By Alexa Day
I am, speaking very generally, encouraged by what Romance Writers of America is trying to do with regard to diversity within our genre.
I’ve checked out the Storify from one of the diversity-related panels at this year’s National Conference (and you should, too). I downloaded the handout from the excellent authors at the panel on writing multicultural romances. And I would be doing you a disservice not to mention that Beverly Jenkins was on NPR last week. Her reference to the Borg from Star Trek echoes a common complaint I have about black historical romance, both in print and in other popular entertainment. That’s not an RWA thing, but I want to mention it anyway.
With all this forward motion, then, it is discouraging to hear about For Such a Time by Kate Breslin.
In case you haven’t heard about this, I’ll catch you up briefly, but be warned that my summary here is incomplete.
For Such A Time is an inspirational romance between the commandant of a Nazi concentration camp during World War II and a Jewish prisoner. Much is made of the fact that the heroine is blonde and blue-eyed. I don’t want to give too much story away, but part of the HEA is that the heroine converts to Christianity.
I haven’t read it, and I’m not going to. I’m also not going to provide a buy link. If you want your own copy, it’s easy enough to find.
This book was a finalist in two categories for this year’s RITA competition. The finalists were announced a good while ago, and the winners were announced at the conference a couple of weeks ago. But apparently the subject matter of the book is just starting to make significant waves.
Now, I want to focus my argument. I’m going to depart from my usual pattern here by not delving into my issues with the book’s subject matter. Smart Bitches, Trashy Books does a better job than I will in its review. Sarah Wendell has a separate letter to the RWA Board on her Tumblr. If you’re interested in knowing *why* this is offensive, Sarah’s letter is a really eloquent explanation.
I think we are well served to consider two additional issues.
1. The RITA finalists are not nominated. I keep seeing this in press coverage for this book, and it’s driving me crazy. This is not how the contest works. Finalists become finalists because the first-round judges give them high scores. They are not nominated by anyone, least of all by the RWA.
2. The RWA is not really the problem here. Because the RITAs work the way that they work, it’s possible for any book that wows enough first-round judges to slide right through to the final round. If insensitivity or ignorance or anti-Semitism are poisoning this process, then they are working at the first round, when the entries are in the hands of those judges.
Skeptical? Well, consider this.
An awful lot of people have no problem at all with this book. I will concede that it may be beautifully written, and I will not be heard to discount beautiful writing. But I mentioned before that this book was below the radar until fairly recently, and I think the sea of excellent reviews, from Library Journal and RT and others, have something to do with that. Has no one mentioned how problematic this book is?
Has no one asked?
On Friday, the RWA released a statement. I looked at the statement itself, and at the Facebook announcement of that statement. At press time this morning, there were maybe 30 comments on both of them. One of those 30 responses expresses some disappointment, but not surprise, at how thin-skinned and easily offended people seem to be nowadays.
One out of thirty.
That attitude is our problem.
That’s not genuine confusion about why this is offensive or potentially offensive. This is acknowledgment that you might be offended — very casual acknowledgment, but acknowledgment nonetheless — followed up by the suggestion that if we are offended, we need to have a seat and accept that other people aren’t offended.
This position is diametrically opposed to diversity. At its absolute minimum, diversity is giving a shit about why people might be bothered by the things we might be doing or failing to do. And let us be clear — fewer and fewer people are satisfied with the absolute minimum at this stage of the game. I know I’m not satisfied with it.
For Such A Time didn’t final on just one judge. It didn’t impress just one reviewer. My suspicion is that there are an awful lot of people out there who understand exactly how offensive this book had the potential to be, but just don’t care all that much. I do not envy Courtney Milan and RWA’s leadership the job of dealing with that.
I am, as always, curious to hear your thoughts. I care a great deal about whether and why people are offended.
And follow Lady Smut. We’re all about heightened sensitivity.