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.