A Christian inspirational romance novel that retells the Book of Esther, setting it in a Nazi concentration camp with the main characters being a German guard and his Jewish prisoner, was nominated for two industry awards by the Romance Writers of America, or RWA. Adding insult to injury (and straying quite a bit from the Book of Esther I remember, though I guess it is hard to catch all the nuances with the groggers going off and the copious drinking) is that the heroine’s salvation comes about via her conversion to Christianity.
Interestingly, nothing was said about the book’s nomination during the annual RWA conference, which took place in New York City in July. (I stopped by to visit a friend and can confirm a dearth of stormtrooper uniforms and/or other Nazi paraphernalia.) The outcry popped up later, with essays on popular blogs which moved the conversation to Twitter and other social media.
Sarah Weinman, of Publishers Marketplace (Jewish, in case you’re keeping track), observed to me personally (not speaking for her publication or the industry as a whole):
“The backlash and controversy, in part, illustrates the worst-case-scenario of what happens when something is meant for a specific audience — in this case, those who primarily read Christian romances and seek such stories — and ends up reaching a more mainstream one that sees greater context the original audience completely missed. I’ve no idea why Bethany House thought a story of redemption-through-conversion at a concentration camp could ever be seen as anything other than in poor taste, but I hope we get to hear from everyone involved in the publication of the book so they can better explain it.”
That has yet to happen, but the RWA did issue a statement asserting, “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.”
My first romance novel, ”The Fictitious Marquis, “ came out exactly 20 years ago, in the summer of 1995. It was set in Regency England and featured (spoiler alert) a high-society young woman hiding her Jewish heritage. It did not, for the record, end with a conversion to Christianity. Quite the opposite, actually.
What that means is, I’ve been dealing with the issue of Jews in “mainstream” romance novels for quite a bit.
A fellow writer, Corinna Lawson, was quoted as saying, ”I have [a] Jewish heroine in my steampunk. In a major RWA contest (not the Ritas), I received a judge’s comment back that questioned why the heroine had to be Jewish. The judge went on to say that I needed a ‘reason’ for the heroine to be Jewish.”
This is certainly true to my experience. While in “The Fictitious Marquis,” the heroine being Jewish was critical to the plot, in my 2000 contemporary romance, “When a Man loves a Woman,” it wasn’t. So all references to the lead couple being Jewish were cut out. I call them my Marannos.
The question at hand is whether the RWA was right in allowing this particular book to rise as high as it did in its nomination and awards process?
On the one hand, I agree with their board of directors. I will not support censorship in any form, especially when it comes to the voices of women, who have historically already been amply marginalized. If the book was entered properly, it deserved to be treated like any other submission. No one should have the right to swoop down from on high and mandate its expulsion.
On the other hand, I can see why many found the content offensive. I find it offensive. A Nazi guard who literally holds the heroine’s life in his hands and who takes advantage of his position by constantly groping her isn’t romantic, it’s disgusting. It’s rape. (That said, I am aware that romance novels have a long and checkered history of rapist heroes. I was never a fan, but it’s definitely a subgenre, let’s not fool ourselves about that.)
I didn’t read the book, so I don’t know what exactly motivates the heroine’s conversion to Christianity. If she does it defensively, to save her life — frankly, who am I to judge, under the circumstances? If she does it for the “hero” and/or because she comes to accept that her current suffering is a result of her not having accepted Jesus into her heart, then if I may say so, bleeeeeeech. (Can you tell I’m a writer and possess a skilled way with words?)
You may have noticed that I have yet to mention the book by name. It’s not an oversight.
I will never support censorship. But I am also against offering free publicity to topics and products that I find offensive. The book is doing quite well on Amazon. I have to presume the past few days have done wonders for its sales. That I won’t be a party to.
I understand that people are hurt, offended, and angry. I understand that they feel the need to articulate that anger, in many cases quite eloquently. But I won’t be joining in. I don’t want to make people currently unaware of the book aware of it. I don’t want to reward the author via royalties, and I don’t want her ideas propagated to those who might find them appealing. (The same reason why, every time Donald Trump says something offensive, I won’t proceed to repeat it dozens of times for those who might have missed it. This is why I no longer work in network news.)
But I will say one more thing: In all the breast beating and soul searching, it is important not to fall into the trap of believing that just because one book was released by one Christian publishing company that it is the widely held opinion of all.
As Susan Dansby, an Emmy Award-winning soap-opera writer and avid romance reader (and, oh yeah, the friend I was meeting at RWA) stated firmly about the distasteful theme, “Being forced to deny who you are in order to be ‘saved’ is, for this particular romantic Christian, the antithesis of true love … and the antithesis of Christianity.”