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HarperCollins snubs Romance Writers of America's conference amid diversity controversy

Two HarperCollins imprints that focus on romance novels have decided not to sponsor or participate in the Romance Writers of America's national conference this year, the latest blow to an organization in turmoil over allegations that it has failed to address criticism for lack of diversity.

Reprimand against Chinese-American author brings to light long-running criticism against group

Having long faced complaints over its lack of diversity, the Romance Writers of America is now under fire for its treatment of Chinese-American author Courtney Milan over her calling out a novel containing stereotypes as a 'racist mess.' (Sean Conaboy/CBC)

Two HarperCollins imprints that focus on romance novels have decided not to sponsor or participate in the Romance Writers of America's national conference this year, the latest blow to an organization in turmoil over allegations that it has failed to address criticism for lack of diversity.

In recent years, the RWA has come under fire for its slowness in recognizing a broader range of voices and stories — for instance writers of colour and LGBT writers — most notably in the lack of nominations for and winners of its biggest honour, the RITA Awards.

The move by the Harlequin division and Avon Books comes just days after the RWA called off the next installment of the RITAs, with the Texas-based trade association noting that numerous authors and judges had dropped out.

In a letter dated Wednesday, HarperCollins Canada and Harlequin CEO Craig K. Swinwood said his division pulled out of the association's conference because "it is important that all authors feel included, respected and heard."

He said the division would reevaluate its participation next year.

In a tweet, Avon Books said it also would steer clear of the national conference, saying it stood in "support of inclusive publishing."

In a note posted this week on the RWA website, the association explained its decision by saying "the contest will not reflect the breadth and diversity of 2019 romance novels/novellas and thus will not be able to fulfil 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."

Romance author Racheline Maltese tweeted that the RWA had made a "good, responsible decision," but added "let's be clear — the reason the RITAs would not have reflected the breadth and diversity of the genre is not due to marginalized authors withdrawing, but due to actions by RWA that rendered such choices necessary."

Criticism over reprimand of Chinese-American writer

In late December, the RWA infuriated many in the romance community by reprimanding Chinese-American author Courtney Milan — a popular writer and former association leader who has been outspoken about diversity in publishing — for tweeting last summer that Kathryn Lynn Davis' 1999 book Somewhere Lies the Moon was a "racist mess" and outlining the novel's stereotyped portrayals of Asian women. 

Milan's reprimand, made public Dec. 23, came after Davis and a colleague, Suzan Tisdale, had filed ethics complaints

The association initially said that Milan had violated the group's code of ethics with her online comments, but later reversed its decision amid a vociferous reaction by members.

The change was not in time to quell the uproar (rallying around the viral hashtag  #IStandWithCourtney) from members outraged that a prominent writer raising concerns about racism could be considered an ethics violation. Bestselling author Nora Roberts is among those who have also voiced criticism of the association's leadership and lack of inclusion.

The resignation of association president Carolyn Jewell and eight board members came amid the outcry. In addition to the two HarperCollins imprints, other agencies and a wave of members have also vowed to boycott the group's annual summer conference.

"We have lost the trust of our membership and the romance community and we must find a way to rebuild that," the organization said in a statement last month.

"We will strive to uphold the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion in all that we do." 

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