Friday, March 29, 2013

Feminism and the RITA nominees

This past Wednesday, Romance Writers of America announced the finalists for its 2013 RITA awards, the top honor given to love stories with happily ever afters. This year RITAs are slated be awarded in eleven different categories, with seven or eight finalists vying for each award (the one exception the Young Adult category, which named only four finalists). Since the romance field is such a massive one, I shouldn't be so surprised to see that I've not read the majority of the finalists. But I was disappointed that none of the RNFF Best of 2012 made the cut (although Ruthie Knox's About Last Night, which I read and reviewed in January of this year, did, yeah!). Laura Florand, Cecilia Grant, Juliana Gray, and Molly O'Keefe all deserve to be RITA finalists for work published this past year, in this reviewer's humble opinion. What 2012 favorites of yours were overlooked?

RWA's announcement states that the RITA is "the highest award of distinction in romance fiction." But I wonder if the process the RITA judging uses to winnow down the list of nominated books, at least as I've had it explained to me by fellow RWA members, really allows the cream of the genre to rise to the top of the finalist list? The RITA is a peer award; published romance writers serve as the judges in both the preliminary, and in the final, round. This in itself is not a problem; writers are usually readers, too, and know what works best in their own field. But judges in the preliminary round are volunteers, rather than nominated or elected to judge based on the respect of their colleagues, which means, alas, there is little control over the quality of the judging. Also, each submitted book is read by only five judges; each one only reads between five and ten books; and judges are advised not to judge the books against one another: "each entry should be judged on its own merits without comparison to other entries." Without being able to compare the books they are judging one to another, and with no opportunity to compare all the books submitted, judges score each book against an absolute, idealized model, rather than against the actual books published during one particular year.

The top ten percent, or top eight entries (whichever is smaller), in each category are named to the RITA finalist list. If an outstanding book is read by one or two judges who give lower scores to all the books they judge, while a less distinguished book is read by those who hand out higher numbers to all the books they score, it seems likely that at least some of the best books of the year are likely to be passed by. And since books that push the envelope, books that may not please everyone (feminist romances, perhaps?) are likely to push at least one judge's "I have a problem with this" button, won't they have a harder time finding their way to the final judging round than books that are less edgy, more homogenous in their construction of romance, sexuality, and/or gender, even if they are not as well-written?

Coming to romance from the field of children's literature, where the top awards are given by librarians, not by children's book writers, and the award process is quite different (a committee of fifteen judges, judges meeting in person twice during the year to talk over the books they are considering), perhaps I'm unfairly biased against RWA's process. Do you think the current RWA system is fair or flawed? If you were creating a design for judging an award such as the RITA, what would it look like, and why?

One last question: Of the books on the 2013 RITA finalist list that you've read, which ones would you say are feminist, and why? Does the list include books that are decidedly not feminist? And which books do you think should be on the list, but aren't?

Next time on RNFF:
Kristan Higgins' My One and Only


  1. I've been involved with the romance publishing industry since the early 2000s, and have never been interested in RWA. I dislike dealing with drama, and everything I've ever seen come out of there on various discussion groups and the whisperings behind backs is painful drama. Drama, drama, and more drama. Oi. No thanks.

    Plus to be honest, the more I'm told I *must* do something that seems to cost money and not benefit anyone other than the people at the top, the more contrarian I get about just ignoring the whole thing.

    The back-room wheelings and dealings I've seen go on for the RITAs by members has been mindboggling. And laced with DRAMA. So many quid pro quos, phony networking, and fairweather thanks.

    I'll go ahead and read what my friends recommend to me. They know what I like, and generally know what will tick me off as a feminist. For most of them, they get ticked off at the same stuff. Others can go play with conventions and awards and networking and all of that. If they enjoy it, more power to 'em. It's not my scene. I'm busy writing and living.

    1. Hey, Kimberly:

      Do you think that any award process, no matter the award, is inherently prone to the drama you so dislike? Or is there something in the RWA process that leads it toward drama? If you were in charge of designing an award for romance books, how would you structure the process? Or are you anti-award in general?

  2. I, too, was surprised and disappointed not to see Cecilia Grant and Molly O'Keefe as finalists. That said, I think that having a small panel of judges would have its own problems.

    When you have a wider group of judges, perhaps you're more likely to get a few run-of-the-mill books because they appeal to a wider audience. (I've read surprisingly few of the books nominated this year, so I'm not saying any of them in particular is run of the mill. A couple of years ago, though, I did read all of the books in one category and discovered one book by a Big Name Author that I could hardly finish because it felt like it'd been churned out in a matter of weeks, plus a couple of books that were just meh).

    However, if you have a small panel of judges, you risk putting forward finalists whose books appeal to a very small group - a group which may have wildly different tastes and values than you do.

    Just as a feminist romance novel might turn off a judge or two, there will be judges who are turned off by romance novels that feel rooted in misogyny.

    1. Kat:

      Glad to see that Cecilia Grant and Molly O'Keefe have other supporters!

      I don't think it is the large vs. small judging group that bothers me, but rather the fact that not all judges are reading all the books submitted for the award. The purpose of the award, according to RWA, is to "promote excellence in the romance genre by recognizing outstanding published romance novels and novellas." If a judge only reads five or ten out of eighty or more nominated books, how can said judge know if her/his scores would remain the same as if s/he read all the books? Judging against an ideal standard, which, during any particular year, many or no books may come close to achieving, vs. judging against the actual competition during a particular year is what is at issue for me.

  3. I was vastly disappointed last year when RWA decided to do away with the Regency category. The other thing that was done this year (so I was told) is that authors couldn’t judge what they write. So contemporary, YA, and paranormal authors were judging historical entries. I wonder if any of them are disappointed with their picks as historical authors judged their categories. It all seems strange to me and there were several authors I thought should have been nominated that weren’t.

    1. Me, too, Ella! But I understood the reasoning behind the decision, at least as it was explained in the Oct 2012 RRR. I wonder, though, how the historical romance market breaks down, time-period-wise? I haven't been able to find any published statistics, and it would take some effort to go through all the historical romance books published last year and categorize them by period myself... I'm guessing, though, that the largest percentage are Regency. And four of the eight nominees are 19th c England-set, are they not?

      Is the "you can't judge in your own category" rule new this year? The same rule applies for judging the Golden Heart (which I've judged in the last two years). As I write historical, but used to edit YA lit, I feel very comfortable judging in the YA category. But I wonder how comfortable writers feel about judging categories they don't write? Some of us are voracious readers, who read other subgenres besides the one in which we write, but many others probably don't read much outside their own.

      Would you feel comfortable judging in any of the other sub-genre categories?

    2. What authors are missing from the list, in your opinion, Ella?

  4. Given your academic background, Jackie, I'm surprised that you are skeptical about RWA's use of peer-review in the RITA awards. :-)

    What strikes me in the judging rules you link to is the part about selecting the finalists in the preliminary round---"Entries scoring in the top 10 percent of each category (based on the number of qualified entries received), with a limit of eight (nine in case of tie), will advance to the final round, provided the minimum total score for each finalist equals 80 percent of the total possible score." The total possible score is 50 points. So in order to be a finalist, all of your scores must be at least 40 (80% of 50).

    Put differently, a single score of less than 40 eliminates a book. This gives each reviewer a veto on each book they review. With these rules, it doesn't surprise me that the finalists tend to be books that are more mainstream and don't push the limits of the genre or challenge reader expectations. If you make a bad impression on one judge, you're out.

    It also means that a book with five scores of 41 could be a finalist, but a book with four scores of 50 and a single 39 wouldn't be a finalist.

    Is this good? Is it bad? It depends on what you want the rewards to represent.

    Disclaimer: I don't read much romance. I'm a computer nerd who found the scoring and ranking system interesting.

    1. If the contest rules actually work in the way you describe, the scoring rubric seems even more of a problem than I initially thought. Who wants any one judge to be able to veto a book? It would definitely lead to a more homogenous, less interesting group of finalists if every finalist had to avoid offending every judge...

      Not sure that your interpretation of the "provided the minimum total score for each finalist equals 80 percent of the total possible score" is the only way this caveat can be read, though. What if it means five judges for each book, so a total possible score of 250? And any book that receives less than 200 points total is knocked out? If this is the way it works, one judge could do a lot of damage, but would not have the power to completely derail a title on his/her own...

    2. I agree that the summary of the rules is less than clear. It would be interesting to see them spelled out in full. But the use of the world "minimum" implies the comparison of multiple scores. The minimum of one thing (i.e., the sum of all five reviews, as you suggest) doesn't make sense. So I still like my interpretation.

  5. Aww, thank you, Jackie! I'm honored.

    We can't blame the scoring system for me.:) But thank you! I wasn't eligible for the RITAs at all because I wouldn't judge. There may have been a few people who didn't agree to judge who got in, but they must be few and far between. Most of the authors I know who didn't were eliminated. And we were all repeatedly warned this would happen, so it was our own choice. My publisher had submitted CHOCOLATE THIEF, the only one of my books out early enough to be eligible, and RWA sent at least 3 emails warning me that I was very unlikely to make it into the quota without the guarantee provided by agreeing to judge. (THE CHOCOLATE KISS, your best of 2012, thank you so much!, is officially in the 2013 publishing year because it came out Dec 24.)

    In that sense, there is a significant community service element to being eligible for the RITAs, which was necessary to keep the contest functioning, from what I understand. So RITA winners have to be willing to give to their community in order to be considered.

    (This is not even remotely to suggest that I would have been nominated if I *was* in the contest. The competition is intense, with the cap at 12,000 entries this year.)

    I didn't "grow up" in RWA like so many authors did, so this doesn't really hit me the way it might another author. Of course I would be deeply flattered and honored to be chosen, but I only joined RWA last year after realizing I needed a better understanding of the actual business of publishing, so it just doesn't have the same emotional value to me as it would to someone who has seen it as a crowning achievement for much of her career. Otherwise, I might have been more motivated to judge. I am an absolutely terrible judge, though--I like only what I like and truly hate forcing myself through books I don't like, so I just wasn't willing to step up to the plate.

    I do offer kudos to those who were, though, because I always admire the more community-minded than myself. :)

    I have no idea how to make a better system! It seems like a nightmare to figure out. Honestly, I'm not entirely convinced of the value of it, and yet at the same time that seems such a wrong thing to say, when people literally cry with joy to receive it. So obviously to be selected *does* have enormous value, for the person selected at the very least, and as a goal or a dream for others.

    I liked my RNFF "best of", to be honest. Mentions like that, from reviewers or bloggers I respect, are reward enough for me. :)

  6. Thanks, Laura, for letting me and other readers know why there was no chance for your books to be on the RITA finalist list. I guess we should not overlook the fact that the RITA contest is a big moneymaker for RWA, which definitely plays into how and why the award process is structured the way it is.

    Makes me want to investigate how other professional writers' organizations structure their award processes, though, to see if other groups do it better. Yet another rabbit to chase down a research hole :-)