RITA Reflections

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 goodI 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.

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29 Responses to RITA Reflections

  1. Ha! The RITAs are an odd thing. None of the winners are ever bad books, but there are so often fabulous books that are ignored. And not just one or two of them. Lists of them every year. I think like you said, books that are polarizing don’t have a chance.

    • GrowlyCub says:

      I so totally disagree with that. Last year books were nominated that were godawful wallpaper historicals full of anachronisms and idiotic setups.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I think different readers have different ideas of good and bad, and my problem with this award is that we never have any idea what the criteria used by the judges are, I.e. what makes a good or bad plot/characters/romance/writing.

      • I don’t read much historical of late, so I’m happy to take your word for that. I guess what I really meant was of the finalists I’ve read, there’s never been one that I thought was hopelessly bad. It might be interesting to actually read all the finalists in a category and see what I think of them.

  2. SonomaLass says:

    Welcome to my world. I always feel some of this at RITA nomination time, but this year is worse than most. Historical romance (my go-to genre) — I’ve read one title, and know the names of two more of the authors, neither of whose previous books have worked well for me. Same in contemporary single title — I’ve read one, there’s another author on the list whose previous work is pretty good, and the rest are unfamiliar. I read quite a few Superromance/Special Editions last year, but none that made the cut, and I haven’t read any of the paranormals either (although I did read Kristin Callinan’s Firelight; it’s nominated for best first book and its sequel is nominated in PNR). I’ve read none of the novellas and none of the short category romances, despite a lot of reading in both sub-genres. I’m going to miss the NWRE competition, but this year I haven’t read any of those either. Honestly, the DABWAHA nominations are closer to my best of 2012 than the RITAs, which probably says something about MY circle.

    I think the rating system has a lot to do with this, and I agree with you that it fosters the rise of mediocrity. “Okay” books will do well enough in all criteria, while unusual books risk having one or two criteria where they don’t do well at all, at least with some judges. Plus I just don’t believe that a good book is necessarily comprised of good plot, good characters, etc — it’s more than the sum of its parts. This is the kind of rating sheet that is largely out of style in academia, in favor of more holistic rubrics, and I’m sorry to see it used here. Especially since this isn’t about giving criticism, where a breakdown might be more appropriate; it’s just about picking good books, and I wish there was more room for gut level “Wow, that was a good read.”

    Not that I’m an RWA member, or anything, and there’s no reason my opinion should carry any weight. But like you, I’m not going to seek out the titles I haven’t read, unless I get some recommendations from people who’ve read and liked them. The fact that they rose to the top in this system isn’t much of a recommendation to me, although of course it’s still an honor to be nominated and I wish all the authors well.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Ah, the teacher response! I totally edited out reflection on rubrics. I am so a holistic grader. I do use a rubric, but to indicate strengths and areas for improvement, not for scoring. Reading the RITA scoring system, I thought of a time I had to use someone else’s rubric for scoring summaries. The difference between 2 of the criteria never made sense to me and I would just say “this is a B+” and assign points to make it come out that way. I bet a lot of RITA judges did the same.

      • SonomaLass says:

        I do a completely points-based grading system now, so I don’t use holistic grading or even semi-holistic rubrics. I do, however, add up the points and make a mental comparison of the percentage to a letter grade scale; if it doesn’t seem right holistically, I go back and fiddle with the points.

        I wish I thought RITA judges did that. I think I’d be happier with thinking that the judges’ tastes just differ from mine than thinking that the system is set up to reward inoffensive books. I also wonder if the condensed categories had an impact this year on the historical romance — only eight books, rather than the fifteen last year or sixteen the year before. That’s the group that shocked me the most; I’m used to at least recognizing the authors and titles of almost everything nominated. I miss the eliminated categories, and I’ll miss NWSRE when it goes next year.

  3. LoriA says:

    I was also surprised at the finalists, because usually I feel more connected. If I haven’t read most of the books (not unusual for me), more are on my TBR, I’ve read some of the authors’ past works, or I at least know about them. This time, I’ve read maybe one, have a couple on my TBR, see a few names I recognize, but I haven’t heard anything that makes me feel strongly about most of the books.

    I think it matters how we feel about the judging, because the RITA is supposed to matter. To me, dropping the novels with romantic elements, and changing the method of judging (which I think they do every few years) really hurt this year. (I think at one time, the book was given a single number score, and there was an option to say that it was not a romance, or in the wrong category. But if none of the other judges agreed, those two options didn’t count.)

    Also, nothing obligates an author to enter, so it’s very possible some authors chose not to enter (or missed the deadline). I know they have a lower limit for entries, so maybe there’s also an upper limit. At any rate, it costs money to enter, so if the publisher isn’t footing the bill, and the author is midlist with bills to pay (and maybe not thrilled with the current voting guidelines), it’s possible that some books simply weren’t entered.

    But I really want to know about the books that got some silent raves online. Silent, because the judges could mention it was a RITA book, but couldn’t say what. I hope we do hear som recommendations. Because I think it’s always been easy for polarizing books to lose, but I think they’ve tilted the scales even more this year.

    I’ve always thought that it was easy to find a corner of the internet to discuss the books I like, and that it didn’t necessary represent the most popular books, but this really seems farther off than usual.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I like when an award introduces me to books (or other things) that are good but not popular, or not getting a ton of attention. Usually I have at least *heard about* more of the finalists, though. I was especially struck that none of the historical authors most admired by my reader circle are on the list, though I do know several people who like Sarah Maclean.

      The fact that writers and/or publishers have to pay to enter, and that self-published books aren’t eligible, means they aren’t looking at the full range of possibly outstanding books (I think the upper limit on entries is 1200). But the genre is so giant, there is no way they could.

      • SonomaLass says:

        I think it will be really interesting when self-published books become elegible. Which may be a while, but I think it will eventually happen.

        Also, thanks for doing this post! I got to blow off some steam without bothering to write a coherent post of my own.

      • Natalie L. says:

        It bothers the snot out of me that the RITAs are a pay to play award. The other genre awards I’m familiar with–the Hugos and Nebulas–do not require this. They also don’t grade possible nominees on a rubric, either.

    • Ros says:

      There is an upper limit for entries and my understanding is that this year, the slots filled VERY quickly. If you didn’t ‘voluteer’ to be a judge, you were very unlikely to be able to enter your book.

  4. Merrian says:

    The RITA awards have nothing to do with my romance reading the book blogs do, twitter and GR reviews by friends. In fact I think I would say a RITA award indicates a bland book that wont’ move me. I say this based on trying books over the years and feeling this. Yet I would always want to say that I have read at least some of the Hugo and Nebula nominees and winners.

  5. Jody W. says:

    The only thing I can offer for elucidation is that the books that final probably don’t have mediocre scores. They may be inoffensive books, but not mediocre–not books that would get C’s and B’s from their particular readers. In a different year, I was told (because at that time you could ask for this information to be sent to you) that my entry was in the top whatever percent – 20? – yet it didn’t final. I had lovely scores. So the finalists in that category had to have had fabulous scores, perhaps perfect ones. This was before the system changed, though.

    I don’t know if that helps! Probably not.

  6. SonomaLass says:

    I sometimes wonder if books I loved just weren’t entered. But every time I have asked, it turned out that they were, so I don’t ask anymore (seems to invite embarrassment, which I’d never want to do). Some years the winners make sense to me, and some years they don’t, but I haven’t ever been this ignorant about the nominated books and authors. Granted we’re talking about a period of less than a decade there.

  7. Ros says:

    I am feeling hip and cool because I have read no less than four of the finalists! I read Pushing the Limits which confirmed my feeling that YA is not for me, so I couldn’t really comment on that. The others that I’ve read are all books I enjoyed, but they weren’t the stand-out romances of 2012 for me.

    I’d love to see a romance award that had the potential for much greater relevance than the RITAs. For me, that means not judged by other authors and not subject to an entry system. I’d like something that is reader-led, with influence from librarians, booksellers, reviewers, bloggers etc. Something that has the potential to discover the truly great books in the genre which, even if they aren’t always to my taste, are going to be the books that represent the genre.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      A YA reader mentioned on Twitter that these are not the books the YA community is talking about. I think the insistence on pure romance, rather than romantic elements, is an issue there.

      • Ros says:

        To be honest, I have never really understood why YA is automatically assumed to be part of Romance. Or why the Romance community has so enthusiastically welcomed YA. I assume there are YA books about a whole range of stuff, not just romance.

      • @Ros That was my exact thought when RWA announced they were ending the NWSRE category. How is that less romance than the broad field of YA?

  8. Several chapter contests are judged by a combination of readers, booksellers and librarians, but since entry is voluntary and costs $20-30 plus a number of books, only a small selection of eligible books are considered. I gave up entering because the possible benefit doesn’t seem to justify the cost. I do enter the RITAs and regard it as rather an expensive lottery ticket (my publisher at least supplies the books).

    I won’t comment on the new RITA judging system, but I sometimes judge chapter contests for unpublished manuscripts and I hate the rubrics. I’d rather come up with a single score and then write a critique on the specific manuscript. It’s hard to judge all aspects of a MS when you only read 25 pages. My particular favorite is “Does the writer employ all five sense?” Am I supposed to deduct point because no one sniffs anyone in the first two chapters? Contests for unpublished manuscripts can be really helpful (the best advice I ever got was when Madeline Hunter judged my never-to-be-published first book) but those rules encourage a cookie-cutter approach. Okay, I’ve gone off topic here. Sorry.

  9. You have to ENTER the RITAs – that is, submit copies of the work and pay a fee in order to be considered. So you don’t get an overall view of the genre, only of the books that were entered. Some authors are entered by their publishers; others they have to do it themselves, so they may not want to spend the money and jump through the hoops, or they may not even know how to go about it. (Or not care!)

    Also, “The RITA contest is limited to 1,200 paid entries. Entries will be processed with first priority given to members who volunteer to judge the RITA Contest. Entries from members who do not volunteer to judge or are ineligible to judge the RITA Contest or non-members will be processed in order of receipt after all priority entries have been processed.” http://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=531

    SFWA does it differently with the Nebula awards. There are no fees involved, you do not have to enter, and you do not have to be a member to be nominated. You can suggest your book to the general membership, and send out freebies (or nowadays, provide a free download), but that’s not required. The “judging” is the general membership first nominating for the preliminary ballot, then voting on those finalists.

  10. Agh should have read other comments first. Sorry about the duplication.

  11. Kathryn says:

    I’ve never found the RITA nomination lists very useful in helping me find new books or new authors, and I’ve been reading romances since before the RITAs existed. Other book awards list, such as the Hugos, Man Booker, or Governor General’s (another Canadian reference!), have pointed me to some amazing reads and new authors. But usually the RITA doesn’t produce that kind of excitement for me and as you mention — many times the books that have created the most interest for me are not on the list.

    Comparing the RITA with just genre book awards rather than the big name awards: I’m not as dedicated reader of SFF as romance, yet I know the titles of way more Hugo winners than I do RITA winners. I’ve read lots and lots of amazing romances, but for almost all of them I have no idea if they were RITA winners or not. My impression is that I’m not alone in this — RITAs have never had the cachet that other genre awards (Nebulas, Edgars) have had for the readers of those genres. And it’s not that RWA members aren’t happy to go to RWA to celebrate the winning books (just like SWFA members) and readers aren’t happy to say congratulations at the time of the winning. RITAs, however, don’t appear to have a “long tail” (to borrow a new media term) that these other awards seem to have. For example I can’t really remember the last time I’ve seen a romance publisher market the winning of RITA as aggressively as SF publishers market the win of a Nebula. And as I already mention, I don’t know which of my favorite books have won a RITA, while I can name many of the Nebula/Hugo/Edgar winners on my shelves.

    And I don’t think any of this muted response to the RITAs is necessarily driven by the entry fee requirement — there are other awards that do this or require a payment of some kind (e.g., Pulitzer charges $50 USD, Man Booker requires publishers whose books make the shortlist to cough up at least £5000 towards general publicity). Nor do I think it’s because the RITA limits the number of entries allowed (other prizes do that as well). Your reflections about the possible limitations creating by judging processes seem to me to make more sense — the process is set up perhaps to create a moderate, relatively safe nomination lists.

  12. Liz Mc2 says:

    Thanks, everyone, for thoughtful comments and context. I didn’t expect so much response! I think the post came out more critical of the RITAs than I intended: any award system has problems, and no award-winning or nominated book will seem outstanding by every reader’s criteria (the Smart Bitches RITA reader reviews are a sign of that). What I meant to focus on more was that paying attention to my corner of Romanceland makes me feel I am on top of the genre, but clearly there are vast swathes I know nothing about.

    I do think a lot of people I know are reading and talking about books that are pushing the genre envelope in some way, and those books aren’t here–a good number aren’t even eligible, of course, because they are self-published. (The DABWAHA naturally reflects that conversation better, since its nominators are participants in the conversations I’m listening to.) But big literary awards don’t often go to avant garde or groundbreaking books either. I thought Wolf Hall was amazing and does interesting things with narrative POV, but when you come right down to it, it’s epic historical fiction. Been there, read that. 😉

    Why doesn’t a RITA have the impact on readers/sales some awards seem to? Here are my guesses: 1) Romance = despised genre. The awards don’t get nearly the press of even other genre awards, let alone literary ones, is my impression. 2) Having so many categories disperses impact. There is ONE Newbery winner (though yes, often a couple of silver medals), ONE Booker, etc. Others have a handful of categories, but they don’t overlap (e.g. fiction, poetry). The Hugo and Nebula have a bunch of categories, but they have to do mostly with different lengths, and outside the genre community, the novel award gets all the attention. How would a non-genre reader navigate three different categories for contemporary romance alone? (single title, long series, short series) We can’t point to any ONE and say, “this is our example of best book.”

  13. I have a guest and won’t have time to comment in detail until next week but I wanted to say the exact same reaction — Where the &#!@& is Cecilia Grant!” — to the historical category.

  14. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the RITA nominees, and the judging process. RWA reduced the number of categories, and changed to the point-based rubric, on the advice of an outside consultant, in an effort to increase the prestige of the award. But I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about why the prestige is lacking, and why it will continue to lack clout — RWA has no clearly articulated sense of what constitutes “outstanding romance” that it asks judges to base their scoring on, so stamping “RITA award-winner” on the cover of a book won’t tell a reader much about what she can expect to find inside.

    Re your circle of Romancelandia: After reading Shelley’s post on Wonk-O-Mance this week, I’m wondering, are we bloggers in the “educated” circle of Romancelandia? And may our standards for what constitutes outstanding romance be different from those who are not college-educated?

    No matter the answer, I totally agree that Cecilia Grant got robbed. And I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who wonders if the RITA judging process leads to homogenous, middle-of-the-road books (which I wrote about on my blog, too, this week!)

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks, Jackie! I enjoyed your post, and we are certainly on the same wavelength (perhaps another example of my small circle?). I was going to add a link, but got sidetracked.

      Your question of who makes up my circle is an interesting one. There are plenty of college-educated readers in my circle–and a good handful of PhDs, too. But for sure not everyone is, and I am not sure how/if that shapes our tastes. Some of those readers are late-comers or recent returnees to romance, for instance, and others have been reading it all along. Some have struggled with the guilty-pleasure feeling Shelly talked about, and others haven’t. I don’t think everyone even has an idea of “good writing” shaped by college English courses, though some of us do and many of us share the idea that there are some fairly objective and/or widely agreed-upon standards of good writing. Even so, we don’t all apply them the same way or see them in the same places. I have learned to check a lot of my assumptions about readers I meet online at the door. I think everyone I follow has an analytical approach of one kind or another, but that isn’t always driven by academic training; sometimes it’s just the person’s preference.

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