Confessions of a RITA Judge

Did you watch the Oscars last night? So did I. And since I am simultaneously wrestling with an awards-judging process of my own, I found myself feeling unexpected sympathy for the much-maligned Academy.

Every year, there’s a certain amount of fist-shaking and eye rolling over Oscar nominations. Every year, someone is overlooked who totally should have been included. Every year, someone is nominated based on having been overlooked in the past. (“So-and-so should have been nominated last year, so let’s nominate them now even though their work this year was pretty mediocre.”)

Actually, of course, I have no idea how the nomination process works. But that’s how it seems.

And if you think people get passionate about the Oscars, you should see the brouhaha that goes on over Romance Writers of America’s annual RITA awards.

The RWA Board struggles mightily to be responsive to its large and fractious membership. So each year, the judging rules change, in an attempt to fix whatever people complained about the year before.

Which leads to a chaotic process — and even lousier, less fair nominations than the Oscars deliver.

Romance fiction is the 800-pound gorilla in the publishing world, much the way Hollywood is the 800-pound gorilla in the movie world. Of course there are other books being written and sold, just as there are movies being made elsewhere on Planet Earth. And romance novels, like Hollywood movies, receive their share of sneers — sneers from those who are jealous and sneers from those who are genuinely concerned about artistic quality. And actually, for many of the same reasons. Whenever an art form is really, really popular, commercial success is likely to occur. Once that happens, those who are making money seek to continue making money. And presto, the dreaded “cookie cutter” effect kicks in.

Nevertheless, the RITA is the most prestigious, most coveted award in genre fiction. Like the Oscars, the RITA represents the consensus of one’s peers. It bestows upon its recipient a heady illusion: you, gentle author, have written the best book of its kind among a huge field of contenders.

Have you? Have you really? Maybe. In the final analysis, who cares? You certainly wrote a good book. And now you have a wicked cool golden statuette to prove it.

But I would like to say, to the authors I am not allowed to contact — the ones whose books I am judging this year — you will probably not receive a nomination. At least two of you wrote fantastic books. I loved them. But I disqualified them.

And here is where the RITAs and the Oscars painfully diverge. The RITAs are intended to recognize romance novels. That’s the whole purpose of their existence. But they have become such coveted objects that lately — for the past two years, maybe longer — they attract authors who are not writing romance. I envy the Academy judges, who know, at a minimum, that they are judging a movie. We RITA judges are wrestling with the very definition of the art form.

The heroine of Book A has a boyfriend. This does not make Book A a romance.

The couple at the center of Book B face terrible dangers together. They seem quite devoted to each other, but the book is about facing terrible dangers, not the growth of a relationship. Book B is not a romance.

You’re killing me, people. Either stop writing great books that are not romances, or stop entering them in the RITA contest, I beg of you. Out there, somewhere, are romance authors whose books failed to get through the door because yours arrived first.

But thanks for the terrific reads.

4 thoughts on “Confessions of a RITA Judge

  1. I sure would like to know the titles and authors of the two terrific non romances with romance elements that you read and disqualified🙂

    It must be difficult to judge sometimes whether a novel is or isn’t a genre romance. Just how much of the emphasis has to be on the growth of a relationship (a definition I like)? More than half? I ask because I keep seeing vampire, zombie and god knows what creature tales labelled romance, rather than fantasy.

    • I really struggled with it this year. With one book, I actually read the jacket flap to check my instincts. That tells you what the publisher, at a minimum, thinks the book is about. Sure enough, the plot summary/teaser was all about the intergalactic war, efforts to save the planet, etc., with no mention of Joe and Sally. Not really Joe, Sally, or intergalactic war – I made that up to hide the book – but basically, if the central story question is “Can Joe and Sally defeat the aliens against all odds?” rather than “Will Joe and Sally somehow get together against all odds?” – it’s not a romance. That’s my criteria, anyhow.

  2. There are so many books each year that I think deserves a RITA award but alas, only one is chosen in each category. Being a reader of primarily historical romance, this category seems the easiest in terms of fitting the genre, though the competition is fierce.

    It must be a really cool experience to be a RITA judge though. How does an author become/get chosen to be one?

    • If I recall the rules correctly, you have to be a member of RWA … published in book-length romance … and not entering in the category you are judging. They have to limit the entries every year, so I wonder if they have trouble securing judges? It’s quite a time commitment, but heck, it’s reading. I’d be reading anyway. [grin]

      I like the opportunity it gives me to get a feel for what’s being published lately. And an excuse to read — without feeling guilty for taking time away from writing! (“I have to read this. RWA is counting on me.”) Sometimes I feel a bit out of the loop. I think a lot of authors feel that way; once you are writing you no longer have as much time for reading. Which is sad, really, because reading was the “first love” for all of us.

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