Romance Writers of America: Is There a Diversity and/or Jewish Problem?

The Short Version: A self-identified Christian-Inspirational Romance writer wrote a “Romance” novel about a Nazi who falls in love with a Jewish woman during WWII…and at the end of the novel she apparently converts to Christianity…and everyone lived happily ever after.

Except some of the people who read the book. They think the author has co-opted a story that primarily belongs to the sufferers of the Holocaust for her own spiritual agenda and financial benefit. More conceptually, they think the Romance Writers of America (RWA)(tm) professional organization should be held accountable for the lack of diversity, and/or for wearing subtle systemically provided, organizationally sponsored (even if by default) anti-Semitic blinders that enabled said book to become a Finalist in the recent RITA awards. So, at least two main issues.

The Long Version: I came across a Twitter post by Katherine Locke, Romance author, (@Bibliogato) and traveled to her Tumblr blog to read one of many articles that questioned the Romance Writers of America (of which I, too, am a member) wisdom, intent and apparent lack of appreciation for Diversity, and possibly Jews, when that organization placed a certain novel in two of its RITA  Awards category.

I have excerpted a portion of her blog with a link to the entire piece–and following Locke’s excerpt, you’ll find a few others, including an eye-opening piece from Romance author Suleikha Snyder who actually attended the recent annual RWA convention. I have included a couple other excerpts from others related to this subject.

It took some back-tracking, but I then found several other authors and media reviewers who felt much as Locke does, including Sarah Wendell of the popular SmartBitchesTrashybooks site. Indeed, information in the review of the book on the Smart Bitches site seems to be where the questions about this book, the author, the publisher and the RWA first began.

Both Wendell’s open letter to the Board of Directors of the RWA  and the SBTB review of For Such a Time are further down. Snyder, and others, have been writing about racism in publishing for years, and many wonder that it took the RWA name to give the current lift to such concerns. In a series of Twitter posts, Snyder put some of the concern in perspective. Her Tweets from 8/6/15, also further down in this article.

But here’s what got me looking into this issue.

From Katherine Locke:

You might not be aware but a few weeks ago, a book called For Such a Time by Kate Breslin was up for a RITA from the Romance Writers of America. It’s an Emmy or an Oscar of romance writing. The book was published in 2014 and I had personally never heard of it prior to reading the Smart Bitches review of it. That is what I’ve linked to as I’d rather not link to its Amazon or Goodreads profiles. In short, the book is a retelling of the Book of Esther (a Jewish story about a strong Jewish woman, who saves her people, and keeps her faith, and is not a romance) in which a Nazi camp commander saves a Jewish woman from Dachau and takes her to Theresienstadt in then-Czechoslovakia. There, they fall in love, and through a magically appearing Bible, find Jesus, and save Jews. At the end, the woman converts to Christianity because that’s her redemption arc. There are multiple factors at play here. First, the author, Kate Breslin, co-opted the horrific, unimaginable tragedy that happened within living memory to other people to promote her own agenda (evangelical/inspirational Christianity). Second, her agent, her publisher, and multiple RWA judges, not to mention the HUNDREDS of reviews on retail sites and Goodreads, did not think this was problematic. Third, the way we, across religions, have begun to approach the Holocaust is problematic and dangerous.

Read her complete blog essay On For Such a Time by Kate Breslin and Writing the Holocaust.

But it seems that the RWA may have a more systemic set of problems with regard to Diversity. After attending the recent RWA Conference in New York, Suleikha Snyder, author of Contemporary Romance novels, said a lot of things, but this is what first caught my eye:

“I’m sorry our browness and our queerness and our hair and our loudness have sullied the decorum and dignity of RWA. Except, wait, I’m really not.”

Suleikha Snyder : RWA15 in NYC: A Tale of Two Conferences

Sarah Wendell Letter to RWA Board of Directors (Excerpt)

The book is a retelling of the book of Esther set during the Holocaust, an ambitious undertaking to be sure. But in addition to the attempt at redeeming a hero who is a Nazi commander, at the end of the book, the heroine converts to Christianity, a narrative decision that also insensitive and offensive. Christianity is what redeems the heroine and the hero, and again, I’m at a loss for words to fully explain how and why this is so objectionable. But I will try. In the Holocaust, over 6 million Jews, and more than 17 million people in total were killed by the Nazis. In For Such a Time, the hero is redeemed and forgiven for his role in a genocide. The stereotypes, the language, and the attempt at redeeming an SS officer as a hero belittle and demean the atrocities of the Holocaust. The heroine’s conversion at the end underscores the idea that the correct path is Christianity, erases her Jewish identity, and echoes the forced conversions of many Jews before, during, and after the Holocaust.

Read Sarah’s full letter here Read the Smart Bitches Trashy Books Review of For Such A Time here.

Author Rose Lerner spent some time tracking down the more astounding of the reviews for this book. Her “take” is priceless. It’s fairly clear from her roundup that most of the people who actually read Kate Breslin’s book have ALMOST ZERO familiarity with or comprehension of those pesky, little historical facts. Lerner says:

“I tried to keep the commentary to a minimum, but sometimes I couldn’t help myself.”

Read Rose Lerner’s review of the Reviews here.

And Snyder’s long view perspective on the subject of Diversity & Racism, especially as that subject may pertain to RWA, offered a thoughtful summation in five 140 characters or less Tweets–the woman knows how to sum it up! From Suleikha Snyder:

I’ve been tweeting and blogging about race in publishing for years. It’s interesting to me that it’s a post about RWA that gets traction. This stuff doesn’t happen in a vacuum. And there ARE people fighting for change within RWA and the romance community. Who have for years. I wonder if it’s because it’s easier for many to blame/point fingers at an organization rather than to look inward at their own privilege. There are people IN the genre, IN the industry with stakes who *do the work*. @FarrahRochon {Rochon is a USA Today Bestselling romance novelist} is one. She is kickass. Don’t erase that. Read outside your tiny comfort zone. Pay attention. The problems didn’t spring fully-formed last month like Athena from Zeus’ head.

And, perhaps one of the most edifying perspectives came from ‘someone on the inside’ of RWA,  Romance author, Courtney Milan, who is also a Director-At-Large in the RWA.  Her website Bio says, in part: Milan has been a New York Times and a USA Today Bestseller, a RITA® finalist and an RT Reviewer’s Choice nominee for Best First Historical Romance.  Before she started writing historical romance, Courtney got a graduate degree in theoretical physical chemistry from UC Berkeley. After that….she went to law school at the University of Michigan and graduated summa cum laude. Then…She was a law professor for a while. She now writes full-time. Milan expressed what she specifically identified as a “personal opinion” when she said:

This wasn’t fringe. It wasn’t an accident. This is a “change the world” level of problem. Remember that, because it’s what we need to do.

This is not what something looks like when fringe judges let something through. This is what a systemic problem looks like.

(Shoutouts to Catherine Lundoff(@clundoff) and Jeanne (@fangirlJeanne)(aka Makekesimoore http://makalesimoore.tumblr.com/)–neither of whom realize that early tweets from them helped me to track all this down and sort it out. If I didn’t get it right, it’s not their fault! Additionally, the excerpts and tweets, partial and full, were my choice, so if the chosen bits do not accurately reflect a person’s full opinion, or if I’ve missed any of the “yeah, but…” nuances, it’s all my fault, not theirs.)/ttt

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