Posted on September 3, 2021

In Literary Organizations, Diversity Disputes Keep Coming

Elizabeth A. Harris, New York Times, August 30, 2021

This has been some of the fallout over accusations of racism or exclusion at several literary organizations 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 organizations 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.


Among the most recent conflicts was one at the Romance Writers of America, which earlier this month rescinded an award given to the 2020 novel “At Love’s Command” over complaints that it “romanticized genocide” against Native Americans.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 United States 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.


Ms. 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 harbor 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 canceled last year in the aftermath of a racism dispute that upended the organization, resulting in the departure of its leadership and board.


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. {snip}

The American Booksellers Association apologized this month for two recent incidents. In the first, a staff member filling in for someone on vacation was assembling a best-seller list and included the cover image from the book “Blackout,” by the right-wing media personality Candace Owens, in place of a Y.A. 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. {snip}

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

Last summer, the president and board chairman 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 one board member accused another of making racist comments as the board discussed what to say in a statement supporting antiracism.