Monday, April 1, 2019

A Letter to RWA...No Foolin'

Happy April Fools' Day!

Mother Nature loves to play little tricks on us every year right about this time in the form of a final snowstorm. This year was no exception. Hello, Spring Mini-blizzard 2019.


But the flip side of this little prank is that it means we've probably seen our last snow for the season, and the extra moisture is soooo good for all the flowers and greenery that are fixing to bloom, though not so great for the crocuses, daffodils, and trees that have already budded. Believe me, in an area that averages about 17 inches of rainfall a year--on a good year--we'll just take it and grin.

On to my main topic.

On Friday, Donna posted an excellent blog about the controversy surrounding this year's RWA RITA Award finalists. Apparently, an historic problem with the contest still persists, even into 2019! Click this link if you want to catch up: RITA has a So-White Moment

The unveiling of this year's award finalists led to a huge outcry in various authors groups and on social media due to the lack of authors and characters of color and LGBTQ+ authors and characters, and for once, the RWA board seemed to listen.

I tried to weigh in with some thoughts on how to fix this issue in a large authors' FB group, but it seems to be an incredibly complex problem. Some recommend a blind contest where the authors and covers are anonymous, but others countered that that wouldn't change the bias against characters of color or LGBTQ+ characters.

Others argued that the peer-judged contest just isn't working and voiced their support of a reader-based contest, but others felt that wouldn't be a solution, either.

Some suggested maybe there should be separate categories created specifically for books by the authors or characters that seem to be marginalized year-after-year, and others immediately decried that as a no-go. Being judged separately is not being judged equally.

I have to admit I'm a bit buffaloed on how to make the RITA a level playing field. I understand the pros and cons of all the various ideas and suggestions that were offered, and I see the massive dilemma that RWA simply must grapple with. Because I do agree, emphatically, that something major has to be done and I support any changes that will move the RITA forward and make it a fair contest for all.

So that said...

Even though I don't have solid suggestions about how to make these critical changes to the overall judging, I did key in on one phrase that got my wheels turning. In a statement posted on the RWA site from the president, she stated (emphasis mine):

"While we work through this process and the large-scale change to RITA judging and other issues in the contest, we ask that members contact us with their comments, suggestions and concerns."

Why, yes. I do have "other issues in the contest" where I can clearly articulate a suggested change, and this will help level the playing field for everyone who submits to one particular category. While this doesn't directly address the overall inequity issue, it does apply to all authors of the subgenres affected.

Since the RITA requires an overall revamp, this seems like the time to state the problems the organization has with its Historical, Contemporary and Everything Else mindset, and how a large number of authors who don't write Historical or Contemporary (which have two and three categories each, respectively) get dumped into one catch-all category called Paranormal Romance.

I'm going to stick my neck out and share a letter that was compiled jointly with another peer. We drafted the letter from our experience as SFR authors, but I'm sure there are many other Fantasy Romance, Paranormal Romance and authors of other subgenres who may feel the same.

If you're a member of RWA who has long had an issue with the Paranormal category "dumping ground," we invite you to borrow from this letter in part, or take it in whole and make it your own. Add your own thoughts and ideas, change what you feel needs changing and present your thoughts to RWA. If you've also got some good ideas on how to correct the overall issues with inequity with the contest, by all means make that your main focus.

We see this as a chance to suggest fixes for many things that are broken with the RITA Awards--the Paranormal category being just one--and feel this is the time to speak up, because for once, the RWA board seems to be actively listening. We hope that by posting this letter, we inspire you to also speak out on ideas for change in the RITA Awards, if you feel the structure of these awards have impacted you and your work.
______________________________________________________________

Dear RWA,

I whole-heartedly support changes within the RWA RITA Awards that will level the playing field for authors and characters of color and LGBTQ+ authors and characters. In addition to that, since RWA is looking at a revamp of the entire awards program, I suggest an additional change to make the competition fairer for ALL authors.

In my humble opinion, RWA has an overall challenge with diversity. For many years, as a science fiction romance author, I've felt I was an outlier within the organization. From my perspective, RWA seems to view its membership in three groups--those who write Contemporary Romance, those who write Historical Romance, and those who write "Everything Else." In discussion with my peers, the consensus is that we "EE" authors would also like to receive more equal representation within the organization.

Please consider the structure of the RITA Awards Paranormal category. While Contemporary has three distinct categories based on length, and Historical Romance has two, the Paranormal category is a “conglomerate” of many different subgenres. This category forces paranormal romance, fantasy romance, and science fiction romance (et al) authors to compete against each other in a category that covers a very broad spectrum, with very little cross-over readership between them.

Splitting this enormous generic category into smaller, more subgenre-friendly categories will encourage a greater number of authors to submit knowing their books will be judged against similar works. This would help level the playing field for “EE” authors of diverse romance subgenres. 

I'm aware this situation has been broached with RWA by many members over several years, and the answer from RWA has always been that there aren't enough entries to support a divided category. Please reconsider this in comparison to the number of entries received for other small categories, such as Religious/Spiritual Elements and Young Adult. To my knowledge, the conglomerate Paranormal category has always received substantially more entries.

Since the overall structure of the RITA is being examined, I propose breaking the Paranormal category into three distinct subcategories:

·        Fantasy Romance (e.g. sorcerers, wizards, faeries, elves, fantasy world building, etc.) 
·        Paranormal Romance (e.g. vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts, angels, demons, mermaids, shapeshifters, etc.) 
·        Science Fiction Romance (e.g. aliens, space opera, steampunk, futuristic, time travel, dystopian elements, etc.)

And then, if there aren't enough entries to justify one of these as an individual category, combine it with the most appropriate alternate division.

Thank you for your careful attention and consideration of this matter, which affects a large number of "EE" authors within your membership.

Sincerely,
_________________________________________________

I hope that both RWA and readers of this blog will take our letter in the spirit that it's offered, which is a chance to voice our support of necessary change, as well as address another issue with the RITA Awards during the proposed substantial revamp of the awards program to address long-standing inequities.

As always, comments and discussion are welcome and encouraged, but please be advised our comments are moderated in order to weed out frequent hits from spam bots and may not show up immediately. Likewise, any comments that are hateful in nature or dismissive toward or biased against any group will not be posted.


12 comments:

  1. Agreed! I don’t feel blue alien characters for example get a fair/unbiased shake in the RITAs by readers of let's say urban fantasy. It was one of my first thoughts when the controversy broke, the tough time SFR has had over so many years, with few ever finaling and fewer still winning. Add my name to the list of signers if it’s not too late, Laurie!

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  2. Thanks so much, Susan! You were one of the very few SFR authors who ever won a RITA, so I really appreciate your input.

    At this point we're encouraging everyone to send a separate letter--and it's totally fine if you grab this one as is or put it in your own words. (I fear organizing a group signature might take too long and get too complicated.)

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  3. This was a big part of why I left RWA, I felt likey SFR stood no chance against the vamps and weres

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  4. Thanks for your input, Jennifer, and I hear you. I already left once and then came back again, after a lengthy discussion with them via email about the Paranormal category issues and the general attitude toward authors who don't write in one of the "big" romance subgenres. That fell on deaf ears.

    Now I've let my membership lapse into the grace period and I'm waiting to see what develops in the next 28 days before I make a decision whether to renew or part company with RWA, probably for good.

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  5. Great post, Laurie. A lot of us in the SFR world have felt left out in the cold in RWA for many reasons. Maybe we can seize this moment to suggest some changes and will finally be heard. One of the points I plan to make in my letter to RWA is that SFR as a subgenre tends to attract a more diverse readership and authorship than some more traditional subgenres of romance, especially in the LGBTQ+ community. RWA would do well to encourage, rather than discourage, our participation on that score alone. And I've gone back and forth on letting my membership lapse. I still think it's better to work for change from the inside.

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    1. Great point, Donna! And yes, this push to level the playing field for authors of color and LGBTQ+ is essential, but even if it's fixed in the contest overall, they'll still have to contend with the Paranormal category "dumping ground" issues if that's not addressed too, so everything ties in to the big picture, IMHO.

      On renewing, I am very encouraged by the fact that the board actually seems willing to listen this time, now if we can just see some proof the listening is going to materialize in the form of positive action.

      I'm leaning toward renewing for one more year at this point.

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  6. I’ve felt this way about the paranormal category for a long time too. I would love to see the paranormal category divided. If they are adamant that it can’t be divided, then I propose to change the category name to “speculative fiction romance” or “fantasy, futuristic and paranormal romance” to match the RWA chapter name. This might help judges who don’t normally read that genre realize there are more stories out there than vampires and shapeshifters.

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    1. Kathy, if they refuse to break it down into compatible divisions, I agree that a more inclusive name might help judges to look at the entries differently. But given the disparity between the various subgenres now being lumped together, I hope they'll at least consider trying the splitting up of the Paranormal category, even if only on a trial basis. Of course, then it would be up to us, as authors, to support our particular piece of the Paranormal pie.

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  7. This is a great letter. It’s funny because I still wouldn’t know where to put my books! I’m writing science fiction fantasy.

    The other thing that I think is confounded is the difference between say, science fiction with romantic elements thrown in with science fiction romance and science fiction erotica. I’m not sure it’s fair to have my books in the same category as the Ice Planet Barbarians or Brides of the Kindred. They feel like completely different categories, and even Amazon also-boughts show that we don’t attract the same readers.

    Not to mention that all YA romance is thrown in the same category.

    With the prolifera of new books on the market, why don’t we have like 30 or 40 categories for RITAs? We have to pay to enter, so you can’t tell me they don’t have the money. I’d do YA, adult general, and erotic, all with the same category breakdown.

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  8. Absolutely, Aeon. Although the new divisions would help books to be judged more apples-to-apples, instead of apples-to-limes, it would still be up to the author to make the call if their work was more apple or more lime.

    SFR, in particular, covers a very broad spectrum, but dividing the Paranormal category would at least be a start in the right direction. Maybe, if successful, there would be consideration given to further category breakdowns. We can hope!

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  9. If RWA breakes EE into appropriate sub-categories they will not only receive more entries, they will find it easier to to find judges. since authors can't judge their own categories, the potential judges most qualified to judge in this category were eliminated. But, SFR authors will make excellent judges for PNR, PNR for UF, etc. That should also address some of the diversity issues.

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    1. Excellent point on the judging, EG! It's difficult to fairly judge books in categories we often don't read or that aren't our cup of tea. For me, it would be a bonus to be able to judge Fantasy or (true) Paranormal books that are currently lumped with SFR, because those are subgenres I tend to read on a much more regular basis.

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