As Criticism Snowballs, RWA Keeps Trying to Justify Treatment of Courtney Milan

[This is the third update in a series which includes Courtney Milan Suspended by RWA, Banned from Leadership and Courtney Milan Controversy Decimates RWA Leadership.]

Romance Writers of America’s remaining leadership and staff, under heavy criticism from members, today issued another statement in an attempt to retrieve the situation.

Meanwhile, incoming RWA President Damon Suede is the subject of a recall petition.

And top romance author Nora Roberts, who dropped out of RWA several years ago, reminded people why she left, but also apologized for (as a result) not being aware of the problems now surfacing:

Nora Roberts posted “MY POV on RWA” on December 29.

… Writer, the middle word in Romance Writers of America, is a word without gender, a word without color or race, a word without sexual orientation, without creed. We’re writers, and as such must expect to be treated, must demand to be treated, fairly and equitably by our professional organization.

…Again, I regret all the years I didn’t hear, didn’t see, didn’t listen, remained unaware of all the sad and unfair things that are now coming to light.

I hope that light continues to shine, and by doing so may change RWA for the good, may remind those in leadership positions what the purpose was all those years ago. To support and advocate for romance writers. Not specific kinds of romance writers.

Let me add, as a personal note, that over the course of my life, the course of my career, the couple hundred books I’ve written, I may have–most likely have–said or done or written something that was offensive, racist, homophobic. Without intent–but intent doesn’t mean a damn to those hurt. So I’ll apologize without qualification.

I hope I’ve learned along the way. I intend to continue to learn and do better.

RESOURCES. Links to new developments are continually added at these two sites:

DISCUSSION. Lynn Spencer’s post “Has RWA Lost Its Way?” at All About Romance is followed by a wide-open comments section with opinions from all sides of the issue. Spencer says in conclusion:

It’s obvious at this point that RWA screwed up. Frankly, as more information becomes available, it appears obvious that they made more than just one mistake. Their internal procedures are clearly flawed and while Courtney Milan is an author with a high enough profile to draw attention to the problems, one can only imagine how many people who are not so well-known may have been treated equally poorly by the organization. Story after story after story of alleged irregularities and bias at RWA(some going back to the early days of the organization) have been pouring out ever since this particular story broke and I can only imagine that will continue.

So, where does RWA go from here? Over the short term, I honestly think that the organization has broken trust with too many people. This isn’t a situation where they can apologize and hope we will all forget about it. Perhaps if they:

(1) clean house and start over by electing a brand new board who would then hire a new executive director;

(2) audit what has been happening not just with the complaints against Courtney Milan but with the ethics committee in general and make those findings publicly available, including the names of everyone on the shadow ethics committee, and

(3) show by their actions that RWA is willing to listen and to really do the work of becoming more diverse, inclusive and anti-racist, then over the long term they may survive.

However, RWA has damaged its reputation with a significant portion of its membership and with the romance community at large, and one can understand those of us who will be slow to risk trusting it again. There are lots of questions to be answered here, and from what is already known, it is apparent that once those questions are answered, the organization will have to change if it is to survive.

OTHER COMMENTARIES.

Ilona Andrews charts what she thinks is the underlying cause of the conflict. Thread starts here.

Ivy Quinn assembled a thread of screencaps of comments left on RWA’s Facebook page. The thread starts here.

Diana Hicks described her experience with racism in the RWA. Thread starts here.

Former RWA President HelenKay Dimon a few days ago tweeted a series of steps that, if taken, might let the organization move forward. Thread starts here.

RWA PRESIDENT DAMON SUEDE. He got his message out to RWA Chapter Leaders, but what he’s telling them has been challenged by Courtney Milan and others. An effort to remove him from office is under way.

Alyssa Day tweeted screencaps of RWA President Damon Suede’s message to RWA Chapter Leaders.

Courtney Milan contradicted some of what Suede wrote in a thread that starts here.

CIMRWA (Cultural, Interracial, and Multicultural Chapter of Romance Writers of America) is ready to submit its petition to recall incoming RWA President Damon Suede.

RWA has been caught swapping out its December 26 and December 30 statements at the top of the organization’s webpage.

The distilled essence of Tessa Dare’s take is –

REACTION FROM THE SFF COMMUNITY.

N.K. Jemisin contrasted how SFWA and RWA handled the challenge of racism. Thead starts here.

Mad Genius Club’s Sarah A. Hoyt and Dave Freer posted word salads disapproving the motives and purposes they imputed to Courtney Milan.

Meanwhile, Chuck Tingle is still pissed off at RWA President Suede for saying, in effect, that he is a pen name of two collaborators.

NEW RWA STATEMENT. On December 30 RWA leadership and staff emailed a Google Docs link to this statement (and also posted it on the RWA website).

December 30, 2019

The purpose of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) is to support, advocate, and provide resources for approximately 9,000 romance writers, advocate for the genre, and provide a safe and respectful environment for writers to discuss and express their ideas. 

We do not take positions for or against specific literary criticism or authors’ points of view. We do, however, have explicit policy for our members’ professional conduct. RWA’s Member Code of Ethics is designed to induce RWA members, especially RWA’s leaders, to exhibit integrity, honesty, and other good professional practices, thereby enhancing the romance writing profession.

RWA is fully committed to the confidentiality and integrity of the ethics process at all levels. Our Code of Ethics and procedures cannot be selectively or inconsistently applied on a situational basis. All ethics complaints received must be properly reviewed and addressed according to our policy manual, and the organization must apply a single standard consistently and equitably.  

Beginning in August of 2019 and subsequently, the RWA Ethics Committee received complaints filed by two members, Suzan Tisdale and Kathryn Lynn Davis, against former Board member Courtney Milan. These complaints allege several violations of the RWA Member Code of Ethics by Ms. Milan while she was serving in an RWA leadership position and that this led to the loss of a three-book contract by Ms. Davis. 

At the time of the complaint, Ms. Milan served as Chair of the Ethics Committee and was now subject to review by the Committee for allegations by the aforementioned RWA members. Ms. Milan was asked to voluntarily step down as the Ethics Committee Chair to eliminate any conflict of interest, which she did, and the Board appointed additional Committee members and a new Chair. Those members made up a diverse Ethics panel – the standard RWA protocol in RWA Ethics cases – that had not served under Ms. Milan because of the need for confidentiality and the potential for conflicts of interest.

In accordance with RWA policy, the Ethics panel met and delivered its report to the Board, dismissing all charges against Ms. Milan except one: a violation of the association’s express purpose of creating a “safe and respectful environment” for its community of writers. 

While the Ethics panel unanimously recommended a series of sanctions against Ms. Milan, the Board chose to reduce these to a one-year suspension and a permanent ban on leadership positions in RWA. After this private information was made public on December 23, it led to an intense backlash online – including the spreading of false information, threats, and personal information. The Board then held an emergency executive session, rescinding the remaining sanctions. That is where things stand and where they will remain unless a future Board decides to revisit the issues. Several Board members have subsequently resigned for a variety of reasons.

RWA is not alone in trying to balance free speech with civil discourse and the damage – personal and financial – its absence can do. It is, however, up to us to find a pathway forward to meet the competing needs of free expression without subjecting our members to harassment, intimidation, and financial loss. 

To provide a path forward, we are taking or have taken the following actions:

  1. In an abundance of caution over confusion regarding RWA’s policies and procedures, the complaint against Courtney Milan has been closed and no action is being taken at this time. Ms. Milan remains a member of RWA.
  2. RWA affirms our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. We are in the process of recruiting and nominating strong, diverse candidates for the vacant Board seats to foster a Board culture rooted in transparency and accountability; all candidates are subject to Board approval.
  3. RWA will authorize a full, complete, and transparent review of the Member Code of Ethics and enforcement procedures. 
  4. RWA is hiring an independent, outside law firm to conduct an audit of the process and these events to provide a clear report of the facts.

Our members have strong opinions, which we applaud. But when expressed inappropriately, and in some cases far worse, by our organizational leadership – past and present – these can result in personal and financial harm to members. Other members have 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 Board and staff remain committed to serving our members and fulfilling our mission. We can and will do better. RWA is not alone in these challenges, but as writers, we must lead the way.  

Sincerely, RWA Board and Staff

Courtney Milan tweeted two threads reacting to the statement.

Esi Sogah deconstructed the statement in a thread that starts here.   

Former RWA President HelenKay Dimon commented:

N.K. Jemisin also put up a thread about the latest RWA statement:

MAINSTREAM PRESS. The media are covering the RWA story. Some outlets are running the AP article, others have had reporters contacting the principals, or a local RWA member.

Associated Press – December 27.

“Controversy hits Romance Writers of America this holiday”  

There’s not a lot of love at the Romance Writers of America this holiday season. Lots of passion, but not too much love.

The organization, which bills itself as the voice of romance writers and cites 9,000 members, has been upended over the way it has treated one of its authors, Courtney Milan, a Chinese American writer and a former chair of its Ethics Committee.

The Texas-based trade association initially accepted the vote of its Ethics Committee that Milan had violated the group’s code with negative online comments about other writers and their work. Then, just before Christmas, it reversed course, rescinding its vote ”pending a legal opinion.” Now its entire leadership has changed….

Houston Chronicle – December 29.

“Houston-based Romance Writers of America sees board exodus after racism allegations

Nine board members of the Houston-based Romance Writers of America resigned this week in a startling exodus that took place during a holiday lull. The organization — which represents a billion-dollar industry and celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2020 — will enter the new year with decimated leadership and lingering questions about its focus and future after several romance authors questioned the association’s commitment to a diverse community.

“I knew this kind of thing could happen, but I certainly didn’t see it happening this way, over Christmas week,” said author Piper Huguley. “I knew there was a big push coming, a resistance against this. I believe we’re in a fight for the soul of this organization, which to a number of people who observe it is not unlike what’s going on in the country politically. Right now the big question is, ‘What’s going to happen?’”…

New York Times – December 30.

“Racism Dispute Roils Romance Writers Group”

…Ms. Milan, who is Chinese-American, took issue with the depiction of 19th-century Chinese women in the book, including a description of “slanted almond eyes” and a quote from a character describing them as “demure and quiet, as our mothers have trained us to be.” “The notion of the submissive Chinese woman is a racist stereotype which fuels higher rates of violence against women,” Ms. Milan wrote on Twitter.

Ms. Davis, who is an honorary R.W.A. member, disagreed with Ms. Milan’s assessment, saying her book was historically accurate and based on years of research. She filed an ethics complaint with the R.W.A., saying that Ms. Milan’s comments were “cyberbullying” and cost her a publishing contract.

…Ms. Davis, who filed one of the complaints, said she was “stunned” by the R.W.A.’s judgment against Ms. Milan and said the penalty “far exceeded the substance of the complaint.” “We asked for an apology. That was what we wanted,” she said.

HelenKay Dimon, who was president of R.W.A. until her term ended in late August, said that she thought there had been a series of breakdowns in the process and is calling for a full audit.

“People care enough to get that upset,” she said. Now, the organization needs to “step up and take responsibility and have a plan.”

“I think the organization and the membership and the people who drove this decision are not the same things,” Ms. Milan said. “The response of the membership should be heartening to anyone who cares about diversity in R.W.A. and romance.”

73 thoughts on “As Criticism Snowballs, RWA Keeps Trying to Justify Treatment of Courtney Milan

  1. It was almost calm for a day or two, only some chapters making statements here and there. But now they poured 20 tank trucks of gasoline over the dump yard and put everything and everyone on fire. It is just pure lunacy now.

    There’s some kind of board conference call scheduled for Jan 12, but the program has not been sent out even though it has to be posted ten days before.

    https://twitter.com/AveryFlynn/status/1213456972294569989?s=19

  2. Perhaps mentioned somewhere previously, but FYI Claire Ryan writes SFF (the one who has the daily-updated post about the RWA implosion). Her books don’t sound like they have romance in them, though probably they have a little (just mentioning because some folks aren’t interested in heavy-romance books). And her first novel, The Melding, is free at iBooks, Kobo, and B&N (not Amazon Kindle, though). Not sure about non-U.S., sorry.

    Claire Ryan’s books are fantasy and while they have romantic elements, they are not particularly romancy. We featured the first one, The Melding, at the Speculative Fiction Showcase back in the day and also hosted a guest post by Claire Ryan about sword-fighting.

  3. @Cora Buhlert: Thanks; interesting guest post and I’m going to read the sample. 🙂

  4. @Kendall, about Kathryn Lynn Davis’s new ‘Well, actually, it wasn’t three contracts but one, and I didn’t actually lose it, and the business partner never said the delay was for that reason’ revelation:

    To clarify, I don’t believe or disbelieve; she doesn’t seem like a reliable narrator, so I just have no idea, BUT it seems very possible, given all the other stuff going on.

    Today’s Guardian piece by reporter Lois Beckett also paraphrases Davis as having claimed that ‘she never wanted Milan to be punished by the RWA’. Sorry, but this is bracingly at odds with the written record Ms. Davis herself created, in her formal ethics complaint. Quoting verbatim the conclusion of her 13-page complaint:

    She [Ms. Milan] cannot be allowed to hold a position of authority, or to use her voice to urge others to follow her lead.

    There. Right there in cold, hard words. She couldn’t possibly have been clearer about asking the RWA Ethics Committee and Board to punish Ms. Milan, and indeed asking them to ban her from RWA leadership (along with an accompanying explicit desire to silence her as a critic and leader). For Davis to now claim she ‘never wanted Milan to be punished by the RWA’ seems just astonishingly two-faced, IMO, not merely lacking in reliability. Either that or her powers of recall about her own words is woefully deficient.

  5. @Hampus
    If their management structure is that fragile, they need to be completely reorganized.

    (I’ve been through changes in management at work. If the organization is good, it’s no big deal. The worst place I worked was one where people straight out lied about what was going on.)

  6. The ‘nice threats’ are, notably, from Mellanie Szereto, one of the four appointees placed onto the Board a few days ago to fill some of the 9 or 10 vacancies from the mass resignations. She was at the time RWA’s Chapter Advisor.

    And Ms. Szereto’s ‘understanding’ that RWA would cease to function if the Executive Director office along with that of the President were to became empty is pretty obviously incorrect, at best. She posits that there would then be staff resignations, preventing the group from carrying out basic business functions: Sorry, even if the prediction of mass staff defections is accurate, I greatly doubt that some number of existing mid-level managers and bookkeepers are totally irreplaceable, such that a long-established US $2.6M-revenue non-profit corporation would tank before their replacements learned the ropes.

    And that’s a remarkably convenient rationale for inaction.

  7. @Rick Moen: I wonder about that. It’s possible that clerical staff and managers are not as hard to replace as software developers (cf “The Mythical Man-Month”), but the little I know suggests that each office has its own ways of organizing and doing things; there’s only so many blocks that can be pulled out before the tower falls. OTOH, the question to Szereto is why the functional people would leave — are they also bought into the bosses’ bigotry? (There have been suggestions that “staff” have been making line decisions — but it’s not clear whether that spreads beyond ethics jugglement.) If so, the RWA may be better off without them, even if it reels and staggers for a while. Worse is the possibility that Szereto et al. have been actively lying to staff: “The N-words are gonna eat your \s\i\e\b\a\b jobs!” — but again, would losing people who believe that kind of lie be much of a loss?
    The business stories I read suggest that finding replacements might be harder than usual — but the question is still how much damage such a staff shortage would cost. Szereto seems to believe she’s a Scanner (Smith, not Cronenberg), able to shut down the world if she’s dishonored; it will be interesting to see what happens, and whether she can find another job if the bridge burns behind her.

  8. @Rick Moen: I was talking about her being manipulated (more likely: encouraged), supposedly, by someone at RWA into filing a complaint. As I said, she still has to own what she did, and yes, that definitely includes 100% of what her complaint said. I didn’t intend to sound sympathetic to her. But can I believe someone at RWA (the ED? Suede?) encouraged her? Oh yeah. Some RWA leadership and/or staff appear to be up to their eyeballs in bad acting.

    @Various: Speaking of bad acting, the whole “org would not survive without us” stuff from Szereto is FUD B.S., and only very thinly veiled.

  9. @P J Evans : Yeah. “You can’t get rid of me – I’ve done such a poor job at succession planning that I’m irreplaceable” isn’t a very good argument.

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  11. @Andrew
    One of my friends said “If you can’t be replaced, you can’t be promoted.”
    (I was very happy that I never got any halfway-panicked calls from work after I retired. I’d have done my best to help, but not my job now, even though there were some things that no one else could do.)

  12. It’s all FUD anyway. RWA’s bylaws, etc. provide for the prez, ED, et al. being replaced if they step down, are removed, die, etc. Orgs don’t rely on outgoing person for leadership or staffing disruption; there are Procedures with a cap P. Why, see how quickly Suede appointed (my typo was anointed just now, LOL) replacement board members. 😛

  13. @P J Evans: Great quote. I’ve also heard the term “Job security through obscurity”

  14. I wasn’t interested in being promoted. But I had to be in management in order to keep the job as a direct contractor (meaning I signed a year-to-year contract with the company, rather than going through an outside agency, which came with a one-year limit).

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