I’ve been thinking about all that’s been happening with RWA, the recent actions of the Board and the stories that are coming out now about the ways marginalized people have been treated by this organization, and I think it’s really useful in these situations to gather pieces of the puzzle in order to parse patterns. So I want to share one of my own pieces of the puzzle, to aid others in seeing the pattern that I’m watching emerge. It feels like it’s time.
Inspired by Suz Brockmann’s speech at the RITA ceremony and by the inclusion work that I’d been hearing about for some time, I applied for membership to RWA in July 2018. I submitted earlier versions of Nine of Swords, Reversed and Their Troublesome Crush for the membership requirement of “proof of serious pursuit” of a career in romance writing.
A couple weeks later—on my 44th birthday, in fact—I received a response to my submission for the “proof of serious pursuit” of a career in romance writing requirement, stating that the files I uploaded were not romance fiction. It went on to list the criteria, which I’m including here:
- A Central Love Story
- An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending
- Minimum word count of 20,000 words (can be from a combination of shorter works)
- Each work must be a complete work of romance fiction.
The email stated my member type would remain Associate-Writer, entitling me to all member benefits except voting or holding office at the national or chapter level.
I sent an email in response: “I submitted two shorter works (Their Troublesome Crush and Nine of Swords, Reversed). Is it your evaluation that neither of these works are romance fiction, or that one is, and the other not? I may have other works that qualify, so it would be helpful to know this, if it is possible. If it’s possible to know which criteria these works failed to meet, that would also be helpful.”
The response I got four minutes later was “The comments I sent you regard both files, Nine of Swords Reversed & Their Troublesome Crush. Are you a romance reader?”
My read of the last sentence of this email was that it was intended to express scorn and disrespect, to question my capacity to judge what romance is, and to shut down further queries.
Unable to find an appeals process described on the website, I asked someone I knew who was a Board member what the procedure was for appealing. Upon her request, I forwarded her the email chain and the works I uploaded with my application.
It turns out that there was no process in place for appealing such decisions. They were left fully to the discretion of the staff person whose role was to evaluate applications. The Board member that I contacted read the emails and my application materials and it was her opinion that they qualified as romances, so she reached out to the Board to discuss the issue.
I heard back from her the next day, saying that the Board had been discussing this issue and hadn’t yet come up with a plan. The following day I heard something more substantial. The Board had sent Nine of Swords, Reversed and Their Troublesome Crush to a panel of three authors, and that panel had determined that they were not romance fiction. The first panel unanimously agreed that neither centered on a love story, neither had an emotionally satisfying optimistic ending, and that neither was a complete work. I want to note that this news (and all other communication about this) was delivered with care and kindness.
I was told that the Board realized that they needed to give guidance on how to determine whether something was romance and to create an appeals procedure. They determined that they would be sending my works to another panel to evaluate, and were discussing whether it might be important to have a certain kind of representation or expertise on the appeals panels in general and on my panel in particular.
In this particular case, both of the works I submitted centered ownvoices fat, autistic, disabled, Jewish, trans, queer characters. They both depicted kinky relationships and one was a polyamorous romance. I felt that it was likely that bias was at work in these prior determinations, particularly given the pattern of bias that had already come out with the RITAs, and was glad to hear that the makeup of the panel was being considered.
It was clear to me from the beginning that this issue was larger than my own particular case. It raised a bigger issue around inclusion, as these kinds of judgments were likely shutting out other marginalized writers, potentially sending the message that only certain kinds of romance “count” as romances, and by extension, that only certain kinds of people get to have romances, are worthy of love, get to have happy endings.
The Board took the next few weeks to hash out the details of the appeals process and come up with new procedures for addressing this, put that to a vote, and confirmed the new policy a little less than a month after the original rejection I got. About two weeks after they sent my works to a second panel, I was confirmed as a general member of RWA, just in time to cast my votes in the Board elections before they closed.
The last panel that evaluated my work decided that it was indeed romance. RWA now has an appeals process in place for folks who get rejected initially by staff. I’m not sure how well known that is, or whether applicants are informed about it, but that policy exists now because I raised the issue.
I wonder how many marginalized authors have been turned away by this gatekeeping process, and how many may have gotten rude and disrespectful emails shutting them down if they asked for more information, like I did. It seems unlikely that I’m alone in this experience.