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Romance Writers of America aims for happy end to racism row with new prize

The Guardian logo The Guardian 3 days ago Alison Flood
a book on a table: Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Romance Writers of America is attempting to turn the page on a damaging racism row, abolishing its top literary prizes and replacing them with awards in a new format it hopes will show “happily ever afters are for everyone” and not just white protagonists.

The association of more than 9,000 romance writers is developing proposals to encourage more diverse winners, including training for its judges, an award for unpublished authors and processes to ensure books are judged by people familiar with each subgenre.

The RWA has been at the centre of an acrimonious debate about diversity, criticised for the paucity of writers of colour shortlisted for its major awards, the Ritas, as well as its treatment of Courtney Milan after she called a fellow author’s book a “racist mess” because of its depictions of Chinese women. Milan has been a prominent advocate for diversity in romance publishing, and her suspension prompted a widespread backlash, with the bestselling novelist Nora Roberts slamming the RWA for “a long-standing and systemic marginalisation of authors of colour, [and] of LGBTQ authors, by the organisation”.

a book on a table: ‘Happily ever afters are for everyone’ ... a collection of books on a vendor’s table during the romance book conference at the Library of Congress in 2011. © Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images ‘Happily ever afters are for everyone’ ... a collection of books on a vendor’s table during the romance book conference at the Library of Congress in 2011.

The RWA acknowledged in 2018 that no black author had won a Rita since the awards were founded in 1982. Kennedy Ryan became the first black author to take one of the prizes in 2019, saying at the time that her win “kicks down a door that should have been flung open long ago”.

In January, the RWA cancelled this year’s Ritas after hundreds of authors pulled out in protest over Milan’s suspension. The entire board resigned in February, with a new board issuing an apology last month to Milan and to members “from marginalised communities” for a “deeply painful and upsetting” few months. Now the association has announced that the Ritas will be permanently retired and replaced with a new award, the Vivian, in an attempt to move on from the controversy.

Named after the RWA’s founder Vivian Stephens, a black editor who worked to publish romance writers of colour, the prize is intended to recognise excellence in romance writing and to “celebrate the power of the genre with its central message of hope – because happily ever afters are for everyone”.

Stephens recalled an astrophysicist explaining that the elements from which we are made are forged in stars.

“Since we all live in the universe it is well worth remembering that underneath the outer dressing of ethnicity, colour and gender, we are all the same,” she said. “Showered with the gift of stars. Members must step up and deliver their best. Romance novels are read by people of every background throughout the world!”

While Milan said on Twitter that it was meaningful to name the award after Stephens, she struck a note of caution: “That meaning will be … very diluted … if the award still continues to exclude authors of colour in large part.”

More details of the new award will be announced later this month, with members providing feedback and voting on the proposals ahead of an autumn launch.

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