Friday, April 4, 2014

The Lopsided RITA nominations

Last week, the Romance Writers of America announced the finalists for their annual RITA awards, given to "promote excellence in the romance genre by recognizing outstanding published romance novels and novellas." RWA's Board had recently made substantial changes to the rules governing the judging of the contest, aimed both at "increas[ing] both awareness and prestige of the award" and "to ensure that books receiving a romance award are romance novels/novellas," according to a FAQ sheet about the 2014 award process created by RWA. The changes included shifting from a single 1 to 9 point scale to awarding points in four categories: 1-10 for the Plot; 1-10 for the Writing; 1-20 for the Characters; and 1-20 for the Romance. It also included changing several of the sub-genres in which authors could enter their books, including the elimination of the "mainstream novel with strong romantic elements" category. And instead of choosing books that receive scores in the top 10% of their sub-genre category as finalists, any book that received at least 90% of the total possible score (45 points or higher) would be awarded finalist status.

Many romance writers and readers (including myself) were more than a little curious to see if and how the changes would affect the makeup of the finalist slates. Curiosity quickly turned to frustration, and then to calls for change, though, after RWA members discovered just out unbalanced the 2014 RITA list turned out to be. In recent years, about 8 finalists in each sub-category had been named. In contrast, this year's list included categories with as few as 2 finalists (Inspirational Romance), and others with as many as 18 (Contemporary Romance). And some categories had disappeared completely, because not enough entries had been submitted (although the cap on the total number of books that the contest would accept may have played a role here).

Romance writers' discussion boards and e-mail loops lit up with protests in response to the perceived flaws in the new judging system. Many writers posted letters they planned to send to the RWA Board, pointing to the failures in the current system and calling for reforms. And I know of at least one RWA-affiliated chapter (The Mystery/Suspense chapter, better known as The Kiss of Death chapter) that has begun an online petition calling for the old judging criteria to be reinstated. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that others are considering this option, as well.

I'm not certain when RWA posted their "FAQ" sheet, but from its wording, it seems to have appeared after the announcements, suggesting that the organization was both taken by surprise by the results and was aware that they would likely prove controversial among its general membership. The FAQ concludes with this question (and its rather noncommittal answer):

Will RWA revisit the rules or provide better guidelines or training for judges?

The Board understands that the RITA Award is important to members and therefore commits significant resources each and every year to improving the outcome. The Board also considers whether guidelines for judging would be necessary or helpful.

Contest rules are approved at the July board meeting.

When RWA explained that the rule changes were aimed at meeting its strategic goal of increasing the prestige and public awareness of the RITA award, I guessing that this current brouhaha was not quite what they had in mind...

What are your thoughts on the 2014 RITA finalist list? And what do you think can/should be done to increase the prestige and the public awareness of the award?


  1. I'm not plugged into romance publishing politics. I read your blog and Wonkomance and follow a few favorite writers on Twitter. Very rarely does anything I like win an award so I can only conclude that my taste is not the popular one. In fact, I just looked it up and my top 3 ever romances never won RITA awards. As I've mentioned before I almost never read anything but historicals and I actively disliked several of the books that made the finalist list in that subgenre even though I am not a very discerning reader. All I ask for is a smart heroine, a few respectable plot turns and a devastatingly sexy hero for me to adequately enjoy a book. I don't expect or require brilliance, though I am pleased when I get that too. It happens all too rarely in romance, or any other genre for that matter. Perhaps if they just honored the few truly outstanding books I'd pay attention, but that's not what I saw when I looked at the list. I would assert that few of these books will stand the test of time.

    - Elisabeth

    1. Elisabeth:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Your comments bring up the issues of who is voting on an award, and for what purpose is the award given. Is the award a popularity contest? A judge of merit? Since judges aren't given much in the way of guidelines, it's hard to say...

      In the case of the RITAs, the judges of the award are also authors. In fact, this year, authors judged books in THE SAME CATEGORY in which they submitted.

      Your comment that "few of these books will stand the test of time" is an interesting one. I belong to the Children's Literature Association, which gives a "Phoenix Award," an award to a book published 20 years ago which did not win a major award at the time of its publication. I wonder if we should try to start a similar award for romance?

  2. When I saw the list of nominees my reaction was of surprise because there were so many novels in one category and very few in others. I guess we are used to see between five and eight nominees in any contest so the impression is one of strangeness, of oddness, because it's something we have not seen before in any contest. Thinking about it, it's logical, I mean, perhaps there are no more than a couple of inspirational romances that are worth, and really 18 good contemporaries.
    So the system in itself is not an ilogical one. Perhaps it could be improved, in order to have a certain number of candidates in each category.
    To increase the prestige of the prize? I think it already has prestige, at least in the sense that the reader knows that there must be something good, something worth in a book that receives a prize. But not even the Oscars or the Nobel prize have an undisputed prestige. Read the name of the Nobel prizes in Literature, how many of them are already forgotten?
    I think they are fairly known among the genre readers. Outside it? I don't know. How many non-sci fi readers know about the Nebula?

    1. Bona:

      That was the argument that the Board put forth -- that lesser books were getting nominated, just because they were in a category that didn't have as many strong contenders, and better books were being overlooked, just because they were in a category with far more competition.

      I wonder what "increasing the prestige of the prize" really means. When a children's book wins a Caldecott or a Newbery Award, that book is immediately purchased by almost every public and school library, which means an immediate and long-lasting boost in sales. Other book awards receive publicity, and lead to winners having greater placement in bookstores. But the same doesn't seem to hold for the RITA...

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  4. Even before the mess of this year’s situation, the RITA judging has frustrated me.

    In the romantic suspense category, for example, there has always seemed to be a huge emphasis on books with a heavy focus on the romance and not very much in the way of the suspense plot. I’ve been stunned by some past nominees that I didn’t even list (on my blog, Goodreads etc.) as “suspense” because there wasn’t any suspense in them!

    Now the subgenres that are suffering the most are those that have a plotline beyond the romance (suspense, inspirationals – though I can’t say I read much in that genre).

    The belief seems to be that a book is only a good romance if it’s *only* a romance. I beg to differ, and that’s why I’ve recently been seeking out books the RITA folks would never consider “worthy” of their awards.

  5. Yep, Sonya, and RWA seems to be tightening the focus on romance even more than in previous years. Disappointing that the organization can't seem to take into account that different sub-genres have different characteristics...