RWAus media statement – 24 August 2023
Romance writers have grown a thick skin against the titters in the room or raised eyebrows when we say what we write. We’re used to being asked questions about ‘inspiration’ and ‘research’, and an unhealthy curiosity about our paychecks even though romance is the highest-earning genre of fiction with an average over $1.44 billion USD in revenue world-wide each year.
What we won’t accept is the ableism and discrimination we witnessed in The Drum’s segment that went to air on Thursday 17 August 2023.
The segment featured Steffanie Holmes, a successful entrepreneur, and USA Today best-selling author. She writes and independently publishes dark, gothic, paranormal romance, and was a keynote speaker at the Romance Writers of Australia conference held recently in Sydney.
Steffanie is also legally blind. At the conference she talked about growing up as the ‘blind, weird kid’ and how bullying throughout her childhood laid the foundation for her writing. Her 33rd novel – Shunned – hit the Amazon best-seller list at #22 world-wide.
The Drum host Ellen Fanning was condescending throughout the piece. Steffanie explained that she had completed an Archaeology degree and travelled the world, but the place she was volunteering at wasn’t willing to employ her because her disability made her a ‘health and safety risk’.
“I love the plot twist where you come to the serious sci-fi thing, you do horribly with it, somebody puts out a ghastly book called 50 Shades of Grey and you think – I could do that!” Fanning said.
Fixating on Steffanie moving from sci-fi to writing lucrative sex-books, Fanning missed the real message here: that Steffanie had a total career change due to workplace discrimination. She then compared Steffanie’s work to 50 Shades of Grey, calling it ‘ghastly’, despite it being the world’s highest selling romance novel with over 150 million copies sold since publication.
“Now. Let’s assume that you can do that based on how successful you are,” Fanning continued. “How did you turn that into something that pays for the groceries and not only that has made you a very wealthy woman?”
There’s no assumption. Steffanie Holmes is a best-selling indie author powerhouse. She’s a sought-after speaker, an educated and intelligent entrepreneur, and an icon for so many people wanting to build a successful career.
And why does it always come back to women earning enough to ‘buy the groceries’? Why are we still surprised when we learn that creative people – and it seems women in particular – are earning a decent living from their talent, skills, and expertise? Why do we think that groceries are the biggest concern for an entrepreneur who is writing and publishing her own books and paying for professional editors, cover designers, and more?
Fanning then asked how much money Steffanie made in the month of July. This isn’t an acceptable question to ask somebody at a barbeque, let alone on national television! The other author on the panel, Dinesh Palipana OAM, wasn’t asked how much money his book made in July, nor were any of the other panellists asked about their personal earnings.
Amongst many other accomplishments, Dinesh was the second person to graduate medical school with quadriplegia in Australia and is now a doctor, lawyer, and disability advocate. Awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2019, Dinesh was also the Queensland Australian of the Year in 2021. But Fanning’s side-step to him didn’t reflect any of that.
“Now Dinesh,” she began, “I have to tell you that Steffanie’s heroine is a blind woman! And Steffanie shifts huge amounts of these books, such that she’s brought over here to advise other people on how to shift these books, because they’ve inverted the narrative! She doesn’t have to go and sell it like you did to some person at Pan Macmillan and say ‘Hey! I’m gonna write the story of my life! I’m this quadriplegic doctor, commission me!’. Isn’t that librerating, Danesh?!”
How is what Steffanie is doing in the indie publishing world ‘liberating’ to Dinesh? He has a contract with one of the most well-respected international publishing houses in the industry! And what does the team over at Pan Macmillan think about the insinuation that they are contracting authors out of pity or to tick diversity boxes?
The ABC has a reputation for fair reporting and a Code of Conduct that commits to reporting without ‘the unjustified use of stereotypes or discriminatory content that could reasonably be interpreted as condoning or encouraging prejudice’. Yet Fanning was amazed at the idea of a blind character leading a novel–and staggeringly– felt comfortable voicing those comments on air.
Why is it so extraordinary that a blind woman should be a heroine in a romance novel? Why should it be so strange that ‘these books’ sell a lot of copies, or that people want to listen to the educated entrepreneur who wrote them? Fanning misguidedly implies that trashy books make more money but lack artistic merit, and can be written by just about anyone.
Just when we think things are improving in terms of disability representation in romance, it’s interviews like these that remind us just how far we have to go. If a national television host can display such appalling behaviour, the work is clearly just beginning.
We’re challenging this narrative to prove that everyone is deserving of love – romantic and otherwise – in their lives. We’re working on preventing the type of breathy giggles that escaped Ellen throughout her interview, and the way she told Malcolm Farr, a political journalist, he ‘could write romance for those numbers’ (a reference to Steffanie’s income) even though he had said off-air he doesn’t even read it.
But first it seems like we have to continue to fight for basic decency and respect.
ABC Code of Conduct Breach
Harm and Offence
7.7 Avoid the unjustified use of stereotypes or discriminatory content that could reasonably be interpreted as condoning or encouraging prejudice.
Resources for journalists
Media Disability Australia’s Disability Reporting Handbook – Media Diversity Australia – a practical guide for journalists.