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Romance Writers of America Rescinds Award for Racist Book After Doubling Down Earlier This Week

Romance readers rejoice.

"At Love's Command" book cover by Karen Witemeyer, featuring a cowboy, edited to show a teardrop falling from his eye. (Image: Bethany House Publishers, emoji)

This past weekend, the Romance Writers of America (RWA) awarded many romance writers in their inaugural VIVIAN Awards. Named in honor of RWA founder Vivian Stephens, the online event came after a complete overhaul of the organization and the 2020 RITA Awards were canceled. This was for the best.

Despite that shakeup due to marginalized members of the romance community calling out bigotry in the organization, 2021 still had glaring missteps—the most discussed was awarding At Love’s Command by Karen Witemeyer with a VIVIAN. Already in the problematic category of “Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements,” this book’s “hero” participates in murdering Indigenous communities, but then finds love and Jesus.

Romancelandia erupted. Writers let their RWA Memberships lapse, and at least one author refused their award.

The Monday after the VIVIANs, the RWA released a statement doubling down on the judges’ decision

Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements, as a subgenre of romance, requires a redemptive arc as a genre convention. Essentially, the character can’t be redeemed by human means; only through their spiritual/religious awakening can they find redemption for their moral failings and or crimes against humanity.

Yeah, you read that last part right.

While signed by RWA president LaQuette alone, the statement ended with the board’s email for comments. Sure, she will be the face of the board and organization, but it is puzzling why the entire board would not sign it. Maybe there was dissent?

In addition to this, she made sure everyone knew that this group was a diverse class of finalists and that there would be a task force to evaluate the critiques of the first VIVIAN Awards. That and the “well technically” over the nature of the category, as if that category itself were not widely criticized, came off as dismissals of valid concerns.

Less than 24 hours later, the RWA released a followup statement rescinding the award. They acknowledged Witemeyer’s right to publish trash (my word) but followed up with:

“cannot in good conscience uphold the decision of the judges in voting to celebrate a book that depicts the inhumane treatment of indigenous people and romanticizes real-world tragedies that still affect people to this day.”

The book’s publisher, Bethany House, defended the book to Religion New Service. They claim that “the author makes it clear throughout the book that the protagonist deeply regrets his actions and spends the rest of his life trying to atone for the wrong that he did.”

There are several things wrong with this statement. One, it ignores the critique from readers (of the whole book and the screenshots) that he does not confront the large picture of what he has done. Two, the book centers on how the white man feels bad and gets a happy ending that we shouldn’t root for regardless. 

At the same time, we’re still actively investigating the history of racist atrocities against Native Americans in the U.S. and Canada with research into the many bodies buried at “residential schools.” Every few weeks, we get a grim update, and so this is in the public consciousness more now than ever. Long overdue.

Still no word from Witemeyer herself on the criticism or award. She is not active on public-facing social media but does contribute to a western-themed blog and a Christian fiction blog.

(via Religion News Service, featured image: Bethany House Publishers, emoji)

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(she/her) Award-winning artist and blogger with experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time watching movies, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Balder's Gate 3, Apex Legends, and CS:GO.