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Bad romance

Romance was one of the sexiest and most lucrative genres in publishing, and it had an ugly secret. Then its writers started speaking up.

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

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Part of the Romance Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

Romance novelist Nana Malone felt like she was back in high school — surrounded by mean girls.

It was the summer of 2019, and Malone was attending the national conference for Romance Writers of America, romance publishing’s powerful trade organization. Malone, who is black, was there for the reception for the RITAs, the annual awards ceremony for published authors. Her friends Kennedy Ryan and M. Malone (no relation) were winners that year — the first black authors to win RITAs — and all three were celebrating the milestone.

“It was this great culmination of all this work that had been done for authors of color to finally get recognition, especially for these two,” Malone says. She was still basking in that joy when she overheard another group of attendees talking.

“Oh,” she says she heard one of them say. “I didn’t know we needed two token winners.”

It was the kind of small ugliness that would be tempting to brush away as a one-time incident coming from a single bad actor. But six years earlier, fellow RWA member Piper Huguley had experienced something remarkably similar. In 2013, Huguley, an English professor and romance novelist, was up for a Golden Heart Award. The Golden Heart, which is separate from the RITAs, recognizes work by unpublished authors, and Piper was the only black finalist nominated for any of RWA’s awards that year (for her historical romance A Champion’s Heart).

An exclusive reception for award finalists is a staple of RWA’s annual national conference. But when Huguley tried to walk into the Atlanta hotel bar where the reception was being held, she says, an organization staff member stood in her way.

“She sort of stepped across my path and asked me if she could help me,” Huguley recalls.

All finalists send a picture of themselves to the organization. They also have to RSVP for the reception and wear special ribbons with their convention badges. Huguley had done all of that, so she expected to be welcomed into the reception. She did not expect to be treated as though she were an intruder.

Generally, Huguley talks like a proper Southern lady, her voice warm and easily friendly. But when she recalled her encounter, her tone suddenly went arctic. “I guess she didn’t think about how that might have been taken,” she said, making the kind of understatement Southern women use when they are most angry. “She was in the mind to be a doorkeeper.”

Huguley politely showed the staffer her finalist ribbon, and the woman stepped aside without apology or explanation to allow Huguley entry. But Huguley says the message was clear: As a black woman, she didn’t belong at that awards reception.

For years, RWA’s members of color had felt stigma and hostility like that experienced by Huguley and Malone; they’d felt unwanted, disrespected, or simply shut out. So had the queer members, and the poly members, and everyone else who didn’t quite fit into the traditional romance mold. And in December 2019, all those years of slights, of aggressions both micro and macro, of implicit and explicit bias, would finally become impossible to ignore.

RWA imploded in a spectacular public meltdown, an imbroglio that led to the resignation of the president, executive director, and, eventually, the entire board. It was a wildly convoluted controversy that involved secret backroom committees, public denunciations, and no small amount of schadenfreude from popcorn-munching onlookers in publishing and media.

There’s an unkind stereotype that romance novels are for sex-starved spinsters with too many cats. So to those observing on social media, the spectacle of one romance figure after another toppling like dominoes appeared to be coming out of nowhere. “Who knew that romance novelists were so wild?” was the general response. But the chaos was the culmination of a long-simmering culture war within the insular world of romance publishing, one that played out for years through microaggressions, attempts to censor queer authors and storylines, and the refusal to recognize the work of authors of color.

And the infighting wasn’t just an entertaining squabble. It was the moment in which one of the most lucrative and most misunderstood genres in the world of books began to face the fundamental questions that publishing has struggled with over the past decade: Whose voices do we listen to? Whose stories do we honor?

Which is to say, just as the rest of America finds itself caught in an ever-escalating war to excise enshrined white supremacy from its political system, the major players in romance have been similarly roiled.

Fearful of being blacklisted, Huguley says she didn’t tell anyone what happened to her in 2013. “It was painful, and I was in a new situation, and I didn’t want to be seen as lesser by any of my peers. I was already the only black finalist and didn’t want to make myself stick out any more than I already had,” she said in an email.

But now, Huguley says, “I’m at the point where I don’t really care if I’m believed or not. I’ve been a good soldier for this industry for quite a while. I know what happened.”

Romance novels are often dismissed by those who have not read them, tossed aside as frivolous, retrograde porn. But they are big business. More than 40 million romance books were sold in 2019 in the US in print and ebook formats, raking in more than $336 million, according to industry tracker NPD BookScan. Overall, romance represented 18 percent of total fiction sales in the US.

That’s in traditional publishing alone, without taking into account the self-published authors who flourish in romance. (Think 50 Shades of Grey, which began as a self-published phenomenon, or Chuck Tingle.) But beyond the inarguable dollar value of the genre, it is also a distinct art form, one that revolves around a central love story and ends happily, either with a “happily ever after” or with a “happy for now.” By that definition, romance novels are as old as the English novel itself.

In fact, the two at times were interchangeable. Books by Jane Austen and the Brontës in the 19th century tended to revolve around romantic love stories and — crucially for the genre — they have happy endings. Later, 20th-century commercial authors like Georgette Heyer and Edith Maude Hull pushed romance further, developing tropes romance authors still use today.

But romance as we know it emerged as a genre in the 1970s, when the iconic romance publisher Harlequin began to aggressively target its books at women. It stocked drugstore shelves with paperbacks, and sponsored giveaways with companies that sold sanitary napkins, cosmetics, and cleaning supplies. And it covered those books with paintings of swooning women in flowing gowns, locked in clinches with shirtless beefcakes — images that told women very clearly that here was a genre that would allow them to dream their most embarrassing dreams without shame. Romance boomed.

An illustration of a stack of romance books.

Today, it has dozens of subgenres: Regency romances (a rakish duke and the woman he pines for — or a liberated rakess and her repressed male lover) and desert romances (traditionally, a rakish sheikh takes a spunky white woman captive and they fall in love; recently, the genre has attracted some subversions). Erotic romance (sexually explicit) and sweet romance (not). Religious romance (the Amish are popular) and paranormal romance (not just vampires and werewolves!). There’s historical romance and contemporary romance and young adult romance and new adult romance, each containing subcategories of their own.

Not every writer welcomes the commercial prowess of romance. Diana Gabaldon, author of the bestselling Outlander series, only allowed her publishers to market the first book as a romance novel under heavy protest, and with the condition that if it did well in hardcover, the paperback could be re-marketed as mainstream historical fiction. She also demanded “dignified covers (no Fabio, no mad bosoms),” and wrote letters to Barnes & Noble to push the company to shelve her books with fiction rather than romance. (Gabaldon maintains that she only objected because she doesn’t think Outlander follows the conventions of romance.)

But the fact that Gabaldon, like popular culture, paints romance with the same condescending brush says more about our society and how it feels about women than it does about romance itself, argues Jayashree Kamblé, an associate English professor at LaGuardia Community College CUNY and a two-time recipient of RWA’s research grant.

“Women’s fiction is traditionally considered less cerebral, less able to speak to a universal human experience, more sentimental, less relevant to the larger public good,” Kamblé wrote in an email. “Any work that includes sex is also regarded skeptically, thanks to the belief that sexuality is shameful and/or comic; romance is the target, the epicenter, of these assumptions.”

For romance readers, however, it can function as a source of sheer joy. “It’s the genre of hope,” says Seattle-area collection development librarian Robin Bradford, who advocates for genre fiction and indie books, including romance. “Every story ends happily — which, depending on what’s going on in the real world, may or may not be the case in real life.”

Romance novels “are not trivial,” says Jaime Green, the former romance columnist for the New York Times Book Review. “They’re about falling in love, which is one of the intense, fundamental experiences of being a human.”

Moreover, romance is the genre where writers develop our culture’s love-story tropes. Do we as a culture aspire to relationships that are sexy above all else, or ones in which the participants are good at talking to one another, or in which people from different cultures might be able safely and freely to come together and understand one another? Romance is where we hash out those questions.

“Romance is political in the ways that personal desires are political, in the way that personal desires drive people to vote in certain ways,” says romance author Cecilia Tan, who writes erotic science fiction and fantasy. “It’s political in this interior way. It’s about people: What do they have to give up, and what do they have to fight for in their happiness?”

Because romance publishing is stigmatized by the rest of the literary world, Romance Writers of America was supposed to function as a safe haven for its members to focus on their artistic and professional work with others who already knew why it mattered. Instead, RWA seems to have reified the prejudices of the outside world within its walls.

Huguley draws a parallel between the way RWA treated black authors and the way the rest of publishing treats romance itself. “You would think there would be some understanding towards how black authors feel, given the way we talk about romance in the larger world,” says Huguley. “But that doesn’t exist.”

A group of 37 romance writers early in their careers founded Romance Writers of America in 1980. They were led by Vivian Stephens, a black romance editor at Dell Publishing who championed black authors.

Stephens came up with the idea when a group of Houston-based romance novelists approached her for advice. They were at a local writers’ conference trying to learn how to get published, but they found little help from their peers there.

Band together, Stephens told them. She took charge and convinced Dell to invest a little money in the group. In 1981, the writers held their first conference.

Romance writers were largely ignored — or worse, sneered at — by other writers’ groups, and the new organization aimed to give them professional support and development. Stephens was committed to making sure that black authors would be supported and developed along with their white peers.

It was a time of revolution for romance novels. For years, the industry had been dominated by British period romances, but in 1980, the Harlequin-driven romance boom encouraged more publishers to distinguish themselves within the romance genre. Simon & Schuster founded Silhouette Books, a new imprint publishing romances whose characters lived in contemporary North America, a major change. Harlequin quickly countered with Harlequin Superromance, which also set romances in North America; Dell then outdid them all with Candlelight Ecstasy, an imprint that dared to go behind the bedroom door with explicit sex scenes.

Candlelight Ecstasy was Stephens’s brainchild. She had done the market research, and while most romance publishers remained fairly staid, Stephens’s data revealed that the women who bought romance novels at drugstores were ready for heroines who weren’t virgins. That was the kind of innovation that Stephens made in her field: She treated readers like real people, with varied ideas and interests, and then she figured out how to get them what they wanted. And her innovations paid off. When Candlelight Ecstasy started in 1981, it was a modest experiment that published just two volumes per month. By 1984, Dell considered it such a success that it was publishing eight.

It was always part of Stephens’s vision that romance must be accessible to authors of color as much as it was to white women. So under her leadership, Candlelight Ecstasy published romances by black, indigenous, Latina, and Asian authors, creating the category that trade publications were starting to call “ethnic romance.” The writers Stephens discovered, first at Dell and later at Harlequin — Rosalind Welles, Sandra Kitt, and the legendary Beverly Jenkins — wrote about characters of color for readers of color.

But Stephens found it difficult to get the gatekeepers on board. “Publishers are frightened, and I don’t understand it, because it’s a money-making idea,” she told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1990. “The difference is only nuances. Emotions are emotions.” (Vox was unable to reach Stephens for comment for this story.)

The media at the time covered her efforts with the same mild incredulity it would devote to a circus act. “The ‘ethnic romance’ is the invention of the editor of Candlelight Romances, Vivian Stephens, herself a black,” reported the New York Times in 1980, in breathtakingly dehumanizing language. “More ethnic romances are planned for the future — about American Indians, Chinese-Americans and, of course, blacks.”

“The perception was that [romances about black characters] wouldn’t sell as well,” one of Stephens’s colleagues told the Washington Post in 1991. “There are all kinds of stereotypes at play — that [black people] aren’t educated enough, don’t read, or they don’t go into malls to buy these books.”

Portrait of Vivian Stephens
Vivian Stephens

Nevertheless, by the early ’90s, there were enough romances featuring black characters in print for Stephens to begin to feel optimistic. “This marks the first time that African-American women have been able to write and read something completely frivolous,” she told the St. Louis Dispatch in 1991.

The books Stephens championed, however, weren’t sold with the rest of the romance novels at major bookstore chains such as Borders, then a hugely important point of sale for the industry. They were on their own shelf.

Proponents of this organizational system considered it to be a service to black readers, allowing them to easily find books in which they were represented, rather than making them wade through the general romance shelves in search of books about black love. But for some readers, shelving black romances far from general romances carried a suggestion that somehow black romance did not “count” as romance — that two black people falling in love had more in common with The Autobiography of Malcolm X than with a Nora Roberts novel.

“You would go to the romance section — in my case, I was sneaking over there — and you would not see anything with black people on the cover, at all,” recalls Nana Malone. “I remember asking at a bookstore about Beverly Jenkins. They were like, ‘Oh, sure.’ They led me to the back of the store, to a shelf I couldn’t reach, and they were like, ‘Up here!’ And there were romance books, far away from the other romance books, because God forbid they mix.”

As Stephens’s editorial career flourished, she began to step away from RWA. And RWA began to forget its roots as an organization created by a black woman, say its current and former members.

“The institutional memory faded,” says Huguley. “Over time, there didn’t seem to be any need to keep reminding people [about Stephens], and as waves of other black women came in and tried to bring these things up, they seemed to somehow get tamped down. Historical memory is very short for human beings. I write historicals, so I know this.”

Meanwhile, for many writers, including writers of color, RWA remained the only game in town. Regional chapters offered workshops where writers could work on their craft; the national conferences offered invaluable opportunities to network with publishers and fellow authors. RWA is “not the magic key to publication,” romance novelist Stephanie Feagan said in 2007, when she was the organization’s treasurer, but the board promised to go to bat for its members if a publisher withheld royalties or a plagiarist struck.

Tan, who is no longer a member, thinks RWA’s trajectory followed the general political movement of the rest of the country. At the beginning of the ’80s, it was still committed to racial inclusivity in the aftermath of the ’60s and ’70s. But with the rise of Reaganism and the moral majority, RWA’s leadership got whiter and more conservative. And all the while, romance was only becoming more lucrative, and RWA was only becoming more powerful.

By 2019, Tan says, the people in charge of RWA were a lot like the people in charge of the rest of the country. “You know that moment of shock after the Trump election, when the numbers came out about white women voting for Trump?” she says. “These are those women.”

The first inkling of RWA’s internal controversies came in the early 2000s, when every author with a keyboard had a Wordpress blog, and industry gossip began to trickle out to all corners of the internet. The group gave its members plenty to gossip about.

In 2005, as the same-sex marriage debate raged across the country, RWA created a poll in which it asked members whether they would consider defining the genre as one characterized by love stories between one man and one woman. Queer and poly love stories, under those rules, would no longer be considered part of the genre, but stories about women falling in love with male vampires and werewolves and shapeshifters would. The progressive wing of RWA was outraged, and Nora Roberts, undisputed queen of romance and one of the organization’s highest-profile members, wrote a furious letter to the editor in the group’s newsletter, Romance Writers’ Report, in protest.

Roberts declined to comment for this story, but in a retrospective blog post published last December, she wrote that she received an anguished email from RWA’s president begging her not to make a fuss about the poll, and warning her that lesbians were going to take over the group if the wider membership wasn’t careful. In response, Roberts proclaimed that if the group’s newsletter didn’t want to publish her response as a letter to the editor, she’d buy a full-page ad and publish it that way. The Romance Writer’s Report published the missive, and the group never adopted the exclusionary definition of romance into its bylaws. In 2016, it even issued an apology for the whole thing. But in 2005, the political controversies were just beginning.

A few months after the poll, the group attempted to restrict promotion of graphic images and words from covers of books produced by its members. RWA had taken a pro-porn stance during the pornography wars of the 1980s, but when President George W. Bush announced in 2004 that he would be cracking down on pornography, RWA was spooked. “It’s pretty clear the Board has never once, in their entire lives, taken a gander at the average romance novel cover,” which are practically defined by barely clad lovers locked in suggestive poses, one blogger opined. “If so, they’d realize they have just eliminated 99.9% of all covers.” RWA suspended the new graphic image policy just weeks after announcing it, saying it had only been trying to avoid running into expensive new postal regulations that would have been triggered by graphic ads in the newsletter.

Until this year, the RITAs were a big splashy celebration where the membership honored what it believed to be the best authors of the industry. The best analogue is the Oscars: The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences does other things, but the Oscars are what everyone talks about.

And because the RITAs attract so much attention, the awards are also where some of RWA’s institutional biases began to show. “Always the RITAs,” said librarian Robin Bradford.

Of the RITA finalists between 2007 and 2017, less than 0.5 percent were black. No black author ever won a RITA until 2019, at the ceremony where Malone overheard other RWA members call the two black winners “token.”

The books that are nominated for RITAs can be controversial. In 2014, For Such a Time, about a romance between a Nazi officer and his half-Jewish concentration camp prisoner, was nominated for two RITAs. The book ends with the heroine reforming the hero, but only after she converts to Christianity.

“I don’t understand exactly how so many judges agreed that a book so offensive and insensitive was worthy of the RWA’s highest honor,” Sarah Wendell of the influential romance review blog Smart Bitches Trashy Books wrote in an open letter to the RWA board, adding that the nominations made writers of faiths other than Christianity feel “unwelcome.”

In the end, For Such a Time didn’t win a RITA award. But neither did any black authors that year. In 2017, the hashtag #RITAsSoWhite — a reference to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign of 2015 — began popping up on Twitter, and it did again in 2018 and 2019.

Nonetheless, over the course of the 2010s, the RITAs — and by extension RWA itself — appeared to be trying to be more inclusive. The group recruited members of color to its board. Romance author and former law professor Courtney Milan, who is Chinese American, joined the board in 2015 and won an RWA service award in 2019.

The group also issued statements calling out publishers with no black authors on their rosters. Members who volunteered to judge the RITAs went through diversity training. And in July 2019, three authors of color won RITAs.

“Everyone was like, ‘Oh, they’re finally fixing it!’” says Tan.

Then came December’s implosion.

That’s when, after two complaints were made against Milan, RWA’s board voted to suspend the author — former chair of the ethics committee and the force behind some of RWA’s most progressive campaigns — and issue a lifetime ban preventing her from assuming a leadership role in RWA. (Milan declined to comment for this article.) The board made the decision only after the complaints were reviewed by a backroom committee.

News of Milan’s suspension became public on December 23, just before Christmas. Within hours, outraged novelists were withdrawing their novels from the 2020 RITAs.

The complaints themselves were about tweets Milan posted in August, when she was chair of the ethics committee. A number of RWA members had noticed that RWA elder stateswoman Sue Grimshaw had liked multiple racist/white-supremacist-adjacent tweets, and had been discussing whether those tweets were evidence of bias that might have affected Grimshaw’s role as a gatekeeper in romance publishing. (Grimshaw did not respond to a request for comment from Vox.) Milan chimed in, focusing on Grimshaw’s past as the romance buyer for Borders in the 2000s.

Borders had separate buyers for “general” romance and African American romance, and Grimshaw doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with the African American romances Borders chose to sell in its stores. On Twitter, however, Milan wrote this in reference to Grimshaw:

We don’t know. We don’t KNOW. But for decades, Black romance authors heard there was no market for their work. But we heard that in a time period when one of the major bookstores was being headed by a person where we now have serious doubts as to whether they could review [black authors’] work. If you were not in Borders, you would not have a career.

The conversation then moved on to the publisher where Grimshaw had recently been hired to work as an editor, a small and newly established romance press called Glenfinnan Publishing. Another Glenfinnan editor, Kathryn Lynn Davis, had written a historical novel in 1999 featuring Chinese women characters who are described as “demure and quiet, as our mothers have trained us to be.”

“People writing shit like that gets women like me assaulted and harassed,” tweeted Milan, calling the book a “fucking racist mess.”

In response, Davis filed a complaint with RWA against Milan, as did Glenfinnan publisher Suzan Tisdale. According to their list of grievances, Davis lost a three-book contract with her own non-Glenfinnan publisher because of Milan’s tweets, and multiple authors withdrew their books from Glenfinnan.

“This is akin to putting a neo-Nazi in charge of a UN human rights committee,” Tisdale wrote of Milan’s ethics committee role in her complaint.

In an interview with the Guardian, Davis later clarified that she didn’t lose a written contract, but that an editor she was talking to about a potential series put off further discussion until spring. She also said the editor did not mention Milan’s tweets. It does, however, seem to be true that at least one author pulled her work from Glenfinnan — the novelist Angela Francis tweeted that she did so because “I didn’t want to align myself with racists.”

As news of Milan’s suspension became public, a dramatic backlash swelled across RWA. Authors, agents, critics, and local RWA chapters issued public statements in support of Milan, and partner organizations including the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance and Bookstore Romance Day cut ties with RWA in protest.

On December 24, after an emergency board meeting, the romance writers group reversed its decision and reinstated Milan.

But the damage was done. Members who sided with Milan said they believed conservative leadership was unhappy with the progressive direction in which Milan and her allies had been leading RWA, and so it jumped at the chance to get rid of her so that RWA could return to the old status quo.

“I feel like so many people put in so much work, trying to move the dial like two centimeters,” Milan said in an interview on the Smart Bitches Trashy Books podcast, “and it lasted for about like six months.”

Member after member began sharing stories of microaggressions they had faced at the hands of old-guard RWA members, and quickly, the organization began to crumble. Some alleged that local chapters paid black speakers half the rate they offered white speakers; others that queer authors were denied help from RWA after registering professional complaints with RWA when their royalties weren’t paid; and still others that authors of polyamorous romance were being refused membership in RWA.

Half the board resigned in protest. Romance publishers like Avon and Harlequin pulled out of attending the 2020 national conference, which at the time was slated for July. The newly elected RWA president Damon Suede resigned amid demands for a recall election. In the end, he was in office for only two weeks.

What was left of RWA’s board called off the RITAs. It hired an outside firm to audit its practices, and a diversity consultant to restructure the awards system. And in February, the remainder of the board resigned, though in a joint statement, members wrote, “We believe RWA can and will be a place of inclusion and respect.”

An interim RWA board was announced on March 24. The new president, Alyssa Day, who is white, says that she and her colleagues are committed to changing RWA. They have only five months before a new permanent board takes their place in September for a yearlong term, and they are making all of their changes in the midst of a pandemic.

“I’ve tried to use this as my guiding star,” Day says. “We can’t change what happened in the past, but we can reinvent RWA for the future.” The interim board is working with an attorney to rewrite the code of ethics in a way Day describes as “enforceable and inclusive.” She adds that they are committed to transparency, and have begun to send weekly reports to membership so that everyone can be confident that there are no more secret backroom committees. Asked about the many stories of bias and poor treatment that members shared last year, she told Vox, “We are determined to ensure these types of exclusionary, harmful incidents never happen again.”

The RITAs have been disbanded. “The RITAs had obviously, clearly been tarnished by racism,” Day says. “There’s no other way to say it.” In their place will be a new award, built around principles of diversity, inclusion, equity, and access; it will be called the Vivian, named in honor of Vivian Stephens.

The interim board has also created training modules for chapter leadership and members to try to avoid microaggressions like those that befell Huguley and Malone. Day called those incidents “unconscionable” and added that the staff member who blocked Huguley from entering the reception was made to resign after Huguley went public with her story in December.

In early June, as the protests over police killings of black Americans spread across the nation, the RWA board of directors released a statement in support of Black Lives Matter. “As an organization that just went through a massive crisis for many of the same reasons that underscore these protests for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and so many more — injustice, racism, and unfairness — we acknowledge that we have turned aside from confronting difficult truths for far too long,” they wrote. “That our authors from marginalized communities, especially our Black authors, have been treated as somehow less deserving of a seat at the table of publishing. We must admit and learn from this shameful past.”

Due to the combined force of the events of late 2019 and the pandemic, RWA has lost 1,900 members, leaving its rolls at 6,600 people. Still, Day remains optimistic about the future. “I have been pleased to see emails from a lot of people saying ‘I see you’re taking action, so I’m rejoining,’” she says. In May, RWA saw its first net increase in memberships this year.

The current and former RWA members who spoke with Vox, meanwhile, are withholding judgment on the new board. Huguley said she was “keeping an eye on” its moves and will decide whether to remain with the organization when her membership expires in September. Tan, who says she only joined RWA after Milan joined the board, withdrew her membership after Milan’s suspension. Still, she thinks it’s possible she could rejoin, especially if she hears that her progressive vote is necessary in August’s election.

“I’m still on the fence on RWA kind of in the same way I’m still on the fence about the American government,” Tan says.

“What I feel most is optimism that there’s going to be change,” she says, referring both to the future of RWA and that of police reform in America. “Now I’m just holding my breath to see if it sticks.”

But Malone, an RWA member since 2008, says she’s had enough. She went to her first national conference in 2015, and she says the old hands, who were mostly white, mostly snubbed her. “I was someone taking her first steps and saying, ‘Okay, yes, I can do this. This is fine. I’m a grown-up,’ and going up to a table of perfect strangers and being like, ‘May I sit here?’” she says. “And then having half the table look you up and down and then get up and leave? It was some real ‘mean girls in high school’ shenanigans.”

Day wants to make RWA an environment where incidents like that no longer occur. But many of those burned by RWA before remain skeptical.

After her experience at the 2019 RITAs, Malone decided she would keep her distance from the organization for a while.

Day remains hopeful that RWA can once again be relevant to the community. “I will not ask people to come back based on what we’ve promised,” she says. “I will only ask them to come back based on what we accomplish.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article attributed the formation of a backroom committee to Damon Suede. He was not involved in the creation of that committee.

Constance Grady covers books and publishing for Vox. She attended the Columbia Publishing Course and worked in publishing for six years. She previously wrote about the phenomenon of Reese’s Book Club for The Highlight.

Shyama Golden is an LA-based visual artist with a background in oil painting and graphic design. She worked as a designer for a decade before switching her focus on figurative art. She creates paintings as well as digital work, which often takes the form of seamless patterns or animation.

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