Thursday, August 06, 2015

Notes on a Rita Nominated Title

I first heard about this while I was on the bus on the way back from New York, where the bus wifi was iffy and my ability to research was somewhat limited.  I want to state up front that I understand why people are upset.  I absolutely support their continuing to express their concerns.  I have been thinking on this trying to decide not so much much how much it concerns me, but how I think this should be addressed. 
So, some background.  Sarah Wendell shared her letter to the RWA board of directors about an inspirational romance title that was reviewed as part of her site's annual challenge to get all the nominated books read. It is, at the very least concerning that a book where the power imbalance is tilted was nominated.  I had a discussion recently with some folks about an entirely different book in which the main character's love interest is her slave and would I have even begun to accept the story if the genders had been reversed.  (I felt no.)
While I have read some inspirationals, I tend to enjoy less the ones that suggest there is only one acceptable set of beliefs (rather than accepting have a belief system may be useful) and ultimately this means I am not the target audience for many inspirationals.  And I think that may be the problem. 
Not all of it, of course.  As folks on Twitter and elsewhere, and even Sarah in her letter suggested this book was written, it was edited, it was published, and only then was it nominated.  This is a systemic problem.  But, I'm a member of RWA, and while I don't expect to love equally every Rita nominee, I would like to not have to explain how a concentration camp detainee, detained for being Jewish, found her happy ending falling in love with her prison guard and by possibly converting to Christianity ended up nominated.
So, let me start with some disclaimers. I haven't read the book.  It has been nominated for other awards so I assume it's well written. Apparently the Esther story, which has particular meaning to Jewish folk, is also very popular with the inspirational folks.
The first round of Rita judging is done by PAN members, aka published members of RWA, of which I am not currently one.  (I say this not to absolve myself of anything, but to say my suggestions for what can be done to hopefully prevent this occurring again, at least from an RWA nominations perspective, are coming from a do as I say perspective, since I can't yet do.) The inspirational category description is found here: "Novels in which religious or spiritual beliefs (in the context of any religious or spiritual belief system) are an integral part of the plot."  So the story does not have to involve conversion, just spiritual beliefs as a core part of the story.
Rita judges are asked to answer two questions: 1. Does the entry contain a central love story? 2. Is the resolution of the romance emotionally satisfying and optimistic?
Those two questions are designed for simplicity in the judging, but certainly, I would be hard pressed to consider how I would find the end of such a romance satisfying.
Now, I can't find a link to this that's not behind the membership wall, but my recollection is that you cannot judge a category you are entered in, and you can opt out of two more. My suspicion is that a lot of people use one of their opt outs for inspirational.  This would mean, that the people remaining to judge inspirational are likely people who really like inspirational but don't have an eligible book that year.  If so, and yes, I'm guessing here, the inspirational category might not be exposed to as wide a range of first round judges as your average contemporary or paranormal entry.  I certainly don't want to see good books dinged because the wrong people read them, but on the other hand, I don't want books getting nominated that have many of us giving it the side-eye because how is that a thing?  And I know this sounds like I'm tossing it back to make it a community problem. But, I think the fact that this didn't even get noticed until the Rita Reader review challenge, shows how much we're not paying attention.  We've got to work to do better at that.  Edited to add this link to Jen Rothschild's post about this.