Yesterday I got the exciting news that I am a finalist for this year’s RITA award, sponsored by the Romance Writers of America. I couldn’t be more thrilled. I am deeply honored because the RITAs are a peer-judged award and because my 1920s historical erotic romance, IT STINGS SO SWEET was a true labor of love.
I am also deeply grateful, because RWA has not only exposed me to the most talented, hard-working, intelligent authors in the industry, but also recognized my work and advanced my career.
The RITAs themselves take an enormous amount of coordination and work by the staff and the RWA board–thankless tasks that they undertake with more patience and grace than seems humanly possible. Then there is the yearly conference, which is always spectacular. Amongst professional organizations for writers, RWA is a giant in terms of size, educational opportunities, and, generally speaking, a forward-thinking attitude that embraces rather than excludes.
I was thrilled by this year’s decision to accept non-traditionally published works into the RITA awards. And I was particularly overjoyed with the addition of an erotic romance category because I advocated for erotic romances long before I ever dared to write one.
One reason I feel so strongly about it is that erotic romance is a cutting edge sub-genre that has helped float the industry with the success of authors like EL James, Sylvia Day, J. Kenner, Maya Banks, Megan Hart, Joey Hill, Tiffany Reisz, Shayla Black, Kate Pearce, Eden Bradley, and many, many more. It’s also a sub-genre that has allowed for an evolution in authorial technique and an expansion of emotional horizons for the genre as a whole.
Some of the most beautiful books ever written are erotic romances, and I can think of several that have touched me deeply enough to make me cry. This is because erotic romances are often about the human connection found at the boundaries of propriety, about the virtue under the vice, about acceptance not found in the mainstream society, about two people (or more than two) who find a way to forge an unbreakable bond of love that other people may not understand, but must honor.
Those are pretty worthy things for literature to explore and I’m so very proud of RWA for rewarding that. Having an erotic romance category is, in my opinion, a huge step forward for the organization. And I am humbled to have been nominated for a RITA in this category the very first time it is to be awarded. (Let’s face it, who else but my fellow romance authors would recognize initiating a menage a trois with a stranger as the profoundly romantic gesture my hero meant it to be? :P)
All that said, I’m saddened that only three books made the final cut in the erotic romance category. And I am afraid it’s a symptom of a problematic trend that I would like to see turned around.
Allow me to explain.
As flattering as it is for me and J. Kenner and Samanthe Beck to be the only representatives of erotic romance in the RITAs this year–I don’t personally believe that this result can be taken as an accurate representation of the level of excellence to be found in the genre. Nor do I believe it is a reflection of the number of submissions or interest in the category.
Rather, the limited number of finalists appears to be the natural outgrowth of some changes we’ve made in the RWA. To my mind, the re-organization of the RITA contest itself (including the elimination and collapsing of categories, a new scoring system, and the subsequent quibbling over membership) has done some damage; I’ve said so before, with varying degrees of eloquence, efficacy and persistence, but always with an awareness that the Board’s goal was to make the organization stronger, the award more prestigious and to advance the careers of romance authors.
All changes come with growing pains. Unfortunately, we’re having some now.
One of the changes made to the RITAs was to the way finalists are chosen. As I understand it, only books receiving scores of 90% of the possible points available qualified to win any category. On the surface, there’s a lot of merit to this idea. It means, theoretically, that only the best of the best will be recognized. And a quick look at the list of finalists this year in all categories reveals a glittering array of literary stars. I congratulate every single one of them and encourage readers to run out and buy these incredibly deserving books!
As for the awards, however, we’re not comparing apples to apples. The scoring theory as implemented appears to have skewed the results such that one would have to believe that some categories of romance are simply more meritorious than others. Erotic Romance wasn’t the only category to feel the pinch. Inspirational Romance and Romantic Suspense–categories with very few nominees–are juxtaposed against categories like Contemporary Romance which netted eighteen finalists.
Lots of folks are saying that something ought to be done about that. Probably so.
The most obvious answer people come up with is to ditch the 90% rule and replace it with one in which the top-scorers in any category will be finalists. That might help. Another suggestion is to divide the big categories up again so that readers know who the stars are in their particular favorite flavor of romance. That might help too.
But to me, neither of these suggestions go far enough, nor do they address increasing insularity and homogenization.
Here I direct your attention to the new scoring system for the RITAs. It was once considered sufficient to ask professional romance authors to simply disqualify books that they did not consider to be romances, and then score the others on a scale of 1-9 for quality. Now, however, we are asked to score entries with elements in isolation. For example, “Writing” is worth up to ten points, but the “Romance” is worth up to twenty.
In practice, a book that has terrible writing is probably going to have a terrible romance, even in isolation. If you can’t write an opening hook, you probably can’t write a kiss, and if you can’t write a decent plot, the reader is unlikely to care how many flowers your hero brings your heroine. Judging at the far ends of the spectrum, this scoring system just isn’t going to make a difference.
But it’s in the close cases, particularly between books that might or might not qualify to win a RITA award, that this new scoring paradigm can take an already subjective system and make it more arbitrary. In the category of Romantic Suspense, for example, where the chasing down of a serial killer might dominate the sexy-times of the detective and her hunky hero…many excellent books of the sub-genre may fall through the cracks. Similarly, in a category like Inspirational Romance, the emotional component of a religious epiphany as a necessary part of the romance may skew the results.
And the skew is always in favor of what some are now calling pure romance.
This is a label that ought to alarm us when we remember that the change to the scoring system for the RITAs was made in conjunction with the decision to remove altogether the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category and to disqualify romances that resolve happily/optimistically only over the course of several books, such as is common in YA and Urban Fantasy.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must point out that my alter-ego was nominated for a RITA in the Novel with Strong Romantic Elements category in 2012, so I am not an entirely disinterested observer when it comes to that. However, it isn’t the elimination of the category, but the pattern of all these changes and their non-contest-related consequences that worries me.
In short, I worry that pattern encourages, and projects, a Romancier-than-thou attitude.
Given that we’re talking about the Romance Writers of America, some people think this is a good thing. In fact, when the changes were made, some folks spoke up to say that they wanted a contest that celebrated a much more narrow and dogmatic view of romance–one that “made them feel safe.” I don’t attribute this kind of myopia to members of the Board, who I always assume to be operating from an adult, professional and altruistic motive.
But to a large degree, motive is irrelevant. What should concern us is result. And because I like to sell books more than I like to have arguments about genre purity, I think these changes, taken in total, deserve reconsideration.
When an outside consultant was hired to revamp the RITAs and these changes were propagated, I feared that in combination with the debate about who exactly qualified as a career-focused romance author, we would alienate the romance genre’s closest allies; that power-house cross-over authors would be less likely to attend, support, and promote RWA, our book signings, or serve as ambassadors for the merits of more mainstream romances. I also feared that we would alienate the YA genre, which is creating our readers and book buyers of the future.
Unfortunately, these fears have been borne out. The women’s fiction chapter (of which I am not nor ever was a member) has confronted disbandment. Some have left the organization. The YA category for the RITAs was dropped this year due to insufficient entries. YARWA has fielded expressions of authors feeling unwelcome. The consequence may be a celebration of purer romance, but in an industry where reaching readers is increasingly job #1, it seems short-sighted.
The optics alone are not good. And as a writer of not only “pure romance,” but also fantasy, YA, erotic romance, women’s fiction and historical fiction, I have been witness to a sharp erosion of respect for RWA and romance authors in those other literary communities and amongst readers at large. This is the very opposite result intended when we set out to bring more prestige to our award and more respect to our genre.
So, with that in mind, I hope we’ll consider returning to policies that celebrate all sub-genres of romance and foster excellence within those sub-genres. I urge a scoring system that encourages judges to look at each book as a whole, and with a consideration for its own sub-genre rules and expectations. And I urge policies that educate and expand our horizons in an ever-changing literary landscape. Because ours is a beautifully diverse genre backed up by the best professional organization in the industry; it deserves to be viewed as such.
Any ideas on how we can get this done?