The romance writing community’s biggest professional organization is in shambles due to an institutional meltdown over racialized politics. It’s a giant imbroglio involving questions of how to bring progressive change to a 40-year-old organization whose membership is increasingly diversifying — and the ramifications are about much more than romance.

Formed in 1980 by the groundbreaking black romance editor Vivian Stephens, Romance Writers of America (RWA) is a trade organization that essentially functions as a union for its 9,000 members, most of whom are published or aspiring romance authors. Its major annual awards, the RITA Awards, are the most prestigious honor in the romance writing community, and past winners have included bestselling romance titans like Nora Roberts, Diana Gabaldon, and Julia Quinn.

But on January 6, the RWA announced it would cancel the 2020 RITA ceremony, previously scheduled for July as part of the annual national RWA conference, after many nominees withdrew their work from consideration and many judges said they would no longer participate. Then on January 8, major romance novel publishers like Harlequin and Avon began to withdraw from attending the RWA national conference, putting the event in jeopardy as well. And on January 9, both the new RWA president, Damon Suede (who’d only officially held the role for about two weeks), and the organization’s executive director, Carol Ritter, resigned. (Contacted by Vox for comment, the RWA referred to its official announcement of Suede’s departure and clarified that Ritter, who is staying on for several months to assist with the organization’s transition, will not have another staff role following her departure.)

These developments are the latest in an ongoing spiral into institutional chaos and backlash that began just before Christmas, when the board of RWA suspended one of the organization’s most popular members, Courtney Milan, for publicly critiquing perceived racism and racist writing by other members. The board’s decision initially caused outrage — and eventually betrayed a massive institutional failure, as emerging details revealed to shocked RWA members that Milan’s suspension was built on a lie and mired in mysterious backchanneling — all in what seems to have been a concerted attempt to oust Milan, who some members may have perceived as a progressive rabble-rouser, from a position of influence within RWA.

That in itself might not have been enough to seriously threaten the institution’s survival — but Milan is a beloved author of color, fighting against systemic racism in an organization with a long, fraught history of sidelining or overtly offending marginalized authors. Now, many of its members are giving up the fight, and RWA’s pledges to change may not be enough to save it.

What happened

A magazine cover with a teal background showing a mountain with a flag at the top. Almost to the peak, a white woman reaches behind her to help a black woman who is slightly below her. The black woman has her arm outstretched for help. Both women are holding books.
The original cover of January’s RWA newsletter featured an image of a white woman appearing to help a black woman up a mountain, which readers decried as tone-deaf. Following backlash, RWA changed the cover.
Hope Stephan/Facebook

In a December board meeting, the RWA board voted to suspend and permanently ban from leadership one of its most famous members, Courtney Milan. Milan is known for historical novels containing progressive social elements like interracial relationships and proto-feminist heroines. She served on the RWA board from 2014 to 2018, and won an RWA service award in 2019 for her leadership promoting diversity within the organization.

Milan was serving as the chair of RWA’s ethics committee in August 2019 when she participated in a widespread social media conversation regarding two editors from the same small publishing house, Glenfinnan. The conversation started when Carolyn Jewel — who was then the president-elect of the RWA — blocked one of the editors, Sue Grimshaw, on Twitter after she noticed Grimshaw had “Liked” a series of tweets Jewel perceived to be racist, including a tweet questioning whether white supremacy was real. From there, many people, including Milan, took part in a discussion about Grimshaw and her alleged history of gatekeeping books by authors of color.

Several participants in the discussion, including Milan, then also examined a book by another Glenfinnan editor, Kathryn Lynn Davis, and noted its use of racist stereotypes. The book, Somewhere Lies the Moon, was published in 1999 and contained passages in which Chinese women are described as inherently “demure and quiet” and “modest and submissive.”

As a result of these social media conversations, Glenfinnan’s publisher, Suzan Tisdale, along with Davis, filed complaints against Milan in August and September. The complaints alleged that Milan’s outspoken social media critique had caused both of them to lose business opportunities. RWA has never confirmed that it verified the truth of the allegations made in Davis and Tisdale’s claims, and acknowledged in a subsequent statement, released in December, that “It is clear that there were failures in our current standard procedures, and the Code of Ethics and the processes surrounding it will be reviewed.” Davis later stated that she had exaggerated many of the details in her complaint, including assertions she “lost” a three-book contract because of Milan; one author who pulled their books from Glenfinnan later disputed the assertions in Tisdale’s complaint as well.

Tisdale and Davis, who are both white, were upset that Milan, who is of Chinese descent, had used social media — and particularly Twitter, where she has more than 30,000 followers — to call out Grimshaw and Davis’s alleged racism. Milan “terrifies people into remaining quiet simply because of her reach on Twitter. People are genuinely afraid of being ‘on her list,’” Tisdale’s complaint read. Tisdale also suggested that Milan chairing the RWA ethics committee was “akin to putting a neo-Nazi in charge of a UN human rights committee … Ms. Milan is not what the face of RWA needs to be.”

In her complaint, Davis asserted that Milan had unfairly trashed her book. “Milan … quashes creativity and growth through the use of terror tactics,” she wrote. Davis also claimed her book is immune to racialized critique because it “was written in the 1990s and is historically accurate, which makes it both immune from and irrelevant to current judgments of racist literature.”

In response, Milan asserted her right to voice criticism. And in a response to Davis specifically, she argued, “Davis is explicitly asking RWA to create a world in which I, as a woman of color, must be explicitly barred from using my voice to criticize a novel with a protagonist who shares my race, because she believes that she should be ‘immune’ from criticism of the book.”

In essence, Milan was arguing, the question raised by Davis and Tisdale’s complaints was about whether RWA would support the rights of writers of color to publicly confront systemic and harmful racism where they see it — or whether the organization would support Tisdale and Davis in their efforts to avoid facing consequences, including financial harm, for actions and writing that had been perceived as racist.

But this question, as it turned out, was much bigger than it seemed.

The controversy over Milan’s social media posts is about a lot more than romance

On one level, the ethics complaints Davis and Tisdale filed with the RWA are about questions that are fundamental to storytelling, all of which revolve around a central theme: How do we tell stories about people from marginalized communities?

Perhaps the author’s right to artistic freedom trumps everything, and it’s effectively censorship to tell someone they can’t write about whatever they want to write about. Or perhaps it’s censorship to tell readers they can’t critique fiction they see as uncritically reinforcing harmful and racist tropes. Perhaps that censorship is unfair if the fiction itself is outdated and reliant on outdated historical research, even when it plays into harmful tropes — and even when the author argues, as Davis did, that the fiction is still historically accurate decades later.

And when social norms change, and stories that once looked inclusive to mainstream culture now look prejudiced or bigoted, how do we respond? Is it right to think about the author, who most likely wrote from a place of ignorance rather than malice, and didn’t realize that what they were writing was offensive or harmful? Or is it right to think about the reader? After all, readers shouldn’t have to deal with problematic tropes, and the onus shouldn’t be on them to forgive and forget — especially not in the romance genre, which is supposed to bring its readers joy.

Versions of this debate have been working their way through various publishing communities for years, often flaring up in messy and public fights over specific incidents. In the past five years alone, the science fiction and fantasy community had to deal with the problem of the “Sad Puppies,” an alt-right mob that tried to push progressive writers out of the Hugo Awards in 2015 and 2016. The literary fiction community spent 2016 debating whether it was acceptable for Lionel Shriver to wear a sombrero while she talked about why she thinks cultural appropriation is a myth. And the YA community has been embroiled in a series of public scandals as various authors have canceled and then un-canceled their books when accused of racism.

Romance is publishing’s biggest and most lucrative genre, and RWA is that genre’s biggest professional organization, so the way it handles conflicts helps set the tone for the entire industry. Moreover, romance is the genre through which we as a culture talk about love and relationships, which is to say it’s the genre through which we talk about how we want human beings to relate to one another. So the way we talk through these questions in the romance community is vital.

“Romancelandia,” as the community is widely known, has debated these questions before. But the events surrounding Milan’s suspension from RWA and RWA’s subsequent cancellation of the RITAs have combined these questions about the art of romance writing itself with even tougher questions about institutional gatekeeping and systemic discrimination.

In suspending Milan, RWA demonstrated how willing it is to use false shows of progressivism to protect an enshrined system of institutional racism. And Milan’s suspension was just the beginning.

The plot thickens … and thickens, and thickens

The RWA board voted on the ethics panel’s findings on December 17, and RWA members found out about Milan’s suspension on December 23, through a viral tweet thread by fellow author Alyssa Cole announcing the news. Backlash was immediate: The news prompted mass membership cancellations, and the hashtag #IStandWithCourtney was a top Twitter trend on Christmas Eve. RWA members who’d submitted their novels to the annual RITA Awards began to withdraw their entries.

Through all of this, members were slowly piecing together the process that resulted in Milan’s suspension. The details that emerged sounded like the stuff of a Cold War spy mission, not the goings-on of a professional organization for romance authors. Members quickly realized that a ruling on Davis and Tisdale’s complaints had been delayed until after a board meeting in early October, when the rules governing the ethics committee had been strategically altered to give RWA’s then-president-elect, queer romance author Damon Suede, the power to personally appoint an anonymous panel to hear the complaints against Milan. The entire existing ethics committee was then replaced, without the knowledge of its members, by a new, secret panel formed just to hear Milan’s case. The real ethics committee had no idea any of this was happening, or that complaints against Milan had even been filed.

Despite siding with Milan on three of the four points against her, the secret committee still confusingly recommended she be punished with a one-year suspension and a lifetime ban from holding any leadership positions in RWA, a response that thousands of RWA members believed was unwarranted and at the very least overly harsh and disproportionate. According to former RWA president Leslie Kelly, “This was the kind of issue that, at most, would have possibly merited a warning letter.”

But that’s not even the wildest (or most concerning) part. Ultimately, the only person who ever spoke to the secret second ethics committee directly was then-president-elect Suede, and because of all the secrecy, RWA members compared notes, soon realizing that Suede had a history of lying, according to Milan and many other RWA members, to steal credit for others’ work, trash-talk fellow authors, or scare and flatter them in turn. He even allegedly lied about random details like knowing the true identity of pseudonymous author Chuck Tingle, all seemingly to amass political power within RWA and the romance writing community. Suede also seems to have lied about the secret committee, offering a made-up reason, according to members of the real ethics committee, for why it needed to exist. (Suede has not responded to Vox’s request for comment.)

The ensuing alarm from RWA’s membership was extensive. RWA chapters across the country issued statements of support for Milan; more than 50 agents, and 18 former RWA presidents and board members, published open letters demanding an explanation. Open letters signed by authors and reviewers drew more than 1,300 signatures of support. Organizations that partnered with RWA began to cut ties, and several writing conferences rescinded invitations to feature Suede as a guest. Prominent authors weighed in — and as awareness spread, public opinion was clearly on Milan’s side.

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Among the authors who commented was sci-fi’s N.K. Jemisin, who recalled the similar shocking moment in the science fiction community that led to the ongoing cultural clash that ultimately led to Jemisin’s history-making Hugo-winning three-peat. “RWA can recover, too,” she wrote. “It will take a bloodletting, but it’s possible.”

But at that point, the chaos inside the RWA was still expanding, with many additional details yet to emerge.

After holding an emergency meeting on December 24, the day after news of Milan’s suspension became public, the RWA board reversed its decision and reinstated Milan. But more baffling revelations were still coming to light, many concerning organizational disenfranchisement. These included a litany of allegations from members who said they’d filed complaints with RWA after experiencing bigotry and bias, only to be ignored, punished, or stonewalled in their efforts; accounts of extensive gatekeeping, sometimes inexplicable but often insidious and discriminatory; and reports of routine bigotry and microaggressions within various RWA chapters.

A photomanip of the previous RWA magazine cover. Instead of reaching out her hand for assistance from the white lady in front of her, the woman of color is defiantly tossing the white woman over her shoulder. The white woman is somersaulting down the mountain, arms akimbo, one shoe flying into the air. The cover text has been changed to include a title: “What the Fuck.”
A writer’s response to the January cover of RWA magazine.
Art by WrenVale via Farah Heron; original art via RWA

RWA members also raised concerns about Suede’s allegedly unethical business relationship with a small press that has been failing to pay its authors for months, including many RWA authors. Despite taking action against such publishers in the past, this time the RWA’s response was lackluster, a stance many assumed was linked to Suede’s still-cozy relationship with the press, which is undergoing a restructuring.

The RWA’s multicultural chapter, known as CIMRWA, spearheaded a petition to hold a recall vote to remove Suede — which then had to be completely scrapped, even though it garnered the required number of signatures, because the RWA administration allegedly pushed back against it over technical reasons. Despite having to start over from scratch, the chapter began a new petition and once again successfully collected the mandatory number of signatures needed to force a recall vote, and the RWA finally accepted the petition.

With all these problems mounting and no clear leadership or strong answers forthcoming from RWA, many members voiced serious apprehension about the organization’s sustainability. On December 26, 28 RWA chapter presidents, led by CIMRWA, and former board members issued an open letter calling for the resignation of all the members of RWA’s board and staff.

“We are writing this letter as Members in Good Standing of RWA feeling utterly hopeless for this organization,” the letter began. “The last few days have revealed a failure of leadership in RWA that makes us wonder if there is anywhere to go from here.”

That same day, the RWA board issued an open letter announcing many board resignations, including board president Carolyn Jewel and eight other board members, most of whom were women of color and supporters of Milan who consequently resigned in protest. “As it stands now, the organization is at a turning point,” the statement read. “We have lost the trust of our membership and the romance community and we must find a way to rebuild that.”

But many of the organization’s members who’ve fought to change the organization from within have now given up, and nearly 1,100 people have indicated support for starting a new organization. “This is not MY organization any longer,” Milan said of the RWA. “It is never going to be my organization again.”

In a statement to Vox, Milan observed, “This entire matter has been a massive breach of fiduciary duty, and I am heartbroken that an organization that I served for four years has decided to set itself on fire in a win for absolutely nobody.”

Meanwhile, amid the maelstrom, author Davis backtracked her complaint that helped kick-start the whole ordeal, telling the Guardian on January 4 that the RWA administration [that is, a member of RWA’s paid staff rather than its elected board of directors] had used her and Tisdale “to accomplish something they wanted to accomplish.” She added, “I was stunned when I saw the penalties [for Milan]. I didn’t ever expect that, and I did not want that.”

As it stands, RWA is in complete disarray. As mentioned, the organization has canceled the 2020 RITA Awards. The RWA’s mystery/suspense chapter has also canceled its annual award, and publishers continue to withdraw from the national conference, prompting wry comparisons of the fiasco to the notorious Dashcon, which went viral in 2014 as a disastrously disorganized grift of its attendees:

Six of the board’s 12 seats are now vacant. RWA’s secretary has also resigned. And Suede, after resisting weeks of pressure from RWA members to resign, finally stepped down amid emerging evidence that he lacked the requisite number of published novels to hold the role and may have fabricated the existence of a novel to meet the criteria.

“The events of the past two weeks have been the most painful and tumultuous in the history of Romance Writers of America (RWA),” reads an unsigned statement from the board announcing Suede’s departure, issued on January 9. The statement goes on to outline changes it has made or plans to make in an effort to rebuild the RWA. These include hiring an outside firm to audit the organization’s codes and procedures — though Milan and her supporters have called this move “substantially meaningless” — and hiring a diversity and inclusion consultant to restructure its awards system.

“We may not always get it right, but we will do our best, we will be honest and transparent, we will own our mistakes, and we will listen to our community,” the statement concludes. “We hope you will join us — collaboratively and productively — in rebuilding an RWA that serves its diverse and talented members well into the future. We believe this community is worth saving.”

But many RWA members have emphasized that while the resignations were a necessary step, they are only the first step. “DON’T CELEBRATE YET,” tweeted author Bria Quinlan. “We need to focus on transparency and deal [with] the ongoing aggression toward and suppression of all authors of marginalized groups within our community.”

“We’re now left with the smoking remains of RWA,” echoed writer Trish Milburn. “[W]e have to figure out where to go from here. The systemic problems that led us here must be rooted out and dealt with before we can begin to rebuild. This will not be easy, but it’s necessary.”

“I keep thinking how very American this RWA situation is,” Alyssa Cole wrote. “The organization was started by a Black woman and now bigots get to keep the infrastructure she and many other marginalized authors built, the money and connections, while we’re forced to start from scratch somewhere else.”

Amid all of the anger and hurt that RWA members are still working through, there’s a tiny sign that Milan’s original callout may have worked after all: Davis told the Guardian that she’s grudgingly made some changes to the e-book edition of her Somewhere Lies the Moon.

Meanwhile, for many romance writers, the work goes on.

Update: This story has been updated to include additional quotes and tweets from writers of color, as well as additional details about the petition to recall Damon Suede.

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