In May 2020 the RWA announced
the introduction of a brand-new award, The Vivian, named after
RWA founder Vivian Stephens, whose trailblazing efforts created a more
inclusive publishing landscape and helped bring romance novels to the
The Board has also made the decision to retire the annual RITA Awards.
We would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to Rita Clay Estrada,
RWA's first president, for honoring us the past 30 years as the award's
namesake and for her service to RWA and romance authors everywhere.
In support of The Vivian, and guided by the principles of diversity,
equity, inclusion, and access, the contest task force has been hard at
work developing a contest that aligns with the Board's vision for RWA
So, what evidence did the contest results provide of RWA's progress with regards to diversity, equity, inclusion and access? Well, when the winners of the Vivians were announced on 31 July 2021 (RWA), they included, as the winner in the "Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements" category, At Love's Command by Karen Witemeyer. This meant that
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. (Kymberlyn Reed)
Joanna Hart responded to the RWA announcement by asking
Mass graves of indigenous children discovered this year and yet you allowed this book to keep its nomination and win an award? How did RWA think this was ok? Why did RWA look the other way?
Jackie Barbosa stated that
This book should have been disqualified. It opens with the "hero" killing Lakota people. This is not a new start. It is not better. It may be worse, since at least that Nazi-hugging book a few years back didn't win.
As Courtney Milan pointed out, it's not as though the outcry should have come as a surprise to the organisers, since
people were *openly* talking about the genocide when this book finaled, and it still won, which tells me there are respected members of the community who were *chosen* as final round judges who specifically voted for this book."
Here's an example of part of that discussion, from April 2021, by London/L. Setterby
The screenshot includes a portion of the prologue, in which the protagonist himself labels the event he has participated in as a massacre.
However, the way in which the massacre, and the protagonist's participation in it, are described seem designed to elicit sympathy for him and portray him as a sensitive, caring person placed in a situation which horrifies him but in which his actions are justified. For example, it is stated that his "parents and baby sister [were] murdered by a Comanche war party," and the impression is given that the Lakota must bear some responsibility for what occurred:
A Lakota dropped his blanket. Sun glinted off metal. A shot cracked.
Matt voiced the shout, then signaled [...] his trumpeter to sound the advance.
Pamela Clare observed that
["Too many Americans don't know the story of Wounded Knee. It was an act of revenge for the Lakota victory against Custer. The soldiers stopped Si Tanka's band, demanded people's weapons, and when a Lakota man who couldn't hear refused to hand over his rifle, shots rang out. 1/
Young women w/ babies on their backs and children came out of hiding from the heap of bodies—and were shot or bayonetted. The soldiers took photos of themselves standing next to piles of corpses. THIS is the story of Wounded Knee, not the BS in this awful book." - Pamela Clare]
The framing of the participants' respective religious beliefs is also worth mentioning:
[a "Christian" book that romanticizes a white man who participated in a massacre of indigenous people and characterizes the Lakota as having "rebelled" instead of being murdered by Christians for practicing their own religious beliefs." (Cate Eland)]
It also seems relevant that author has the protagonist intervene (albeit unsuccessfully) during the action to "get [...] kids out. Before it was too late" and shows him saving
a retreating trooper. Jonah Brooks, a buffalo soldier with the 10th Cavalry, had served with Matt on numerous reconnaissance missions when stealth had been required. He had a talent for making himself invisible and could hit a dime dead-center from five hundred yards. Too valuable an asset to lose in this mess. Plus, he was a friend.
These two rescue missions, and particularly the latter seem designed to forestall any accusations of racism. There is, after all, "a pervasive tradition of white people using their Black friends, family
members, or associates as cover for racist statements or actions" (Tyler Parry, "A Brief History of the 'Black Friend'")
I have not read more than the beginning of the novel so I do not know if or how the events of the prologue are discussed later in the novel. However, it does appear that a massacre is being used primarily to provide a tragic back-story for a white protagonist given that the description of the novel begins
Haunted by the horrors of war, ex-cavalry officer Matthew Hanger leads a
band of mercenaries known as Hanger's Horsemen who have become legends
in 1890s Texas. They defend the innocent and obtain justice for the
---Edited to add that LaQuette, the President of the RWA, issued a statement on 2 August stating:
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. According to its subgenre
conventions, the book in question finaled and won for this category.It should be noted that although LaQuette states that Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements "requires a redemptive arc as a genre convention," that convention was not included in the basic definition provided by the RWA in The Vivian contest categories. There it says only that this category is for
For our inaugural VIVIAN contest, we saw a diverse finalist class. We attribute this to a detailed rubric
and required DEIA training implemented to make the contest equitable.
As part of that training, VIVIAN judges were instructed (upon reading a
contest entry) to report any perceived objectionable or harmful content
to staff. RWA staff did not receive any complaints from the thirteen
judges who read and scored the entry.
While encouraged by a diverse inaugural finalist class, we do recognize
that we must continually analyze and refine our process to ward against
perpetuating harm. We regret any harm experienced by the romance
community. Our Vivian Task Force is now charged with assessing the
overall effectiveness of the contest to include the contest process,
rubric, and entry and judging guidelines.
Works 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.
The two statements are incompatible:
["The category purports to be for all faiths, but this description applies
only to Christianity. Redemption is not a feature of all other faiths
(in Judaism, we talk about atonement)" - Racheline Maltese]
Furthermore, the casual way in which "crimes against humanity" is slipped in to the phrase "moral failings and or crimes against humanity" seems to suggest that crimes against humanity are a common feature of Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements. Certainly, it suggests that committing such crimes should not be seen as an impediment to being rewarded with a happy-ever-after-romantic-union-with-a-beloved.
your org starts claiming a lead character’s “crimes against humanity”
are ESSENTIAL TO THE SUBGENRE it is time for folks to abandon the racist
This statement. As though we secular readers don’t understand what a redemption arc is.' - Olivia Waite]
And on the topic of romance "genre conventions," the fact that readers and authors have tended to refer to romance protagonists as "heroes" and "heroines" is an indication that, to the contrary, there has, in fact, been an extremely strong "genre convention" that protagonists should be admirable. I acknowledge that there are exceptions, but crimes against humanity goes far, far beyond the worst flaws protagonists might be expected to have.
Finally, that thirteen judges found nothing problematic about the book, far from providing an answer to concerns about the novel, simply increases concern about the judging process.
---Edited again to add that there have been some more comments about the judging process.
['As a judge (though not of that book) my issue was there WAS no clear way
to report offensive material. Not on the rubric. The only option made
available to us was to email the coordinator directly & ask to have
the story reassigned if we were "uncomfortable judging the material."' - Jen Comfort/Kitt Masters]
['as a judge for the category, I find it rich that they pin the blame there alone. People vocally complained. The system still lacked nuance and allowed for stuff like this with the design.' - Courtney Austen]
Moreover, with regards to the "redemptive arc", Susannah Erwin has more screenshots and descriptions which cast doubt on what, precisely, is "redeemed" in this novel. Here's part of her summary:
the end, he marries Dr. Joe & agrees to work for her father, the
premier supplier of horses to the US Calvary — the exact same unit he
quit supposedly in remorse. Yet his redemption arc ends with him
actively supplying the Army with horses to ”protect settlers
from…Indians.”' - Susannah Erwin]
Sara Whitney, a winner in a different category (Best Mid-length Contemporary) of the contest has issued a statement explaining that she is "declining my Vivian award and resigning from the organization" because
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
---Another edit, with more information about the judging of the competition:
[Courtney Milan retweets a tweet from someone who says they were a judge in the contest, albeit not one of the 13 mentioned: "A
third round judge (in other categories) who tweeted about the issues
with this book (which she was not judging) states that she was removed
from third round judging."]
This suggests that the statement that "RWA
staff did not receive any complaints from the thirteen
judges who read and scored the entry" is selective and does not provide
an indication of how many complaints the RWA staff were aware of from
---Edited again to include a tweet from Alyssa Day, a former RWA president,
["I am declining the Emma Service award and withdrawing from RWA"]