As you may have heard, a romance novel between a Jewish prisoner and an SS Commander, set in a concentration camp during World War II, is stirring up some mishegas. It came to a head when an author and critic, Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, shared her letter of dismay to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), which had nominated the book for two major awards. Soon, social media was abuzz.
After a few days of tumult and news coverage, Breslin provided a statement about her book to Newsweek. It was: Not good. (A note: I’m not going to link to Newsweek’s piece, which strove for “balance” by giving equal time to a misogynistic GamerGater who spoke out against Wendell and induced his followers to crusade against her with anti-Semitic slurs.) (Bright side: Inadvertently proving the point that yup, anti-Semitism is still a problem!)
I have previously stated in posts and interviews on social media that my inspiration for For Such A Time was borne from a compassion for the Jewish people, as in reading from the Book of Esther I realized how they have suffered at the hands of one society or another throughout history. It was my intent to write a book that told a more modern-day story of a courageous Jewish woman who, through strength and faith in her God, used her situation to try to save some of her beloved people—much in the way Esther saved hers. And like that Biblical queen’s influence with King Xerxes, through her brave and sacrificial actions, she helped to bring one man to a sense of conscience, prompting him to join in the attempt to save her people. I am heartsick and so very sorry that my book has caused any offense to the Jewish people, for whom I have the greatest love and respect.
This is a bad apology. It fails to acknowledge, let alone address, the substance of the criticism of the book: The fact that the novel ends with the Jewish character converting to Christianity (conversion has been used as a tool against the Jews for millennia). The fact that conversion to the side of Jesus is presented as essential for the character’s emotional growth and redemption, just as the Nazi is redeemed by love. The fact that the Nazi is essentially excused for his role in a genocide, because he embraces love and Christ. The fact that there can be no true consent in a relationship in which one person has the power of life and death over another. (The reason there was an outcry over a proposed novel of BDSM erotica about the relationship of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings was similar.) The fact that the story of Queen Esther, supposedly the inspiration for this novel, is not about a Jewish character giving up her Jewishness, but is in fact about a Jewish character revealing her Jewishness and using it as a tool to defeat genocide! Unless it is opposite day, that is not what For Such a Time is about.
Sadly, the author hasn’t acknowledged any of the criticism on her Twitter, and she seems unwilling to see that the intention to be compassionate is not the same as not being compassionate.
But hey! The RWA did Breslin one better. It didn’t apologize at all, and invoked the specter of censorship (which no one was advocating).
The Board of Directors of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) has received a great deal of heartfelt and moving feedback about some of the finalists in this year’s RITA contest. We want the membership to know we have heard your concerns and have spent days discussing them.
The question that we must answer is what RWA as a writers’ organization should do when issues arise regarding the content of books entered in the RITA contest. Discussions about content restrictions inevitably lead to concerns about censorship. Censoring entry content is not something the Board supports. If a book is banned from the contest because of its content, there will be a move for more content to be banned. This is true, even especially true, when a book addresses subjects that are difficult, complex, or offensive.
There were 2,000 entries in the RITA contest this year. The RITA is a peer-reviewed award. There is no vetting of content before a book may be entered. Books are entered, not nominated, and those books are judged by fellow romance authors. The Board believes this is how the contest should be run. RWA does not endorse the content of any book entered in the contest. We do believe, however, that education and conversation are important in dealing with the concerns expressed. To that end, we will open an online forum on the RWA website for members to discuss their concerns. This is not a perfect solution, but we believe open dialogue, not the censorship of content, is the right way to handle the issues expressed.
Issues with this non-apology:
“Some” of the finalists? Which would those be? Can we use our words?
“Discussions about content restrictions inevitably lead to concerns about censorship.” No one suggested any content restrictions. What was suggested was not giving an award to an offensive book. Refraining from giving someone a cookie is not censorship.
“Books are entered, not nominated, and those books are judged by fellow romance authors.” I am not a romance author. If you want to continue to run your contest by popular vote, I have no say in stopping you. But what I heard clearly on social media, over and over, was authors and readers of diverse backgrounds asking for increased sensitivity about non-majority groups’ history and feelings.
“[W]e believe open dialogue, not the censorship of content, is the right way to handle the issues expressed.” It’s worth discussing that in practice, the “Inspirational” category of RWA means Evangelical Christian. Historically, Evangelical Christians have had a knotty relationship with Jews. What with our refusal to join Team Jesus, we’re standing in the way of Christ’s return. Evangelical Christians and far-right-leaning Jews have often found common ground in a shared vision of Israel (with a rebuilt Holy Temple and a marked absence of Palestinian Arabs) that most Jews do not share, as part of an alliance most Jews find distressing. So I don’t think it’s too much to ask that writers, readers and publishers ponder whether they’re clueful about sensitive subject matter, whether a given portrayal of a group is actively offensive and painful, and whether they really feel that reflectiveness = censorship.
The RWA still owes its members an apology.