Worse Than a Dumpster Fire

In Pennsylvania, there’s a fire underground inside the Centralia mine that started in 1962 and will probably continue to burn for the next 250 years. Per Wikipedia and eminent domain documents, “It is burning in underground coal mines at depths of up to 300 feet (90 m) over an 8-mile (13 km) stretch of 3,700 acres (15 km2).” It can’t be extinguished.

So anyway, RWA.

When I quit the organization 47 years ago back in February 2020 (remember then? Sure was different!), it felt like a relief. I wouldn’t have to harbor that knot in my stomach or go get my mouth guard before writing about the latest technicolor fuckery from an organization that makes regular and complicated superficial changes but can’t control the 300 foot deep racism fire burning within its membership. Despite the efforts of people who I admire and people with whom I’d worked for over 15 years, I didn’t think it was fixable.

When the finalists for the newly-renamed award, the Vivian, were announced this year, one book in the Religious or Spiritual Elements category (which really means evangelical Christian, let’s be real) featured a hero who participated in the genocide against the Lakota at Wounded Knee. So all the changes and the renaming and the rewriting of the structure and the rubric and all the significant work that goes into hosting and managing an award yielded the same result as in prior years: racist, White supremacist narratives are lauded, whether the hero is a Nazi or a murderer of Indigenous Americans.

Then, this weekend, that same book won the Vivian. No, I’m not naming it. This small bit of ignominy is all I can provide here.

Same racism, different year. It’s not a surprise, but it is remarkable. And my thought was, good grief. If RWA wants to demonstrate its irrelevance to the rest of the romance reading community by rewarding White supremacist plots and characters, well, fine. If the organization insists on demonstrating its own irrelevance, okay. I shall oblige. I didn’t want to write about it because there isn’t a thing I can do about it except say, Yup, that is Indeed Terrible and also Not Surprising because the ground is still smoking from the racist mine fire below.

Then the president of RWA released a statement that romance with religious or spiritual elements:

requires a redemptive arc as a genre convention. Essentially, the character can’t be redeemed by human means; only through their spiritual/religious awakening can they find redemption for their moral failings and or crimes against humanity. According to its subgenre conventions, the book in question finaled and won for this category. (emphasis mine)

I’ll be honest: I nearly broke something laughing. I thought it was a joke. There was no way that was real. It had to be satire. I don’t know what month it is any more; is it April 1?

But it was not a joke. The response was, effectively, “Look, sometimes there’s crimes against humanity in the romance and we have to be okay with that.” Bonus head tilt for “RWA staff did not receive any complaints from the thirteen judges who read and scored the entry.”

GOSH I WONDER WHY. How could it be that the judges didn’t see genocide as a problem? Also the ground is really hot; it smells a little toasty. Is something on fire?

Again, I didn’t want to write about this. I really, really didn’t. It’s not pleasant. And if I’m discouraged, frustrated, outraged, and exhausted, I cannot imagine the erupting feelings among those who were even more involved in trying to address and change the harmful practices embedded inside the organization. But crap on repeat still needs to be labeled as crap.

The RWA Board seems to have recognized that:

“…as an organization that continually strives to improve our support of marginalized authors, we cannot in good conscience uphold the decision of the judges in voting to celebrate a book that depicts the inhumane treatment of indigenous people and romanticizes real world tragedies that still affect people to this day. RWA is rescinding the Vivian awarded to the book [redacted because no.]”

So that fixes yet more nothing.

And here I am with my mouthguard in because romance still has a White supremacy problem. RWA has a racism problem. I don’t even have a good conclusion here because I’m burned out (ha) from trying to make sense of any of it.

RWA demonstrated to me last year that it was not equipped as an organization to address the systemic problems within it. Despite grueling unpaid work by many people, the foundational problem remains: an organization is made up of people. And some of the people in the organization want to reward genocide and celebrate White supremacist colonialist narrative.

Courtney Milan said this in my interview with her in January 2020: 

I think a lot of white people, including some very well-meaning white people, are going to see all the people of color leaving, and they’re going to say, well, we have to prove that this place is safe, so I’m going to stay here and make it better. And I’m going to tell you that what you are doing at this point is reinforcing white supremacy….

I think you’re going to have to figure out how to get out of RWA, if RWA can’t get itself out of this nosedive. And I don’t think it can!

…if RWA doesn’t figure out how to get rid of white supremacy, it’s a white supremacist organization.


No matter how much work and how many thousands of words go into an award rubric, if the judging is done by people determined to hold onto a racist narrative, racism will be the result. RWA’s membership has demonstrated yet again that it can’t be trusted to administer an award that won’t cause harm. This isn’t surprising but holy damn is it demoralizing to see how little has changed.

The racism fire continues to burn.


General Bitching...

Comments are Closed

  1. DiscoDollyDeb says:

    I write this as a Christian and, at least prior to covid, a regular churchgoer, but it is extremely important to understand that so-called “evangelical Christianity” is not about implementing a message of love, forgiveness, redemption, grace, and joy, it is about reinforcing a white patriarchal power structure (think about how many evangelical leaders were totally ok with Trump). Any romance novel associated with that belief system will have that underlying message—whether the hero is the commandant of a Nazi death camp or a soldier in the battle to wipeout indigenous people. Taken that as a given, the question should not only be why is this an RWA category to begin with but how do romances that feature those type of “heroes” keep getting published? I think we all know the answer, but it’s still depressing as hell.

    /Dismounting my soapbox now, but one slightly o/t comment: Callie Hart’s NASTY (the second book in her Dirty Nasty Freaks trilogy—this is the book with the former-priest-turned-hit man hero) has a long extended scene set in Centralia. That was the first time I’d ever heard of the Centralia fire.

  2. Norma Rodriguez Kessler says:

    I know you’re discouraged and exhausted but thank you so much for talking about this. It’s so very important that people who have a reasonable, true voice which is heard in so many circles speak up for the rest of us. Thank you, thank you!

  3. footiepjs says:

    Thank you for this post. I don’t read Twitter much anymore and that’s where a lot of news breaks and discussion happens. I wouldn’t have heard about this otherwise.

    Of course now I’m internally screaming but it’s a more informed scream.

  4. HeatherS says:

    I saw an article on another site about this earlier this week and was 0% shocked that the problematic book was an inspie.

  5. Mary says:

    I honestly thought RWA had imploded and was gone. The whole idea of rebranding as the “Vivian” award is lip service to change and is, frankly, insulting. I try to look on the bright side – the conversation that started with the bullying of Courtney Milan has caused me to re-think what I read and in the last year and a half, I have found so many amazing new-to-me authors. Alyssa Cole, Intisar Khanani, Talia Hibbert and more. What a joy to find these authors and I appreciate Smart Bitches for bringing them to my notice!

    On a side note, what is the deal with beyond “bad boy” heroes? First, what am I reading that Amazon keeps pushing mob boss, hit man books at me? I can’t imagine what I have read to trigger this! Second, the narrative that the love of a good woman can redeem an evil person is pretty sad.

  6. Todd says:

    Thank you for writing about this. I followed – as much as possible without Twitter – when the situation blew up. It’s discouraging that they organization, and the people who remain in it, do not seem willing or able to change.

    Evangelism seems to represent a smaller and smaller proportion of the American people. I don’t remember the statistic, but more people are reporting themselves as not belonging to a church at all. There’s been news reports that the Southern Baptist Convention has been having issues with charges of sexual abuse by some of its leaders and may have split.

    It’s 2021 and, as much as some would prefer it, you can’t go back to a mythical golden age (for white, heterosexual, Christian men). The world changes and it’s not possible to stop it. At least not in the long term.

  7. It’s important, both socially and legally, for an organization to have a clearly defined set of values and an enforcement policy. “We don’t see a problem with valorizing crimes against humanity and will waffle only when subjected to immense public embarrassment” fits the bill, I suppose.

  8. Leslee Ann Friedman says:

    Thank you for this and for, in general, the work you and this site do on a regular basis. I say that as someone who reads overwhelmingly (non-Christian/Inspirational) histrom, because contemp doesn’t hit the notes I need, emotionally, and who spends time in histrom communities, and who has yet to find one, other than here, where I consistently feel safe as a Jewish lesbian, and someone who strives to be an ally to POCs and trans/nb persons. To whit: RWA might be the gold standard for the racism/heteronorm/patriarchy problem in romancelandia, but it is also the mere tip of the iceberg and it is hard to describe the amount of relief I feel when I’m on this comm.

    I will point out, and I think that you are well aware of this, having been amongst the writers of the best responses to the 2014 RITA fiasco re: Holocaust Romance Fun!, that if the RWA couldn’t figure out that there was a serious, endemic issue with this category THEN, and continued to pretend blithe lack of awareness through the restructuring post the Milan blow up, I have no idea why anyone thought this was going to go differently. Like you, my single response to this whole affair has been a sort of exhausted “yup, that checks out.” You cannot rebuild a house on a foundation of rotted wood.

  9. Jill Q. says:

    Broken writers’ organization is broken. Sorry if that seems flip, but that’s where I am. I really thought the RWA was going to self-extinguish in a fireball of death, but instead it seems to be stuck somewhere between slow-motion train wreck and pitiful death spiral. I try not to watch for the most part, but thanks for giving a brief summary here.

    The sad things is that RWA was probably going to inevitably be less relevant b/c of the changes in publishing and communication in general, but by clinging to this white supremacist/racist dumpster fire they are hastening their own descent into irrelevance and ensuring that when they do go the way of the buggy whip and corset covers, they will be mourned by few.

  10. Penny says:

    I also appreciate this post, as I have largely checked out of social media and RWA isn’t generally a thing that comes up on news sites. Renaming the prize ultimately was a performative and empty gesture. Romance as a genre has been integral to my exploration of my sexuality and personal growth, has consistently given HEA or HFNs that are deeply comforting and hopeful, has queer and BIPOC authors that are not only accessible but there are so many now as compared to before that they can and do make up the majority of my romance collection. It is frustrating that the primary organization for this genre has not progressed, re-evaluated, made changes.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I am part of RWA. I have minimal contact with the national organization, but I stayed in because of my local group, and because I believe change had to be made by all of us. This has been an incredibly frustrating couple of years. The current RWA board seems to have felt that by ignoring this book, the problem would go away. I have no idea why they thought this way. I heard about this book when it made the list of finalists. They did too. They could have done something then, but chose not to. It was one of the few writing organizations that let unpublished writers join, so it will be sad if it disappears, but I think it is beyond saving.

  12. Kim Wyant says:

    I remained a member of RWA in the hopes that new leadership who seemed willing to excavate the racism, shine a light on it and root it out, would do just that. In the meantime, I haven’t paid much attention to the new Vivian award and only today heard about the book that won the Christian category, or whatever it’s called. I’m appalled. I don’t have a clue why 13 people read and voted to give an award to the book in question. This whole debacle has gone from bad to worse. I think the RWA may now be broken beyond repair. Time to start over if people want a national organization that represents romance writers.

  13. Darlynne says:

    Thanks to Bill Bryson, I knew about the underground fires in PA. Thanks to Twitter and reference to outrageous comments made about Courtney Milan, I know about this eternal RWA dumpster fire. Sadly, we have never been “better than this.”

  14. Escapeologist says:

    Having recently completed mandatory harassment training at my job, I firmly believe training doesn’t work, getting more diverse people in the door does.

    For the white ladies who have trouble understanding (disclaimer, I am white but also an immigrant, make of that what you will) – would you rather work in a 99% male workplace where everyone has been through the mandatory harassment training – or would you feel more comfortable in a more diverse group, whether or not they are “trained”?

    This organization is and will remain outdated and irrelevant unless they give all readers actual representation at all levels all the way to the top. After the Courtney Milan fiasco and this latest BS, that is doubtful. It’s much more likely something new will replace them. Self publishing and social media are changing the landscape. Dinosaurs gonna go extinct.

    SB Sarah, that underground fire metaphor is amazing. Your writing is beautiful and powerful. Thank you for using your powers for good.

  15. Midge says:

    Yikes… I too thought the RWA had sunk. No need to say anything more, as it has already been said here so well!

    “On a side note, what is the deal with beyond “bad boy” heroes? First, what am I reading that Amazon keeps pushing mob boss, hit man books at me? I can’t imagine what I have read to trigger this!”
    @Mary – I so agree! My Kindle keeps recommending me the same kind of sh*t on the lock screen, except that I never read anything like that. And I do not understand this either… just seeing these blurbs about these mafia boss, hit man, “bad boy” “romances” makes me shudder. Who wants to read this still in 2021?

  16. Heather Griffiths says:

    What everyone said. But what also strikes me about the board’s statement is, that starting from the more or less neutral premise that a spiritual story needs a redemption arc, they have a missed the rather enormous point that there are other ways to construct such an arc. A competent author does not have to callously use the bloody sacrifice of indigneous people, only so that a white hero can be redeemed! Does the the board of Rita not understand there are other ways to be redeemed and other sins and mistakes that need redemption short of genocide??

  17. Meg says:

    Like some of the earlier commenters, I, too, chose to stay in RWA because of my commitment to my local chapter. And I’ll be honest: I entered this year’s Vivian and I judged other entries. All judges had to watch an extended sensitivity training video and pass a test showing the material had been covered. THIS WAS DONE EXPRESSLY TO AVOID THE PROBLEMS THAT OCCURRED LAST YEAR AND EARLIER! But here’s what went wrong: the RWA president said in her statement that none of the board members had read the book in question. Should RWA survive, and should its contest survive, that’s the first thing that has to change. All finaling entries should be carefully reviewed before winners are chosen. As it stands now, judges are allowed to choose the categories they wish to judge. Did I judge the “spiritual” entries? Hell, no. I feel the vomit rising in my mouth just thinking of doing so. So the judges who chose to judge books in that particular category were members who like that stuff, as were the 2nd round “professionals.” That may be okay for the first round, but there has to be some “quality control” for the final round of judging.

    I don’t think it’s fair to condemn the entire organization and/or its leadership, but it is time for them to realize that trust alone won’t do it. That thinking correlates to the silly idea that unvaccinated people would ever voluntarily wear masks to protect the rest of us.

  18. Ms. M says:

    The thing is that secular romance novels are full of mass-murdering heroes (heroines of this type are rare but not unheard of) redeemed by love who are gangsters, warlords, vampires, and even serial killers, among other unsavory types. This book has the added factor of being connected to a historical tragedy but its far from the only one with a character complicit in real life tragedies. Perhaps romance readers need to think a bit in general about who gets presented as a redeemable character.

  19. footiepjs says:

    Perhaps romance readers need to think a bit in general about who gets presented as a redeemable character.

    We do! All the time! You can probably find a comment or review from the front page that talks about this.

  20. chacha1 says:

    Re: books marketed as ‘inspirational:’ the few I have read all suffered from the same problem. Namely that the hero was a chauvinist dickhead embodying everything I hate about organized religion whose ‘redemption’ does not at all address the fact that he’s a chauvinist dickhead. (The love of a good woman, I once read, never redeemed anyone. Love *for* a good woman might. Was this in a book by Edith Layton?)

    If ‘redemption’ is something awarded by a Holy Immanence – as opposed to, say, a jury of one’s peers – then I want to see proof on the page that the person in need of redemption has actually processed all his faults and taken concrete steps to a) amend them b) repair the consequences of his faulty actions. I’ve never seen that proof, only some minor groveling. The greater the crime, the deeper the grovel needs to be. There’s no amount of grovel that would, in my opinion, make a ‘hero’ out of a character who’s participated in genocide.

    It’s disappointing that RWA has not processed all its faults.

  21. DiscoDollyDeb says:

    @ChaCha1: Yes, that was a Layton. I don’t remember which one, but that quote has always stayed with me. The hero’s old nursemaid tells him: “Love of a good woman won’t redeem you. Love FOR a good woman just might.”

  22. Susan/DC says:

    As for the need for a redemptive arc from acts of villainy, isn’t that a narrow reading of the Inspirational category, even if it’s the one set by the RWA? Couldn’t the hero/heroine show their faith without being villains in the first place? Perhaps a novel where the h/H are doctors or nurses in the middle of a plague who feel overwhelmed and want to quit but whose faith helps them find the strength to keep going. Or a teacher who is inspired by Jesus’ example to work with the poor and despite challenges personal and political. Or an ambitious lawyer/hedge fund manager/business person who discovers skullduggery in the workplace, has to decide between Right and Wrong (and there’s lots of money on the side of Wrong), so prays for guidance. No genocide or holocaust or work with the Mafia required.

  23. DiscoDollyDeb says:

    @Ms. M: the issue is not about the characteristics that make a hero worthy of a redemption arc, it’s about the method by which that redemption is achieved. It’s true that in dark/ crime/vampire/shifter/SFF romances, sometimes the heroes have killed others within the closed system of the particular sub-genre’s universe—almost always villainous characters whose behavior has been much “worse” than the hero’s. The redemption arc in those cases almost always involve growing self-insight on the heroes’ parts about their prior behavior and attitudes. While I’m not saying you couldn’t find a romance where a serial killer has a redemption arc without any self-awareness into and/or change in behavior, I have never encountered one. But that issue aside, these romance sub-genres are not attempting to tie a hero’s redemption arc to an actual historical genocide and make the victims of that genocide nameless props for said arc. Using a romance to reinforce the elements of a white patriarchal evangelical power structure is neither the point nor the goal of even the darkest of dark romance, whereas it certainly appears to be the case in this year’s RWA Inspirational winner.

  24. I’d hoped “WHAT ABOUT THE VAMPIRE WARS, HUH?!” wouldn’t make it here, but as long as it has, I’ll remind anyone experiencing confusion that vampires aren’t real, and the descendants of people who stole vampire land, stole vampire children, slaughtered vampires en masse, forced the surviving vampires into open-air prisons, and continue to marginalize vampires TO THIS DAY aren’t making a buck using them as props in white entitlement feel-good stories in a country that’s notoriously resistant to teaching history that isn’t a white entitlement feel-good story.

  25. Vicki says:

    @ Mary said “the narrative that the love of a good woman can redeem an evil person is pretty sad” and she is correct. That narrative is also dangerous. It leads a lot of women into abusive relationships and keeps them there. Because their love just might save this man. It seems to be that he should first demonstrate his love for her and his willingness to change before she agrees to love him and support his change. We as women should not be responsible for the redemption of men who do not want. to be redeemed.

    I admit that I read and enjoy some books that support this trope and I am also starting to see that internalizing it is not healthy.

  26. Allison R-B says:

    Author Kharma Kelley responded brilliantly by drafting an easy litmus test for the genre (while on vacation, even.) Check out The HEART Test in her tweets, https://twitter.com/kharmakelley/status/1422627767976333312?s=20 & tip her for her labor on Ko-Fi if you like it.

  27. AvaW. says:

    Another mainstream romance review site (AAR) reviewed this book and gave it a B+. They call it “a fun book” and make no reference to the issues that others of us find so upsetting. If people in RWA and elsewhere can’t even recognize problematic content in 2020, I don’t hold out much hope for salvaging the organization. People have to actually want to learn and change, and if the current structure benefits them, they have no real incentive to do so.

  28. Kit says:

    I think that Amazon’s algorithm is based on your browsing and reading habits. Trouble is, you can be seduced by a cover (sometimes it is a good cover, sometimes it’s awful or maybe you just want to read something with *ahem* tall aliens in) but you read the blurb and ugh it’s set in a magical academy with a love triangle, it’s a mafia/MC romance or all three! (These are my book turn offs by the way) but the bot doesn’t care! It’ll just send you more of these romances that you hate! I don’t know if you still can but I used to turn off recommendations for books that I hated, I haven’t tried it lately though.
    I wouldn’t touch a inspirational romance with a barge pole, mainly because I’m long done the whole evangelical Christian thing. I was one in my late teens/early twenties but left because of the hypocrisy and pressure applied to young people in the movement (ok, I had problems with the purity movement f***ing up healthy sexuality, but that’s a very long story). Don’t know why there called inspirational anyway, can anyone enlighten me?

  29. […] the basis of just the blurb, it’s difficult to see what the OP in the article I’ve reference was worried about. But, as you read through the OP and then look at the […]

  30. Todd says:

    It occurred to me – why is it that the hero has to do something awful and be redeemed? why can’t it be that (as mentioned above) the h/h’s faith leads them to persevere through a difficult time and then win through in the end? and why can’t the h/h endure persecution and come through? There have been any number of books written about early Christians in Rome, who were truly persecuted, and many were willing to die for it. There’s an opera, “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” which ends with an order of nuns during the French revolution who go to the guillotine (singing, since it is an opera) rather than renounce their faith – so it can be done, but it may be easier to have a redemption arc that starts with something awful. Whatever, genocide is not redeemable.

  31. Msb says:

    @ Allison R-B
    Excellent resource! Thanks for the link.

    @ Todd
    Because evangelical Christianity requires a redemption arc? What other religions do?

  32. Diane says:

    @ Kit… I’d guess they’re called ‘inspirational’ because they are supposed to inspire you to join the flock at your local place of worship after reading. Proselytization lite.

    Problem is… like most romances, they’re fiction!

  33. Karin says:

    @chacha1, @DiscoDollyDeb, the Layton book HAS to be The Duke’s Wager. The hero had a childhood nurse who was very dear to him, iirc.

  34. Merle says:

    I’ve read quite a few inspirational romances, which yes, almost always means evangelical Christian. They tend to be extremely gender binary and patriarchal, sadly but unsurprisingly, but do not always require either the hero or heroine to be redeemed from having done something dreadful. Just as often, the “spiritual” element is one of the main characters needing to “accept Jesus as their personal savior”, or learn to let God run their life, both of which, while odd/annoying if you aren’t evangelical, are classically evangelical. So there’s another flaw in the “thought” process at RWA that led to this whole shameful debacle.

  35. Candace says:

    Thank you for the pugnacious beauty of your writing, Sarah. Standing with you and all the others here who know that romance can and should carry the imprint of a less oppressive world.

  36. Stefanie Magura says:

    @Susan/DC and @Merle:

    While I haven’t read a lot of inspirational romances, I am glad to read your comments. You put into words something I was attempting to say.

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