Not rewarding something isn’t actually censorship

Over the summer, something very troubling happened: The Romance Writers of America listed a romance set in a concentration camp as a finalist for the Rita, its most prestigious award, the community fought back, and the board issued a statement betraying a fundamental lack of understanding about the issues at hand. That For Such A Time made it to the list of finalists for a highly reputable award in its industry is deeply troubling, and it reflects a lot of problems with the larger publishing community — there’s nothing romantic about a ‘relationship’ between a Jewish internee and an SS guard, and the fact that the judges thought it was is highly disturbing.

One thing the RWA can’t control is who is nominated for a Rita. Any author or publisher can submit a book for consideration. However, the organization is responsible for narrowing down nominations to a selection of books they feel ‘promote excellence in the romance genre.’ Romance is a hugely, lively, and incredibly diverse literary category and there are numerous amazing books that go unrecognised in the larger reading world, which dismisses them as trashy because of their genre, but excellent books also go missed even in the romance community, because they don’t necessarily get the right promotion or draw the attention of the right trendsetters. The Ritas provide a chance to set that right by showcasing some of the amazing books in romance, and also by shaping the direction of the genre, rewarding authors who produce great work.

Those deeply upset that For Such A Time had made it onto the finalist list articulated the obvious argument: Rewarding an antisemitic book glamourising sexual abuse in concentration camps is deeply offensive, especially given that this is a very real thing that happened, and the Second World War wasn’t that long ago — Holocaust survivors are still alive, and plenty of people working and writing in romance have family members who didn’t survive. The scenario put forth in the book happened in camps across Germany — Jewish women ‘saved’ by high-ranking guards on the grounds of their physical appearance and then used as toys until discarded, sometimes for horrific medical experimentation and torture, or sometimes sent straight to the killing fields or transferred to work camps. Moreover, For Such A Time didn’t just romanticise the horrors of the war — it also ended with a conversion story, erasing the identity of the main character and playing upon the incredibly popular trend of conversion stories in Christian fiction.

It was gross. It was beyond gross. It was hateful and foul and unpleasant.

Supporters of the nomination, and by extension the book, including high-profile writers like Anne Rice, confused critique of the award and the related critique of the book itself with some kind of move towards censorship. No one was advocating that the book should be struck from the face of the Earth, though many questioned how it had gone into publication in the first place, given how extremely offensive it was. No one was arguing that no book of its kind should ever be published again, though many hoped that the discussion would provide an instructive learning experience that would encourage authors and publishers to think twice about these kinds of narratives in the future. This wasn’t a ‘slippery slope towards censorship,’ but a request that a major industry organisation not recognise books that are incredibly offensive and do not in fact advance the genre at all — if anything, For Such A Time set romance back with its alienating storyline followed by ardent defenses.

When the RWA finally entered the fray with a statement, it was kind of unbelievable, and I really do need to break down the salient components line by line.

Censoring entry content is not something the Board supports.

No one was asking the RAW to do so. Far from it; people were noting that the content of the book in question was offensive, and were having a conversation about it. Again, no one was advocating that bookstores rip For Such A Time from their shelves.

If a book is banned from the contest because of its content, there will be a move for more content to be banned.

No. The Rita should continue to be a community-nominated award, in no small part because it draws the attention of judges and board members to content they might have missed. The board itself gets to decide which books make it to the finalist list. That’s not at all censorship — judges are expected to exercise reasonable discretion when evaluating books, considering their artistic merit, contributions to the genre as a whole, and, yes, content. If a book glamourises rape, it shouldn’t be making the finalist list, period. That’s not censorship, but a demand to hold the RWA to its own standards.

There is no vetting of content before a book may be entered.

Again, no one is demanding that books pass the Mean Censorship Police before being entered. They are simply asking that the romance authors who serve as judges actually do their job and select books that meet the Rita’s own criteria.

RWA does not endorse the content of any book entered in the contest.

No one thinks you do or expects you to, but when a book becomes a finalist, that sends a rather compelling message to readers, writers, and those exploring romance as a genre.

For Jewish people and Gentiles acting in solidarity with them, this incident was a slap in the face and the RWA is responsible for that. Attempting to pass off their culpability with some mealymouthed commentary about ‘censorship’ and an utter abrogation of liability is ridiculous.

This whole game people like to play by crying ‘censorship!’ when people have a discussion about something they find offensive is getting really old and tiring. This is not how censorship works. Everyone knows this, and people just like to namecheck censorship because they know it’s such a hot-button issue, as it should be: No book should be censored, no matter the content. But that’s not what happened here. People were simply suggesting that perhaps an extremely offensive book not be nominated for, let alone win, a major industry award.

I don’t think that’s terribly unreasonable.

Image: The Problem with Censorship, Cory Doctorow, Flickr