US romance writers' association axes awards over racism uproar

NEW YORK • Love is not in the air. The Romance Writers of America (RWA) ended last year reeling from backlash to its handling of a racism accusation.

It is beginning this year by cancelling its annual awards for romance novels, known in the industry as the Ritas, after it said several contestants and judges had pulled out.

The prizes, which recognise "excellence in published romance novels and novellas", are typically given out during the trade organisation's annual conference in summer.

But in a statement released on Monday, the RWA said 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 fulfil its purpose of recognising excellence in the genre," it said in the statement.

It added that it plans to honour last year's and this year's books next year.

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 RWA last month when it suspended Courtney Milan - a former board member and chair of its ethics committee - and banned her from leadership positions in response to a complaint.

Milan, a romance writer who is Chinese American, had criticised the depiction of Chinese women in the novel Somewhere Lies The Moon.

That prompted its author Kathryn Lynn Davis, an honorary RWA member, and Ms Suzan Tisdale, who employs Davis at a publishing imprint, to file ethics complaints against Milan.

The RWA's punishment was widely criticised on social media and by other writers, and it quickly reversed course on its decision.

Still, eight board members resigned in protest, as did former president Carolyn Jewel.

A petition calling for the resignation of the new president, author Damon Suede, has been submitted to the organisation.

Responding to the news that the RWA had axed this year's Ritas, Milan tweeted: "Well, I think cancelling the Ritas this year is the first right decision I've seen RWA make in this whole debacle."

It is not the first time an organisation has dropped an awards programme in response to controversy. In 2018, the Nobel Committee delayed its literature prize as a result of a wide-ranging sexual abuse and harassment scandal.

The Ritas have drawn criticism before over the lack of diversity in nominations, resulting in an effort by author and then RWA president Helen Kay Dimon to emphasise the contributions of writers of colour.

Nisha Sharma, whose young adult romance My So-Called Bollywood Life won a Rita award last year, was among three writers of colour who won. The other two, M. Malone and Kennedy Ryan, were the first African Americans to triumph in the organisation's history.

"I felt for the first time, in the 10 years that I've been a member of the organisation, that I was heard, that I was represented, that I was appreciated," Sharma said. "That ceremony gave me this sense of hope that things were getting better."

But she has been disheartened by the turmoil in the RWA and believes there should be an "overhaul of leadership" before the awards ceremony returns.

Last week, the RWA announced plans to hire a law firm that will audit the process of the ethics complaint against Milan "to provide a clear report of the facts".

On Monday, it said in its statement that by taking the year off from the contest, "we will be able to move away from making piecemeal changes". It added that it plans to hire consultants who specialise in award programmes and in diversity, equity and inclusion to build a programme "that celebrates and elevates the best in our genre".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2020, with the headline 'US romance writers' association axes awards over racism uproar'. Subscribe