions to build up our professional networks and attract social media fans. This is another way in which social media replicates the dynamics of Austen’s world: both place great emphasis on the value of introductions, and both quantify the value of each new friend or connection.

Link to the rest at JSTOR

PG wonders if there is any human behavior in any time period that Ms. Austen has not addressed.

Where Does RWA Go From Here?

From Smart Bitches, Trashy Books:

As of today, January 10, 2020, here’s where we are with the implosion of RWA:

  • Damon Suede has (finally) resigned…
  • after the recall petition filed by C. Chilove, the President of CIMRWA, Laurel Cremant, President-Elect, and Diana Neal, Treasurer, was certified and
  • after every major publisher pulled out of RWA Nationals
  • Executive Director Carol Ritter also resigned, except according to RWA’s January 9 statement, she’s staying on to assist with transition to new leadership.

. . . .

So things are sort of resolved: we got the first thing we asked for (repeatedly) which was that Suede step down and the leadership take some responsibility for the mess. They sort of did, and I think that is part of what makes this semi-resolution so unsatisfying for me.

There’s a lot of “sort of” in the RWA statement, too. There’s the continued presence of many of the people who contributed to the mess in the first place, such as remaining board members who were appointed by Suede, coupled with the onomatopology (term coined by author NPR host Linda Holmes) which doesn’t do nearly enough to address the valid concerns of the membership. I’m exhausted from mishegas that didn’t need to become as bad as it did, and dispirited as I ponder the next step.

Also: it is a lot easier to convince a publisher NOT to spend money than it is to convince them to spend money. So the loss of publisher participation and sponsorship is a BFD to the conference, the organization, and the future of writers who relied on RWA’s advocacy on their behalf when dealing with those same publishers.

. . . .

while discussing the destruction of RWA’s reputation over the past two weeks with people who aren’t part of the community, I was asked this question: Who does the organization serve?

That question is referenced in the RWA onomatopology released yesterday:

We know we have a lot more work to do to restore the trust we have lost – and we are going to do whatever it takes to get there so that we can focus on the mission of this organization: to promote the professional and common business interests of romance writers. Our goal is to ensure the successful future of this association so it can be an even stronger, better and more inclusive professional home and advocate for romance authors.

We hope you will join us – collaboratively and productively – in rebuilding an RWA that serves its diverse and talented members well into the future. We believe this community is worth saving. (Emphasis mine.)

I see a very large and tangled problem with that goal, to rebuild RWA into a “professional home and advocate for romance authors…that serves its diverse and talented members.”

Whom does RWA serve specifically?

“Diverse and talented romance authors” is not clear enough as a definition.

. . . .

In other words, if an organization wants to change, current members often represent the past, the status quo, or perhaps the opposite of that change.

People who aren’t members, and a portion of the current membership, might represent the future, the wished-for changes, the possibility that hasn’t happened yet.

Setting aside the question of leadership for a moment (and again, the current RWA board should be removed and re-elected in its entirety) it’s important to ask over and over: whom does this organization serve?

Who is the priority?

Because it cannot be both.

If RWA serves the current membership of RWA, well, that membership contains a substantial number of people who:

  • openly embrace and promote racist ideologies
  • post on RWA Facebook pages and in internal message boards about their homophobia and racist views on people of color
  • write transphobic and racist articles for and letters to the Romance Writers Report
  • …and I could keep going but it’s depressing.

A substantial part of the current membership of RWA is a substantial part of the problem with RWA.

If the organization wants to serve any marginalized writers, it can’t also serve that portion of the current membership. It’s impossible. One side has demonstrated in PAN forums, email messages, and social media posts that it refuses to recognize the humanity of the other, and refuses to recognize their culpability in maintaining a White supremacist, classist, heteronormative, racist culture inside RWA. Nor can it commit to changing that culture.

The organization also can’t serve marginalized writers if the leadership has a documented history of not acknowledging ethics complaints from marginalized individuals, and of publishing and allowing screeds against those individuals in print and online. RWA can’t serve anyone if the organization doesn’t fully reveal what happened in the specific case of the ethics complaint and process against Courtney Milan, and what happened to the complaints from every writer who has reported a problem.

RWA can’t maintain its current membership nor its leadership and at the same time say it’s going to rebuild. Rebuilding requires people in leadership positions who are trusted by current and prospective members. And it requires trust in fellow members of the community.

As Olivia Waite and others have pointed out, the January 9 statement from RWA was a word assemblage that scarcely resembled the appropriate level of apology, acknowledgement, and intent to act. It lists as next steps several actions they’ve already performed multiple times. More consultants, more town halls, more discussions are not going to fix RWA.

Link to the rest at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books

PG is 100% an outsider in this mess, but he suspects that RWA is mortally wounded. Although he has actively participated in some non-profit legal organizations having nothing to do with writing and publishing in the past, he is not in any way an expert in this field.

However, such experiential shortcomings have never prevented PG (and many others) from expressing an opinion on all sorts of subjects.

He thinks it would probably be easier to build a new organization rather to deal with past complaints, slights, insults, leaders, stakeholders, etc. In metaphorical terms, RWA is a dirty slate which will require cleaning and reconstruction before it can begin to build a compelling new identity. It will require thoughtful and energetic work to demonstrate that all the bad/embarrassing/nasty pieces are gone and only a positive and energetic group remains.

An organization which is a clean slate can start working on structure, governance, solicitation of membership without having to spend any time or energy on past mistakes, bad feelings, etc. Those authors who have become angry and vowed to never have anything more to do with RWA would seem to be low-hanging fruit for a new organization.

In suggesting that a new organization is a better idea, PG is not minimizing the hard work necessary to build a successful non-profit with enough resources – leadership, financial, membership numbers, marketing and promotional talent, etc., to succeed. Any group thinking about starting a new organization will have to worry about competition from other groups that want to replace RWA as well.

Romance Writers Association Calls Off Annual Awards

From The New York Times:

The Romance Writers of America ended 2019 reeling from the backlash to its handling of a racism accusation. It is beginning this year by canceling its 2020 awards for romance novels, known in the industry as the Ritas, after it said that several contestants and judges had already pulled out.

The awards, which recognize “excellence in published romance novels and novellas,” are typically given during the trade organization’s annual conference in the summer. But in a statement released on Monday, the R.W.A. said that many had “lost faith” in its ability to conduct a fair contest, leading participants to withdraw.

“The contest will not reflect the breadth and diversity of 2019 romance novels/novellas and thus will not be able to fulfill its purpose of recognizing excellence in the genre,” it said in the statement, adding that it planned to recognize 2019 and 2020 books next year. The organization declined to comment further.

Romance books are a lucrative part of the publishing industry, with a deeply engaged fan base, but the lack of diversity among the genre’s writers has been an ongoing topic of debate. Many readers, writers and others in the community followed the turmoil that engulfed the R.W.A. late last month, when the organization suspended Courtney Milan, a former board member and chair of its ethics committee, and banned her from leadership positions in response to an ethics complaint. Ms. Milan, a romance writer who is Chinese-American, had criticized the depiction of Chinese women in the novel “Somewhere Lies the Moon,” prompting its author, Kathryn Lynn Davis, an honorary R.W.A. member, and Suzan Tisdale, who employs Ms. Davis at a publishing imprint, to file ethics complaints against Ms. Milan.

. . . .

The R.W.A.’s punishment was widely criticized on social media and by other writers, and the organization quickly reversed course on its decision. Still, eight board members resigned in protest, as did the former president Carolyn Jewel, and a petition calling for the resignation of the R.W.A.’s new president, Damon Suede, has been submitted to the organization.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

PG notes that it has become almost a full-time job for RWA to appoint new directors to replace the ones that have resigned.

A dispute over racism roils the world of romance novelists

Now the Economist weighs in.

From The Economist:

It began, like so many contemporary racial kerfuffles, on social media. Courtney Milan, a bestselling romance novelist and former chair of the Romance Writers of America (rwa)’s ethics committee (which sounds like fun) called “Somewhere Lies the Moon”, a historical novel by Kathryn Lynn Davis, “a f****** racist mess”. Ms Milan, who is Chinese-American, objected to physical descriptions (“slightly yellow” faces and “slanted almond eyes”) and to a character who said that Chinese women were “demure and quiet, as our mothers have trained us to be” and “modest and submissive, so they will make good wives.”

Ms Davis and Suzan Tisdale, a writer who also runs a romance-publishing imprint that employs Ms Davis, accused Ms Milan of violating several sections of the rwa’s ethics code. The rwa’s ethics committee dismissed all of Ms Davis’s complaints save one: that Ms Milan’s comments violated “the organisation’s expressed purpose of creating a ‘safe and respectful environment’” for its members. The committee recommended a year’s suspension of Ms Milan’s rwa membership, and a lifetime ban on holding any rwa leadership position.

. . . .

The romance-writing world was already roiled by issues of race and representation. In 2017 just over 6% of books released by major romance publishers were written by non-white writers, according to a study by The Ripped Bodice, a romance-only bookstore. HelenKay Dimon, a former rwa president, believes that one of the reasons this dispute raised such strong feelings was that “coming out of last year…there was a little bit of hope” that things were getting better, and that using the rwa’s ethics code to punish a non-white writer for calling out what she saw as racist stereotypes “felt like a violation”. LaQuette, a mononymous African-American romance writer, says that before the row blew up, “we were one step closer to finding that…support” for non-white romance writers. But that “this event in a matter of days destroyed all that.”

At this point, romance readers might wonder several things. Is it really unimaginable for a fictional woman in the 19th century—even a Chinese woman, with all the attendant stereotype warnings—to praise demureness and modesty? Why did Ms Davis not simply apologise for having given offence? Is there any fight more bitter than one among well-intentioned, decent people who are trying to convince each other that they are best intentioned and most decent?

. . . .

Tone-deaf racial representations in bodice rippers may rank fairly low on the hierarchy of America’s social ills. Yet if a trade group that has done well by numerous writers sunders over it, romance authors of all backgrounds may find themselves bereft. Tone-deaf racial representations in bodice rippers may rank fairly low on the hierarchy of America’s social ills. Yet if a trade group that has done well by numerous writers sunders over it, romance authors of all backgrounds may find themselves bereft.

Link to the rest at The Economist

The Romance Writers of America racism row matters because the gatekeepers are watching

From NBC News:

Let’s talk about the power of romance. There’s power in the written word, even in a genre that we tend to consider — because of sexism — less intellectual than some others. And it isn’t just about hearts and flowers and candy; this is cold hard cash: Romance as a literary genre represents a quarter of all fiction sales and more than half of all paperback sales, and it brings in over a billion dollars in sales annually.

The impact of romance books on the culture is outsize because everyone is interested in romance, whether they admit it publicly or not.

The business of selling books about love is often handled through the offices of the Romance Writers of America, or RWA. It’s the largest writers’ organization in the world, with nearly 10,000 members and 150 chapters. Because of those chapters and their dues-paying members, it has about $3 million in the bank, according to its latest publicly available tax filings — which should, in theory, mean that the RWA would be around for years to come.

Yet it’s been roiled by a series of scandals around inclusion and representation for most of the last decade, all of which have seemingly come to a head since shortly before Christmas. As outlined by The New York Times, that’s when the organization’s board voted to sanction a prominent Chinese American romance writer and former board member, Courtney Milan, for criticizing on Twitter the novel of a white writer, Kathryn Lynn Davis, as a “racist mess” for its stereotypical portrayals of Chinese women.

. . . .

The sanctions apparently were considered as part of a secretive process outside the organization’s normal ethics procedures, and they would have resulted in Milan’s being barred from a board position ever again. As a result of criticism after the incident became public, the sanctions have been suspended, but the firestorm has led to calls to recall the board president, as well as accusations that most ethics complaints go unheard — particularly those by non-white writers — and of favoritism by RWA staff and board members toward white and straight writers.

. . . .

Romance, like much other niche literature, interests readers from all walks of life — and the RWA membership, which is made up of writers, agents and publishers, almost reflects that reality. It should be one of the most democratic professional organizations in the publishing industry, working to grow the genre’s readership, especially in a time of flagging fiction sales. You can’t, however, do that without appealing to more diverse readers, especially as America itself is changing demographically.

. . . .

But whenever the topic of more inclusion in an industry comes up, it feels like there’s always someone insisting that diversity means lowering standards — or that calls for inclusion are bullying, which is essentially what Milan was accused of when she pointed out the racism of Davis’ portrayals of Chinese women.

. . . .

Having been involved in these debates myself, I find it hard not to notice that the people making the most noise against inclusivity are often those who have already put out racist or homophobic work and who strenuously object to their work’s being characterized as offensive at all. And though some other authors, when criticized, do pull their books off the shelf for rewrites, most shrug off the criticism or apologize and keep writing books.

Take Nora Roberts, one of the biggest names in romance: In a long statement backing Milan and criticizing the RWA’s long history of non-inclusivity, she also makes it clear that she doesn’t think her history is perfect, apologizing for the possibility of offensive imagery in a catalog of hundreds of books.

. . . .

But there’s inevitably a small contingent of writers who simply can’t handle being criticized, whether directly or indirectly. Vitriolic responses to critics are hardly limited to well-known writers; those who aspire to become household names are equally prone to them. Having your work dissected, discussed and sometimes even demeaned, however, is part of putting it out into the world. All writers know this — or at least they should — and writing romance novels is no exception.

Writers who want to make money, then, often hire sensitivity readers to help them sidestep pitfalls, especially if they don’t feel that their agents, editors or publishing houses are up to the challenge.

. . . .

Well, that’s where the cash comes in. Not only is romance big business for those already in it, but the possibility of attracting more readers — and their money — can also make those who think they deserve an audience regardless of the quality of their work antsy about competition from those trying to raise the quality of the industry overall. The complaint against Milan was fundamentally that her criticisms — accurate though they were — had cost other writers opportunities by drawing attention to their flaws.

. . . .

This is about writing, but it is also about our culture and whether we want the people who have traditionally influenced it to continue to do so without engaging with the consequences their work might visit on other communities. Everybody wants a little romance; what most people of color who read about it don’t want is romance novels written by white authors filled with stereotypes about people of color.

Link to the rest at NBC News

PG was going to bloviate further on this topic, but decided to simply ask why anyone would want to become/remain a member of RWA.

Based on this case, an organizational disagreement seems to present a potential threat to an author’s career/sales.

UPDATE: Here’s another unfavorable take on RWA from BookRiot.

Racism Dispute Roils Romance Writers Group

It’s hit The New York Times:

A dispute over a racism accusation and how it was handled have upended the romance writers’ community, with best-selling novelists speaking out against the Romance Writers of America and most of the powerful, 9,000-member trade organization’s board resigning in the last days of the year.

The R.W.A. on Monday said it was hiring a law firm to “to conduct an audit of the process and these events to provide a clear report of the facts.” The dispute arose over the group’s treatment of Courtney Milan, a former board member and chair of its ethics committee who last summer criticized Kathryn Lynn Davis’s novel “Somewhere Lies the Moon” on Twitter as a “racist mess.”

Ms. Milan, who is Chinese-American, took issue with the depiction of 19th-century Chinese women in the book, 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.

Ms. Davis, who is an honorary R.W.A. member, disagreed with Ms. Milan’s assessment, saying her book was historically accurate and based on years of research. She filed an ethics complaint with the R.W.A., saying that Ms. Milan’s comments were “cyberbullying” and cost her a publishing contract.

“I would not have filed a complaint if she had been more professional,” Ms. Davis said of Ms. Milan.

In her response to the complaint, Ms. Milan said that the R.W.A.’s ethics code does not cover discussions on social media accounts it doesn’t operate, and said of her criticism: “I am emotional about these issues. Negative stereotypes of Chinese women have impacted my life, the life of my mother, my sisters, and my friends.”

. . . .

As a result of that complaint and one from another writer, Suzan Tisdale, who employs Ms. Davis at a publishing imprint and said she had lost potential authors as a result of the controversy, the R.W.A. told Ms. Milan earlier last week that her membership was suspended and she was banned for life from holding leadership positions within the organization.

Ms. Milan called the judgment “a form of betrayal” and shared the documents associated with the complaint with her friend and fellow romance writer Alyssa Cole, who posted them to Twitter.

“If it was now R.W.A.’s policy that talking about a book and specifically saying negative things about a book as a marginalized author was going to get you banned from the organization,” Ms. Milan said, “I felt that other marginalized people in the organization needed to know that.”

Once the documents were on social media, other writers, including best-selling romance novelists like Nora Roberts and Cynthia Eden, voiced their support for Ms. Milan. The R.W.A. quickly reversed course on its judgment, but eight board members resigned as well as the former president Carolyn Jewel, and a petition calling for the resignation of Damon Suede, the R.W.A.’s new president, began circulating online.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Why Disabled Romance Is Important

From All About Romance:

I started reading romance novels when I was 12 or 13. I remember reading them and thinking they were enjoyable but they weren’t about people like me. Nearly all of the characters were non-disabled, as well as being white, cis and heterosexual, and the few characters that were disabled were villains. When I did finally find romance novels with disabled leads, they were either cured of their disability or their significant other was portrayed as a saint who was willing to look past their disability.

Both of these tropes are so harmful. I was born disabled and I will always be disabled. There’s no option of being cured for me and even if there was, I wouldn’t take it. Being disabled is an intrinsic part of my identity and I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t disabled. I also don’t think being disabled is anything to be ashamed of and the idea that a partner would have to look past my disability in order to love me is incredibly hurtful.

These attitudes, of course, are a reflection on how society views disabled people. I hear stories all the time from other disabled people who have had complete strangers tell their partner that they must be a wonderful person in order to be with a disabled person. This attitude is dehumanising and suggests that being in a relationship with a disabled person is an act of charity. Most disabled people are surrounded by negative opinions on disability from the moment we’re born, it’s impossible not to internalise that and it’s easy to convince ourselves that we aren’t deserving of love or that we have to minimise our disability in order to get our happily ever after. Ableism is a daily reality for most disabled people but for me romance novels are supposed to be an escape from reality, an idealised version of what life can be like with the right person or people. Romance novels are supposed to be emotionally satisfying for the reader and that includes disabled readers.

Link to the rest at All About Romance

New Romance-Only Bookstore Aims to Bring Love to Tinley Park

From Patch:

The second romance-only bookstore in the country opened in Tinley Park in mid-June. Love’s Sweet Arrow is owned and operated by mother-daughter team Roseann and Marissa Backlin, who were inspired to open the business by their love for romance novels.

“Romance is one of the most widely read genres in publishing, and yet there were only two exclusively romance bookstores in the world before we opened. And the only other one in the country is on the west coast,” Marissa Backlin said. “We wanted to do our part to change that and give romance readers a place to find their favorite books in the Midwest judgement-free.”

Developing the store from idea to actual opening took about a year.

“We had to do a lot of research into authors, publishing houses, form a business plan and attempt crowdfunding,” said Roseann Backlin, who also works as a food service manager at a local elementary school. The Backlins did a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $12,000 and are now accepting donations on Patreon. “We reached out to friends who had spare bookshelves, went to a resale shop [for furniture] and were lucky enough to get some of our used stock from a retiring bookstore owner.”

. . . .

In the age of impersonal ordering on Amazon, Love’s Sweet Arrow aims to be more than just an independent bookseller offering new and used novels. Marissa and Roseann hope to make it a community space, with events centered on bringing local residents together.

“In part of our research, we found that independent bookstores that focused on that community space feel and provided events for the community at large were more successful and were embraced by the community,” Marissa said.

Love’s Sweet Arrow hosts its own book club every other month, but encourages other local clubs to host meetings at the store.

Link to the rest at Patch

PG went to school and lived for several years in the Chicago area. While he vaguely remembered the name, Tinley Park, he had no idea where it was located.

A quick search revealed that Tinley Park is a village of 56,000 in South suburban Chicago east of Joliet.

While 56,000 people sounds a bit large for a “village,” if PG recalls correctly, under state law, Illinois has Cities, Towns and Villages. They are each forms of municipal government and PG seems to remember that no more Towns are being created, just Cities and Villages.