Last week the Romance Writers of America® announce the finalists in its annual RITA® contest for published authors. Amid the usual excitement and squeals of delight for and from the honored authors there came first a whisper, then a rumble, then a howl of outrage that, again this year, there were no authors of color (AOC) among the writers named. Not just no black authors, but no Latinx authors, no LGBTQ authors, and damn few characters representing these communities either. Again.
From these communities within RWA® legitimate anger and frustration was expressed openly, particularly in the Professional Authors Network (PAN) loop. And that’s when the trouble really began. Because some of the things said in response to criticism of the RITA® process only served to prove the point that there is an underlying structure of bias, prejudice, even racism and sexism within RWA®. (Here’s a thought: When entering a discussion on color, don’t start by saying, “I don’t see color.” If the subject is racism, don’t begin with the line, “I’m not a racist, but . . .”)
Not surprisingly, the online discussion rapidly degenerated into name-calling, self-justification and personal bullying, until the RWA® President was forced to step in and call at least one individual out.
I won’t address the larger questions of RWA®-so-white here except to say that the organization that was co-founded by a black author has seen a lot of changes since the 1980s, even since 2009 when I first joined. Not all these changes have been positive. This bigger, “more professional” RWA® is not more inclusive, or more open, or more encouraging to newer writers, or indies, or AOC or authors of any marginalized populations than it used to be. I see this as a loss, both for RWA® and for those authors and their readers, or potential readers.
|RITA:Not so shiny now? Maybe some changes are in order.
At least the uproar over this year’s RITA® nominations did have one positive outcome—the President announced changes would be made to the way the contest would be judged in the first round in future years to avoid some of the worst of the biases we’ve seen in past years, biases that were painfully clear in some of the comments on the PAN forum. (See the President’s statement here.)
One person, for example, said for personal reasons, she only read books with the hero’s POV, never the heroine’s. She refused to read anything in first-person POV, either. Can you imagine this person as a judge? Many people said they couldn’t relate to a character of color, or a non-hetero couple. How could they be fair judges? And if this is their reaction to anything outside a narrow band of their own experience here on Earth, how open would they be to anything set on another world, or with otherworldly beings?
The problem is not necessarily that anyone who enters the RITA® must be a first-round judge. It is that untrained and inexperienced judges are given NO technical criteria by which to judge the books they are given. Judges must answer only three questions about each entry: Does the entry contain a central love story? Is the resolution of the romance emotionally satisfying and optimistic? Does the entry fall within the category description? Then the entry must be awarded a point score based on . . . whatever. If an individual judge has experience with judging chapter contests, s/he will use those technical criteria on characterization, plot, pacing, etc. to make a judgment. If not, the judgment will be subjective and very open to individual bias (eg. I don’t read first-person POV; I can’t relate to black heroines. Aliens? Yuck!) Without any real criteria to go by, judges rely on cronyism, author popularity/name recognition and “what I like.” If we made the RITAs a reader-based contest, this kind of thing would only get worse.
Every year the contest organizers ask for our feedback; every year I’ve said we need to institute real technical criteria for judging. Even better, we need to train judges. We did that at my Virginia Romance Writers chapter, and VRW ran one of the most respected chapter contests in the nation, the Holt Medallion contest. It seems to me the national organization should look to its chapters for help as it reorganizes this contest.
Lest you think, as an indie writer or an SFR author, that this controversy has no relevance to you, I would ask you to consider just why, year after year, there are so few SFR titles nominated for RITA®, so few indie or self-published authors nominated. Peers should nominate peers, but the categories are constructed to force paranormal and SFR writers to compete against each other, rather than judge each other, as we should. Very few authors (or readers, really) read broadly across categories. So the cronyism works against little-known or “niche” writers like SFR authors. I continue to suggest, year after year, that SFR be split off from the paranormal category so contestants in these two genres can judge each others’ work. At least an author of vampire romances that require some world-building would be better placed to understand my novels than an author of small-town contemporaries.
But maybe this year, RWA® will be more open to suggestions like mine. I urge you, too, to contact the leadership with your own ideas as to how the RITA®s can be improved. Act now, before this contest goes the way of the late, lamented Golden Heart®.