RWA Rescinds One of the Inaugural Vivian Awards

The Romance Writers of America’s announcement of the inaugural Vivian Awards on July 31 was met by an immediate backlash against one of the winners.

The “Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements” category winner, At Love’s Command by Karen Witemeyer, is a western romance whose male protagonist takes part in the Wounded Knee massacre and then is redeemed by religion and the love of a good woman. The award drew social media users’ attention to the novel’s portrayal of a genocidal event, and initiated many complaints, especially on Twitter.

“As a Taino, I’m not at all surprised that a book has romanticized genocide. However, I am VERY (disappointed) to see it won an award,” tweeted author Mimi Milan. “Membership permanently cancelled.”

“A ‘romance’ in which the ‘hero’ commits genocide against Native Americans is honored with an award named after the pioneering Black woman founder of RWA is why the organization continues to bleed membership,” tweeted Kymberlyn Reed.

Reed’s tweet refers to the new RWA board’s effort to recover from the mass resignations of officers and loss of members after their predecessors’ attempt to censure Courtney Milan. One measure taken to signal their changing vision for the problem-ridden organization was to remake RWA’s annual awards, retiring the old RITA Awards and creating a new series named after RWA’s founder Vivian Stephens, an African-American woman.

On August 2, the day after the complaints broke out, RWA President LaQuette issued a “Statement on 2021 VIVIAN Awards” that defended the awards finalists as a whole, and contended none of the 13 judges who scored the Witemeyer book had reported any “perceived objectionable or harmful content” to staff as judges had been instructed to do.  

LaQuette also asserted that “Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements, as a subgenre of romance, 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” – implying that the type of character being objected to is baked into the category definition. However, the RWA’s Vivian Contest Rules only say that eligible works are those “in which spiritual beliefs are an inherent part of the love story, character growth or relationship development, and could not be removed without damaging the storyline. These novels may be set in the context of any religious or spiritual belief system of any culture.”

RWA’s statement was condemned by another 2021 Vivian winner, Sara Whitney, who announced she would decline her award in protest: “My statement about returning the Vivian award”.

Saturday night, I won the inaugural Vivian award for Best Mid-length Contemporary Romance from the Romance Writers of America. In my acceptance speech, I thanked RWA for creating an award recognizing Vivian Stephens and for encouraging members to work together toward meeting the challenges we faced to become a better organization for all writers and readers.

Tonight, I am telling RWA that I am declining my Vivian award and resigning from the organization.

I had decided to remain with RWA after its actions in 2019 because I didn’t want to cede the organization to the racists without a fight. I saw new board members stepping up to make much-needed changes toward inclusivity and equity, and I wanted to be a member who would help work toward those goals.

When I entered my book in the inaugural Vivian awards, I did it in the hope that the new judging rubric and DEI training would allow for historically excluded authors to be given the same consideration I’ve always been awarded as a cis straight white woman. I also hoped the new system would root out overtly racist or otherwise problematic books.

After discovering which book had won the inspirational category, I realized that my hopes were misplaced. RWA simply hasn’t done enough.

This afternoon’s statement from the RWA Board of Directors was the last straw. Its narrow definition of inspirational romance and discussion of characters seeking redemption from “crimes against humanity” prove the organization has not listened or learned from its current or former members.

I don’t only want to be an ally. I want to be a co-conspirator. And I cannot in good conscience accept a Vivian award or remain a member of RWA under these circumstances.

The following day, August 3, the RWA Board announced that after an emergency meeting they had rescinded the Vivian awarded to At Love’s Command:

…RWA is in full support of First Amendment rights; however, 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….

The media by then were already reporting the story. The Washington Post article “After award win, Christian romance novel draws criticism for ‘romanticized genocide’ of Native Americans” begins:

Christian romance novels are generally known for their more “wholesome” take on the genre.

But this year’s winner of the Romance Writers of America’s Vivian Award for best romance with religious or spiritual elements has still managed to stir controversy.

The book — “At Love’s Command” by Karen Witemeyer — opens with a depiction of the Wounded Knee Massacre that some readers and authors have criticized as romanticizing the killing of Native Americans….

BookRiot’s Sarah Nicolas, in “Romance Writers of America Awards Book with Genocidal ‘Hero’”, describes the opening of the book in some detail, and quotes a tweet complaining about this particular book at the time the finalists were announced.

And several articles, including The Mary Sue’s “Romance Writers of America Awards Book Downplaying Genocide”, say the situation reminds them of the 2014 controversy when RWA’s RITA Awards shortlisted a book in the “inspirational” category about a Jewish woman who falls in love with her Nazi Kommandant at a concentration camp and converts to Christianity.

Courtney Milan also has made extensive comments about the RWA leadership’s decision to rescind the award, and in her view, their failure to craft the new award’s rules to authorize some things they have done. Thread starts here. She asks such questions as:

The RWA, meanwhile, promises its Vivian Task Force, headed by RWA Director-at-Large Jackí Renee, will be reviewing the contest’s effectiveness and recommending ways “to improve the contest and identify and manage potentially harmful content at the earliest stages in the contest lifecycle.”

[Thanks to Cora Buhlert for the story.]

36 thoughts on “RWA Rescinds One of the Inaugural Vivian Awards

  1. My guess is they still don’t see what the problem is; just that they got more backlash than they were prepared to cope with.

  2. Lis Carey: My guess is they still don’t see what the problem is; just that they got more backlash than they were prepared to cope with.

    The fact that not one of the 13 judges in that category saw a problem with the book is an indicator that they have a huge problem with their judges – certainly in that category, and probably in others.

  3. I’m wondering if the extra step to report issues, as mentioned in the BookRiot article, is part of the problem. There’s quite a lot of people who, given a box to fill in while voting, will write in a concern/objection – but not so many who will email separately. The easier you make raising an issue the more likely you’ll hear of them.

  4. I suppose if they’ve already shipped the trophies, and unless the recipients have agreed in advance that the trophies remain property of RWA, they really can’t demand that any be returned. The laws about unsolicited merchandise should apply (caveat: I am not a lawyer).

  5. This is such a mess — and it could have been prevented. At this point, renaming the award after Vivian Stephens seems more like performance art rather than an actual step forward. Many people think the RWA tried to erase her from the organization, even though she helped found it and was extremely crucial to the romance field. (Among other things, founded the Candle Ecstasy line!) Because of the way this was handled by RWA, some people were shocked to find out that Vivian Stephens is still very much alive.

    There is an interview here that covers her life, her career, and some of the early issues with RWA:
    https://www.texasmonthly.com/arts-entertainment/vivian-stephens-helped-turn-romance-writing-into-billion-dollar-industry/

  6. I’m reminded of the comment a colleague of mine made (in a completely different professional context): “There are some people you just can’t help.”

  7. What’s even worse is that a judge from another romance contest complained about this very issue. The book was not tossed from that contest–but it did not place.

    When the kerfuffle first emerged, I went to the ‘Zon and read the prologue in question. Appalling doesn’t even begin to cover things. Granted, because I have an interest in Western history, especially Native American history, and because I do have completed Weird West short stories in my sales history and TBW novel projects, I may be more informed than most people. But for anyone who knows the history behind the events of Wounded Knee, that prologue is egregiously nasty.

    That said, I started suggesting that perhaps next year someone should submit a Cthulhu mythos redemptive romance to the award–with Necronomicon quotes. I confess that I don’t have the Cthulhuoid chops to write it myself…but I’d sure as hell partner with someone who can feed me appropriate Necronomicon quotes.

  8. Their claim a bad person being redeemed is a part of a spiritual narrative also means that even if they figure out that a lot of Christian fiction has managed to bring in personal redemption through faith without going to the extreme of supporting genocide, then spiritual books from any non Christian perspective are doomed — because redemption arcs, while not exclusive to Christianity, are only a defining feature of the romances of one faith, and not even all denominations of that faith.

  9. Ron Hogan has a Twitter thread reviewing it, starting here:
    https://twitter.com/RonHogan/status/1422784059189731328
    “In the two days since I wrote this, I’ve gone ahead and read Karen Witemeyer’s At Love’s Command, the Christian romance about a veteran of Wounded Knee who finds love with a woman doctor—the novel that won an #RWAVivian award but had it rescinded earlier today. So now I know.”

    He says there’s NO redemption arc in it.

  10. I wonder if one of the issues with RWA is that they opened up the membership to people who were just fans and wanted to join as a chance to meet their favorite authors. (And some of those fans went on to become writers.) While that was a great opportunity, it meant they had a huge paying membership. Maybe that created problems because those paying members because a source of dues. Or maybe it meant less emphasis on doing things to change the publishing industry and to help writers.

    Among some in Romancelandia (both fans and writers), there was an emphasis on “playing nicely with others.” When the earliest romance review sites started giving people negative reviews, some writers were extremely upset — that was not a part of the culture. It was considered an attack against other women because women weren’t supposed to do that sort of thing. (Ugh.)

    Also, it seems some romance authors, including RWA members, don’t look outside romance to see how other organizations work (or don’t work). So they don’t see the problems. And when they are exposed, some even think they are unique to RWA. One published author recently tweeted that she had never seen “a male trade organization tear itself apart in public” like this.

    My flabber was truly gasted. How can you be a professional in this industry, active on social media, without hearing about the many controversies involving other trade organizations? For example: SFWA and Sad Puppies; the various HWA controversies; the International Thriller Writers controversy; the huge Nobel Prize scandal; and others.

    I don’t care if you just read and write romance. You should remain aware of what’s going on out there — as it could affect you, whatever you write. (You should also read outside of your genre just to learn and grow…)

    Also, what’s a “male trade organization”?! That’s another can of worms.

  11. @Joyce Reynolds-Ward

    That said, I started suggesting that perhaps next year someone should submit a Cthulhu mythos redemptive romance to the award–with Necronomicon quotes. I confess that I don’t have the Cthulhuoid chops to write it myself…but I’d sure as hell partner with someone who can feed me appropriate Necronomicon quotes.

    I know just the person for this who could supply quotes from Lovecraft’s letters, too.

  12. Isn’t setting romances in the wild west, among pirates, what have you, while demanding characters have true moral compasses, awfully hard or even more trouble than it’s worth? Fun fact about the mainstream mores of the time: L Frank Baum wrote two (2) letters to the editor demanding the total exterminaton and annihilation of the remaining Native American population after Wounded Knee on the grounds that, I kid you not, Sitting Bull was the last good one, so at this point we should just close that book entirely. Has he been cancelled yet? (Baum.)

    Having said that, I skimmed the relevant bits (I don’t normally support KU but happened to have it again) and I find it disrepectful that this author does a shoddy research job portraying such an important historical issue without more nuance. I know, if we started demanding authors did proper research, where would it end.

    Having said that, it is simply untrue that that veteran does not repent. There are passages in which he realizes that not only was the killing of women and children tragic, in fact the entire episode was tragic and avoidable and he enumerates all the things he should have done to prevent the conflict from happening in the first place. Then later on he disbands his robin hood gang to do good through peaceful works. I didn’t get overt spiritual vibes about that – just him wanting to become a better person.

    Tldr, not my cup of tea, atrociously researched and written, actual redepemption arc.

  13. Trying to organize my thoughts. Some of what I’ve been thinking Anne Marble said, in her great post. Mostly I’ve been thinking about reading “generously,” about concentrating on a book’s good points rather than its flaws. I’ve found I’ve been doing that since I stopped writing reviews. If I am mostly enjoying something, I’m not going to let its flaws keep me from enjoying it. Man, when I was on award juries, I was strict. I’ve stopped being on award juries; I don’t want to read that way anymore.

    I can see the Witemeyer book winning an award if the jurors were reading it generously — and if I can say this without it sounding like a put-down, I imagine romance writers and readers tend to read generously. To read for pleasure, not critically. So their juries may select the book they most enjoy reading — and they can ignore the parts they don’t like, or that are problematic, if the parts they do like really engage them.

    I’m in an Edgar Rice Burroughs re-read these days, and there are definitely parts I have to gloss over before I get to another good part. Doesn’t make me want to not read them. I just read them generously.

    When you read critically, you recognize that something you may like isn’t necessarily great; you try to determine what your head and your heart are experiencing separately. That’s certainly still in me, and I appreciate what my head is telling me as I read, but I focus more on what my heart is telling me.

    I still don’t think this is exactly what I’m trying to convey, but it comes closer than it did a couple hours ago when I started thinking about it.

  14. @Brian Z
    The guy never repented of attacking the camp, nor of killing the men of whatever age. That’s why there’s no redemption: he stopped halfway.

  15. Re: ‘redemption.’

    “I don’t go around gratuitously shooting people and then bragging about it afterward in seedy space-rangers bars, like some cops I could mention! I go around shooting people gratuitously and then I agonize about it afterward for hours to my girlfriend!”

  16. This is an issue which should have been recognised and dealt with at a much earlier point. Because first giving out an award and then withdrawing it two days later is a pretty awful thing to do any author. True, Karen Witemeyer wrote a terrible and highly problematic book, but she’s still a human being and letting her first cheer about winning a Vivian, only to take it away again two days later is cruel.

    And it never needed to come to that, if someone at the RWA had done their homework. The problems with the book should have been apparent even during the nomination process, but apparently none of the judges cared or notified the board about this. And the issues became a lot more apparent, once the shortlist was published, especially since plenty of people did complain to RWA about the book.

    I don’t know exactly how the Vivians work, but in general there are two ways to deal with problematic nominees. Quietly disqualify them beforehand (and I have no idea if the RWA can do this) or let the problematic finalist stand (which is what the Hugos do) and trust your jury or voters to no award the problematic finalist.

    This usually works well with the Hugos – see how such gems as “Safe Space as a Rape Room”, “Stripper Boned by the T-Rex” or “Wisdom from the Internet” fared. It doesn’t always work as well with the Retro Hugos, see the grossly racist (and bad) Wonder Woman comic which won the 1944 Retro Hugo for Best Graphic Story, most likely because the people who voted for it liked Wonder Woman, but never bothered to read the actual comic.

    The Vivians, however, failed on both accounts. The book was first nominated by people who apparently liked it and was not disqualified (and again I have no idea if the rules allow the RWA to do that). And then the judges voted for this book over three other finalists, neither of which glorify genocide as far as I know and one of which was written by two women of colour. There clearly is a problem with the judges in this category.

    @Jeff Smith
    Again, I don’t know the exact mechanics, but I assume that Vivian judges read as critically as judges for the Clarke Award or other genre awards.

  17. @P J in my reading he does, I’m getting it on “page 137”

    Matt talks about seeing the faces of those who had died. Then Josie talks about seeing the faces of patients she couldn’t save. She enumerates the cases and talks about being tortured asking herself what she could have done differently.

    then it goes on: “He did the same. Not only with how he could have saved the old woman and those kids, but how he could have stopped the entire fiasco from happening in the first place. If he had forced the Lakota to surrender their weapons when they’d first tracked them down. If he had restrained the medicine man who’d incited the rebellion. If he had–”

    Then Josie interrupts his reverie saying something about we have to learn from what went wrong in the past to inform our decisions in the future. Then he quotes the Bible “but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before”.

    My personal negative opinion is the author should have better researched and portrayed events carefully and in detail, given their ongoing social weight. But the character regretted all of what happened.

  18. Cora — I don’t know, maybe they do. I’m just saying maybe they don’t. And I’m not criticizing them for it if they don’t, I’m saying maybe they just chose the book they responded most positively to.

  19. Joyce Reynolds-Ward said

    Perhaps next year someone should submit a Cthulhu mythos redemptive romance to the award–with Necronomicon quotes.

    Well, there’s the Master Lovecraft episode of Murdoch Mysteries, for starters.

  20. Brian Z wrote:

    Isn’t setting romances in the wild west, among pirates, what have you, while demanding characters have true moral compasses, awfully hard or even more trouble than it’s worth?

    Most newer historical romances published now don’t use the traditional settings of cowboys, captive Indian brides, and pirates anymore. Let alone plantations and the Civil War! There are exceptions for authors who made their mark with that sort of story, but sometimes, even those books are reprints. Harlequin Historical does allow more variety in settings, but the plots and characters have changed since the olden days of romance. With most publishers, Regency and Victorian dukes are more popular — that annoys readers who known that real dukes were few and far between and generally far from hunky. Inspirational romances are more likely to be set in the Old West. (Also, you do come across exceptions such as Beverly Jenkins writes well-researched historical romances about African-American heroes and heroines in the West. She is a pioneer! And it took her more than 20 years to win w RITA. 🙁 )

    Jeff Smith wrote:

    I’m in an Edgar Rice Burroughs re-read these days, and there are definitely parts I have to gloss over before I get to another good part. Doesn’t make me want to not read them. I just read them generously.

    He can be a difficult one to re-read. I re-read Tarzan of the Apes sort of recently, and I had forgotten some of the worst parts. Glossing over is a better idea than the painful eyebrow raising I did. Also, I have some pulp reprints of Yellow Peril stories that I have not managed to read yet. I have to remind myself that nobody reads those books for the bland European good guys. zzz

  21. I’m tempted to think the RWA needs to call in Mary Robinette Kowal to fix things, however, they can’t have her. There’s enough problems in our genre to keep her busy for the next few years 😉

  22. Re: trophies—I don’t know if it’s true of these, but the RITAs, which I think were the previous incarnation, were presented live at the RT conference. Of course, that was years ago and we live in a post-plague world, so I don’t know how they’re handling it now.

  23. @Brian Z thanks for making the problems with the book really clear.

    It really isn’t much of a redemption when so much of the blame is placed on others.

  24. “ If he had forced the Lakota to surrender their weapons when they’d first tracked them down. If he had restrained the medicine man who’d incited the rebellion”

    What!?
    Redemption does not consist of wishing you had oppressed some people more efficiently. And no points whatever for a book about religion/spirituality that discounts any that isn’t Christian.

    RWA looks pretty irredeemable itself.

  25. Is the massacre at Wounded Knee not so infamous that a lot of People know about it? I thought it was pretty well known. (Not details but enough that everyone reading the synopsis should know the problem)
    If your definition of

    “Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements, as a subgenre of romance, 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”

    is that by the president, is that, there shouldn’t be an award, because that seems like a recept for desaster.
    That doesn’t seem to lead to a lot of offensive romancebooks for me.

    On the other hand the reaction to the problematic winner by the RWA is also a black flag. The have a history of breaking their own rules when they think it suits them and the rescendence doesn’t seem (from my understanding of Milans tweets) to be allowed by their own rules. I agree with Cora that this is not an okay think to do and mit Courtney Milan that this may lead to a lot of trouble for the RWA.
    General they need someone to fix their award and their organisation.

  26. Anne Marble: I wonder if one of the issues with RWA is that they opened up the membership to people who were just fans and wanted to join as a chance to meet their favorite authors.

    I think that’s a major part of RWA’s problems, and one of the reasons the organization is probably not salvageable. From a recent (2020) profile of co-founder Vivian Stephens:

    [RWA co-founder Rita] Clay opened the RWA to all, “all” being not just romance writers but wannabe romance authors who were mainly readers, who in turn started forming RWA confabs in their own cities and towns; it became as much a social club as a professional organization. The members of color, who were generally more interested in making it as writers than in making friends, felt increasingly unwelcome and either left the organization or never joined in the first place.

    Troyce: I’m tempted to think the RWA needs to call in Mary Robinette Kowal to fix things, however, they can’t have her.

    Maybe we could share?

    During 2019’s incident, MRK invited writers to join SFWA if their works have speculative elements.

    Many romance writers, including Courtney Milan have expressed a desire for a purely professional organization to assist and advocate for writers, leaving RWA for those who prefer the social aspects.

    SFWA already has a lot of that infrastructure, and has taken the lead on #DisneyMustPay. Maybe there’s room for more under their umbrella.

  27. Troyce says I’m tempted to think the RWA needs to call in Mary Robinette Kowal to fix things, however, they can’t have her.

    No, no! She’s ours. They can’t have her! (Channelling my inner Gollum.)

  28. Re: trophies—I don’t know if it’s true of these, but the RITAs, which I think were the previous incarnation, were presented live at the RT conference. Of course, that was years ago and we live in a post-plague world, so I don’t know how they’re handling it now.

    The Ritas definitely had in person ceremonies. I know someone who won one several years ago and got pushback, both for the dress she was wearing (too ostentatious) and for winning in Best Contemporary Long with a YA book. So the problems with the RWA and the Ritas go back many years.

  29. Pingback: Pixel Scroll 8/6/21 Mrs. Scroll, We’re Pixeled | File 770

  30. I don’t know if it’s true of these, but the RITAs, which I think were the previous incarnation, were presented live at the RT conference.

    They were definitely presented in person in the past, but at the RWA conference, not RT, which stands for or stood for Romantic Times, a magazine created by Kathryn Falk. (I figure that was probably just a quick mistake and Red Wombat meant RWA, but there’s a big difference between RT and RWA and their conferences so I thought I should say something.) I don’t know if RT still exists, but Kathryn Falk did give out awards to books her reviewers liked and also ran a conference. I think it was Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels who sent up the RT conference in a mystery novel. Die for Love? That sounds right. There were some outrageous stories about those RT conferences.

    The RWA conference, by contrast, did include some good things, like workshops and charity events, like an autographing party for literacy with hundreds of authors. RWA wasn’t for fans, by the way. I know when I was a member that there was something in its membership requirements that people had to be pursuing a career in romance writing but it certainly was never enforced in any way. How could they enforce something like that? But that was the idea, that it was for writers.

    Back in the days I knew anything about RWA, they made a lot of money off the contest by taking entries from authors (and wannabe authors) themselves, not from nominations by publishers or other people, but from any writers who wanted to pay a fee and send in copies of their books or manuscripts. Then they had a giant fleet of “judges,” not special panels of experts, but basically any RWA members who signed up and were willing to read and score the books. The Hugos depend on a lot of people reading one book and remembering it and voting for it, but the Ritas depended on each book being read by a really small number of people. It was just the luck of the draw who read what book and whether they took it seriously or treated it like a big joke.

    I don’t know if they’re still giving awards for unpublished manuscripts but I think they cut them out with this last reorganization. I don’t necessarily agree with whether the membership of the organization should be reserved for the published though. At the time RWA was founded, I think it was actually a pretty great idea to educate wannabes and offer that helping hand. They offered appointments with agents and editors at the conference to pitch your idea as well as information about how to write a query letter or synopsis and what was acceptable in terms of contracts and advances and royalties. All very useful. I would say the contest and the conference were entrances into the profession for a lot of people.

    At this point, though, there have been so many messes within RWA and the profession is so different that it really is a question of whether the organization is viable and what could possibly be done to fix their awards. Start over? Do you really need something like RWA if you can self-publish and don’t need access to editors and agents or awards?

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