Friday, May 29, 2020


Just a few short months ago, the biggest controversy in the literary world revolved around the implosion of Romance Writers of America®, an organization once 10,000 members strong and the single most relevant voice for authors in the most lucrative genre in publishing. It was only January when scandal erupted over an improper accusation of ethics violations by one faction against an author of color, bringing long-simmering issues of diversity, equity and inclusion to a boil.

In a rapidly escalating crisis, other improprieties by the governing Board of Directors and various committees were uncovered, and a howl of pent-up hurt and anger went up from RWA® members who were authors of color, disabled and/or LGBTQ+ and those that supported them. The RITA Award for excellence in published romance became a particular focus of criticism after nominees for 2019 included no authors of color despite promises to do better in this area in 2018. (See my post on the controversy here.)

The result of this storm of ugliness was that the Board of Directors and the Executive Director resigned, and several standing committees were dissolved. New officer elections were held, replacing the old guard with people dedicated to a more diverse and inclusive organization. 
After a storm of controversy for RWA, sun, and a new road.
The coronavirus pandemic came along to take attention away from what seemed to be a world-shattering series of events in January. Today there is even a new controversy in publishing-land to capture the short attention span of the news media (fan fiction violates copyrights—NEWS FLASH!). And yet, the new BOD of RWA® has continued to work steadily (online) for a new and improved organization, keeping membership updated on its progress through regular reports.

The most exciting news? RITA is retiring. The committee in charge of revamping the contest determined it was better to start over with a whole new approach, rather than try to renovate a crumbling concept. Their answer is The Vivian, named for ground-breaking romance editor Vivian Stephens, a co-founder of RWA®, a mentor of authors of color and a woman of color herself.

The Board introduced the new award with this statement of its mission:

The Vivian recognizes excellence in romance writing and showcases author talent and creativity. We celebrate the power of the romance genre with its central message of hope--because happily ever afters are for everyone.

A full-page announcement of the new award on the RWA® website indicates the detailed format of The Vivian will be described at the May 30-31 virtual Board meeting. In the meantime, committee members offered this summary of its main characteristics:

  • A clear rubric to enhance and streamline scoring guidelines in addition to judge training that will allow for more standardized judging,
  • A sophisticated matching process so that entrants can be sure their books go to judges versed in their subgenre, and
  • A category devoted to recognizing unpublished authors.
Further, the announcement provides these details for members:
“Members will have the opportunity to provide feedback on the proposed format at the member town hall scheduled for June 3 and by emailing or The Board's goal is for the rules and format to be finalized and voted on at the Fourth Quarter Board meeting (date TBA) in time for a fall launch, with the first year of the contest to recognize books published in both 2019 and 2020.”

Personally, I think the committee’s work is nothing short of brilliant. The suggestions I made over a year ago (when the RITA controversy first broke out)—objective judging criteria and judge training, an opportunity for peer judging within categories—have been incorporated. And, too, there is whole separate category for unpublished writers, which solves the problem of the loss of the Golden Heart contest. 

It remains to be seen whether these steps will resolve the contest’s issues with diversity, equity and inclusion, but this process should allow for more objective judging and encourage more entries. It’s the follow-through that will determine how well the process actually works to the benefit of marginalized authors.

RWA Executive Director Leslie Scantlebury and RWA President Alyssa Day spoke to Vivian Stephens at length about the idea to name the new award for her. Ms. Stephens responded to the news of the honor with these words, which SFR authors will certainly take to heart:

"I once heard an astrophysicist explain how heavy elements of the Periodic Table forged into the center of stars, later explode, showering the universe and everything in it with its spoils, Stardust. Since we all live in the universe it is well worth remembering that underneath the outer dressing of ethnicity, color, and gender, we are all the same. Showered with the gift of stars.

"Today, as we move forward into a new world order, Romance Writers of America must be one group, united by the purity of craft that identifies the organization. Guided by their star shine, moving quietly with confidence in the direction of their purpose, writing wonderful stories. Members must step up and deliver their best. Romance novels are read by people of Every Background throughout the World! They read these novels for entertainment, general information, life-style ideas, encouragement, rules of behavior, fun, a good laugh, hope, and a reminder of how life could be...if only.

"It is the duty of every Romance writer to give every Romance reader that experience. The writer must elevate themselves to be worthy of the craft and bring to it all of the nuances and magic of good storytelling. The reader deserves and expects nothing less."
--Vivian Stephens

Cheers, Donna

*Information for this post provided from “Introducing The Vivian, a New Award for a New Era,” RWA®,