I wish I was kidding

I meant to get back to the blog yesterday but life kept happening. So, this morning, I went looking for something to write about. I came across a post about the winner of the newly renamed “Vivian Award” from RWA. The Vivian is the successor to the RITA and came about after last year’s award was cancelled due to “diversity concerns” from some of those involved. Fast-forward to this year and there is a new controversy surrounding one of the winners.

The novel in question is Karen Witemeyer’s At Love’s Command. The novel won the newly renamed Vivian Award from RWA for Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements. Here’s the Amazon blurb for the book:

Haunted by the horrors of war, ex-cavalry officer Matthew Hanger leads a band of mercenaries known as Hanger’s Horsemen who have become legends in 1890s Texas. They defend the innocent and obtain justice for the oppressed. But when a rustler’s bullet leaves one of them at death’s door, they’re the ones in need of saving.

Dr. Josephine Burkett is used to men taking one look at her skirts and discounting her medical skills. What she’s not used to is having a man change his mind in a heartbeat and offer to assist her in surgery. Matthew Hanger’s dedication to his friend during recovery earns Josephine’s respect, and when she hears of her brother’s abduction, he becomes her only hope for rescue.

Matt has stared down ruthless outlaws, betrayal, and injury, but when a bossy lady doctor crawls under his skin, his heart is tempted to surrender. And when she is caught in the crossfire, he may have to sacrifice everything–even his team–to save her.

On the basis of just the blurb, it’s difficult to see what the OP in the article I’ve reference was worried about. But, as you read through the OP and then look at the preview, you can see where there might be a problem. You see, the male lead, Matt, took part in the Wounded Knee massacre. To say that is a black day in our history is putting it mildly. But let’s be honest, that’s looking back on the incident (and that is too clean of a word) using today’s sensibilities.

I do see and understand a lot of the OP’s objections to the book and to it winning the award. I honestly can’t say if “Matt” underwent any fundamental changes from when he took part in the massacre to when the events of the book take place. To be honest, I haven’t read the book and don’t plan on doing so. It isn’t a genre I’m all that interested in.

However, from a writing and publishing standpoint, I do see some issues with the book. Not about it focusing on a man who has done bad things in his past. Not even about it being a book of redemption. My issue is a more pragmatic one. RWA has been dealing with issues surrounding racism–true or not. I don’t know enough about the overall accusations to know for sure–that you would expect them to be more circumspect in this first year of the “Vivian” Award. To choose a book that starts out with the massacre should have sent up red flares of warning to the executive committee. In doing so, it should have prepared them so they issued a less tone deaf response to the resulting criticism than they did.

Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements, as a subgenre of romance, requires a redemptive arc as a genre convention. Essentially, the character can’t be redeemed by human means; only through their spiritual/religious awakening can they find redemption for their moral failings and or crimes against humanity. According to its subgenre conventions, the book in question finaled and won for this category.

For our inaugural VIVIAN contest, we saw a diverse finalist class. We attribute this to a detailed rubric and required DEIA training implemented to make the contest equitable. As part of that training, VIVIAN judges were instructed (upon reading a contest entry) to report any perceived objectionable or harmful content to staff. RWA staff did not receive any complaints from the thirteen judges who read and scored the entry.

While the OP seems to have issue with the first quoted paragraph, my issue comes with the second. I can’t believe none of the 13 judges saw a problem with the opening scene/chapter. You don’t have to be Native American or of Native American ancestry to know that scene might be objectionable and requiring a closer look.

But we can’t become so worried about making sure we don’t upset anyone that we forget that characters, like real people, can change. People can be redeemed and we need to show that in our books and movies. We need to remember that the mores of today are different from those of 50 years ago, much less 100 or more years ago. That means if you are writing a historically correct book, whether that book is historical fiction, non-fiction or religious fiction, you have to stay true to the actions, beliefs and mores of that time.

Just as “criminals” can be redeemed and become “solid citizens”, so can others. If nothing else, look at these redemption arcs as teaching moments. Which, by the way, is part of the whole religious fiction purpose. It’s sort of like the parables of the Bible. You see how someone did or acted wrong, how they suffered and then found salvation. You may not like their initial actions, but does that mean the message is wrong?

And before anyone jumps me and says I don’t understand, I do, especially when it comes to how the government treated Native Americans. The Cherokee branch of my family was impacted by the actions leading up to and following the Trail of Tears. They were rounded up, driven off their land and forced to go to Oklahoma. It was no easy trip and not one they wanted to take. They did so under duress and without recompense and all because the government wanted the land for others. So I have zero sympathy with the government on how it has dealt with Native Americans over the years.

I also think the author could have avoided some of the criticism by not opening the book with a scene from Wounded Knee. Surely that same information could have been woven through the book in a way without waving a red flag from page one. Even if the author didn’t see the potential problem, the publisher should have.

I’m not saying the information should have been hidden, deleted or washed out. Far from it. That incident was a defining moment for the MC. But there are other creative ways it could have been shown without fanning the flames of those who will cry “racism” at the drop of a hat (and I am not saying that is what the OP did. Reading her post, she has some very valid concerns).

But here’s the real issue. RWA has a problem. It has for a long time. It is one they are doing lip service to dealing with but, as with those publishers who now have books checked by sensitivity readers before publication, it won’t solve the problem. The first thing all of us have to understand is you can’t please everyone, no matter how hard you try. The second thing we all have to understand is historical fiction is going to show things that we don’t like–at least if it is true to history. It is how your characters deal with those situations that should be looked at, not the event itself.

If publishers give in and stop putting out books that cover uncomfortable characters or events, we lose. Just as there’s a problem with rewriting history to suit today’s mores, there is a problem with doing so with literature. Do we want to risk repeating those events and attitudes we condemn now? If we don’t show those objectional events and characters, how do we teach our children not to be like them? Where is the negative example?

But RWA, once the only professional organization I recommended writers join, has a number of serious problems that are tearing it apart. This is just the latest. As the OP said, this incident and the RWA is a dumpster fire. If the organization doesn’t figure out what it is going to do to address these concerns without censoring its members and what they write, the problems will continue.

And that is a shame for an organization that has done so much good over the years, especially where indie authors are concerned. It was the first, iirc, to allow us to join as full members.

Featured Image by Rajesh Raj from Pixabay

About the author

Writer, proud military mom and possessed by two crazy cats and one put-upon dog. Writes under the names of Amanda S. Green, Sam Schall and Ellie Ferguson.


  1. Concur in part. If you think racism accusations against your organization are legitimate, and if you think you want to address them, your remedies should be well thought out, and carefully carried out in order to be successful. To me, this sounds like the RWA either thinks the racism accusations were unfounded, or only wanted the appearance of a fix, or is profoundly incompetent.

    OTOH, the state of the industry wrt to addressing racism in an organization appears to be rote, unthinking application of textbook recipes. Saying that this appears as good as or better than nationwide practice when addressing racism is actually strong condemnation.

    I’m not sure I buy that website as having an informed opinion on that subgenre. Thinking like an anthropologist (without being one or buying into the state of academic theory), America has two flavors of religious experience. One believes strongly that redemption is possible. Another flavor seems to focus on staying in good standing with the ‘church’. The description of that subgenre sounds like it is designed for the first flavor, so criticism of a subgenre plot may not be really valid from the other flavor. In theory, from the description of that award, it should be possible to write an ‘other flavor’ example, but I think the constantly shifting political dogma would be difficult to establish a HEA with.

    I am definitely not a reader of that subgenre. I bounced off a book set in the time of Christ once because the hero supposedly started out as an infantry commander, and his command experiences did not seem to me to be true to combat realities as I would expect from that period. Softening a military character in a historical period may be something I find quite offputting. Okay, I get pretty lax on the subject of ‘realism’ when there are giant robots or enough explosions…

    Blurb feels to me slightly tuned to modern sensibilities. If the plot has Matt retire, I would not find enjoyable a retirement where he actually betrays his fellows. If he does not retire, I would buy as a HEA only a situation where I thought the heroine could successfully be an officer’s wife. If the story was written for an audience that does not care about military verisimilitude, it would be unlikely for the heroine to be so designed.

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