A dispute over a racism accusation and how it was handled have upended the romance writers’ community, with best-selling novelists speaking out against the Romance Writers of America and most of the powerful, 9,000-member trade organization’s board resigning in the last days of the year.
The dispute arose over the R.W.A.’s treatment of Courtney Milan, a former board member and chair of its ethics committee who last summer criticized Kathryn Lynn Davis’s novel “Somewhere Lies the Moon” on Twitter as a “racist mess.”
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.
“I would not have filed a complaint if she had been more professional,” Ms. Davis said of Ms. Milan.
In her response to the complaint, Ms. Milan said that the R.W.A.’s ethics code does not cover discussions on social media accounts it doesn’t operate, and said of her criticism: “I am emotional about these issues. Negative stereotypes of Chinese women have impacted my life, the life of my mother, my sisters, and my friends.”
As a result of that complaint and one from another writer, Suzan Tisdale, who employs Ms. Davis at a publishing imprint and said she had lost potential authors as a result of the controversy, the R.W.A. told Ms. Milan earlier last week that her membership was suspended and she was banned for life from holding leadership positions within the organization.
Ms. Milan called the judgment “a form of betrayal” and shared the documents associated with the complaint with her friend and fellow romance writer Alyssa Cole, who posted them to Twitter.
“If it was now R.W.A.’s policy that talking about a book and specifically saying negative things about a book as a marginalized author was going to get you banned from the organization,” Ms. Milan said, “I felt that other marginalized people in the organization needed to know that.”
Once the documents were on social media, other writers, including best-selling romance novelists like Nora Roberts and Cynthia Eden, voiced their support for Ms. Milan. The R.W.A. quickly reversed course on its judgment, but eight board members resigned as well as the former president Carolyn Jewel, and a petition calling for the resignation of Damon Suede, the R.W.A.’s new president, began circulating online.
Some of the backlash was from writers and members who felt that the dispute wasn’t handled with enough transparency. The R.W.A. formed a separate group to address the complaints, for example, and didn’t inform the ethics committee, which Ms. Milan previously led, about them.
The R.W.A. did not respond to a request for comment, but in the message to its members, it called the incidents of the past weeks a “turning point.” “We have lost the trust of our membership and the romance community and we must find a way to rebuild that,” it said, while reiterating its commitment to “the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion in all that we do.”
The genre for years has grappled with calls for greater diversity. Romance writers and the characters they create are overwhelmingly white, even as romance publishers have said they want to release more books by writers of color.
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.”
Correction: Dec. 30, 2019
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the R.W.A. rejected a petition calling for its president’s resignation. The petition hasn’t been submitted.