Earlier this week, the Romance Writers of America announced the finalists for their RITA awards. There was some chatter about this in my Tweetstream–congratulations to finalists, reflections on the nature of the awards. None of what I have to say about this is meant as criticism of the nominated books; it will become clear that I’m in no position to offer such criticism. This is a navel-gazing post about what the list shows about ME and my reading experiences. You know, the usual.
1. WTFBBQ WHERE IS CECILIA GRANT?!?! Plus several other writers who would have made my cut for outstanding romances of 2012. Obviously,
this award is completely valueless half the fun of awards shortlists is ranting about what got left off. Since by some strange oversight I have not yet been made Supreme Taste Overlord of the Universe, awards don’t always go where I think they should.
But I saw authors tweeting about great finds in their RITA judging packages. I wish those judges could tell us about the ones that didn’t make the cut (I’m sure they’re not supposed to tweet “I read this awesome book for the RITAs and WTFBBQ it didn’t final!”). Maybe just tell us about a great book you happened to read, without mentioning the RITAs? I’d trust that kind of recommendation more than appearance on the list, honestly. Because . . .
2. The RITA judging process seems kind of like sausage-making. Oh, books that I think are excellent have won, but the process seems likely to produce mostly a list of books that people think are pretty good and that don’t provoke strong opposing reactions. A middle-of-the-road list. Some awards have small panels of judges who explain their criteria for excellence, which may vary from year to year, when they announce the winner (the Man Booker usually works this way, for instance). The results may be controversial, but you know the taste of the panel and how it shaped the choices they made. This gives a much better sense of what “outstanding” means and why certain books made the cut–and whether I might therefore wish to check them out. No system for giving awards is perfect, but the RITAs are less transparent than some.
(I could produce a whole separate rant about a scoring system that treats “the Romance” as separate from “the Plot” and “the Characters” and gives it the most points–it seems very subjective, since we have no further guidance about what exactly “the Romance” means. Maybe some judges are going, “Red-headed heroes just aren’t sexy; 5/20”).
3. Man, am I out of step with this list. I have read one of the finalists. I have read (and loved) books other than the nominated ones by a handful of authors, and I have a few of the nominees in my TBR. Again, I’m not supreme arbiter of the universe, but a lot of these books I’d never even heard of, so my online circles haven’t been reading or talking about them either. This is a salutary reminder that my blogging/tweeting/Goodreads-ing corner of Romancelandia may feel like “everyone,” but it is, in fact, not.
It might also be evidence for my sausage-making theory, though; the books I see buzzed about are producing strong love/hate reactions, not the kind that get you an average score above 80% (At my college, that’s a B+, which is “pretty darn good” but not “outstanding.”)
4. How wide is my circle? (I totally gave myself a contemporary hymn earworm there, but I also found this awesome article about the composer, so we’ll call it good). By this I mean both my book-circle and my reader-circle. I tend to follow mostly Romancelandia people whose taste tracks fairly closely with mine. I’ve got a good sense now of what kind of romances work for me, and I seek recommendations from people who have a track record of finding them.
That’s different from “literary” fiction, where I’m more likely to read to stretch myself rather than purely for enjoyment. So I might try a Booker, National Book Award, or Giller (it’s a Canadian thing, and if you follow the link you’ll see the judging panel is clearly identified) winner just out of curiosity. I’m sometimes willing to read a book that’s provocative or excellent in some way even if I don’t expect to love (or like) it, because I think the experience will be interesting.
But I’m not likely to pick up a book just because it’s on the RITA shortlist. Again, that’s partly because I have no sense of the taste that put it there. But it’s also because I turn to romance for a certain kind of pleasure and emotional satisfaction. Don’t get me wrong, I like my romance to be interesting and well-crafted, but if it isn’t good for me, I’m not really interested in it just because it’s good. I may well be short-changing myself and romance, taking it less seriously than other types of fiction. But with romance, I tend to stay within my comfort/pleasure circle, because that’s why I turn to it.
5. Strong Romantic Elements. So the one novel I read was Simone St. James’ The Haunting of Maddy Clare. It’s a ghost story with a romance subplot, and was nominated in both the “novel with strong romantic elements” and “best first book” categories. (I liked but didn’t love it, and felt the romance was the weakest part). I’d say the most satisfyingly romantic books I’ve read lately fall into this category: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls (fantasy) and Karen Lord’s The Best of All Possible Worlds (sci fi). I think Alison Atlee’s Typewriter Girl would probably be categorized that way, too. But RWA is getting rid of this award next year.
Novels with SRE were my gateway to romance. I realized that the love story was a big part of why I loved my favorite books, and that I could get more of that, with a reliably happy ending, in genre romance. I’m not alone. As a reader, I don’t care that these books won’t be RITA-eligible. I didn’t make the jump by noticing that a book I liked was a RITA winner and looking for other RITA winners. But it’s a shame for authors in this category, as the very inclusion of romance in their works may make them less likely to get noticed for other awards, in speculative fiction or mystery, for instance.
There you have it: the RITA finalists, all about confirming my cranky outlier status. Congratulations to all the nominees.