At the Back Fence Issue #225

May 15, 2006

We recently instituted some big changes to the At the Back Fence column. Those changes include in our round-robin of columns an ATBF every month written by someone other than an ATBF co-columnist (be it an AAR staffer, an author, a blogger, or “plain old” reader). This is the second of those “someone else” columns, courtesy of British blogger Karen Scott.

From the Desk of Karen Scott: To Blazes With RITA

As I pick out my new Vivienne Westwood, and select my 2006 Manolo’s, in preparation for the RWA Nationals in July, (then I wake up and have my cornflakes) I have to stop mid-flow, and really think about what the RITAs mean to me, as a romance reader.

I don’t know about anyone else, but each year, I look at the finalists, analyze the whole judging process, laugh at the obligatory faux pas during the award ceremony itself, pick my jaw up from the floor in amazement when the winners are announced, read the various blogs that will happily dissect the event from the thread to the needle, and wonder how the blazes, they are considered the most prestigious awards in the romance industry.

This is what it says on the RWA website: “Romance Writers of America’s RITA® is the highest award of excellence in the genre of romance fiction. The golden statuette, named after RWA’s first president, Rita Clay Estrada, is a symbol for the very best that romance fiction has to offer each year.”

The best that romance fiction has to offer each year? Are they serious? That’s some good sh*t they’re smoking right there.

Do you ever agree with the majority of winners, or like me, are you left scratching your head, wondering how you managed to miss these literary gems? For comparative purposes, previous winners can be found here, and this years finalists can be found here.

Do these books really qualify as the best romance fiction there is out there? Says who?

For those people who don’t know, the judging process works like this: (Disclaimer: If there are any inaccuracies, blame the RWA)

  • Published author/ their editor enters their book
  • Published author pays a $40 fee (apparently the cost goes up to $140 if they aren’t RWA members) for the privilege of entering their work
  • Participation is closed after 1000 entries are received
  • RWA gently “encourages” author to participate in the judging process (in another category of course)
  • The finalists are chosen from the scores given by 5 judges who are published members of RWA.
  • The finalists’ books are read again, by another 5 judges, and scored and ranked to determine the winner in each category.

But what if an author doesn’t enter her book, and it happens to be the next big thing, but we don’t know it because it never got entered in the first place? What happens then? Can we really say that the most worthy books won? What if it goes on to sell more than all of the other books put together?

With Romanceland being as incestuous as it is, was it ever a good idea to have authors judge their fellow peers’ work? Hmmmm….

What if Judge A really liked the author of Entry B, so decided to award her maximum points, even though the book wasn’t all that great? I’m sorry, but nobody will be able to convince me that that type of crap doesn’t happen. It happens with the Oscars, so why wouldn’t it happen with the RITAs?

Also, what about professional jealousy? Isn’t it possible that Judge A could really resent the fact that Author B got the deal of a lifetime, whilst she herself got bum-rushed by her own publishers, thus she decides to give author B the minimum points that can be awarded?

As it happens, that great bastion of grace and style, Lori Karayianni (one half of Tori Carrington) seems to be thinking along similar lines. She writes:

“We fear the contest may be too subjective, with the anonymous nature of the judging itself leaving a wide margin for prejudice and, possibly, manipulation. The water cooler buzz has it that during the times that the national RWA office has been in charge of “randomly” assigning the entries, the RITAs have become a popularity contest of sorts. Do we buy into this? I don’t know. But while it’s a serious allegation virtually impossible to prove, it’s also worrisome.

“In this day of IM and email and vast on-line networking, we have to admit that the possibility for abuse exists. Beyond the allegation that friends are being sent other friends’ entries to judge favorably, friends of an author can perhaps propel her to the finalist stage by lobbying or campaigning on her behalf…and by extension expect the same in return. Or, by the same token, make sure someone else doesn’t make the list.”

See what I mean?

You’re probably thinking that these are all very kindergarten-like scenarios, but come on, haven’t you witnessed enough pre-school-like behavior from some so-called professional authors in the past, that would convince you that this isn’t actually as far-fetched as it sounds? Or are romance writers too nice to do anything so underhanded? *cue hysterical laughter*

Oh yeah, and let’s not forget the authors who feel uncomfortable reading more than two S.E.X. scenes per book. What? You know who you are.

The most recent online RITA/RWA furor concerns Jamie Sobrato, whose entry was judged to be a story with “no strong romantic elements”. In other words, her book, As Hot As It Gets, wasn’t considered a romance. I think this shocked her somewhat, seeing as she is a romance author after all. But on reflection, she does write for the Blaze line, so this may have been the deal breaker. You know what I’m saying here, don’t you?

It always seems to come back to S.E.X, doesn’t it? As an author, if you’re judged to have too much sex in your book, you’ve got as much chance as winning a RITA, as Tom Cruise has of regaining his sanity. Nope, I don’t fancy your chances at all.

Apparently a significant number of Blaze authors didn’t enter this year, due to their belief that they had no chance of winning, because of the overtly sexual nature of their books.

Blaze writer Jo Leigh writes in her blog:

“Wow, everywhere I go that has discussions about the RITA, I’m hearing that Blaze authors didn’t bother to enter their Blaze novels. I didn’t, and I think I’ve counted about a dozen others who didn’t. So what’s up with this? Something is really rotten in Denmark if romance authors – terrific romance authors – aren’t even bothering to enter their industry awards because they know they won’t get a fair read.”

Alison Kent, who quit RWA last summer after a debacle over erotic content detailed in an earlier ATBF column, weighs in with her thoughts: “I didn’t enter anything. I could have done so, even as a non-member, but why bother when such a large percentage of our supposed ‘peers’ want our books banned completely for being depraved. Yes. I heard that this week.”

An author who wishes to remain anonymous wrote in an e-mail to me: “I didn’t enter any Blazes in the RITAs because they don’t final and I couldn’t afford to waste the money.”

Now, isn’t that a sad indictment?

If either of Jo Leigh and Alison Kent’s claims are remotely accurate, can anybody tell me, what the hell, the RITAs are good for? Why has sex in romance become the enemy as far as the RWA are concerned?

In the interest of *ahem* balance (Laurie made me do it), I sent an e-mail to Allison Kelley, Executive Director of RWA, basically asking her to comment on the assertion that there is a general bias against Blaze books when it comes to the RITAs. In my email I asked for RWA’s response to the online discussion among authors that Harlequin Blaze titles are considered “too sexy” for RITA consideration.  And, further, in those discussions, to answer this question: If Harlequin is the largest publisher in the world for Romance, and if they publish Blaze titles as Romances, how could such books be considered too sexy for RITA consideration?

This was Ms Kelley’s response:

“As you probably know, all RITA judges are published romance authors. They represent virtually all publishing houses and lines. They write and read books with differing degrees of sensuality. Each judge receives a group of randomly assigned books, with no preference given to any judge or entrant. To say that a line of books is “too sexy” for the RITA competition implies uniformity in response to one particular element of a book and that all five judges shared the same opinion on what constitutes ‘too sexy.’

“The judging guidelines provided by RWA to the judges are very broad and do not indicate that a book should be marked with a high or low score because of any one element. For your convenience, I have attached a copy of the judging guidelines to this post.

“‘Judging’ is by its very nature a subjective process, which is why each book entered is scored independently by five judges to determine the top books in each category. In the preliminary round, judges are asked to judge each book on an individual basis and not against other books in the judging panel or the publisher’s line. Each judge is given the option of marking books as being entered in the ‘wrong category’ or ‘not a romance,’ and books are disqualified if three judges agree. If less than three judges mark a book as ‘not a romance,’ the marks have no effect on the final score.

“The authors of books published under the Blaze line each write unique works with different styles, and (IMO) it is a disservice to both the authors and the RITA judges to make broad, generalized statements about what the authors write and how the judges score the books.”

Hmmmm…. I guess I expected this kind of politically correct, PR-driven answer, however, I wasn’t convinced, so I decided to find out from Blaze authors how they really feel.

I sent a mini survey to 35 of the 55 Blaze authors listed on the website. 23 of the authors polled, responded.

The following are the questions that were asked, and some of the authors’ responses.

  1. Are you a member of the Romance Writers of America?23 out of 23 authors were members
  2. Did you enter any of your books into this year’s RITA contest?17 out of 23 authors entered their books
  3. If not, why not?“Frankly, I didn’t enter my Blaze because I do believe there is bias against erotic romance as far as some long contemporary judges are concerned. I entered my Bombshell, but I was disheartened by that result (LOL – I think I’m not alone, here).”“I think that the judging is bias against certain types of books.”
  4. What do you think of the current judging process?“It’s a popularity contest”“I feel that there absolutely needs to be an erotic category, no doubts about it. The lack of one makes the contest a bit behind the times. Erotic romance is not a flash in the pan, and our contest–which reflects RWA as a whole to the public–doesn’t acknowledge this part of the industry. This makes RWA seem a little irrelevant.”
  5. Have you any thoughts on how the judging process could be improved upon?“Don’t use people as judges. Use sales numbers”“I really like the “opt in” option. And I think reorganizing the entry categories is necessary. But you can’t change how people are judging–you can’t change attitudes…not the judging process, but the categories need to be redefined – for example, we need an erotic romance category (Blaze) and since there are 3 slots for contemporaries – short, long and single title – then romantic suspense (Intrigues, Bombshells, SIMs, Supers, maybe other lines) should have a category or short RS category as well as a ST or long RS category”“Go back to having judges judge books in a particular category.”“Not sure but pub authors judging pub authors feels like a popularity contest”
  6. What do you think is the likelihood of a Blaze book winning a RITA this year?

    “Zilch, zip, zero chance of a Blaze even being nominated/ finaling”

    “I don’t know how many were finalists but my sense is not good based on the books that final in every category, not just short or long contemporary. It’s rarely the hotter books.”

    “Slim not because the writing isn’t top-rate but because there is a bias against sexier books in the contest.”

  7. Do you believe that Blaze books, or other ‘sexy’ books are judged as fairly as other romance publications when it comes to the RITAs?“Not at all, based on my own experience and that of several fellow Blaze authors, one of whose entries was marked ‘not a romance’”“On a whole, definitely not. The fact that one of our authors rec eived a “not a romance” mark from a judge says it all. Maybe that didn’t happen across the board, but it makes you wonder how many people lowered the score instead of just outright marking the book ‘not a romance.’ Based on the letters in the RWR as well as talk on romance loops, there’s a very vocal, very passionate contingent who will never accept erotic romance as part of the genre. This is a problem when it comes to judging those erotic romances against the more traditional books they must compete against.”
  8. On a scale of 1-5, how important are the RITAs to you? (1 being not at all, and 5 being extremely important)“Once upon a time it was a 5, now I’m realistic enough to put it 2-3 because too many of the judges don’t like sexy books”“Less than they used to be. There are more important criteria to a successful career than validation of one’s peers. I think validation is nice but in reality it’s only the opinion of five people who let one final and a handful more to win.”
  9. Personally, how do you feel that Blaze books are regarded by other RWA authors?
    “Many RWA authors and members think of them as smut – it’s not fair that judges with that attitude should have the chance to sink a potential Rita finalist”

“As trash.  All that sex!  Many people don’t even believe they are romances.  They don’t accept the conventions of the line as realistic, but they’ll buy another secret baby in Presents with no problem.  It’s frustrating.”

“I think there’s a certain negative attitude to the books because of the perception that they are all about sex and not about plot and character and emotion”

“I don’t care what other authors think of my books. Sales drive the market and a Rita win doesn’t mean squat.”

(Link here for the full results)

Hmmmm…. Interesting, huh?

Let me repeat the last paragraph in Allison Kelley’s e-mail: “ is a disservice to both the authors and the RITA judges to make broad, generalized statements about what the authors write and how the judges score the books.”

Looking at the majority of the comments, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the majority of Blaze authors feel marginalized by the RWA, regardless of Ms Kelley’s statement. Of course the good people there would firmly deny this, but I think that the responses speak for themselves, don’t you?

As Desperate Housewife Bree Van De Kamp recently theorized, “perception is reality,” and if most of these authors believe that the majority of other RWA authors feel that the Blaze line is nothing more than gratuitous smut, then I’m afraid that 1000 flies around sh*t can’t be wrong. Go on, tell me that that’s not how it really is.

It was recently suggested that the whole peer-judging-pile-of-horse manure should be scrapped. I wholeheartedly agree. It was also suggested that the judging should be opened up to librarians, editors, reviewers, and booksellers. Sounds like a plan to me.

Who best to judge a book, than somebody who hasn’t got anything to gain, but works in the industry, so is sufficiently able to tell a good book, from a bad one? Waddaya think?

As a reader, whenever I see the finalists, and the eventual winners, I always wonder if they really made it on their own merit, or whether they were more sexually palatable than the ones that didn’t final. Cynical much? Moi? Never.

I recently read a 1999 article in Salon (which grew out of a contretemps involving AAR) that described the romance industry as “a community that prides itself on its public civility and smiley mutual enthusiasm – even if it is sometimes undertaken with secretly clenched teeth “

It seems to me that the RWA epitomizes this sentiment to the nth degree, and I challenge anybody to prove otherwise.

Questions for the Message Board:

What do the RITAs mean to you as a reader? Does it factor at all in your book buying decisions?

Do you usually agree or disagree with the books that are eventually chosen as RITA winners?

How can the judging process be improved? Do you think that there needs to be a category for the more explicitly sexual books?

It seems to many, including Karen, that sex has become the enemy as far as the RWA are concerned, and her survey’s results from Blaze authors seem to bear this out. Why do you think this is, and do you see them changing their way of thinking anytime soon?

Karen believes that romance readers appear to have moved on, in terms of what they expect in a romance, but that RWA is still stuck in a sexual time-warp. First, is she right in her assumption, and if so, then secondly, by trying to distance themselves from authors who write sexually explicit books, has the RWA outlived their usefulness when it comes to representing their membership?

Karen Scott
It’s My Blog And I’ll Say What I Want To – Karen’s blog


Access full results of the Blaze authors poll Karen conducted

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