Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Update on the RWA Controversy: Genocide and Book Awards

I've been adding updates to the end of my previous post but it was getting very long and there's been another important development.

The RWA Board has now issued a statement saying that

We understand the concerns regarding the Romance with Religious and Spiritual Elements category. As a Board, we learned of the winner at the VIVIAN Ceremony, along with the rest of the membership. The board has held an emergency meeting and are in agreement that the proper remedy is to rescind the VIVIAN award for "At Love's Command."

When they write that they "learned of the winner" this presumably means that they were unaware that the book had won in its category. It probably can't be taken to mean that no-one on the Board  knew of the concerns that had been raised about the book because, as mentioned in my last post, concerns were raised publicly in April, after the book was announced as a finalist.

As Isobel Carr observes, there have been serious concerns in the past about staff acting without the oversight of the Board. Therefore it is concerning if, as Jenny Hartwell reported, it had been decided that "since board members had entered the contest, they could not be involved at all once it began. It was up to staff to run it & respond to formal complaints (& there weren’t any)." Was nobody available to respond to informal concerns? Given that many of the people raising concerns are, presumably, ex-members, they're not necessarily going to be able to send "formal complaints."

The Board continue:

In 2020, RWA took on the enormous task of creating a welcoming and open atmosphere from an organization that had institutionalized barriers and prejudices. In just one year, RWA has made huge strides. We have updated our bylaws to put inclusion at the forefront of membership. We are in the process of implementing an organization-wide DEIA program. We have created mentorships and outreach to marginalized authors through an Own Voices Program and have implemented a Pen to Paper Program to assist new writers in completing their first romance novel.
The retirement of the RITA Award and the introduction of the new VIVIANS added a new judging rubric aimed toward making decisions based on the quality of the work and limiting bias. The 2021 inaugural Vivian finalists were the most diverse class in the history of RWA awards. 17% were marginalized authors in comparison to 4% in the last RITA Awards. As this is the contest's first year, we already had planned a post-award analysis of the Vivian contest framework, looking at a systematic review of the judging, the rubric and the outreach.  

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. RWA is rescinding the Vivian awarded to the book finalist "At Love's Command." 


Lacking from the RWA Board's latest statement, is anything that addresses the fact that the RWA President's statement, issued only yesterday, normalised the depiction of protagonists who commit genocide. It is not clear if the President consulted the Board before issuing yesterday's definition of "Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements":

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.


As AztecLady notes, also unaddressed in the latest statement is the fact that (as discussed in my previous post) this definition is heavily rooted in Christian theology and therefore implicitly excludes romances with religious or spiritual elements which draw on other faith traditions.

--Updated to add

Re the claim that "The 2021 inaugural Vivian finalists were the most diverse class in the history of RWA awards. 17% were marginalized authors in comparison to 4% in the last RITA Awards", this may not be, as Claire Willett suggests, something RWA should be boasting about since

"marginalized" means, I'm assuming, anything and everything

lumping together queer authors, authors of color, authors with disabilities, basically anyone who isn't a cishet white lady

and STILL, 17% of the total submissions was the best they could do???

---Updated to add that, as noted below by Bronwyn Parry, the 17% refers to finalists, not total submission. Bronwyn also states that "As a judge, I was pleased that my packets were the most diverse that I've ever had. However, I emailed the president yesterday in dismay and requested that my book be withdrawn as a finalist as I no longer had faith that the contest was judged fairly and without bias."

Bronwyn's full statement about this can be found on her website.

I've also noticed that the Internet Archive's archived copies of RWA pages are visible but then hidden due to some issue with cookies (presumably on the RWA site). I've already excerpted most of the text in this post and the previous one, but I'll attach screenshots below of the pages as they were yesterday (3 August) when I referred to them and left the tabs open on my computer. I do not have a screenshot of the original page containing the list of finalists or of the original page announcing the winners in each category.

Here's LaQuette's "Statement on 2021 VIVIAN Awards"

Here's the "Important News Regarding the 2021 VIVIAN Awards" which was subsequently released by the Board.
Here's the list of "The Vivian Contest Categories".

--Edited on 10 August to add some news coverage:

4 August

from Alyssa Shotwell at The Mary Sue, "Romance Writers of America Continues to Celebrate Racist Conversion Stories: Warcrimes are apparently okay, if you find Jesus after."

6 August 

from Kelly Faircloth at Jezebel, "The RWA Rescinds Award For Novel That Treats Wounded Knee Massacre as a Backdrop for White Redemption." 

from Hillel Italie at ABC News and USA Today: "Romance fiction award withdrawn for novel about war veteran" and here.

7 August

from Harmeet Kaur at CNN, "A romance writing group gave an award to a book criticized for romanticizing the killing of Native people. Then it took it back."


  1. This whole mess is concerning. The 17% is the proportion of finalists, rather than submissions - that number has not, as far as I am aware, been published. As a judge, I was pleased that my packets were the most diverse that I've ever had. However, I emailed the president yesterday in dismay and requested that my book be withdrawn as a finalist as I no longer had faith that the contest was judged fairly and without bias. I was one of 4 CIS white finalists in the Historical Romance category. But there is no honour in finalling if good books by other authors were judged as lesser because of the colour of their characters' skins, or their abilities or sexualities or cultures.

  2. Thanks Bronwyn! I'll add a note to clarify that Claire's confused submissions and finalists. Though, as you say, the main point still stands that there are now doubts about fairness/impartiality in the judging.

  3. Definitely, Laura - there's more than enough evidence to suggest serious issues with judging. Apparently 13 judges assessed that book. I can't remember offhand how the first round was scored - I think it was three yes/no answer questions. So assuming 5 judges for each of the last 2 rounds, and the bottom score in each round being dropped, that leaves 10 judges who rated the book highly enough for it to win. And those judges likely each judged packets of up to 9 books. So that's potentially up to 180 books that had at least one judge who thought that book was fine. (Apologies if my maths is wrong.) I'd really like to know how many books with diverse characters/authors etc were entered, so that a full analysis can be undertaken to determine the total impact.

  4. Oops - assuming bottom score was dropped, it leaves 4 judges in each round who rated the book well. 4 judges x 2 rounds x up to 9 books each = up to 72 books that had one of those judges. (I think - someone please check my calculations! It's been a long day here...)