• Natasha Lockhart

My Thoughts on the RWA Situation

Updated: Jan 30, 2020

Who knew Christmas 2019 would be interrupted by a scandal within Romance Writers of America (RWA)? If I’d known checking my Twitter feed on December 23rd would result in me checking for updates on#IStandWithCourtney and #RWAShitShow every four hours for the next ten days, I would have avoided Twitter until the year ended. Nevertheless, ignorance is not always bliss, and I’m glad I was able to plug in to this situation early and keep up with its ever-changing twists and turns.

I joined RWA in April 2019, so I’m a fairly new member. What persuaded me to join this organization? After witnessing the Cockygate debacle, I was impressed with the professionalism and effectiveness of RWA. I admired how the organization supported its members which were directly affected by the fiasco. After joining RWA, I wasted little time getting my feet wet in the educational offerings of the group. I signed up for webinars like they were going out of style. I bought recordings from workshops featured at past RWA national conventions and listened intently. I dreamed of the day I would pen a book worthy of the RITA award. As a member, I was pretty content and felt like I was getting a lot for my annual membership fee.

When the story broke about Courtney Milan’s one-year suspension and lifetime ban from leadership positions within RWA, I was shocked. I’m a fan of Ms. Milan’s books {I'm anxiously awaiting the release of "What Lies Between Me and You." This unsubstantiated farce has no doubt affected her writing schedule- something I find infuriating!}. I looked up to her because of her efforts to make RWA a more inclusive and diverse organization. Before I could recover from the shock of this news, I learned the punitive decision had been reversed. That certainly made me raise my brow.

There are a lot of moving parts to the ethics complaint that led to Ms. Milan being censured and then uncensured. This writer is ill-equipped to share all the details that have come out in the past week and a half. For a detailed description of the events, I recommend reading the Twitter threads created by Alyssa Cole (@AlyssaColeLit), (Cate Elan (@RomancingNope), and Claire Ryan (@aetherlev). Claire Ryan’s blog on the subject can be found here: https://www.claireryanauthor.com/blog/2019/12/27/the-implosion-of-the-rwa.

Before I say anything else, let me make my position perfectly clear. I stand with Courtney Milan. After reviewing all the receipts posted by Ms. Milan and Alyssa Cole, I believe Ms. Milan was the unfair target of an ethics complaint. The opposing side has done little to convince me they were in the right. None of us like negative reviews, but it comes with the territory. When we publish books, we willingly make ourselves vulnerable to criticism. Authors must be prepared to have their work analyzed by readers, some of whom are also writers. It matters not how many years ago a book was written/published. I analyzed the books of William Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway in high school. These authors were all dead by the time I read their writings. Does that mean my high school English teachers and college English Lit professors were wrong to point out the racism and misogyny in books written before 1990? 1980? 1970? No book gets a pass. Racism has always been wrong. The fact that it was winked at and accepted by the masses for centuries does not mean readers can't point it out when they see it in an older book.

It does not appear that RWA followed its own procedures and by laws in the handling of this ethics complaint. With the resignations of now 10 board members, a forensic audit is the only way for RWA to begin redeeming itself. Its members deserve transparency. We want our questions answered as to what happened, how it happened as it did, and who allowed it to happen. CIMRWA created and circulated a petition for a recall vote to remove the current RWA president. I signed this petition and await the results along with the rest of RWA’s membership and interested romance readers.

I am unhappy with the latest communications from RWA’s leadership. The letters lack the transparency most of us want. What they are saying is leading to more questions than answers. For example, the thinly veiled threat about opinions “expressed inappropriately” has led some RWA members to now think they’ll be penalized for writing unfavorable reviews of other RWA members’ books. Hogwash! I think it’s ridiculous that anyone would presume RWA is going to police the book reviews of over 9,000 members. The RWA has stated it does not “take positions for or against specific literary criticism or authors’ points of view.” It does, however, have explicit policy for its “members’ professional conduct. RWA’s Member Code of Ethics is designed to induce RWA members, especially RWA’s leaders, to exhibit integrity, honesty, and other good professional practices, thereby enhancing the romance writing profession.” I’ve been a reader longer than I’ve been a writer. I read far more books than I write. I fully support the right of authors to write book reviews and discuss books.

I need RWA to write specific guidelines as to what does and does not constitute professional criticism. Having read the Twitter statement that was so offensive to Ms. Milan’s accusers, I fail to see what specifically the ethics committee found that was inappropriate. Was it her use of an expletive? Our current RWA president uses such language in his tweets. Is he also acting inappropriate and unprofessional? Was it the fact that she called the book a “racist mess?” That’s her opinion. Similar opinions were expressed before Ms. Milan entered the discussion. Those RWA members did not have an ethics complaint filed against them. Why not? Ms. Milan was simply pointing out racism in literature just as she has done for years. Why was this time any different? RWA gave her an award for her work to improve diversity and inclusion within the organization. Why was she the only RWA member censured? Did a leader, group of leaders, or staff members within the organization want to silence her? It is my opinion that Ms. Milan was targeted simply because she held a position on RWA’s Ethics Committee and because she has a Twitter following 44,000 strong. Is RWA going to punish more successful authors for expressing a negative opinion while ignoring authors of lesser consequence? Is this fair? Should RWA be policing its members’ tweets, blogs, podcasts, and book reviews? How does an author prove a specific review led to financial loss?

The deeper problem plaguing the RWA is the central issue that prompted Ms. Milan to dislike the book in the first place—bigotry and racism. Being new to the RWA, I was unaware of the discrimination other authors have faced in the past. Hearing their stories has opened my eyes. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to make the organization a safe, welcoming place for marginalized authors. These marginalized authors include, but are not limited to, non-Christian authors, authors of color, authors with a physical disability, and authors who are members of the LGBTQ community. I’m grateful for the authors who’ve shared research on writing about characters of a different race and culture. I would like to see teachings like this supported by RWA. Likewise, I would like to see DEI measures instituted at all levels of the organization. The RWA needs to take a stronger stance in favor of diversity and inclusion. The organization’s position should be so clear that anyone who writes offensive material or discriminates against marginalized authors will be the ones who feel out of place. Until that day comes, we will not be silent.

*** Update 01/04/2020 *** An article has just been published by The Guardian. You can ready the full story here. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/04/kathryn-lynn-romance-novelist-interview-racism-complaint The last sentence in the first paragraph of this article is telling. "Now the novelist, Kathryn Lynn Davis, says that her original complaint about the professional harm she suffered was not accurate." Not accurate? Is that NWL (Nice White Lady) language for she lied? Because from where I'm sitting, it looks like she intentionally filed a false ethics complaint against Courtney Milan. I will not accept her defense that she was "encouraged" to file the complaint as if she was somehow helpless to refuse. At every stage of this ever-unfolding situation, Ms. Davis had a choice. She and Ms. Milan could have discussed their differing opinions about the book privately. She could have chosen to not file an ethics complaint.

Check out what was written in her complaint to RWA's Ethics Committee. “These attacks on me have resulted in my losing a three-book contract with a publisher whom I cannot name because they fear having their own name linked with Ms Milan’s ..." Well, The Guardian's article makes it obvious that statement in the complaint was an outright lie.

"Davis clarified that she did not have and lose a written book contract, but that a publisher had delayed further discussion of a potential contract in the wake of the controversy.

In the complaint, Davis also seemed to imply that the publisher told her they were afraid of being publicly linked with Milan, but in fact the publisher “never said anything” to that effect, Davis said." (Source: The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/04/kathryn-lynn-romance-novelist-interview-racism-complaint )

As if this confession wasn't bad enough, my jaw dropped as I continued reading the article. Ms. Davis admitted an editor advised her to apologize to Ms. Milan, but she refused to do that because she didn't know what she would be apologizing for. Oh, really? Let's start with attempting to silence an author of color for expressing her opinion. Let's continue by apologizing for filing a false ethics complaint against her in which you said, "She cannot be allowed to hold a position of authority, or to use her voice to urge others to follow her lead." That sounds like NWL talk for 'She must be silenced!' Ms. Davis also admitted that same editor said their discussion of the contract was going to be delayed, but this editor never said the delay was due to Ms. Milan's tweets. Ms. Davis, nevertheless, continues to blame Ms. Milan for the end of the discussion about the book deal. I just can't with this! Really? At what point does one accept accountability for his/her own behavior?

In the last paragraph of this article, Ms. Davis acts like she's a member of the tone police squad. She admits to making changes to a "few things" in the very book Ms. Milan found offensive because readers told her "calmly" what offended them. So, it was Ms. Milan's approach that made Ms. Davis turn a deaf ear and blind eye to the offensive material in her book "Somewhere Lies the Moon?" I'm shaking my head at this nonsense. Meanwhile, I'm sure the saga will continue. The discussion will continue as well. We will not be silenced.

#IStandWithCourtney #DiversityandInclusion #TransparencyInLeadership

Images courtesy of John Hain and Vitabello on Pixabay

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