2000 RWA National Conference
Editorial Postscript

August 15, 2000

Part I, August 8

AAR has learned that during the national RWA conference at the end of July in Washington, D.C., the by-laws were amended with a change to RWA's code of ethics. Whereas section 3.2.8 previously stated that a member was said to have violated the ethics code if they engaged in "deliberate conduct that has, or is intended to have, a serious negative impact on a fellow member’s writing career," this section now states that the conduct does not have to be deliberate but merely "offensive."

Because the code of ethics already speaks to instances of plagiarism/copyright infringement, this particular part of the code strikes me as odd. Some RWA members think it may come to mean criticizing another person's work on the Internet or writing a negative review. Could discussions on lists such as aarlist be watered down or might authors be forced to post using false names to protect themselves? What of RWA members who review for online web sites such as ours? Some of our reviewers are indeed RWA members; we already maintain the privacy of one of our reviewers who is also a published author in order to protect her career. If her true identity were known, might she have to defend herself against charges of violating the RWA code of ethics if she negatively reviewed a book? We are aware of one author who did state in multiple on-line forums that our negative review of her 1999 release hurt her sales.

Nearly every month, Vanity Fair features an article wherein two well-known authors are known to be mad at one another for reviews printed in publications such as the New York Times Review of Books. And, though I am certainly not advocating the type of public brawl Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer were involved in at a long-ago P.E.N. function, criticism is a long-standing tradition in both literary and genre fiction. Do published romance authors need protection against their bretheren? Even if not intended as such, are we on the slippery slope to censorship? Does this unintentially set up women, once again, as victims who must be protected, even against themselves?

Earlier today I spoke with Allison Kelley, Executive Director of RWA. While she stated that the amendment was not intended to suppress reviews, she did indicate there was indeed "potential for abuse." She also stated that RWA is less restrictive than other writers' organizations in who is allowed to join as a general member with voting rights. She indicated that some members who say they are seriously pursuing a career as a romance novelist may have other goals in mind, whether they want to be agents or editors. RWA must, she stated, "come down on the side of romance authors," which may put an author/prospective author/reviewer at odds with another author.

I spoke with RWA Board member Carol Prescott last evening. She is responsible for drafting the change in the by-laws and answered all my questions about what Ms. Kelley had stated could have the "potential for abuse" in limiting freedom of expression. Her answer follows.

--Laurie Likes Books

Part II, August 9

Thanks for the opportunity to answer your questions concerning the recent change to RWA's Code of Ethics. As RWA's Bylaws Chairperson, I was responsible for proposing the change to the board, to bring to the membership. (I serve as one of two Region 6 Directors on the National Board). From reading your piece at All About Romance, I understand your major concern to be "Will reviewers who are RWA members be subject to censure (or worse) for posting negative reviews?"

The short answer is no. The "reasonable woman" standard that is inherent in "Offensive conduct that has, or is intended to have, a serious negative impact on a fellow member's writing career" is by necessity far higher than the act of writing any review, no matter how negative.

Now the long answer. While any RWA member may file a Code of Ethics complaint, the process of that complaint proceeding to a finding of a violation is far more complex. Following is a brief summary of the steps involved:

    1. RWA receives written complaint from member(s).
    2. Executive Committee (President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer) conducts preliminary investigation and "vets" complaint.
    3. Complaint dismissed or presented to full Board.
    4. Board discusses preliminary findings and nature of violation.
    5. Board vote to terminate or proceed with complaint.
    6. If proceeding, RWA's attorney advised, and an Ad Hoc committee may be appointed
    7. Committee reviews and makes recommendation to the Board to continue or terminate.
    8. If committee finds complaint is warranted, accused member is advised of the complaint and given an opportunity to respond in writing to the charges within a specified time.
    9. Board vote to confirm (2/3rds necessary) or dismiss violation charges.
    10. Penalties, if appropriate, are decided by the Board.
    11. President shall notify, in writing, all involved members of the decision, and the Executive Director shall implement penalties.
    12. Members found guilty of a violation will be notified that the appeals process is available.
    13. If member appeals, process starts over again with a new, randomly chose group of general members investigating.

As you can see, there are many opportunities along the way for a complaint to be dismissed. If you were to consult RWA's voting log over the last several years, the number of times that a complaint went all the way to a settlement or a censure could be counted on one hand. A finding of a Code of Ethics violation is limited to the most serious of cases.

The original bylaws clause was voted into existence by the membership after an author, who was also a board member at the time, was threatened by another member angry with a position she'd taken on an issue. The angry member vowed to write to the author's editor, and to have all her friends do the same, encouraging the editor not to purchase any more books from the author, and promising that the member and her friends would do everything in their power to ensure that no one purchased this author's books.

While many members saw this action as an obvious ethical breach, there was nothing in RWA's Code of Ethics that even remotely covered such actions. A bylaw was drafted, and approved by the membership.

Fast forward to Fall 1999. While discussing proposed bylaws changes with RWA's corporate attorney, we discussed the possibility that "deliberate" might not be the best word. After all, any member could say, "Well, I didn't really mean to..." and whatever actions she'd taken, and their results, wouldn't matter.

"Offensive" focuses on the action itself, as is appropriate in this circumstance. It does not take away from the members of the board their discretionary authority, or their obligation to act reasonably, prudently and in the best interests of the organization, an obligation that every past and present board member I have met has taken absolutely seriously.

Our membership overwhelmingly supported this change (90% of the members who voted approved it). In addition, in the time since the proposed changes were announced (February 2000), I've received very little comment from members, despite begging for input. One member who works as a reviewer asked a question similar to yours, and I believe my answer satisfied her. (Or exhausted her, I do tend to get long-winded about our members' rights and our board members' duties).

You asked: "Do published romance authors need protection against their brethren?" The optimistic me says no, but our members want the codification, even if it never needs to be used.

"Even if not intended as such, are we on the slippery slope to censorship?" I don't believe so. Organizationally, we have many safeguards, including the right to recall board members who attempt to violate members' rights.

"Does this unintentionally set up women, once again, as victims who must be protected, even against themselves?" No. What I believe we have happening here is that a society of (mainly) women is trying to codify acceptable behavior. Many studies have demonstrated that women tend to try to work things out, to negotiate, to compromise, rather than engage in direct conflict. It's a different organizational style, not victimhood.

I do hope this clarifies this issue for you and reassures you about our members' intentions in approving this change.

--Carol Prescott

Reactions from our Readers, August 15, some before, and some after Carol Prescott's response from RWA

Diane Farr:
Since LLB has already been told that the bylaw in question was not meant to apply to reviews, let's not get too excited about this. I think (putting on my former-paralegal-until-just-a-few-months-ago-when-I-finally-quit-my-day-job hat)that the rule probably is, actually, unenforceably vague. Unless and until RWA is able to define "offensive," something the Supreme Court has had trouble doing, I doubt if anyone will be expelled from RWA for offensive conduct.

On the other hand, RWA's impulse is probably a good one. Expulsion from membership is not exactly a draconian punishment. It sends a message but does not actually harm anyone. Although it is true that artists of any stamp are, willy-nilly, in the spotlight and "ought" to be able to take criticism, said artists are usually cursed with a temperament that makes them, of all mortals, the least able to stand criticism. Why is this?? I dunno. I plan to take it up with God someday. At any rate, jealousy and general craziness abound in the arts. And yes, it is not unheard of for writers to do ugly things to one another. Even well-established and rich writers make sick attempts to sabotage the work of other writers. (Just ask Nora Roberts.) Most of these ugly and petty things are perfectly legal, and are protected as free speech. This is as it should be. But it doesn't mean that RWA, which is in the business of protecting authors, has to condone it.

As for the bylaw being juvenile, I think it is the offensive conduct that is juvenile. And to whatever extent RWA can make a member think twice before indulging in a tantrum, this can only enhance our image. I hope.


TJ:
I think the issue is not that RWA is doing anything to silence anyone, but that some people are upset with RWA's positions on issues such as publisher recognition and royalty. Some of these people have been very hostile and spread rumors that aren't even true! This has caused major headaches and roadblocks for RWA board as it tries to find the best way to protect the author's rights. Furthermore, some of these people publicly called the board liars and conspirators. I think that this made the majority of the membership very upset. When the board wanted to change the by-law, most people supported it. That's a fact, and I know that some people are not happy w/ RWA for whatever reason, but it's not RWA's fault.


timlynn:
Did I hear correctly that Jayne Ann Krentz will not give interviews to this site because they contain negative reviews? I still can't help but think that this new by-law is an attempt to muzzle if not silence anyone who might write a negative review. It is shocking to me that romance authors are that sensitive that they would fear the effect of a reviewer's opinion. An author who was secure in her craft would not react in this manner and would welcome attempts to encourage the better writers and elevate the genre as a whole. I gave up on romantic times because they were lavish in their praise of every book ever written by a romance novelist.


LLB:
I have heard the "rumor" as well, but since this author has not communicated this to me personally, I have no way of determining whether or not it is true. I can say that, when last I checked her web site, there were links to some of our reviews. Whether they still exist, or whether this is fact or fiction, I really can't say.


Rana:
They are still there - all eight of them. I checked 4 of them to see it they worked, they did. One of them had a *NEW* by it.

(We have 19 reviews of JAK under all her names at AAR. She's received DIK status on seven. The lowest grade she's gotten at AAR? C-



Kleo:
It's not a rumor. Jean Mason was told at RWA by JAK that she would not do interviews with sites that do negative reviews (as romancereader.com also does) because that would amount to supporting a site that possibly negatively reviewed her friends. Here's the exact quote: "I got to talk to Jayne Ann Krentz up close and personal. She’s a gracious and charming lady with fiery red hair who is very supportive of her fellow authors. I asked her if she would do an interview for TRR but she felt she had to decline. She makes it her practice not to support sites that do negative reviews because some of the authors who receive such reviews are her friends."


TJ, in response to timlynn:
No. Negative reviews hurt, but it's never been a big issue at RWA. Nobody ever complained about negative reviews at the Board meeting. JAK says she won't do interviews w/ sites/publications that do negative reviews b/c she said some of the people who got neg reviews were her friends, and she doesn't want to endorse/support them by doing interviews w/ them. That's all she said, and that's her choice.

People like Nora Roberts, Lori Foster, etc. do interviews w/ all sites, including AAR. Nobody ever gave them a hard time about it. Please don't confuse the issue!


timlynn, in response to TJ:
And can I just say that I think that is complete crap. Now I like most JAK books, and Quick books, and put up with the Castle books. Hers were the first contemporaries I ever read. I respect her writing. But if this genre ever wants to get respect, it has to be prepared to accept real reviews, not bought and paid for a$$-kissing reviews like all those that don't do negative reviews. While this is about the art and craft of writing, it is also a business. People like some books. They don't like others. That is how mainstream fiction works, people. If you don't like it, don't publish, and certainly don't expect people to buy your product. This is not kindergaten where the teacher pats you on the head no matter what.

And more to the point, who gives a rat's a$$ about a review that comes from a site or magazine that doesn't do negative reviews? It means nothing if they like *everything*. If the most that romance aspires to be is just as good as the last Cassie Edwards, then no wonder no one respects this genre! I should hope that it should aspire to greater things - like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Morrison. Writers who have *real* reviews written about their pieces and who have demanded, through inspiring writing, that critics praise their work. Not just that they like them as much as the next guy (or the next Cassie Edwards). bravo Kleo! You took my point exactly and said all the things that I felt and did not express. This no interviews with representative of sites that do negative reviews bec because you hurt my friends is obviously a self rationalization because she fears the effect of a negative review on her sales. As you so articulately pointed out she is only hurting herself because setting standards so low that any writer no matter what skill level gets fabulous reviews then what incentive would there be to polish ones craft at all. The end result is that the romance genre gets no respect and her books will remain inferior in the eyes of the reading public as a whole.


Sarah:
Wow, I can't believe this is even an issue. I'm just a lowly reader, with no ties to the industry and I have a hard time believing this thread. I thought this was a free country with freedom of speech. If you are afraid of a bad review, then don't write. Are they going to start to sue Amazon.com next for people who pan a story? Laurie Likes Books is an independent web site, isn't it? (I don't know, I assume it is not funded by any publisher or book company). So as I said, I don't even understand why this is an issue at RWA. Can someone explain that to me, the neophyte reader?


Writer:
The people affected by this are unpublished writers who review romance novels and also belong to RWA and published RWA authors who review. The by-laws may also affect RWA members who post less than positive comments on the internet. Any of these people could, theoretically, be brought up before the board if a writer complained that the review had harmed her career.

In this the readers are left in the cold and no one, least of RWA seems to care that readers deserve objective reviews. What a shame if reviewers must make a choice between RWA membership and reviewing. Of course many reviewers may just decide that RWA is less important to them than their first amendment rights.


Sarah, in response to the anonymous Writer:
I still don't understand, then why bother reviewing at all if all reviews are going to be favorable? (I would like to think I could trust other authors to be honest in their thoughts on a story, but maybe there needs to just be outside, impartial reviewers anyway). There are already reviewers out there (I won't name names) who do that, (only give favorable reviews) and to be honest, I don't even bother reading their reviews anymore. Since they always give a book 4 or 5 stars what's the sense in reading them? As a reader, I really want to know whether a book is worth shelling out up to $7.00 for (in paper back).

It seems to me that an industry steeped in the 1st amendment wouldn't want to censor themselves. (That is what it sounds like RWA wants to do.) It seems as if they are afraid of what a bad review might do, as if the romance genre has to justify itself. Come on, its come a far way in the last 15 years, why the backslide now in confidence?


Kitty Vickers:
If you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen. If this were a statute it would certainly be void for vagueness... Of course, it isn't a statute and Free Speech doesn't apply. However, this is ridiculous. I can just see it know. Writer A in a review says that Writer B can't write her way out of a paper back. That is certainly offensive and if you think B can't write then you might very well want to see a negative impact on that writer's career or your comments might cause such an impact. People who engage in creative endeavors have to be able to handle criticsm, even devastating criticism, even unfair criticism. Frankly, I think it makes the romance genre and romance writers look juvenile and like they can't take criticism.


Brenda:
Although I did stick with RWA for one more year, I have had a hard time understanding some of the Board's actions of late. They seem to be of the attitude "all for me" rather than "one for all." This change really cuts the cake since I also do reviews. What does this mean to me (& all other reviewers)? Am I going to have to hide behind another name to review books for romance authors? Would it be fair?

Now I feel I must point out that I do tend to disagree with a majority of AAR's reviews for one reason or another. However, I also realize that not everyone is going to like the same book. Is that a crime? I don't think so. It just proves that everyone has different tastes.

We also need to remember those who search the reviews looking for the good/bad books also consider the source. It was mentioned that one of AAR's reviews hurt an author's sales. But a question comes to mind. How does the author know that it was AAR's review that hurt her sales? Is this the only review out there? It also comes to mind, since we consider the source of the review (ie the reviewer), that perhaps a glowing review could have been her downfall too.

Remember, I have no idea which book/review Laurie referred to in her commentary. I'm just stating that authors (or RWA) can't pick on a particular site (person) for loss of sales especially if many reviews are floating around for that particular book.

I personally don't mind saying I totally disagree with a highly respected romance reviewer. This means that if she gives a glowing review, I won't buy the book. On the other foot, if she gives a negative review, I probably will. Could have this happened with the book/review in question above?


LLB, in response to Brenda:
If AAR had as much power and influence as that author said we had, I'd have a coronary right here and now. The fact is, even though AAR is growing every day, our hits can't compare to larger sites or more commercial ones. And, we can't compare to print publications - remember, even though all of us are online, most of the world does not surf on over to AAR on a daily basis. I do think the influence of the 'Net is growing, but blaming bad sales on a bad review, I think, places the blame where it doesn't belong. If critics were all-powerful, why didn't more people go see the Roger Ebert-adored Eyes Wide Shut or stay away this past weekend from Hollow Man?


Kathy:
What I wonder is, how can this rule be enforced? To take it to a ridiculous extreme, a writer who writes better than I do could be said to be damaging to my career because she's winning over the editors instead of me. But aside from that, does this decision actually have any teeth to it?

I'm assuming violating the RWA code of ethics means a writer could be thrown out of the association but how devestating would that actually be for a writer's career? I've never bought a book by an author simply because he/she was a member of the Mystery Writers of America or the Science Fiction Writers of America (I'm not a mystery fan but I really, *really* like All About Romance *G*). Well, I did buy a book on writing mysteries by the members of the MWA, but non-fiction how-to is a different kettle of fish.

I know the SFWA votes on the Nebula award, which is pretty prestigious w/in the genre, but the works of non-members are still eligable..though I suppose if someone was drummed out of the SFWA for unethical conduct, they might never find their works nominated. Does RWA sponsor any awards?

On the whole, I agree that the wording of the change is too vague and potentially too open to abuse for comfort.


LLB, in response to Kathy:
Unless I'm even more naive than I thought (just ask my cynical husband!), I took Carol Prescott's words at face value when she said a review would never be considered as a violation of this section of the code of ethics. I wish I had spoken to her rather than the exec. director of RWA to begin with because when Ms. Kelley mentioned the "potential for abuse," it reall made the red flag stand at attention. But after talking w/Carol Prescott, I believe none of our reviewers are or could be in danger.

BTW, RWA awards the RITA for published authors and the Golden Heart for unpublished authors.


Kleo, in response to LLB:
I wouldn't rely too heavily upon Ms. Prescott's interpretation of the by-law. While I'm sure she means every word that she says, and she was obviously involved in drafting this by-law, hers is only an interpretation. The danger in having a rule like this is that it is so broad, and any later person (or board members, as the case may be) can come along and interpret it differently than Ms. Precott intends it to be interpreted. Clearly even the current Executive Director would be open to a more broad interpretation than Ms. Precott's.

I understand Ms. Prescott's wish to focus this rule on the potentially offending behavior, and the determination that it was offensive, rather than on the intent behind the behavior. But it is wrong to think that the term "deliberate" would not include instances like that which she described where a member was bad-mouthing another member to an editor. Proof of intent is not whether a person admits to an intent to do something, as Ms. Prescott claims (and this makes sense - no one is going to say they *intended* to do something bad if it will get them in trouble). Instead, proof of intent is in the actions themselves. In the case Ms. Prescott described, while it might be a little more difficult to prove that the bad-mouther intended to hurt the bad-mouthee, it isn't anywhere near impossible - because what other possible intent could she have (especially considering what the bad-mouther was essentially saying to the bad-mouthee's editor was: don't buy her books - this demonstrates an obvious intent to hurt someone's career). Proof of deliberateness already focuses on the conduct; the rule that was adopted opens RWA up to a wide variety of interpretations of what is "offensive".

By focusing on "the action", as Ms. Prescott says the rule is supposed to do, the rule instead leaves the interpretation of that conduct up to whoever is reading the rule at the time. This is both vague, and imprecise. It also does *not* preclude targeting reviewers who write negative reviews. Which means that, regardless of what Ms. Prescott thinks, the rule could be used by someone to target those reviewers.

Ms. Prescott further defends her rule by saying that "a society of (mainly) women is trying to codify acceptable behavior." She argues that this is not censorship and that it's not meant to set women up as victims. Well, personally, that looks like censorship: it's not "acceptable" to say those things, it's not "acceptable" to do those things. That is the essence of censorship. Further, writers wouldn't need this rule if they didn't feel that they were being victimized. I think it's disingenuous of Ms. Prescott to say that this rule isn't meant to protect romance writers from each other - of course it is! That's exactly why it was enacted in the first place - one board member needed protection from an angry writer.

Calling this a "different organizational style" is also not addressing the issue. A "different organizational style" would be to set up a mediation between the board member and the bad-mouther, trying to reach a consensus involving a compromise. Saying that you're going to kick someone out for bad-mouthing someone - that is the essence of conflict. And it certainly is not a compromise, or a different organizational style. Well, unless by "different organizational style" she means fascism.

Additionally, it is not a defense to say that everyone voted on this and so it must be OK. The majority wins with numbers, but is not always right. History teaches us that, with glaring examples - the massacre of Native Americans, slavery, not allowing women the vote - all of these are examples where the majority supported something that we now consider to be wrong. It is not only the majority's duty to decide issues and vote on them, but to consider whether they *should* vote a certain way. This is an example where might does not make right, and insisting that it does takes away from underlying issues that the by-law's detractors are taking up.

Ms. Prescott's attempt to rely on the existence of what is essentially an appeals process to support the by-law also fails. The existence of an appeals process in the U.S. criminal justice system by no means supports laws that impose cruel and unusual punishments. This argument does not go to the merits of the rule at all, but rather throws out a red herring by stating that the first decision is not the final decision. This is irrelevant - if the rule is too vague and is open to abuse, it remains so regardless of whether there is a long drawn-out appeals process.

Frankly, I am appalled at what RWA is doing, and at their defenses, their disingenuousness and their obvious internal miscommunication about what this rule is intended to do. I also don't see that RWA even had to get involved in that board member's bad-mouthing experience - since when do editors take advice from obviously pissed off people. And further, since when did a by-law of a group like this ever stop someone with clout and friends in high places from placing a discrete call to one of those friends. You can't tell me that RWA wasn't extra interested in this subject precisely because the "victim" was a board member. This is a serious case of RWA overreacting to the petty disagreements and underhanded dealings of some of its members, and sacrificing clear, fair rulemaking along the way.

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