If the Romance Writers of America can implode over racism, no group is safe

While 97% of Romance Writers of America members are women, only 14% are people of color.

Christine Larson, University of Colorado Boulder

Over the past month, Romance Writers of America, one of the country’s largest writing associations, with over 9,000 members, has erupted in a race-related scandal.

The controversy began when diversity activist and romance writer Courtney Milan, in a pointed tweet, criticized racial stereotypes that appeared in a book by a fellow member. Writers took sides. A punishment was handed down. Backlash ensued.

Now the very existence of the 40-year-old organization is in doubt. But you’d never know it from the cheeky media coverage, which hasn’t been able to resist casting the controversy as a battle between forlorn lovers.

CNN, for instance, describes the Romance Writers of America as “more scandalized than a dowager countess finding her headstrong niece alone on the lap of a rakish duke,” while NBC News tells us there’s “lots of passion but not too much love” among the writers.

As a former journalist, I get the appeal of a saucy lead. But as a scholar who’s spent nearly a decade studying romance writers and their networks, I see how portraying the incident as a catfight or a relationship gone wrong oversimplifies the controversy, which has serious implications for the rest of the publishing industry – and beyond.

It all falls apart

To briefly recap what happened: In August, Romance Writers of America member Courtney Milan, who is Chinese American, Twitter-shamed a novel written by a white member, calling it a “racist mess” for its depiction of Asian women.

The book’s author filed an ethics complaint, accusing Milan of bullying and damaging her business prospects. In December, Milan was suspended from the organization for a year and banned from future leadership positions.

The result shocked almost everyone involved. Milan has been a vocal and effective advocate for inclusion. In protest, nine members of the board resigned, including eight women of color. The president and executive director quit. The RITA Awards – the Oscars of romance publishing – were canceled, while major publishers pulled their sponsorship from the annual conference.

A tradition of support

Here’s why it matters: For 40 years, romance writers have been successfully pushing back against second-class treatment in the publishing industry.

My research suggests this is due to their surprisingly effective – and somewhat counterintuitive – approach to social networking and support.

Unlike other professional organizations, they welcome novices, share trade secrets and readily exchange advice about how to leverage new technology to advance their careers. These tactics have helped authors improve the terms of their publishing contracts, pioneer new promotional techniques and form a grassroots network of writers that can quickly adapt to changes in the market.

Disrespect and exclusion united romance authors in the first place. The Romance Writers of America was formed in 1980, when a diverse group of white, black and Latina women writers got fed up with being dismissed by mostly male agents and editors. In an era before email, the group managed to build a far-reaching network of women authors and editors who encouraged one another and taught each other to succeed.

The group’s efforts eventually led to some serious wins.

For instance, many romance authors write under several pseudonyms, which create distinctive brands for their various series. For decades, the romance publisher Harlequin didn’t let authors own the rights to their own pseudonyms. That meant if authors changed publishers, they couldn’t bring along their pen names and the fans who followed them, which hurt their ability to negotiate good terms. But in 2002, the Romance Writers of America – under President Shirley Hailstock, who is black – persuaded Harlequin to let authors keep their own pseudonyms, even when they switched publishers.

Then, when e-books and digital self-publishing came along, the group’s tradition of advice sharing and innovation catapulted the careers of romance writers. My research shows that romance writers’ median income nearly doubled after the explosion of self-publishing. This took place at a time when authors in other genres saw massive declines in income.

Diverse writers still left behind

But the group’s gains have not been equally shared by all authors.

In my study of more than 4,000 romance authors, I found romance authors of color earned about 38% of white romance authors in 2014. Another study found that only about 8% of traditionally published romance novels are written by authors of color. Until last summer, no black writer had won a RITA. In interviews, writers of color told me about some stunningly racist comments from editors at romance conferences that the organization failed to publicly address.

Furthermore, while 97% of Romance Writers of America members are women, only 14% are people of color.

These statistics mirror those of the publishing industry as a whole. According to a forthcoming report for the Authors Guild that I wrote, authors of color across all publishing categories earn about half the median income of white authors. Roughly 80% of book editors are white. Authors of color write just 7% of children’s books, while black authors pen only 2% to 3% of stories in science fiction magazines.

When publishing organizations attempt to change, the backlash can be swift. In perhaps the the most glaring example, in 2015, a set of right-wing, anti-diversity science fiction authors known as the Sad Puppies formed a voting bloc to try to prevent diverse authors from winning at the annual Hugo awards, science-fiction’s most prestigious award ceremony.

What could have been

The Romance Writers of America has tried prioritize inclusiveness over the past few years.

Members – including Milan – sought reform by openly talking about issues on social media while also utilizing the organization’s traditional, behind-the-scenes networking. Vociferous Twitter debates over diversity ensued; the hashtag #RitasSoWhite circulated; bestselling authors used their award acceptance speeches
or their prominent platforms to call for fair treatment for authors regardless of race, sexual orientation or ability.

Moved by these efforts, the membership elected a very diverse board in 2019, with nearly half made up by authors of color. Judging procedures for the RITAs were changed, and other diversity measures adopted. Three women of color won RITAs last August, and 20 out of the 30 speakers or winners at the ceremony made it a point to celebrate diverse authors.

In the end, however, it wasn’t enough. For many, the ruling against Milan was the last straw. The fallout, which includes the disbanding of the Las Vegas chapter on Jan. 20, continues.

Taken together, these events suggest that even organizations that seem to be addressing issues of inclusion in good faith are susceptible to fracturing. Either that, or exclusion is so deeply ingrained in certain institutions that it can’t ever be adequately addressed – and the entire organization needs to be torn down.

This could be bad news for other predominantly white groups and industries trying to evolve. Witness the ongoing struggles of the film industry to diversify, the continued predominantly white male makeup of Silicon Valley or the bitter divide over the organizers and participants in the Women’s March. All have faced calls for change. To many, the results have been unsatisfactory.

For a time, the Romance Writers of America seemed to be showing that change could occur from within. Now that seems increasingly far-fetched.

Whatever happens, this controversy can serve as a lesson about the profound challenges of building relationships and instituting organizational change in the digital age.

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Christine Larson, Assistant Professor of Journalism, University of Colorado Boulder

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How two women pulled off a medieval manuscript heist in post-war Germany

Two manuscripts of the visionary, writer and composer St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) survived the Dresden bombings after a librarian stashed them in a bank vault.
(Avraham Pisarek/Deutsche Fotothek/Wikimedia), CC BY-SA

Jennifer Bain, Dalhousie University

Seventy-five years ago, in February 1945, during the Second World War, Allied forces bombed the magnificent baroque city of Dresden, Germany, destroying most of it and killing thousands of civilians.

In central Dresden, however, a bank vault holding two precious medieval manuscripts survived the resulting inferno unscathed. The manuscripts were the works of the prolific 12th-century composer, writer and visionary, St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), who had established a convent on the Rhine River, near Wiesbaden and 500 kilometres west of Dresden.

Hildegard Abbey, near Wiesbaden, Germany.
(Kate Helsen), Author provided

Hildegard, whose writings documented her religious visions, including a theology of the feminine and an ecological consciousness, and who practised medicinal herbology, was venerated locally as a saint for centuries. The Catholic Church only recently recognized her as one, and also designated her a Doctor of the Church.

After the Dresden bombings, the Soviet Army seized and inspected the surviving vault. The first bank official to enter the vault afterwards found it pillaged, with only one manuscript remaining. The bank could never confirm if the vault was emptied in an official capacity or if it was plundered.

The missing manuscript has not been seen in the West since. The other made its way back to its original home of Wiesbaden, on the other side of Germany, through the extraordinary efforts of two women.

This is the story of how those women conspired to return the manuscript home.

The librarian

In 1942, Gustav Struck, the director of the state library in Wiesbaden, became worried about local air raids. Following many European institutions, he decided that his library’s manuscripts needed to be sent elsewhere for safe keeping.

Hildegard receiving visions, a reproduction of an image from the ‘Scivias’ manuscript.
(Wikimedia/Miniatur aus dem Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias)

Two of the library’s most valuable possessions were manuscripts of Hildegard’s works. One was a beautifully illuminated copy of Scivias, a collection of 26 religious visions. The other manuscript, known as the Riesencodex, is the most complete compilation of her works, including the visionary writings, letters and the largest known collection of her music.

Why Struck chose to store the manuscripts in a bank vault in Dresden is still a mystery, but their journey there by train and streetcar mid-war is thoroughly documented.

The manuscripts sat in the bank vault for three years until the attack on Dresden.

After the war

Immediately after the war, the Americans sacked Struck in their denazification efforts. Librarian Franz Götting took over his job.

Götting inquired about the manuscripts as soon as mail service to Dresden resumed, and learned that the Scivias manuscript was missing, either seized or plundered, but that the bank still had the Riesencodex.

Götting asked repeatedly for the Riesencodex to be returned from Dresden to Wiesbaden. The difficulty was that Dresden was in the newly formed Soviet zone, while Wiesbaden was in the American zone. (The Allies had divided Germany into four occupation zones, and similarly divided Germany’s capital city, Berlin, into four sectors.) The Soviets had issued a decree stating that all property found in German territory occupied by the Red Army now belonged to them.

Hildegard’s composition ‘O Most Noble Greenness.’

The plan

A scholar and medievalist in Berlin, however, came up with a scheme to retrieve the manuscript. Margarethe Kühn, a devout Catholic who expressed a great love for Hildegard, held a position as a researcher and editor with the Monumenta Germaniae Historica project. After the war she found herself living in the American sector of Berlin and working in the Soviet sector.

Photograph of the 12th-century ‘Risencodex’ manuscript.
(Wikimedia/Landesbibliothek Wiesbaden), CC BY

Kühn had stayed at the Hildegard Abbey for several days in March 1947 and had even explored joining the Abbey as a nun herself. She must have heard while she was there that the Riesencodex was being held in Dresden without any promise of return. She devised a plan to help.

Kühn asked Götting for permission to borrow the manuscript for study purposes. Götting asked the Soviet-run Ministry for Education, University and Science in Dresden on Kühn’s behalf. Much to the librarian’s surprise, ministry officials agreed to send the manuscript for Kühn to examine at the German Academy, a national research institute established in 1946 in Berlin by the Soviet administration.

Kühn was convinced that the bureaucrats in Dresden would not recognize the Riesencodex. She decided that when returning the manuscript, with help from the Wiesbaden librarian, Götting, she would send a substitute manuscript to Dresden, and the original to Wiesbaden.

The crossing

Kühn enacted the plan with the help of an American woman, Caroline Walsh.

How exactly Kühn and Walsh met is not known, but Caroline’s husband Robert Walsh was in the American air force and was stationed in Berlin as the director of intelligence for the European command from 1947-48.

In an interview in 1984, Robert explained that when he and Caroline were in Berlin she had “worked a great deal with the Germans and with the religious outfits over there, too.” Since the Walshes were also Catholic, it is likely that they and Kühn met through Catholic circles in the city.

Caroline’s position as the wife of a high-ranking military officer may have made it easier for her to travel across military occupation zones and sectors.

In any case, we know that Caroline travelled by train and car and delivered the manuscript in person to the Hildegard Abbey in Eibingen on March 11, 1948. The nuns notified Götting at the Wiesbaden library and returned the manuscript.

The swap

A Scivias illumination on an edition of Hildegard’s medical works.
Beuroner Kunstverlag

Götting, meanwhile, had not found a suitably sized manuscript to stand in for the large Riesencodex to trick the Soviets. He instead selected a 15th-century printed book of a similar size and had sent this to Kühn in Berlin.

It took some time for Kühn to deliver it to the Ministry for Education, University and Science in Dresden, and two further months before anyone there opened the package in January 1950. By that time, Hildegard’s manuscript was safely in Wiesbaden. But officials spotted the deception and Kühn was in trouble.

An official in Dresden wrote to the German Academy in Berlin demanding to know why they had been sent a printed book rather than the Riesencodex manuscript.

Kühn’s boss, Fritz Rörig, who received the letter was furious with her. Rörig and Götting smoothed things over with Dresden by offering another manuscript in exchange. But Rörig told Kühn that the East German police were inquiring about her, the implication being that he had reported her.

One still missing

Although she remained deeply worried for some time afterwards, Kühn never lost her job at the Monumenta nor was she arrested, despite Rörig’s threats. For the rest of her life she maintained a rare cross-border existence, living on Soviet wages in the American sector while continuing at the same job until her death in 1986, at the age of 92.

As one of many scholars who regularly consults the Riesencodex, now available online, I am enormously grateful to Caroline Walsh, and particularly to Kühn who risked her livelihood for the sake of a book.

I am not alone, however, in hoping that during my lifetime someone, somewhere will find the pilfered Scivias manuscript and return it as well.The Conversation

Jennifer Bain, Professor of Musicology and Music Theory, Dalhousie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘American Dirt’ fiasco exposes publishing industry that’s too consolidated, too white and too selective

Copies of ‘American Dirt’ sit on a rack at a bookstore in New York.
Laura Bonilla CAL/AFP via Getty Images

Christine Larson, University of Colorado Boulder

In an early chapter of “American Dirt,” the much-hyped novel now at the center of a racial controversy, the protagonist, Lydia, fills her Acapulco, Mexico, bookstore with her favorite literary classics. Because these don’t sell very well, she also stocks all “the splashy bestsellers that made her shop profitable.”

Ironically, it’s this lopsided business model that has, in part, fueled the backlash to the book.

In the book, Lydia’s favorite customer, a would-be poet turned ruthless drug lord, orders the massacre of Lydia’s entire family after her journalist husband writes a scathing expose. Lydia and her 8-year-old son must flee for their lives, joining the wave of migrants seeking safety in the U.S.

With the border crisis as its backdrop, the book was anointed by the publishing industry as one of those rare blockbusters that Lydia might have stocked in her fictional bookstore. Its publisher called it “one of the most important books of our time,” while Oprah chose it for her book club.

But Cummins is neither Mexican nor a migrant, and critics savaged the book for its cultural inaccuracies and damaging stereotypes. At least one library at the border refused to take part in Oprah’s promotion, 138 published authors wrote an open letter to Oprah asking her to rescind her endorsement, and the publisher canceled Cummins’ book tour, claiming her safety was at risk.

As someone who studies the publishing business, I see this ordeal as a symptom of an industry that relies far too heavily on a handful of predetermined “big books,” and whose gatekeepers remain predominantly white.

Sadly, this model has become only more powerful in the digital era.

A high-stakes poker game

Today’s publishing industry is driven by three truths.

First, people don’t buy many books. The typical American read four last year.

Second, it’s hard to decide which books to buy, so most people look for bestsellers or books by authors they already like.

Third, nobody – not even big publishers – can predict hits.

As a result, the business can sometimes seem like one big, high-stakes poker game. Like any savvy gambler, editors know that most bets are losers: People don’t buy nearly enough books to make every title profitable. In fact, only about 70% of books even earn back their advances.

Luckily for publishers, a single hit, like Michelle Obama’s “Becoming,” can subsidize the vast majority of titles that don’t make money.

So when publishers think they have a winning hand, they’ll bet the house. To them, “American Dirt” seemed to have all the cards, and the book sold at auction for seven figures.

With that much money on the table, publishers will do everything they can to ensure a payoff, channeling massive marketing resources into those select titles, often at the expense of their others.

Who’s holding the purse strings?

It wasn’t always like this. Back in the 1960s, publishing was a sleepy industry, filled with many moderately sized firms making moderate returns. Today, just five conglomerates dominate global publishing.

Big firms seek big profits, and, as Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse has pointed out, it’s cheaper and easier to launch one enormous promotional effort for a single “big book” than to spread resources across those smaller bets.

With each publishing house releasing just one or two big books a season, few authors can hope to produce one of those splashy bestsellers.

That’s even more true for marginalized authors, because every step in the publishing and publicity process depends on gatekeepers who are largely white – to the tune of 85% of editors, 80% of agents, 78% of publishing executives and 75% of marketing and publicity staff.

Nevertheless, the book world does occasionally publish blockbusters by authors of color, whether it’s “Becoming” or Tayari Jones’ “An American Marriage.” As black author Zora Neale Hurston wrote in 1950, editors “will publish anything they believe will sell” – regardless of the author’s race.

But those editor beliefs about what would sell, she noted, were extremely limited when it came to authors of color. Stories about racial struggle, discrimination, oppression and hardship – those would sell. But books about marginalized people living everyday lives, raising kids or falling in love? Publishers had no interest in those stories.

Of course, well-told stories of struggle are important. But when they’re the only stories that the industry aggressively promotes, then readers suffer from what novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.” When a single story gets told repeatedly about a culture that readers haven’t experienced themselves, stereotypes become more and more deeply engraved in popular culture. In a self-perpetuating cycle, publishers become even more committed to promoting that one story.

Chimamanda Adichie has warned about the dangers of the ‘single story.’
Dominic Lipinski/Pool Photo via AP

Much of the criticisms around “American Dirt” centered on Cummins’ lack of first-hand experience – the book, for instance, was peppered with inaccurate Spanish expressions and off-key notes about the middle-class heroine’s actions and choices.

While a vast network of publishing insiders would have likely looked at “American Dirt” before it was published, they all missed elements that were glaringly evident to informed readers. For the mostly white publishing world, Cummins’ book simply fit the narrative of the “single story” and aligned with pop culture stereotypes.

Its failings easily slipped past the blind spots of the gatekeepers.

The internet’s unfulfilled promise

The internet was supposed to have upended this system. Just 10 years ago, pundits and scholars heralded the end of gatekeepers – a world where anyone could be a successful author. And indeed, with the digital self-publishing revolution in the late 2000s, hundreds of thousands of authors, previously excluded from the marketplace, were able to release their books online.

Some even made money: My research has found that romance writers doubled their median income from 2009 to 2014, largely due to self-publishing. Romance authors of color, in particular, found new outlets for books excluded by white publishers. Back in 2009, before self-publishing took off, the Book Industry Study Group identified just six categories of romance novels; by 2015, it tracked 33 categories, largely driven by self-publishing. New categories included African American, multicultural, interracial and LGBT.

By 2018, at least 1.6 million books across all genres had been self-published. Nonetheless, though choice is expanding, readership has stayed flat since 2011. With more books but no more readers, it’s harder than ever to get the attention of potential buyers.

Meanwhile, many grassroots outlets that could push a midlist book – industry jargon for one not heavily promoted by publishers – to moderate levels of success have receded. Local media outlets that could create buzz for a local author are hollowed out or have vanished altogether. In 1991, there were some 5,100 indie booksellers; now there are half that many.

The onus is now on authors to promote their own work. They’re spending a full day a week doing so, according to a forthcoming paper I wrote for the Authors’ Guild. In that same paper, I find that authors of color earn less from their books than white authors; in addition to other serious problems, this indicates they may have fewer resources to promote themselves.

It’s clear the internet has not delivered the democratization it promised.

But it has helped authors in at least one important way. Social media has offered a powerful outlet for marginalized voices to hold the publishing industry accountable. We’ve seen this twice already this year – with “American Dirt” and with the Romance Writers of America, which lost sponsors after it penalized an author of color for condemning racial stereotypes.

Such outcries are an important start. But real progress will require structural change from within – beginning with a more diverse set of editors.

On Feb. 3, executives from Macmillan, the publisher of “American Dirt,” met with Hispanic authors and promised to diversify its staff.

It’s an example that the rest of the publishing industry should follow.

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Christine Larson, Assistant Professor of Journalism, University of Colorado Boulder

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.