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Racism Scandal In The Romance Writing Industry


A dispute over accusations of racism has erupted within the Romance Writers of America, the industry group which represents nearly 10,000 writers. Romance, despite a temptation to reduce it to heaving bosoms, is a hugely read genre with tremendous and growing financial power.

Karen Grigsby Bates is a correspondent with the NPR Code Switch team, and she's been following the story. Hi, Karen.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Hi, Leila. How are you? Happy new year.

FADEL: Happy new year. So before we say exactly what happened, we should explain to people what the RWA is and how it got started.

BATES: OK. RWA is the largest organization of writers in the country, as I understand. It has almost 10,000 members.


BATES: Not all the writers are published writers. You know, everybody's working on a novel. But about 20% of them are published writers, and a percentage of those are real romance genre superstars. This is important because, as you said, romance is hugely profitable. It is, in fact, as I've been told, the most profitable arm of the publishing industry...

FADEL: Really?

BATES: ...Even though it doesn't get a lot of respect from the publishing industry, although that may be changing.

FADEL: So last week, there was a big scandal. What happened?

BATES: We have to get in the wayback machine for a minute and go back to August, when a romance writing star named Courtney Milan wrote a series of tweets on her website that complained about what she said were racist descriptions of Asian women in a book written in 1999 by Kathryn Lynn Davis, who referred to Chinese women in one of her books as sort of demure, submissive and compliant. And Courtney took issue with this because she said, excuse me; you know, I'm half Chinese, and that is really offensive. This is just a racist mess.

Sometime after that, Davis, who is white, and her publisher Suzan Tisdale, who is also white, and her editor and her friend sent a complaint to RWA. And they claimed that Milan was in violation of RWA's code of ethics, which says that it's supposed to create a safe, respectful place in which to discuss people's works.

FADEL: Wait; she was in violation for calling out what she saw as racist?

BATES: Yeah, they were (laughter) - they were offended that they had been - or that the writing, I guess, had been deemed racist. And they wanted her to apologize for being offended at the racism.

FADEL: So...

BATES: Is your head spinning yet?

FADEL: Yes (laughter). What has the reaction of the membership been to all this?

BATES: Well, the membership didn't know about it for a long time because, as I said, this happened at the end of August. RWA initiated, which people are still kind of freaking out about, a subcommittee of its ethics committee. I guess they appointed some people kind of like a grand jury - impaneled them. So this committee met in secret and decided that most of what they said about Milan wasn't accurate but that they did think that because of the tweets, she should be sanctioned. And so they suspended her for a year. And they said she'd never again be allowed in any leadership positions. And this was a woman who had just received a service award the year before for her leadership in the organization.

Someone leaked it, and a lot of writers of color were like, oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. A lot of allies who were white women said this is ridiculous. A lot of people - and publishing is like, girls, you need to get yourselves together. And within a week, because this was blowback that RWA leadership had not expected, they changed their minds and said on the 30 of December, we've rescinded our decision about Courtney for right now because we need to have a fuller investigation, so she can keep doing what she's doing for the moment, to which Milan said, as you can imagine, yeah, no. Bye.

A number of people have left, including a number of RWA board members. And that's troublesome because this is the most diverse board RWA has had ever, ever. And, of course, publishing is squirming because this is more than a billion-dollar industry. And I think especially the gatekeepers to this industry, which have traditionally been white, heterosexual women, are not at all comfortable with this.

FADEL: So is there a sense that the RWA is going to make changes as a result of this? Or are they doubling down?

BATES: I think the RWA isn't sure what it wants to do yet. You know, they're still dealing with the vertigo of how did this happen and what can we do to fix it? And so they have announced that they are going to have a investigation by an independent party to look at how this was done.

They have proclaimed their feelings - that they value the membership, that diversity is important to them and that they want to fix this. But things are changing quickly. And if they don't adjust to change and format themselves so that the people that they want to reach, that they need to reach feel included and welcome, they will find that they have a much smaller organization, if they have an organization at all.

FADEL: Karen Grigsby Bates is a correspondent on NPR's Code Switch team. Thanks, Karen.

BATES: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.