Holocaust Romance Fuels Fiery Debate in the US

As my critique partner says, ‘only eight more sleeps to conference’. All around Australia romance writers are dusting out suitcases, making last minute wardrobe adjustments and praying that Vistaprint deliver on time!

In the run up to our conference, the RITA awards shortlists at the Romance Writers of America conference has stirred up some hotly debated controversy in the book world. Influential blogger Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books criticised RWAmerica for short-listing Kate Breslin’s novel For Such a Time in two categories, best first book and best inspirational romance. The book is about a relationship between a Jewish prisoner and a Nazi officer in charge of a concentration camp. Although it didn’t win any awards, the book’s premise offended many for a number of reasons including the imbalance of power hanging over the relationship and the fact that the Jewish prisoner converts to Christianity by the end of the story.

To put it mildly, I don’t see this set-up as an imbalance of power that could possibly be redeemed in a romance narrative, nor do I think the setting and characterisation remotely romantic. But I think this issue is much broader than my individual opinion,’ wrote Wendell.

In response, RWAmerica’s board said that ‘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.’

The line between ethical behaviour and freedom of speech is a fragile one. I understand the outrage of my Jewish friends. However, I can also think of other topics aired in romance novels that certain conservative groups would like to see banned, such as issues of gender, sexual preference and sexual activity preference. Where does one draw the line? What do you think?

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8 Comments

  1. I think we can safely say a line should be drawn at redeeming genocide. No reasonable person would say mass murder and sexual preference amount to the same thing.

    Reply
    • Except that in Hitler’s time mass murder was also applied to people with ‘non mainstream’ sexual preferences. The numbers were not as large as the Jewish holocaust but the motives were just as appalling.

      Reply
  2. Alexis Hall wrote what I think is a good analysis of the ‘For Such a Time’ controversy in terms of the RITA judging process, and of the ‘value’ of becoming a RITA finalist – http://www.quicunquevult.com/laws-sausages-the-ritas.

    One point he makes is that RITA entries are judged by people who have self selected as having an interest in specific sub genres, and that in terms of its sub genre, ‘For Such a Time’ probably ticks a lot of boxes. Clearly it does – in becoming a finalist list in two RITA categories, the book has made it blindingly obvious that there are many romance writers (and readers) out there who thought it was a great read, and who have no awareness of how ethically problematic it is to rewrite history in a way that romanticises the commander of a concentration camp (or of how inappropriate it is to subsume Jewish belief to Christian agendas, particularly in a story based around the Holocaust … and all the rest of it).

    The controversy (maybe) could have been ‘fixed’ by RWA exec (somehow) denying the book entry to the RITAs – however there would still be a whole bunch of writers and readers out there who loved the book, and who would be unable to understand why it warranted such exclusion. At a guess, their response would be outrage that the RITAs had been hijacked by the PC brigade…

    It’s better – I think – that the controversy has indeed erupted – providing definitive evidence of the status quo – providing further evidence to support the RWA’s current baby steps towards developing a game plan to address the systemic obliviousness to diversity that pervades Romancelandia.

    Reply
  3. I agree with Sami Lee, there’s a big difference between romanticising the perpetrators of systematic genocide (Nazis) and romanticising people with non-mainstream sexual identities. The latter is inclusive and promotes equity, while the former, well, that’s been discussed elsewhere.

    Reply
  4. And yet, isn’t it possibe everyone has some redeeming feature? Is a camp commandant so evil he cannot feel love in some form? People change their faith all the time. Judaism is one faith that is open to change, like many others. I like that this subject is being explored. I may find it difficult to read or deal with, but under no circumstances would I ban it from open discussion and definitely not from the RITA, or any other, award.

    Reply
  5. merriank

     /  August 13, 2015

    I have to answer Claire with a resounding yes, the evil of someone who is an active participant in genocide is not redeemable. He may repent but his actions still stand and can never be undone. The book bends over backwards to find ways of excusing Aric’s actions and willful involvement. The evangelical Christian approach to figures like the so called hero of this story seems to equate redemption with wiping out the memory and actuality of their actions which also means ignoring and denigrating the losses and impact on the victims. Just because you are sorry doesn’t mean you must be forgiven or are forgivable.

    Assuming that redemption = being forgiven is actually a common failing of many romances I think – there is often a rush to forgiveness as part of the HEA that amounts to skipping over the wrongs done and their impact because if they were truly faced and acknowledged there would have to be change.

    I also think the way this story was told is an act of appropriation, of taking something from people who have already been victimised. It is an act of marginalisation of pushing aside people from their own story. Ultimately it is anti-Semitic because of this and because it presents all the characters as if they were 21st century evangelical Christians in thought, implying through this that there is only one way of thinking and being in the world.

    Reply
  6. Pat Haggerty

     /  August 13, 2015

    Please. This entire “For Such a Time” uproar annoys me to no end. It’s yet another example of societal pressures surrounding taboo topics gone awry. In this case the topics being the double whammy of Judaism and the holocaust.

    Let’s start with the Rita’s. The book was entered in a single category: Inspirational Romance. It was then auto entered in Best First Book because that’s what it was. The idea that it should have been rejected because of the subject matter is absurd. It should NEVER be the place of the Romance Writers of America to censor entries. You have a book, you make the deadline, you pay your fee, then you get entry. The book is then read by 5 judges in that genre. If 3 or more reject said book because it doesn’t meet the criteria set out by RWA for romance in that particular genre, then the book is disqualified. Other than that, it’s judged.

    And why are people surprised that 5 Inspirational Romance judges seemed to like the book. They’re not alone. When this whole thing first hit the fan, I headed over to Amazon to check the book out. At that time “For Such a Time” had close to a 4.5 star rating and about 250 reviews. Not shabby. It also had a stared review from RT and from the Library journal. The people (inspirational romance readers) reading the book seemed to be fans. Now it’s slipped to 4 stars and I see a number of 1 star reviews that say something like, “I haven’t read this book but it’s anti-Semitic!” I always love reviews like that. But I don’t know why I’m surprised. Most of the people criticizing the book have never read it.

    So why has this book pissed off so many people? Mostly, it’s the subject matter. There seems to be this false impression that’s all too common today that writing about jews in the holocaust is somehow sacrosanct. It can be done but only a particular way. The idea of a Christian woman writing a Christian themed book about a jew and a concentration camp officer? Sacrilege! Worse, anti-Semitic!

    Seriously?

    If the man were a catholic leader in the Spanish inquisition, that would be ok. If he were a white plantation owner and she a slave; touchy because of the other common flashpoint, race, but probably ok. If he were a warlord that had slaughtered village after village, that would be ok (I think I’ve read that one). If he were the head of a gulag in 1950s Russia, that would be ok. But because he’s the officer in charge of a holocaust death camp, and she’s a jew? Oh no. Now it’s crossed the line. What crap. This is fiction folks. I’ve taken many writing classes where they told me to torture my characters. Where they advised me to ask myself, “What’s the most insurmountable problem that you can use to keep your couple apart?” Jewish chick – death camp officer. Damn, I don’t see any way to make that work. I like it already.

    The other complaint I keep hearing is about the “magic bible” which seems to appear as needed. Um, hello, Inspirational Romance? I think some of those readers might see that as a type of miracle. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a huge IR fan myself but I’ve read a few and miracles do happen in them. A bible that appears as needed is nothing to some of the things I’ve read.

    My favorite of all complaints against the book however is the idea that a holocaust death camp officer is somehow unredeemable. Even better, that to even suggest such a thing somewhere between disrespectful and anti-Semitic. Um, no. Perhaps someone should look redemption up in a dictionary and think about how it applies in christianity. See, I went to the all catholic boys school run by priests who had escaped from Hungry in 56. I knew a man who had been a Nazi soldier before he became a priest. I also knew the priests who had been sent to the death camps for their beliefs, both in Germany and in Russia. I heard about types of torture, I saw the scars, and the tattoos, and I heard stories of forgiveness. Again, in an Inspirational romance, this is a big theme. And I sure hate it for you but no one is beyond redemption. Even death camp officers.

    The problem is when you confuse redemption of a person’s soul with culpability of a person in society. I’m catholic. We’re big on forgiveness and salvation of your soul while your ass belongs in jail (or purgatory).

    Look y’all, if the idea of a blond haired, blue-eyed jewess falling in love with the head of her concentration camp bothers you, then don’t buy the damn book. But don’t storm off to social media and lambast the book and the author, tossing around terms like “unredeemable” and “anti-Semitic.” Don’t send messages to RWA talking about how hurtful it is that the book was ever accepted as an entry. Grow up. You live in a modern society and any bit of history is fair game when it comes to fiction.

    Seriously, do you want censorship? Is that what some people are advocating here? If so, perhaps you need to do a little research on where that inevitably ends.

    Reply

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