The comprehensive summary of the implosion of RWA

I am impressed with this detailed dissection of the recent collapse of the Romance Writers of America. Not only does it cover all the bases, it reveals a lot of the blatant racism in this country. One thing that surprised me is that the RWA was founded by a black woman, yet there were all these policies put in place that made sure black authors were handicapped in the struggle to succeed. Like this:

This discovery grew into a widespread Twitter discussion about the important institutional role that Grimshaw had played as the romance buyer for Borders, at a time when Borders commonly shelved all African American authors in a separate section together, away from specific genres, like romance. It raised questions about how she’d made her decisions in such an important gatekeeping role, and whether she had given African American writers a fair shot at prominent placement. (Though, to be clear, the policy was the case across Borders—not just in romance.) Milan weighed in, but she was far from the only participant.

Wait, what? Black authors were segregated in bookstores? This is very white of me to admit, but I didn’t have the slightest idea, yet for years they had this discriminatory policy in place. Were they afraid some delicate white lady might accidentally buy a novel that had two black people falling in love? Let’s not even discuss the possibility that she might pick up something with queer characters in it.

These are practices that I would have thought a writer’s organization would have been at the forefront of challenging, but no, they just simmered for decades because they had an unwritten policy of only saying nice things about romance books. They refused to recognize the conflicts, suppressed all complaints, kept everything tightly bound up, until there was no other option but a messy, damaging cataclysm that has all but destroyed the organization.

There’s a lesson there for all of us, even if you aren’t a romance novel fan.


  1. chris61 says

    Were they afraid some delicate white lady might accidentally buy a novel that had two black people falling in love?

    Maybe. Or maybe they segregated them so that people looking for African American authors could find them. After reading a couple of books by Nnedi Okafor I know I was interested in reading more African authors and found it useful for browsing purposes to have them all shelved in one place. That’s how I discovered Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Adichie. So far I haven’t found any American born African American authors I really enjoy but if anyone has some (non-romance non-SF) recommendations, I’d love to check them out.

  2. says

    It’s like the US is fractally racist: the closer you look, the more you realize that it’s there. And in order to implement its racism there are racist policies built on racist laws legislated by racist politicians written by racist lawyers and voted into power by a racially gerrymandered electorate of racists.

    “Vote for Giant Asteroid, 2020”

  3. marcoli says

    I was thinking more indelicately about why the books were segregated. One would not want white women to become all flushed at the site of dusky but well muscled torso. Or to have black women gaze at the ivory white six-pack of what is Forbidden and Unobtainable.

  4. monad says

    @3 Susan: Is there any way we can simultaneously avoid setting progressives against each other, and not treat the concerns of Native Americans as a joke?

  5. lakitha tolbert says

    Speaking as a librarian, I like to believe that the segregation of Black authors,was not for malignant reasons. I think it originally started as a way for Black patrons to find what they wanted quickly, when we went into the bookstores. I definitely remember a time when Black people asked for book stores to do it. The generation after that changed their minds, and said they didn’t like that, because it was segregation.

    Having a section for books aimed solely at African Americans was kind of a recent thing, anyway. They didn’t have any sections set aside for Black readers, when i was very young. Most of the chain stores assumed we didnt read genre books, rarely stocked them, and there were not a whole lot of them to choose from. At some point in the 90s, we started asking for representation in the bookstores, and this segregation was what was tried. One of the unintended side effects is that white readers, thinking the sections aren’t for them, won’t go into those sections, so most never discovered these writers.

    Some of the branch libraries in the system I work for still do this, having a special section for African American fiction writers.The main branch doesn’t do it, but some ofthe neighborhood branches do.

    Nonfiction was not done this way. It was classified with everything else according to the Dewey Decimal or LC systems.

  6. microraptor says

    marcoli @4: I’m guessing that the latter was more likely considering how common of a romance plot it is for a white woman to be swept off her feet by an exotic foreigner (usually a Bedouin sheik).

  7. anthrosciguy says

    The reason for the segregated shelving is almost certainly that it was in a “African-American authors” or the like, but after an initial possible boost this would be a problem. You really need to have books by a given author in both sections then, or their sales are likely to suffer, even though they might get an initial boost by people seeking something different from their usual reading. But most authors, especially newer authors who need that boost more, aren’t going to have more than one copy of their book in most stores.

  8. Jazzlet says

    microraptor @#7

    I’m guessing that the latter was more likely considering how common of a romance plot it is for a white woman to be swept off her feet by an exotic foreigner (usually a Bedouin sheik)

    You are demonstrating an extremely out of date view of romance novels, that trope hasn’t been common for decades.

  9. susans says

    The latest library to open in my city, the Michelle Obama branch, has a section called Urban Fiction, featuring writers that are Black and Latinx. I don’t know if that was community-driven or a library staff decision.

  10. says

    I’ve supported Warren up to now, including donating small amounts every month, but this recent tussle with Bernie is making me reevaluate Warren’s action about her background. My Mexican native heritage is much more recent than her American native, and I’d be hesitant to claim any advantage from it, as white as I look. I am not disadvantaged by it now, though I was when I was a kid of a Mexican American woman.

  11. microraptor says

    Jazzlet @9: So now novels are segregated so that the white protagonist always falls for a steamy white guy?

  12. jrkrideau says

    I am left a bit mind boggled that Nnedi Okafor and Chinua Achebe would be group together.

    They are both Black?

    I mean, if Wiki is accurate Okafor is a USAian, born in Ohio. I still am not sure if I like her work or not but I do expect it to turn up it the Science Fiction/Fantasy area.

  13. flexilis says

    chris61@1 Walter Mosley has written some detective fiction I have enjoyed. I don’t know if Barry Beckham’s novels are in print still. I took a course with him when he was a visiting prof at my university many decades ago. I know you mentioned non-SF, but Octavia N. Butler is a giant, and relevant to our current dilemma in the US.

  14. chrislawson says


    Octavia Butler’s Kindred is one of the most powerful books on the effect of systemic, centuries-long racism. It draws its power from the sf* element that allows a single person to experience 200 years of history. And it shows that even lovely young children will gorw up to be virulent racists if they are raised in a culture that instils it.

  15. chrislawson says

    strictly speaking it’s a fantasy mechanism since no explanation or rationale is ever provided.

  16. chrislawson says

    chris61 and lakitha tolbert–

    It is possible to have both an African-American authors section AND have African-American authors in the appropriate genre sections. You wouldn’t go looking for Agatha Christie in ‘Womens’ fiction’ or Joseph Heller in ‘Jewish humor’.

    I’m all in favour of tagging authors for all sorts of readers, but the tags should be inclusive rather than exclusive. And I understand the difficulty of a physical bookstore or library not wanting to have the same books in several different shelves, but there has to be a better way than excluding books from their genre space.

  17. lakitha tolbert says

    #11 susans
    I think that may be both reasons actually. Urban Fiction is a relatively newly recognized category (even though black people have been writing it since at least the sixties). I don’t think it was done because of the race of the authors though. (At least I hope that’s not the reason.)

    Its just that poc are the primary writers of it, and its very distinct in style from any of the other categories, in that its one part erotica, one part street slang, one part soap opera, mixed with crime, drama ,and the occasional mystery. Urban Fiction doesn’t fit into the romance category, because, as sexually explicit as romance has become, UF tends to be a bit more “raw”. its hard to slot it into any particular category because it covers all the others, just its an urban setting, with Black and brown characters, lots of AAVE, and a hip hop flavor to it. Based on my quick readings of some Zane books, its got romance in it, but its written nothing like any romance novel I’ve ever read by a White writer.

    We do have a separate section for it, in my library, (along with just shelving them in regular fiction when they reach a certain age) but mostly this is done for convenience. I’ve observed that the people who read a lot of Urban Fiction, pretty much just stick to that topic, only ever ask for that topic, and don’t read other genres very much, although when asked, I try to get those readers to branch out to more mainstream black authors, which I probably wouldn’t feel the need to do if they were all shelved in just “Fiction”.