Romance is publishing’s most lucrative genre. Its biggest community of writers is imploding.

Courtney Milan, the author at the center of a recent firestorm in the Romance Writers of America (RWA) organization. The romance writing community’s biggest professional organization is in shambles due to an institutional meltdown over racialized politics. It’s a giant imbroglio involving questions of how to bring progressive change to a 40-year-old organization whose membership is increasingly diversifying — and the ramifications are about much more than romance.

Formed in 1980 by the groundbreaking black romance editor Vivian Stephens, Romance Writers of America (RWA) is a trade organization that essentially functions as a union for its 9,000 members, most of whom are published or aspiring romance authors. Its major annual awards, the RITA Awards, are the most prestigious honor in the romance writing community, and past winners have included bestselling romance titans like Nora Roberts, Diana Gabaldon, and Julia Quinn.

But on January 6, the RWA announced it would cancel the 2020 RITA ceremony, previously scheduled for July as part of the annual national RWA conference, after many nominees withdrew their work from consideration and many judges said they would no longer participate. Then on January 8, major romance novel publishers like Harlequin and Avon began to withdraw from attending the RWA national conference, putting the event in jeopardy as well. And on January 9, both the new RWA president, Damon Suede (who’d only officially held the role for about two weeks), and the organization’s executive director, Carol Ritter, resigned . (Contacted by Vox for comment, the RWA referred to its official announcement of Suede’s departure and clarified that Ritter, who is staying on for several months to assist with the organization’s transition, will not have another staff role following her departure.)

These developments are the latest in an ongoing spiral into institutional chaos and backlash that began just before Christmas, when the board of RWA suspended one of the organization’s most popular members, Courtney Milan, for publicly critiquing perceived racism and racist writing by other members. The board’s decision initially caused outrage — and eventually betrayed a massive institutional failure, as emerging details revealed to shocked RWA members that Milan’s suspension was built on a lie and mired in mysterious backchanneling — all in what seems to have been a concerted attempt to oust Milan, who some members may have perceived as a progressive rabble-rouser, from a position of influence within RWA.

That in itself might not have been enough to seriously threaten the institution’s survival — but Milan is a beloved author of color, fighting against systemic racism in an organization with a long, fraught history of sidelining or overtly offending marginalized authors. Now, many of its members are giving up the fight, and RWA’s pledges to change may not be enough to save it. What happened

The original cover of January’s RWA newsletter featured an image of a white woman appearing to help a black woman up a mountain, which readers decried as tone-deaf. Following backlash, RWA changed the cover. In a December board meeting, the RWA board voted […]

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