For Romance Writers, Controversies Show Genre in Turmoil

By Henderson, Jane | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), January 12, 2020 | Go to article overview

For Romance Writers, Controversies Show Genre in Turmoil


Henderson, Jane, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Romance writer Jeannie Lin of St. Louis says when she tried to break into the publishing field a decade ago, she was told her settings in historical China were hard to market.

Romance writers sent so many Dear John letters to Rita that the message finally sunk in.

The awards for best books in the genre have been canceled this year, the latest in the kind of recent social upheavals that have demanded changes in everything from the Oscars to the Nobel prizes.

After announcing Monday that the group was canceling this year's RITA awards, the Romance Writers of America said Thursday that its executive director and board president have resigned, following other board members.

Reaction to a charge of racist material in a novel last year lit the fuse, but problems regarding diversity, ethics and other issues have been smoldering for some time, says St. Louis writer Jeannie Lin.

"This has been a long time brewing and tied to not only systemic racism within RWA and the industry, but the increased awareness based on what's happening with the country at large," she wrote in an email.

Later, Lin said by phone that last year was the first time in almost 40 years that a black author had won a RITA award, the most prestigious honor for romance writers. The association had grappled with its own #OscarsSoWhite criticism.

During the recent holiday season, the RWA infuriated many in the romance community by initially censoring and suspending author Courtney Milan for tweeting that Kathryn Lynn Davis' 1999 book "Somewhere Lies the Moon" was an "(expletive) racist mess."

Milan, a successful Chinese American writer, was on the association's ethics committee. She had highlighted the book's depiction of compliant 19th-century Chinese women with "slanted almond eyes" and other stereotypes.

The association, which typically did not monitor social media posts, reversed its suspension of Milan, which many writers had thought was an unusually harsh reaction, Lin says. She says the organization's treatment of Milan was not transparent and did not follow its standard procedures.

Lin, like Milan, is one of the relatively few Asian American writers in a genre that has traditionally featured more British settings and characters. When Lin tried to break into the publishing field a decade ago, she was told over and over that her settings in historical China were hard to market, she says.

"Publishers were saying, 'This is too hard of a sell. …

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