Nazi-Inmate Romance Novel Inspires Outcry, Soul-Searching in Romance World

Just a few weeks after a YA novel about a white girl in Korea sparked a discussion about appropriation and racism in that genre, there’s a new controversy in the romance-writing world.

Kate Breslin’s For Such a Time, a Christian (or “inspirational”) romance novel by a Christian author from a Christian publishing house that re-imagines the Book of Esther as a romance between a (blonde, blue-eyed) Jewish concentration camp inmate and a Nazi, was nominated for two RITAs, which is the major Romance Writers’ Associations award. Many writers are none too happy, particularly given that such a relationship could never be consensual — and that the book uses the New Testament as a tool to help its troubled heroine. As the guest reviewer at romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books notes:

The reality of Aric’s relationship with Hadassah is that, at all times, he holds her life in his hands — and they both know it. In that context, his repeated expressions of desire for Hadassah and his penchant for grabbing and kissing her aren’t just your standard romance dubious-consent hash, but are an incredible, intolerable abuse of his power.

The review continues: “Did I find it troubling that, particularly in a novel about the Holocaust, the specter of conversion to Christianity was so central in ‘saving’ the Jewish heroine? Uh. Yes.” For some context: while (as I and other Jewish writers have noted) American Jews have achieved a tremendous amount of social and cultural privilege, including mainstream status in some arenas, these kinds of appropriating narratives, which misuse Jewish historical strife or traditions to bolster Christian-centric stories, are lingering examples of ignorance and marginalizing.

This week, Jewish and other diverse and concerned genre writers on Twitter and Tumblr have expressed their dismay. Certainly, from an outsider’s perspective, it appears to be a real moment of reckoning for a genre that has a strong and largely white, Christian subset, a tradition which may inadvertently marginalize other cultural and religious points of view.

Since the conversation is happening among professional  writers, the open letters, Tumblr posts, and essays on this topic make for a very powerful group of reads. “If that’s your definition of a romantic hero… I have no words for you. I didn’t realize that genocide turned so many people on,” wrote Katherine Locke. “The fact that this book was nominated in two categories is deeply hurtful, and I believe creates an environment where writers of faiths other than Christianity, not just Jewish writers, feel unwelcome,” wrote Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books in an open letter on her own blog. “It certainly had that effect on me, because I don’t understand exactly how so many judges agreed that a book so offensive and insensitive was worthy of the RWA’s highest honor.”

And the issue goes beyond the single book. Another writer, Corinna Wilson, described her own experience submitting to a contest:  “I have [a] Jewish heroine in my steampunk. In a major RWA contest (not the Ritas), I received a judge’s comments back that questioned why the heroine had to be Jewish. The judge went onto say that I needed a *reason* for the heroine to be Jewish,” she wrote.  And another Tumblr response to the controversy placed it in a wider context, speaking to casual racism at the RWA conference and noting that “many authors of colors who attended, some for the first time, are coming back with mixed feelings.” Jezebel recently profiled some of the writers of color who are pushing for diversity in the genre.

So, by all appearances, a storm is brewing, similar to the one that started #WeNeedDiverseBooks in the YA community—  as well as a still-brewing blowup in the science fiction/fantasy community. In that genre subgroup, a surge in diverse books receiving Hugo Awards resulted in an an anti-diversity backlash by a group calling itself the Sad Puppies. The fallout from that schism is still being felt.

Though each possesses its own unique styles and internal dynamics, these genre communities are facing a changing environment — one in which cultural sensitivity (at the very least) is being demanded of authors, editors, and publicists who will have to adjust. Fictional narratives, whether they’re about future worlds or past ones, fantasy fulfillment and inspiring happy endings or bleak visions of the world, are extremely vital to those who consume them. And the current battles raging within those communities are reflective of what’s happening in the culture at large, from online spaces like Reddit to the halls of Congress.

A diversity committee is now being formed by the RWA. The question that remains is whether there will be some genuine soul-searching among members about the stories we tell — and the ones we don’t want to hear.