In literary organisations, diversity disputes keep coming

A rescinded award. Board members resigning in anger. And many public apologies.

>>Elizabeth A HarrisThe New York Times
Published : 7 Sept 2021, 06:25 AM
Updated : 7 Sept 2021, 06:25 AM

This has been some of the fallout over accusations of racism or exclusion at several literary organisations over the past year and a half, including the Romance Writers of America, the National Book Critics Circle and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. In each instance, these organisations have bumped up against a moment in the country when greater accountability is being demanded, perhaps especially in an industry that is generally both fairly liberal and largely white.

“These literary organizations are a microcosm of our larger society with all kinds of viewpoints and life experiences contesting for influence,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of the free-speech organization PEN America. “Just as is happening right now in our politics and out on the street in protest, sometimes the dustups are getting pretty nasty.”

Among the most recent conflicts was one at the Romance Writers of America, which last month rescinded an award given to the 2020 novel “At Love’s Command” over complaints that it “romanticised genocide” against Native Americans. In the opening scene of the novel, the book’s hero participates in the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, in which the US Army killed hundreds of unarmed members of the Lakota Sioux tribe in South Dakota, including women and children.

The book’s publisher, Bethany House, said it was “saddened by the offense caused” by the novel, but defended the contents of the book and its author, Karen Witemeyer. In a statement, it said the book’s hero spends the rest of his life trying to atone for his part in the massacre.

“The death toll, including noncombatant Lakota women and children, sickens him, and he identifies it as the massacre it is and begs God for forgiveness for what he’s done,” Bethany House said. “We regret that some public reports have selectively portrayed the narrative as endorsing the violent actions in the character’s past. That is not the case.”

Witemeyer said in an email that she did not agree with the group’s decision to rescind the award but said, “I understand why they felt compelled to take such action, and I harbour no resentment toward them.”

The award, which the book received in the Romance with Religious and Spiritual Elements category, is a part of a new series of Romance Writers of America prizes. Called the Vivian Awards — named for Vivian Stephens, a Black woman who was one of the group’s founders — they replaced the annual Rita awards for excellence in the genre. The Ritas were cancelled last year in the aftermath of a racism dispute that upended the organisation, resulting in the departure of its leadership and board.

LaQuette, an author who goes by one name and who is president of the RWA’s board of directors, said the Houston-based trade organization had made a number of changes since the dispute, including revamping its code of ethics and bringing in diversity experts to speak with its new leadership and members.

“It is our greatest hope that we can create a safe space for all writers,” LaQuette said. “It took us 40 years to get here. It’s going to take a little bit for us to turn the ship around.”

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and American Booksellers Association, two other industry groups, also faced criticism this summer.

In June, the society’s chief equity and inclusion officer issued a statement condemning antisemitism in response to a rise in hate crimes, but did not also make a statement condemning Islamophobia. She resigned in the ensuing backlash and apologized. She later told Newsweek that she was harassed online and received death threats. The society declined to comment for this article.

The American Booksellers Association apologised this month for two recent incidents. In the first, a staff member filling in for someone on vacation was assembling a bestseller list and included the cover image from the book “Blackout,” by right-wing media personality Candace Owens, in place of a young-adult novel with the same title that was jointly written by six popular authors. In the second instance, the association included “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters” in a box of books it mailed to members. Publishers pay the association to include certain books, and it has been its policy not to review them so that they do not decide the titles members have access to.

In a letter to members, Allison Hill, the association’s CEO, said the organisation would review its box mailing policy, create a new diversity, equity, inclusion and access manager position, and donate to the Transgender Legal Defence & Education Fund, among other measures.

In June 2020, the president and board chair of the Poetry Foundation resigned after an open letter signed by more than 1,800 people criticized the foundation’s statement about the Black Lives Matter movement as too weak. Around the same time, several board members at the National Book Critics Circle resigned after a board member accused another of making racist comments as the board discussed what to say in a statement supporting anti-racism.

Both organisations said they have since made a number of changes aimed at making the groups more inclusive and elevating more diverse authors, in addition to appointing new leadership.

Criticism of these groups has generally taken place on social media, especially Twitter, where complaints that might have been more easily ignored or dealt with quietly in the past can quickly pick up steam.

“My guess would be that institutions have been challenged over practices in the past that have not been inclusive or reflective,” said Michelle Boone, who in April was named president of the Poetry Foundation. “The difference is, more recently the calling-out has been done in a much more public way.”

PEN America's Nossel said that although many public battles these days are framed in terms of accountability, proportionality can often get lost.

“One of the things that’s troubling about some of these instances is there is very little capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation, even among people who seem to be of goodwill,” she said, adding, “When the accountability is driven by a firestorm on social media, the notion of proportionality goes out the window because nothing short of a complete repudiation is going to satisfy an audience from afar that’s really not immersed in the facts and can’t really assess motives. It can mean a default to the most draconian outcome.”

Last year's controversies last year took place as protesters demanded racial justice across the United States, but also amid turmoil specifically within the publishing world. A hashtag, #PublishingPaidMe, circulated online, encouraging Black and non-Black authors to publicly compare their pay to highlight compensation disparities. According to a survey released that year by children’s book publisher Lee & Low Books, the publishing workforce was more than three-quarters white.

It is against this backdrop, some believe, that conflicts at so many literary organisations should be understood.

“It’s the publishing industry,” said Farrah Rochon, an author and former board member at the Romance Writers of America. “That bleeds down into what you’re seeing in these various organizations. That’s where it starts.”

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