By Maureen Lee Lenker
January 06, 2020 at 10:53 PM EST
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The Romance Writers of America organization has officially canceled its annual awards contest amid a controversy of the group’s own making.

The RWA holds the awards ceremony, known as the RITAs, each year as part of its annual conference. Members pay a submission fee to enter the contest, and a judging body of volunteer members votes on the nominees and winner. But the RITAs will not continue in 2020, following the withdrawal of numerous potential contestants in the wake of a worsening firestorm.

“Due to recent events in RWA, many in the romance community have lost faith in RWA’s ability to administer the 2020 RITA contest fairly, causing numerous judges and entrants to cancel their participation,” the organization said in a statement Monday. “The contest will not reflect the breadth and diversity of 2019 romance novels/novellas and thus will not be able to fulfill its purpose of recognizing excellence in the genre. For this reason, the Board has voted to cancel the contest for the current year. The plan is for next year’s contest to celebrate 2019 and 2020 romances.”

Illustration by EW

This marks the first definitive step the RWA has taken over the last few weeks since the organization began its self-inflicted path to potential implosion.

“While we understand this will be disappointing news for some, we also understand that other members will support taking this step,” the statement continued. “Recent RWA Boards have worked hard to make changes to the current contest, striving to make it more diverse and inclusive, relieve judging burdens, and bring in outside voices, but those changes had to be voted on and implemented in a narrow window of time each year.”

The statement went on to emphasize the time it will grant to rebuild an awards program and process, while also noting that it could be a revamped RITA contest or something entirely new. Plans include engaging a consultant who specializes in awards programs, hiring a DEI consultant (that’s diversity, equity, and inclusion), and seeking member input. Those who had entered the 2020 contest will receive a full refund of their entry fee by Jan. 22.

RWA did not immediately respond to EW’s request for further comment on the cancelation.

The RWA has been rocked by recent controversy involving the exposure of racism and homophobia within the organization and a lack of transparency among members of the board and staff. It began Dec. 23, when the RWA informed romance author and former board member Courtney Milan of sanctions against her as a result of a formal ethics complaint. Milan’s membership was suspended, and she was banned for life from holding a leadership position with the organization.

The sanctions came after the evaluation of an ethics complaint filed by Suzan Tisdale and Kathryn Lynn Davis. Davis alleged that Milan’s criticism of her book Somewhere Lies the Moon on Twitter — Milan called it a “racist mess” — had cost her business. Davis has since alleged to The Guardian that she was “encouraged” by individuals within the RWA to file the complaint, and that she feels “used.”

After Milan was informed of the sanctions, fellow romance author Alyssa Cole shared the decision on Twitter, sparking a conflagration that is still raging. Many romance authors expressed their outrage on social media, particularly rankled by the lack of transparency, given revelations that a separate group was formed to address the complaints and did not inform the standing ethics committee of such developments. It was also noted that the punishment felt outsized given the nature of the complaint, particularly in light of Milan’s years of service on the board and her attempts to push for measures to ensure progress and inclusion.

Authors came to Milan’s support, starting the hashtag #IStandWithCourtney, and sparking a rush of other stories of how RWA had failed at inclusion and equity over the years. Prolific best-seller Nora Roberts shared her support for Milan, as well as detailing her experiences with leadership attempting to define romance as between one man and one woman. Roberts wrote on her website, “I received an email from the then president urging me to be quiet, basically, explaining to me — and I am not kidding — I didn’t understand that the lesbians would take over RWA.”

In the wake of the outcry, RWA reversed course on its decision regarding Milan, noting a “gap between policy and process.” The penalties, however, were rescinded “pending legal opinion,” and RWA did not immediately apologize for the decision. In the wake of these developments, eight board members, many of them leading advocates for diversity and inclusion within the organization, resigned, as did former president Carolyn Jewel. A petition to recall RWA’s new president, Damon Suede, began circulating online and quickly reached the required number of signatures for a recall.

On Dec. 30, the organization released an official statement announcing plans to conduct a full and transparent review of its member code of ethics and enforcement procedures, to be conducted by an independent, outside law firm. The statement also criticized members, chastising those who “inappropriately shared personal and/or private information which has legal consequences and has resulted in members feeling threatened, exposed, and unsafe. This is unacceptable behavior. As writers we know more than most, words have consequences.”

The statement seemed to censure those who had worked to expose some of their own troubling personal experiences within the organization, as well as those holding the organization accountable for its lack of transparency on a public online forum.

As these events have unfolded, many prominent authors, including Cole, Alisha Rai, Sarah MacLean, Tessa Dare, and past RWA president HelenKay Dimon have called for Suede’s resignation, as well as a full forensic audit of the organization to get to the bottom of how things went wrong. Still, many members, particularly authors of color who have long felt underserved by the RWA, have expressed a belief that the organization’s deep-seated issues are unsalvageable.

Suede has still not addressed the petition and the numerous calls for his resignation. CIMRWA, the Cultural, Interracial, and Multicultural Chapter of Romance Writers of America, submitted the petition Dec. 31, but the RWA did not receive and acknowledge it until Jan. 6. Meanwhile, the organization has continued to appoint new board members in the stead of those who resigned, as well as release its monthly periodical Romance Writers Report with a cover featuring a white cartoon woman pulling a black cartoon woman up a hill in an image that many deemed, at best, tone deaf.

RWA has largely failed to address continued pleas for transparency and decisive action. As this has gone on, it has resulted in professional entities who have ties to the organization to de-associate themselves. On Jan. 3, the Nancy Yost Literary Agency shared a letter announcing its withdrawal of membership as an agency and a request for a refund of its dues.

The cancelation of the RITA contest, even if it was potentially prompted by the withdrawal of a significant number of candidates and judges, feels like the first attempt to address greater issues. Milan said as much on Twitter, writing, “Well, I think cancelling the RITAs this year is the first right decision I’ve seen RWA make in this whole debacle.”

As a result of the events of the last few weeks, the continued existence of RWA is in question. The 2020 RITAs have been canceled, and with agencies and numerous members declaring their intentions to boycott the annual summer conference, its fate could be imperiled. Its considerable national resources have led many to question what could become of the funds and RWA at large.

One thing seems clear: The RWA’s stated mission is “to advance the professional and common business interests of career-focused romance writers,” but its recent actions and the increasing number of reports of incidents of racism, homophobia, and more suggest that it has been failing to honor that mission for all authors, instead privileging the concerns and feelings of white authors.

If RWA is to survive, it has some major soul-searching to do, such that involves addressing and untangling decades of systemic bias. That reckoning doesn’t begin or end with revamping the RITAs — but it is a tentative sign that a breaking point has been reached.

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