Jean Marie Ward

fiction, nonfiction and all points in between
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Hasta la vista, RWA

Ah, Romance Writers of America, you were afraid Gamergate wasn’t trashing women creators quite enough. So you’ve decided to vote in punitive membership requirements, including automated review software to determine whether a writer’s book qualifies for the exalted name of Romance.
I’d post a link, but in a move that almost qualifies as cunning, RWA has only posted the new rules and procedures in the members only section, split among several different releases and FAQs. But I can provide the full text of the letter of protest I wrote to my local RWA chapter, Washington Romance Writers, as soon as the proposed rules were shared with the organization’s members:

First off let me say I love you all, and everyone is entitled to their opinion on the proposed changes to RWA’s membership rules. This is mine.
The tax code isn’t magic. It isn’t foolproof, either. It’s a compilation of often conflicting Congressional directives, composed by bureaucrats and compounded in obscurity by changing fashions in legal language and punctuation. As a result, you can make it stand up and dance to any tune you choose. All you need to do is line up your intentions with the laws core requirements.
What are the core requirements of the law with respect to a group like RWA seeking to retain its tax-exempt status as a professional organization? Stripped of all the fancy language, the applicable requirements come down to this: RWA must define the professional group it will serve, its mission with respect to that group, and the goals it will pursue in the group’s interest in terms which do not conflict with the laws of the United States and its Territories.
In other words, no matter how you look at it, RWA gets to define its purpose, mission and goals. I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is the punitive terms of the proposed definitions, the outrageous provisions for enforcing those definitions, and the blatant indifference to the professional interests of the majority of its members, regardless of their status.
Genre is a marketing concept which only became the norm in North America within the past fifty years. It exists solely to help publishers and booksellers point potential customers to big bunches of books they might like without the need for personalized recommendations. It’s not a universal concept. Most European bookstores don’t organize their shelves that way.
In the past few years, RWA has turned itself inside out trying to define romance. Is it between a man and woman? Can a LGBQT love story qualify? What about a girl and an alien? A boy and his vampire? Werewolves and cat shifters? What about a story with hot sex scenes or more than one partner/life mate?
That’s not how the ever-consolidating number of big publishers looks at it. As far as New York is concerned, if the story focuses on a romantic relationship involving characters legally or culturally defined as adult, regardless of planetary or magical origin, and resolves itself into a happy ending, it’s classified as romance. If a story about Young Hannibal Lector hooking up with Shub-Niggurath struck the right note, they’d throw that in there, too.
Even this categorization is too particular for most readers. Unless you are an RWA member, a reader who exclusively reads Romance-with-a-Capital-R, or an attorney or CPA paid by an writing organization with an agenda, the term romance embraces everything from Nicholas Sparks to Sara Gruen to Charlotte Bronte (whose body of work would not qualify her for RWA membership, Jane Eyre notwithstanding). Remember, genre is a marketing construct without basis in law or tradition. It is whatever you say it is.
For example, the first winner of the Hugo, science fiction’s highest award, was Alfred Bester’s The Demolition Man. It was a futuristic police procedural mystery in which the only truly speculative element was telepathy.
Which means RWA has a lot of scope when it comes to defining itself as an organization dedicated to supporting the interests of professional writers in the romance genre. Do these proposed rules take advantage of that scope? No. Instead they restrict the definition of a professional writer of romance to writers blessed by circumstance with the time and contacts to produce what a small clique of individuals consider a published romance of acceptable length. It’s like an exclusive 1950s country club. “After all, we can’t have the *wrong element* taking tea in the clubhouse with respectable folk, now can we?”
If that wasn’t bad enough, they plan to enforce these exclusionary policies with a shadowy (and dubiously funded) cadre of monitors tasked to grub around in the members’ proprietary financial information like a Facebook data miner on steroids, and grade their output like a multiple choice quiz. The notion is preposterous and completely unparalleled in other professional writing organizations.
I’m not saying SFWA, MWA, Novelists Inc., or the rest are perfect. Far from it. But they’re a lot less hypocritical about determining member qualifications and rights. They establish their membership requirements right up front. They won’t take your money unless you meet those qualifications. Once you’re in, you stay in as long as you pay your dues, don’t commit any major felonies, and don’t unduly harass the other members. Not one of them can boast anything approaching RWA’s membership numbers, yet their various records with respect to insurance and catastrophic aid to members put us to shame.
How long did it take RWA to offer insurance? Would it have even happened without the Affordable Care Act? What’s RWA’s idea of catastrophic financial aid? A scholarship to Nationals. Riiiight.
This brings up another aspect of the proposed rules: their unmitigated cruelty to writers afflicted by bad health or impossible employment situations, or who are the primary caregivers of ailing loved ones. Those situations can last for years, and the recovery takes even longer. You think you can write saleable fiction in a situation like that? Don’t kid yourself. The notion that you can write through life-consuming stress without destroying your own health and creative spark is a lie promulgated by abusive bosses through the ages to further their own ends, not yours.
While we’re on the subject of abuse, let’s not forget the vagaries of the publishing industry—traditional and Amazon-dependent—which is currently going through more convulsions than RWA. For example, Macmillan authors can wait up to five years between the signing of the contract and the appearance of the first book in a new series. The tenure of an acquisitions editor can be measured in weeks. Their departure inevitably orphans writers and their works. Years and incalculable emotional and creative energy–energy and time stolen straight from the writing–can be spent unraveling predatory contracts.
Romance writers pride themselves on being nurturers. Yet these proposed rules are the opposite of nurturing. They penalize the very writers who most need and support of a committed professional organization. Published writers don’t stop being professionals or writers because circumstances beyond their control prevented them from putting new words on the page or shriveled up their sources of income. Yet for all their skill, they’ll have a more difficult time getting published than a shiny new face willing to accept an underfunded contract just to get their foot in the door. And if by some miracle these returning writers publish something that by all rights should be celebrated as a romance, how long will it take to reinstate them to full memberships?  Will they be vetted in time to compete for any awards for which they might otherwise be eligible?  We’re Washington writers. We know better; bureaucracy doesn’t work that fast. Ever.
For years romance writers have been sensitive about how we are perceived by the media and the general public. RWA National and chapter conferences even offer seminars on how to address the issue in public forums. If that worries you, think about how this will play on Stephen Colbert.
Think also about whether or not anyone ever questioned Thomas Pynchon’s status as a professional writer although he goes ten years between novels. Imagine how J.D. Salinger–and his agent–would’ve reacted if anyone tried to peer into his finances. Ask yourself if Mystery Writers of America has any plans to show Charlaine Harris the door now that her novels are shelved in the SF/Fantasy section. Then contemplate the sorry case of Harper Lee, in a fight to the literal death with publishers, agents and caretakers, all of whom claim to know what’s right for her. They all say they have her best interests at heart. They know what’s right for her. Do you believe them?
So why should you believe a professional organization who wants you to pay dues and yet seeks to limit your ability to exercise the rights of a full voting member? Do you think RWA has your best interests at heart? Consider the organization’s track record–how long it took to get insurance for its members, the years of fighting it took to recognize the legitimacy of erotic romance, the years it demonized e- and self-publishing, its dilatory and half-hearted responses to predatory publishers. Do you think you can trust these people to protect your rights as a writer *unless* you have a say in their deliberations? Why should you pay them to protect your interests if you don’t have a say in defining what constitutes your interests as a professional and a writer of romance?
That’s the heart of the matter for me. I don’t think I’d object so much to the new rules if it signaled RWA’s desire to collapse itself into a much smaller organization dedicated to serving a narrowly defined group of professionals, excluding all others. But they don’t want to reduce the number of members to the writing niche it proposes to serve. It wants to grow its non-voting membership and use their due to support the aims and interests of a much smaller cabal who will have absolute, unregulated power to determine who joins their privileged number.
That’s taxation without representation, folks. We fought a war about that against the British once upon a time, women as well as men—women whose efforts on the home front and occasionally in the trenches made possible the ultimate victory of Washington’s army.
One of those women on the home front was Abigail Adams. She wrote to her husband, later the second President of the United States, at the Continental Congress in 1776: “…remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”
But John Adams and the other delegates to the Continental Congress didn’t pay any attention. *They* were in charge, which obviously meant *they* knew what was best us simple-minded womenfolk.
Yeah, like that turned out so well. It was another hundred and forty years before American women were finally recognized as full citizens of the country they helped to create. We still make less than 87 cents on the dollar compared to men of equal education and experience. You’d think an organization founded by women supporting a genre primarily written by women would learn something from that.
I can hear the objections even before I hit send. “But I wouldn’t be a writer if it weren’t for RWA. The programs… My chapter… My friends… The fellowship…” To which I say it was never the organization or the paid officials whose salaries are paid by your dues.  It was the good-hearted individuals who make up local chapters like WRW–chapters who raise their own funds to pay for conferences, scholarships and monthly programs with virtually no support and considerable interference by the national organization–who helped you. Writers and aspiring writers who will continue to pay it forward with priceless volunteerism, support and encouragement regardless of what RWA National decides to do.
As for the national organization, well, at the moment I believe my professional interests as a romance writer–as a writer. Period–would be best served by donating my RWA dues to the legal defense of Dear Author in their fight against the defamation suit wrongfully brought by Ellora’s Cave. Dear Author is fighting for their First Amendment rights, and by extension, the First Amendment rights of every writer victimized by publisher malfeasance. I can get behind that.
Taxation without representation? Not so much.

The issues I raised in that open letter were just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Those in the group with financial management and legal background raised grave concerns about liability issues, copyright violations, etc. I hope they will share their concerns publicly in the days ahead.
Not that I expect it to matter to RWA officials, nor do I expect them to be swayed by the departure of members like me, who are appalled by the organization’s current direction. Romance is half the fiction market. RWA is too big to care. It is unsinkable!
Yeah, that’s exactly what they said about the
Titanic.
Now excuse me. Now that I
won’t be renewing my RWA membership, I’ve got checks to write.

Posted in Blog 2 years, 11 months ago at 5:11 pm.

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