Saturday, September 2, 2017

What's in a Name: Linda Howard, The RWA, and Discrimination

Last weekend on Twitter, there was a lot of justified anger in the RWA (Romance Writers of America) community. Typically, discussions for the PAN members, those who have sold at least one thousand dollars' worth of traditionally published or indepdently published books, are kept private. However, some of the more objectionable and hateful comments from one well-known PAN member, Linda Howard, were so incendiary that they were discussed on Twitter. While I do think that there are reasons for secrecy in threads and for members feeling they have private space to vent, I do feel that when it comes to hateful discussions that affect all membership and even writers thinking about joining that what occurs in those threads must be discussed publicly. Below, I'll be offering my thoughts on Linda Howard's pattern of behavior and why I think it matters that the Southern Magic (Birmingham, AL) chapter has an award named after her. Frankly, it's time to change that.


(Full disclosure before beginning: I am not a PAN member, only PRO, but I found some of the off-RWA forum screencaps through hunting Twitter and consider those fair game for use in this piece)


Linda Howard is mainly a romantic suspense writer who has been in the romance writing business for over thirty years. She has written close to sixty novels by her own count and continues to write about two a year for major New York publishing houses. She's a founding member of the RWA, has served on its national board more than once, and has received a career achievement award back in 2005 as well as an RWA service award in 2011. She has had a lot of sway with the organization over the decades and is seen as a member of the original, founding authors or "old guard." She's also the name sake for the Souther Magic chapter's "Linda Howard Award of Excellence for Unpublished Authors" going back to 2006.

She has had a history of being bigoted toward writers of color and LGBT+ writers. Ms. Howard has resisted including indie writers for full consideration in RWA circles and events, which is actually related to discriminating against diverse groups, as I'll explain below. Finally, she has a history of being narrow minded about the cateogries of romance that should be included in the RWA (she's had reactions to including both Chick Lit and Erotic Romance in the past). The RWA is changing, has had new blood come into the board, and I do believe is striving to expand romance and happily ever afters to include those of different gender identities, sexual orientations, racial, ethinc and religious backgrounds, and physical and mental abilities over the years. However, it feels like Ms. Howard has tried in the past and last week to impede that progress.

I am new to the RWA, relatively speaking. I'm not a PAN member yet, and I joined around 2014. I do not know first hand everything that has transpired, but after this latest controversy flared up on Twitter, I did contact some longstanding sources who were able to fill in the blanks. First, in 2009, Ms. Howard was outspoken against the founding of the Rainbow Romance Writers chapter, the chapter of the RWA that currently supports writers of LGBT+ fiction.

In 2012, the Romance Writers Ink chapter (the Oklahoma regional chapter of the RWA) declined to open its contest up to any stories that contained male/male or female/female pairings. The contest actually chose to close rather than allow same-sex story entries. As Smart Bitches, Trashy Books noted, the contest organizers responded to questions by saying "the majority of the chapter felt uncomfortable" with same sex pairings. Ironically, as SBTB pointed out, this same chapter was fine with contests with vampires and all manner of paranormal beings finding love, just not humans if it was an LGBT+ pairing. The chapter tried to skate by saying it also didn't accept YA stories, but as SBTB pointed out that doesn't excuse the discrimination of whole groups of people. That excuse also didn't hide the fact the main reason behind the refusal still centered around members, who in private emails to potential entrants, expressed discomfort with LGBT+ pairings.

Per my sources, at the time, Ms. Howard posted on the PAN forum to agree with the Oklahoma chapter's decision:


You're still talking about a product, not a person. I'd have a BIG problem if a
chapter or group said, "No books written by Native Americans," or "No books
written by anyone Jewish," because that's targeting PEOPLE. But the sexual
orientation, heritage, or religion of the writer isn't the issue at all, it's
the product -- and specifying which product you want isn't discrimination, at
least not of the legal kind. A writer who wants to enter a specific contest has
the choice of writing, or not writing, something that fits within the parameters
of the contest.

RWA doesn't oversee, run, or conduct chapter contests at all. If it issues a
statement of disapproval of this, then it must also issue one concerning the
contest for self-pubbed entrants only, because that discriminates against
everyone who hasn't done any self-pubbing. There is the argument that people
could write something and self-pub it in order to qualify, but isn't tailoring
the product to fit the parameters of the contest something that could also be
done in the RWI contest?

Linda Howard

Note that, alas, Ms. Howard is technically correct on one angle. Under Title XII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there isn't specific federal protections against LGBT+ discrimination at work or in other social spheres. Besides, the Civil Rights Act wouldn't technically apply to a private writing contest so there is that. HOWEVER, I feel as an LGBT+ writer that it's equivocating and insulting to attempt to insinuate that an LGBT+ pairing story is just a "product." Ms. Howard appeared to paint the issue as a choice for writers to not create stories that offer LGBT+ readers happily ever afters as well. If the contest never opens itself up to LGBT+ stories, then it's by definition saying that LGBT+ stories are lesser, that they're not worth even considering for awards let alone worhthy of receiving them. It makes writers less inclined to create those types of stories, and it clearly sends a sign to LGBT+ writers that we aren't really welcome among the rest of the RWA crowd, that we can only play in the sandbox if we continue to write the "traditional" het stories. Luckily, there was a lot of blowback against this, led by Courtney Milan, and I appreciate that fully, but we can definitely see where Linda Howard fell on that side of the debate.

**

Fast forward to the last weekend in August of 2017. There has seemed to be (from what little I can glean as a PRO member) tension on the PAN forums because for the 2018 RITA contest (think the RWA's version of the Pulitzer or the Oscars) because entries that are completely electronic will be considered. This opens the door up to independently written books more than ever before. There have already been older generation RWA members who have been pushing back against these rule changes. However, Ms. Howard seemed to use this debate as a chance to rail against direction the RWA is currently headed in:


I think it's important to point out that the elitist aspect of rejecting or separating out indies and self-publihers as lesser is a real problem. Often, the marginalized voices from writers of color as well as writers of different religious, ethnic, ability, sexual, and gender backgrounds don't as often find representation at the highly white and highly straight mainstream publishers. Sometimes, they can't find avenues either among smaller presses. For example, this past spring, Harlequin shut down it's Kimani line, which specifically highlights African American romances. Sometimes, self-publishing may be the only option for marginalized authors. Denying them chances to enter into awards like the RITAs tends to ensure the stories awarded will stay more white, straight and conventional. Second, as someone who intends to publish as an indie, I honestly think that the indie stories making it into final rounds at the RITAs would be the ones where the writer truly is acting as a self publisher and has contracted out the cover designer, the editor, and the proofreaders like any publishing house would.

However, the part here that really angers me, is her (incorrect according to RWA's numbers, by the way) assertion that the focus on "social issues" is hurting the RWA and its membership. To me, that sounds like "Make the RWA great again," an attempt to keep the RWA from opening up to more diverse voices. Also, I think that I see this a lot even from well meaning allies, that idea that we have to move away from "social issues" or "identity politics." That's the ultimate height of privilege. Certain people, due to their race or religion or sexual orientation...etc. don't have to think about "social issues." It's something they might feel sympathy for but won't affect them day-to-day. Disclosure, as a white, cis woman from a well-off Christian household, I have a lot of privilege. There are things I have to deal with due to being bi and bipolar, but I don't have to worry about being deported in ICE raids, being unable to travel out of the country to see family or friends due to religious bans, or the fear that I'll be abused by police among other things due to my skin color. All that said, social issues matter because to the writers you're dismissing, Ms. Howard, these social issues follow us, define our lives, and, in some cases, can threaten them. We can't just walk away when it's hard or uncomfortable. 

Moveover, fiction matters. Representation matters. As a bi woman, I was gutted in 2016 watching the massacre essentially of queer women on television. Every time another character died, it told me that I don't deserve a happy ending, that this is what happens to women like me. When the RWA is more open, supports more writers, then social issues get heard and reflected in the culture. As a result, more women, men and gender fluid individuals of all stripes actually get to see their happy endings

It matters.

What galls me most is that when the majority of the other writers on the PAN thread objected to Ms. Howard, she dug in and continued to rail against diversity. She refused to hear the other voices in the room:

First, I'd like to point out the condescending comment that of course the bathrooms should be handicapped inclusive. Disney Dolphin Resort had inclusive, trans-friendly bathrooms. I don't know if that type of bathroom offering offended Ms. Howard, but I find her wording of which type of bathroom facilities should be considered telling, to be honest. Second, I can't get over the fact that she literally said that "Diversity for the sake of diversity is discrimination." I am not sure what she thinks she means here. Is it that she can only tolerate the tokenism of writers who don't fit the "more traditional" het, cis, white middle-aged or older woman mold? Is Ms. Howard implying there's a limit to diversity, a threshold where it tips too far and threatens her sensibilities?

To me, there's not some quota on diversity, on making sure an organization is welcoming and tries to meet the needs of all their members. I know she appears to be spinning this as needing to allot resources to career development etc. for the PAN members,  but the way it reads is more that she's frustrated or upset that there has to be talk of social issues and diversity at all. It seems to me that the still woefully underrepresented writers of color, of different ethnicities, of different abilities, of different religions and LGBT+ writers appear to be a monetary and resource drain for the RWA in Ms. Howard's opinion and that there's only so far they should be tolerated.

Not exactly a rousing welcome, is it?

I do not have a cap of this, but conversation on Twitter has also indicated that further in the thread, Ms. Howard tried to excuse her verdict on "diversity is discrimination" by explaining that she is "triracial." As far as I know, she didn't elaborate on which three races. I take her claims at face value because I don't think anyone should have to be doubted on their identity. However, I'd like to say that a) there is internalized racism, b) if you're multiracial, you can still be discriminatory to people from other races, and c) that doesn't begin to exculpate her from being elitist toward indepdent authors or exclusionary in the past to LGBT+ writers. Simply put, Ms. Howard, it doesn't wash.
**



I'd also like to point out briefly, that some of Ms. Howard's fiction is problematic. I'm far from versed in her writing. I tend to run to mainly paranormal fiction. Also, I know this book was published in the early 2000s, when people thought much less or were frankly far less aware about transgendered individuals and individuals who had gender fluid identities. All that said, Mr. Perfect is beyond problematic. It's is an example of a book where the character who has been abused and forced by an ill parent to live as the opposite gender as a child, lashes out as an adult and becomes a murderer (frankly, it's all very Sleepaway Camp sounding). Similarly, Mackenzie Mountain has some problematic treatment of race and propogation of Native American stereotypes, which I think may also be in part a facet of the book being originally published in 1989. Overall, I think my small point here is that the world has kept changing and things that weren't thought about twenty or thirty years ago are being discussed. People are (I hope) in general trying to be more inclusive of others, and things that we wouldn't still do in fiction also mean that there are ways we wouldn't treat or regard our fellow writers in 2017. Or at least there should be things we wouldn't do to our fellow writers in this century.
**


I went to graduate school in Birmingham, AL. Although I'm not from there, I love that city, its people and its atmosphere. When I was researching my original piece about how representation in fiction wasn't a pie to be sliced up (something still forthcoming at Sapphic Alliance Fiction for Monday), I found out that the newcomer/excellence in unpublished fiction award for the Birmingham chapter is named after Linda Howard. Granted, she's said problematic things in the past, and the Southern Magic chapter has kept the honorific in place. 

However, I have to be extremely honest. It hurt me, like a physical gut punch, to learn about the Linda Howard Award this week. If circumstances had been different, and I had started writing romance ten years ago at that chapter instead of the local Washington, D.C. chapter, my life and writing career might have gone very differently. One person on Twitter already confessed that Linda Howard was a reason they left the local AL chapter before and quit RWA entirely. I keep thinking about a younger version of myself, not even completely sure of my sexuality, going in to find a home where I could be a new writer and talk about the fiction ideas I have and feeling rejected because one of the two awards for the chapter is named after a woman who was against the Rainbow Romance Writers, supported the bigoted choices of the RWI in Oklahoma, and, as of last week, has tried to twist facts and figures to rail against increased diversity in the RWA. Again not to mention the fact that she tries to put writers of color and other marginalized authors at a disadvantage by trying to keep the RITAs closed off from certain indies.

It would have made young writer me feel unwelcome, and, frankly, it currently makes me feel queasy and unsure of my place in the RWA as a writer who primarily writes and enjoys lesfic. 

The RWA on Twitter tried to start a tag of "This is My RWA," which, to me, is as tone-deaf as "This is Not Us" after Charlottesville or the infamous "Not All Men" hashtag. This is the RWA's past. It has been an organization where marginalized writers have felt uncomfortable or been excluded altogether. Where they feel as if there's sometimes an undercurrent of older guard feeling as if "readers are being stolen" by new, diverse writers. It's a place where some of the older, founding members with problematic and hurtful points of view have been sheltered and protected for too long. I saw some of my favorite writers, including Tessa Dare, Damon Suede, Courtney Milan, and Alyssa Day speak up against Ms. Howard on Twitter, and that was encouraging.

However, talk only goes so far. When chapters like Southern Magic continue to have awards named after seemingly intolerant people like Ms. Howard, people who have fought to keep the RWA smaller and less accepting, then it sends a deeper message to us marginalized authors:

"Sure, love is love and we're changing...etc., but we still have to honor our founders."

If your founding member seems to be making it a personal mission to curb diversity at many different turns, then maybe she isn't worth honoring anymore. Now that Ms. Howard has shown how divisive, mean, and unaccepting she can be over and over again, I do hope that the Southern Magic chapter will think of renaming its newcomer author award. Nothing says in deed and action that marginalized writers aren't welcome like giving out an award named after a woman who views diversity as discrimination, who tried to spin the thread last weekend around to be how she was being cyberbullied, and who seems more concerned with the privacy of the PAN threads than how her words are hurting and alienating real people.



3 comments:

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  2. I'm never buying Linda Howard's books again. They're pretty good, but they're not THAT good. We can't change bigots, but we don't have to give then our money.

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Coming Tuesday - Review of the Nun!