The Romance Writers of America national organization is at the heart of a heated controversy right now. A book marketed in the “Inspirational Romance” category was nominated as a finalist for the RITA (the Academy Award or Edgar of the romance field) in two categories: Best Inspirational Romance and Best First Romance Novel. This book did not win either category, but many members of RWA were upset that it was a finalist.
Here’s why. This novel is the story of a “blonde, blue-eyed” Jewish woman who is imprisoned by the Nazis, first in Dachau and then in Teresienstadt concentration camps, and her “romance” with the Nazi commandant of Teresienstadt, who saves her from Dachau so he can have her as his secretary and lover in Teresienstadt and redeems her by converting her to Christianity. It is supposedly based on the story of Esther from the Old Testament—you know, that same Esther who triumphed over genocidal anti-Semites through connecting with and proudly defending her Jewish faith.
As you may be able to see immediately, there are a few problems with this scenario. 1) This “love affair” can’t be consensual. The commandant has control over her very life and whether she will be tortured, as so many were. There were many women who were coerced under these circumstances to have sex with the Nazis running the camps. We don’t refer to these relationships as “romances” but as rapes. 2) RWA itself states in its guidelines for its awards that there must be a happy ending with “emotional justice” for the characters. Tough to have “happily ever after” (or as RWA calls it, HEA) with the man who has just been involved in killing many of your relatives and friends. Genocide doesn’t lend itself well to “emotional justice.” 3) Given the millennia of forced conversions Jews have endured, before, during, and after the Holocaust, the glorious redemption of the protagonist through her conversion to Christianity while in a Nazi concentration camp is extremely problematic.
Many people have called this novel anti-Semitic. They have a good point. Others have called it offensive. They also have a good point. My biggest problem with this novel is that the author (both of which I’m not naming in this blog since I don’t want to send it/her any more internet traffic, good or bad, but if you want to know more, it’s easy to find if you look at the photo) has been lazy. As my husband pointed out, this situation is very like the similar novels, many of them romances, which I’ve had to deal with where the authors have wanted to use a “Native” character without doing any work to find out anything about that character’s tribe or the truth of their history or experience. Like those authors, this writer has applied every offensive stereotype out there, too lazy to do any real research, and basically dismissing genocide as okay or unimportant.
I don’t believe in censorship, and I’m not trying to say that this author should not have been allowed to write this book. It's not really a question of whether the author should have written the book or not (though I must say if it were me, I would be ashamed to have written such a poorly researched, shoddy thing). Bad books are written and published every day. What I question is the reviewers and judges who decided this was a possible prizewinner. What I question is the 5-star reviews on GoodReads where the readers say they think Nazi officers have been given too hard a time by history and that being in a concentration camp wasn't so bad. (Of 140,000 who were imprisoned in Theresienstadt, only 17,000 survived.)
Romantic Times, the major journal for romance fiction, made it a Top Pick. Library Journal gave it a starred review. The professional writers who served as judges for the RITAs named it a finalist in two categories. What I want to know is how this kind of thing can happen?
What do you think about this situation?