The Vivian Awards, Rebranded, Step in it Anyway

An romance-award-winning book blames the Sioux for the Massacre at Wounded Knee

The Romance Writers of America (RWA) held their annual Vivian Awards earlier this week, but the big story has been less about the winners in general and more one winner specifically. The victor in the Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements category, At Loves’s Command by Karen Witemeyer, just had its win rescinded. It’s an unprecedented move, although technically speaking, any move would be unprecedented as these are the first Vivian Awards. Only just last year, the RWA changed the formerly titled RITA Awards after their founding African-American member Vivian Stephens in a rebranding effort. The RWA was suffering from some serious allegations of racism after it censured member Courtney Milan for publicly accusing fellow RWA member Kathryn Lynn Davis for espousing harmful stereotypes of Chinese women in her book Somewhere Lies the Moon in 2019.

What the RWA had hoped would be ancient history reared its ugly head again as the inaugural Vivian Awards outright honored a completely different set of stereotypes in At Love’s Command. The 1890’s era romance stars as its lead heartthrob ex-cavalry officer Matthew Hangar, who leads a band of mercenaries called Hangar’s Horsemen that defends the innocent and obtains justice for the oppressed. In his backstory, he participates in the the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

On paper this concept isn’t exactly irredeemable. A genocidal criminal who wallows in guilt but tries to achieve redemption via good deeds is exactly the kind of hero your typical romance novel fan swoons over. And even referencing the Massacre at Wounded Knee would seem to be worth some woke points, right?

The trouble is that Witemeyer goes out of her way to actually blame the natives for what happened. Sure, the cavalrymen were the ones who shot the guns, murdered the children. But when you think about it, this was just a routine weapons confiscation until that Sioux holy man started dancing around and encouraging those younger more impulsive braves to pick a fight. By defining the massacre as tragic, but still basically the fault of the natives, Witemeyer is only a slight improvement over the then-contemporary news culture that used the exact same rationalization. In an even bigger twist, those passages highlighted in the link above date to April–back when the RWA first announced its Vivian finalists. How could this happen?

Vivian Awards

The RWA, to be fair, did respond quickly. They rescinded the award for At Love’s Command on August 4th following an emergency meeting by the board in response to the controversy. But then that’s just engaging in a different kind of cluelessness. This is too little too late. To people outside the romance novel subculture this moment will continue to live in infamy, just like the Courtney Milan censure did, because the media isn’t going to reference the rescission as widely as it does the response.

But in broader terms, the RWA is a bit of a dinosaur just because its members  tend to lean toward actually reading and writing books, and aren’t all that active on social media. Despite the superficial similarities, the At Love’s Command controversy differs significantly from the Cops Vs. Monsters controversy Cynthia Pelayo has undergone, because At Love’s Command actually exists. You could, if you so chose, go out and read it. Cops Vs. Monsters is just an announced series that aroused outrage solely based on its title. In a sense Pelayo invited controversy just by being active in the political circles likely to take offense. Karen Witemeyer, by contrast, doesn’t even have a Twitter account.

Being educated is likewise no safeguard against insensitivity. Among the RWA’s ambitious proposals to deal with their racism problem was a requirement for judges to watch a training video designed to help insure the judges were properly informed as to their own biases. In a classic case of missing the forest for the trees, such training likely worked to Witemeyer’s favor. Of the four men in Witemeyer’s band throughout the story proper, one was an African-American who likely completely deflected attention away from the genocidal premise.

All of this underscores the absurdity of Hangar’s Horsemen being an obvious A-Team pastiche. Which goes back to the issue of how dated the book feels. While you certainly can critique the A-Team from a racial perspective, most critical discussion today doesn’t go beyond the surface level. Even when it comes to honoring a commercial product like romance novels, a little critical thinking goes a long way.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

6 thoughts on “The Vivian Awards, Rebranded, Step in it Anyway

  • August 6, 2021 at 8:57 am

    The book “Somewhere Lies the Moon” was not written by Susan Tisdale. It was by Kathryn Lynn Davis.

    Typical romance fans do not swoon over genocidal heroes. Where did you get that idea?

    RWA members are extremely active on social media. Where did you get the idea that they weren’t? Just because Karen Witemeyer is not on Twitter (she does have a Facebook page), that doesn’t mean many, many other RWA members are not. (This would be like saying that horror writers aren’t on social media because horror author Bentley Little avoids social media.)

    • August 6, 2021 at 1:17 pm

      I phrased that poorly. My apologies. What I meant was, that Twitter as a social media tends to attract a certain kind of highly political userbase. Obviously romance writers are active on other kinds of social media, just like most writers have to be in order to cultivate readers.

      I also did not mean to imply that romance fans tend to swoon over genocidal heroes, but rather heroes that are attempting to redeem themselves. Indeed, this was the original defense the RWA used for defending At Love’s Command before rescinding the award. The book’s hewing to this particular theme is likely what allowed it to appeal to judges in the spiritual category.

      The great irony of this situation is that, if not for the prologue implicitly blaming the Lakota for the Wounded Knee Massacre, I doubt there would have been much controversy. If Witemeyer had just decided to leave the context as a suitably vague “they were there and quit the army soon thereafter” most readers would just assume they left in disgust and remorse. There was no need to make a both sides argument for the massacre itself. If anything it undermines the larger redemption arc.

      • August 6, 2021 at 3:54 pm

        “I also did not mean to imply that romance fans tend to swoon over genocidal heroes”

        You didn’t IMPLY it. You stated it outright: “A genocidal criminal who wallows in guilt but tries to achieve redemption via good deeds is exactly the kind of hero your typical romance novel fan swoons over.”

        What a trash take. Seriously. Get someone who understand the genre to write an article like this, or don’t write it at all.

  • August 6, 2021 at 3:51 pm

    “A genocidal criminal who wallows in guilt but tries to achieve redemption via good deeds is exactly the kind of hero your typical romance novel fan swoons over.”

    Oh, FUCK this. As a romance reader and a romance writer, seriously, this is a trash take and you should be ashamed of yourself.

    • August 6, 2021 at 6:13 pm

      I would point your attention to the context of the larger piece. I an discussing RWA judges, who are derived from the general membership, choosing to honor a book where the lead character participated in the Wounded Knee Massacre. I am also discussing a subgenre of historical romance fiction that has long fetishized a frontier life which was inherently genocidal.

      There is no way to write about this story that doesn’t involve making negative suggestions about the people who read or write romance fiction. I hold you no ill will as someone who does either.


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