laws, sausages & the RITAs

So you might have noticed that there’s been some controversy recently over the  RITA nomination of Kate Breslin’s For Such a Time. For those who haven’t followed the discussion, the story is a re-telling of The Book of Esther in which, in short, a Jewish woman in Theresienstadt, falls in love with the Nazi camp commander and, ultimately, comes to accept Jesus Christ as her personal lord and saviour [eta – it’s been pointed out to me that this phrase is a glib mischaracterisation of the end of the book: It might be slightly fairer to say that her faith is restored in a way that is sufficiently Jesus-centric to raise the unhelpful spectre of religious conversion for some readers.] For fairly obvious reasons, quite a few people are quite upset about this.

I should probably say now that I haven’t read For Such a Time, and I don’t intend to. But I will say that unless the reviews and summaries of the book I have seen are completely inaccurate, then I absolutely agree with everything people are saying about this. My initial reaction on hearing about the book was something like “wow, that seems really inappropriate, oh it’s an Inspirational, I suppose it’s interesting to have a Jewish inspirational and if a Jewish woman wrote it, I’m so not in a place to comment on whether that’s appropriate … oh wait … it’s from Christian publisher and she finds Jesus at the end, that is a world of not okay. How could anyone think this was okay?”

Having said that, what I was less surprised about was that the book was RITA-nominated.  And, therefore, most of this post won’t actually be talking about the book (as I feel that’s been far better covered by other people, many of whom are actually Jewish). What I’m going to do instead is to talk a bit about the RITA process as I understand it and why I am, perhaps, less surprised about the nomination than other people.

First of all, a quick overview of how the process works and bear in mind that it’s not hugely transparent even if you’re involved in it. RITA judging takes place over two rounds. The first round is judged by (in essence) anybody who said they’ll do it (as long as they’re a published romance author and a member of RWA). When you sign up to be a RITA judge, you select which categories you’re interested in judging (I seem to recall you had to sign up for a minimum number of categories but it was a while ago now and I honestly can’t remember).

Once that’s done, you get about a dozen books along with a printed sheet, asking you to rate each book. When I did it, you rated them 1-10 on a number of different elements (plot, characterisation, quality of romance, stuff like that), but I understand that now it’s just a single 1-10 rating for overall quality. Back when I did it, there was also the somewhat controversial “not a romance” box, which you would tick if you felt the book, well, wasn’t a romance. Given there were concerns that this could be used to exclude minority narratives, especially queer narratives, this has now been replaced with two quite specific questions, which are: Does the entry contain a central love story? and Is the resolution of the romance emotionally satisfying and optimistic?

According to the website, a book is disqualified if it gets three positive answers to either of those questions amongst, I think, five judges. After that first round, the top 4% of books in each category go through to a second group of judges, who I think are actually picked by the RWA. They read all the books in one category and rank them in order and the book with the lowest  (i.e. the book rated nearest to the top by the most panellists) wins in that category.

There are several features of this process which I think need to be highlighted, particularly within the context of very offensive books making their way through the first round of judging, although ultimately I think all of them boil down to that old line about laws and sausages. Those who respect the law and eat sausages should see how neither are made. The problem with all prestigious awards (and this is not just the RITAs, this is everything) is that you have to engage in a certain amount of double-think. It is pragmatically impossible for the Booker Prize Committee to read every novel published in England and decide which is best or for the Nobel Prize Committee to review every item of research ever carried out by any living scientist and objectively weigh its value. Awards processes are necessarily kind of a bodge. But we can only attribute meaning to those awards if we allow ourselves to forget this fact.

A lot of the anger at For Such a Time’s nomination for a RITA seems to attribute more weight to a RITA nomination than it, in fact, deserves. And I appreciate that this sounds really shitty but I am in no way denigrating the RITAs as an institution. I’m just highlighting that getting through the first round says a lot less about the book than one might imagine. And I’m aware that I’m now sounding simultaneously like an industry apologist and like I’m attacking the industry.

As, in fact, RWA said in the statement they released today, the award is peer-reviewed, not vetted. A lot of people seem to feel that this book’s nomination for a RITA represents some kind of official seal of approval by RWA. And the tricky thing is, I can see where they’re coming from because it is to the benefit of the RWA that being RITA-nominated is considered to have value (and it’s certainly to the benefit of RITA-nominated authors).  But, basically, if you look at how the structure of the RITA nomination process works, getting RITA nominated means two quite specific and not actually terribly prestigious or meaningful things. It means that:

  • Of the 5 people who read your book, no more than 2 thought it lacked either a central love story or an emotionally satisfying conclusion
  • The 5 people who read your book gave it higher marks on average than any of the different sets of 5 people who read 96% of the other books in your category

It is entirely possible for one book to beat another to a RITA nomination despite nobody having read those two books and compared them. It is even possible for one book (let us call it Book A) to beat another book (let us call it Book B) to a RITA nomination despite 8 reviewers only reading one book or the other, and the one who read both preferring B to A.

These might sound like silly hypotheticals but, in my experience, RITA judges are given very little guidance about how to grade (other than 1 is bad and 10 is good) and different people assign numerical scores to things very, very differently. At its most basic level, one judge might decide that a rating of 5 means “a tolerable book”. Another judge might decide that a rating of 5 means a book “of the quality I would expect to be average for a RITA nominee.” A third judge may assume that a rating 5 of means “roughly in the middle of the set of books I was given.”  It is almost nonsensical to try and compare 2 books, even in the same category, on the basis of numerical rankings given by small, non-overlapping sets of reviewers. All it takes is for one book to get 3 or 4 readers who mark generously and it’s going to perform disproportionately well. It is testimony to the power of large number statistics and the overall competence of the average RITA judge that situations like this don’t happen much more often.

But, of course, to an extent they do. It’s a generalisation but I’d bet reasonable money that anybody in a position to have an opinion could look at any list of nominees for any award and find at least one entry that they felt had no business being there. Either because they think it’s offensive or they think it doesn’t fit the category or they think it’s just crap. I think what makes For Such a Time a special case is that it is so strongly hurtful to so many people and that the ways in which it is hurtful are not only not filtered out by the current judging process (the form never asks “is this book anti-Semitic?”) but are, to some extent, supported by it.

I am speculating wildly here but I suspect that part of the reason For Such a Time made it through the first round of RITA nominations is that the people who read it will have self-selected to be reading Inspirational Romances. Now I absolutely don’t want to make generalisations about inspirational romance readers but an awful lot of the elements that people find unpalatable in For Such a Time are elements that—I think, as an outsider to the subgenre—probably make it an especially effective example of that subgenre.

One of the things that Katherine Locke talks about in her article is the book’s strong emphasis on forgiveness and on the hero being forgiven for, um, being a willing participant in genocide. And the thing is, to me that’s really problematic but I don’t subscribe to a religious worldview which treats a duty towards forgiveness as genuinely fundamental. India Valentin pointed out over Twitter that FSaT forms part of a very longstanding tradition of Christianity co-opting Jewish stories and making them about Jesus (you can sort make a case that this is what Christianity is on quite a basic level). And I think this highlights both why the book is so problematic but also why it wouldn’t have seemed at all problematic to the person who wrote it, the people who published it and,  it seems, to the RWA members who volunteered to judge exactly that sort of book.

Ultimately this is a very niche book written for a very niche audience. It’s worth pointing out that it wasn’t published by a mainstream romance press, it was published by an explicitly Christian press and is clearly aimed at explicitly Christian readers. So to an extent its publication and RITA nomination reveal a problem not with romance genre or the romance community but with the position of particular types of Christian expression within a society that still assumes Christianity as a default. We live in a world and those of us who are Anglophones speak a language in which the word ‘Christian’ is literally a synonym for ‘morally good’. I think part of the reason that a lot of people are missing what is insulting, offensive and appropriative about this book is that we actually lack a cultural basis from which to attribute negative qualities to a story that is fundamentally about redemption, forgiveness, and the love of Christ. In a bleak and depressing way, FSaT presumably reads to its intended modern audience much the same way that the Merchant of Venice read to its seventeenth century audience. It’s a happy story in which everyone gets what they want, and the Jew even gets to be “saved” at the end. This is horrifically messed up but it’s a horrifically messed up feature of an endemically Christianised society, not a flaw with romance in general or the RITAs in particular.

This all brings me to roughly the point of this post which is thinking about what you can actually do on structural level to address this kind of issue. And, so far, I have come up with zero good ideas. Or, at least, zero practical ideas. If you are going to have a competition with two thousand entries, you need to spread the reading out and you need a large number of volunteers to do it. The first round of the RITAs is very much a rough cut. There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that there will be some books that don’t make it through which are “better” (insofar as that means anything) than some of the books that do make it through.

One simple way to stop potentially very offensive books reaching the panel would be to add an additional question (like the ‘does this contain a central romance’ question) which could ask something like ‘is this book horrendously offensive?’ There are, however, three major problems with this plan:

  1. The romance community is broad and heterogeneous and insisting that books need to meet a certain level of for want of a less horrendously loaded phrase ‘political correctness’ to qualify would be seen as pushing a liberal agenda. And, to an extent, it would be. But basically there is no way you can take steps making things less horrendously offensive without pushing a liberal agenda because that’s basically what a liberal agenda is.
  2. The system could ironically be abused to shut down marginalised voices much as it was suggested the original Not A Romance box could be. Again the problem is that the community is broad and heterogeneous and for every person who thinks it’s unacceptable for a Jewish woman to fall in love with the commander of a concentration camp there’s someone who thinks it’s unacceptable for a man to fall in love with another man. Of course you could police the ‘is this book horrendously offensive’ question but that would involve a lot more oversight than is probably practical. And you have the same problem of deciding who gets to decide.
  3. It still wouldn’t work. Because, once again, we’d have to rely on three out of five people all feeling sufficiently strongly about a book to disqualify it on the basis of a social justice consideration that very likely does not affect them personally. After all, this whole problem appeared because the 5 people who read FSaT ranked it highly enough for it to go through. Presumably none of them would have flagged it as horrendously offensive.

The more I look at this, the more I think that it isn’t something RWA can fix on a structural level. And, in fact, from my privileged position as somebody without much of a horse in this race I take some comfort in the fact that while the book was nominated, it didn’t actually win anything. And I like to think that the panel were at least vaguely aware of how problematic the premise of the book is. I said above that all a RITA nomination really means is that 5 random people who self-selected for the process rated your book higher than some other people rated some other books.

If I have any criticism of the way RWA have handled this situation it might be that they’re probably trying to have their cake and eat it. To my mind, you can run it one of two ways. You can either accept that the process by which books are nominated for the RITAs is sufficiently hands-off and unpoliceable that a book’s being put forward to the panel does not constitute an honour or an endorsement, in which case authors and publishers and RWA should stop splashing ‘RITA-nominated” all over things as if it means anything. Alternatively, we accept that that a RITA-nomination does represent the meaningful endorsement of a prestigious industry body, in which case that body should probably take a more active role in deciding who gets that endorsement.


57 Responses to laws, sausages & the RITAs

  1. willaful says:

    Have only read the first part of your post, and I’ll go back and read the rest in a minute. But first… no, she does NOT convert. This assumption has grown to be accepted as solid fact, and that is so wrong. (I’m not blaming you here; I assumed it was true too, until I actually borrowed the book from the library. To be crystal clear, I haven’t read the whole book, just checked the ending.) If you go back and read the original SBTB review, Rachel (?) gives a pretty clear explanation of what actually happens at the end. It’s definitely squicky and disturbing, but it is not conversion.

    I’m getting really fed up with people criticizing books they haven’t read based on wrong assumptions. Again, not blaming you, but this is a systemic problem. We can’t give genuine, meaningful critiques of works we haven’t read.

    Okay, back to read the rest of your post.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Obviously I don’t want to talk about a book I haven’t – for obvious reasons – but I don’t think I said she converted? My understanding (largely from Rachel’s review) is that her arc very much revolves around Jesus. And you can make the case that this isn’t technically conversion and, of course, there are Jewish people who do, as I understand it, believe that the historical figure Jesus was the fulfilment of old Testament messianic prophecy. But this gets very deep into theological stuff I’m really not qualified to talk about.

      This post is mostly about the RITAs, rather than about the book. I don’t entirely buy the ‘you can’t criticise a book if you haven’t read it’ line of reasoning. Ultimately a lot of the things that people object to about this book are things that it is about and you don’t need to have read it to know what it’s about. Obviously you can’t get into specific literary criticism but if your objection to a book is that it is a book by an Evangelical Christian publisher in which a Jewish woman falls in love with the commander of a concentration camp and ultimately achieves as happy ending that is intimately bound up in her accepting the importance of Jesus in her life (whether this is conversion or not) … then reading the book isn’t going to make a difference. It doesn’t matter how well done something is, if you fundamentally disagree with what it’s doing.

      • willaful says:

        Saying she accepts Jesus as her savior but not that she converted is too fine a distinction for me. At any rate, she doesn’t accept Jesus as her savior.

        I agree with your basic points, but something in me is very inimical to getting facts wrong. So much is subjective and open to interpretation, the things that are genuinely there to see and know should be respected.

  2. willaful says:

    Okay, having read the rest of your post, I think you make excellent points. 🙂

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you 🙂

    • Kaetrin says:

      I think you make excellent points too. Once I understood how the RITA process worked (which was actually from another post but you have confirmed it here – for which I thank you) the fact that the book made it to the RITA finals isn’t so very surprising. Also, apparently, if a book is nominated for a RITA, if it is a first book, it is automatically a finalist in “best first book” which explains how it made it to that category (and probably also explains why it didn’t win).

      As small point of order (I’m a chartered member of the pedant’s club). I’m a Christian and this:

      “comes to accept Jesus Christ as her personal lord and saviour”

      is the very definition of conversion. That’s, literally, what it means. Other phrases/words for it include “be born again”, “be saved”, or “become a Christian” or “convert to Christianity”. The Christian bible teaches that all one needs to be “born again” is to accept Christ as one’s personal Lord and Saviour. So, Willa’s point about Hadassah in FSaTaT not converting at the end stands.

      I appreciate that as a non-Christian, you may not have known that the “salvation phraseology” is interchangeable. It’s a particular jargon specific to the Christian church. I didn’t know it myself until I was “in the club”.

      As a Christian, I can say that I’m not interested in reading this book. It’s offensive and all kinds of wrong. I quite understand all of the criticisms about it. I also understand why the RITA nomination hurt but I think you’ve explained that this is, unfortunately, just the way the RITA works. I think you’re right, all awards processes are flawed in some way.

      I shy away from any calls for books not to be written or to be banned (not that anyone has necessarily done either in this case). My general principle is that problematic books exist, those problems ought be talked about frankly and I will vote with my $. Because you’re right about the “who decides” thing too. The idea that an elite/privileged/unique/small group of people decide what is “acceptable” is pretty distasteful to me. Even though when there is an extreme example such as FSaTaT, it seems entirely reasonable, the fact is, that many other, and worthy, books would also be excluded and that’s not okay either.

      • willaful says:

        “Also, apparently, if a book is nominated for a RITA, if it is a first book, it is automatically a finalist in “best first book” which explains how it made it to that category (and probably also explains why it didn’t win).”

        OH! Now that is important information!

      • Alexis Hall says:

        As small point of order (I’m a chartered member of the pedant’s club). I’m a Christian and this:

        “comes to accept Jesus Christ as her personal lord and saviour”

        s the very definition of conversion

        Apologies for that phrase – it was glib and misleading, and I’ve updated the post accordingly.

        I shy away from any calls for books not to be written or to be banned (not that anyone has necessarily done either in this case).

        For what it’s worth I actually think there’s a subtle but important difference between saying a book shouldn’t have been written and a book should be banned. I don’t think you should be rude to waiters but I don’t think it should be illegal to be rude to waiters. I think when people say a book shouldn’t be written, what they mean is that, were the author a kinder, more generous or more conscientious person, they would not have chosen to write this book. Which is not quite the same as saying, that choice having being made should then be reversed by the power of some external authority.

  3. Megan says:


    I am so glad you articulated so many of the grayish issues around this book. I feel really uncomfortable with the hue and cry around the book. I don’t think it’s a clear black and white issue at all. It did get published, its author did submit it to the RITAs, and the first-round of judges, problematic though it might be, did judge it so it made it to the finals. Those are facts. Did the publisher make a misstep publishing a retelling of a Biblical story in a controversial context? And I’m not saying it’s not controversial in a coy passive-aggressive way. It is. But presumably the book was well-written and the publishing house thought the author succeeded in her writing a romance where religion plays a significant role. The RITA process is deeply flawed, since as you say it’s just five peers who may or may not (and probably don’t) have similar criteria for judging their respective books.
    I worry greatly about a community being up in arms so vehemently when that same vehemence could be applied from the other side, and we would be hypocrites if we denied the other side from feeling as they do.
    Damn, I don’t know. The book takes a horrific real-life event that most (note I say most not all because I’m concerned about sweeping generalities–I’m likely far too cautious about that) people would agree can’t be seen as anything but horrific and places a romance in it.
    If the controversy does anything, I hope it makes readers and romance community members more aware of their own accepted beliefs. I know back in the day I read books set in the American South during slavery, and we only have to go as far as Gone With the Wind to see that example. Or bodice-rippers set at plantations, or pirates who DID, indeed, kill people whose ships they boarded. Of even in current romance we’ve got drug dealers, pimps, bikers, and other people outside the law. Not killing in the same huge numbers, obviously, as the Holocaust, but if you step back and look at it, it’s a problem. Or vampires who kill to survive. The thing is, there is no glass house, this house just has a fuckton more glass than others, and we’re pitching stones at it.
    Basically, I’ve got a whole bunch of conflicting thoughts, none of which I have articulated very well, but your post resonates with me for those reasons.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I think, like you say, it’s complicated. And, while I don’t want to speak for other people, especially people who are more affected by this than I am, I think what’s upsetting a lot of people is the appropriation* and this does get really, really difficult because you’re bashing up against some quite strongly entrenched religious freedom issues. Although, as Willa points out above, the heroine doesn’t technically convert in the book, from the second hand information I’ve got and the anecdotal evidence that it’s published by a specifically evangelical Christian press it seems to be a very, very strongly and specifically Christian story. If you look at this book’s reviews on GR, it resonates strongly (and positively) with a small group of readers and I think the reason for that is that it seems an extremely well-crafted example of what it is: which is a highly Christian book about the absolute virtue of forgiveness and redemption through Christ.

      The problem is, to a lot of people co-opting a tragedy on an epic scale that primarily affected Jewish people to tell an essentially Christian story is really not okay. And it’s difficult because the Holocaust itself is very difficult to deal with. It’s almost the centrepiece of western culture’s narrative of the twentieth century and every nation that was involved in the Second World War sort of feels a degree of ownership over it. There’s a very strong history of portrayals of the Holocaust that strip it down to Good Gentiles versus Bad Gentiles, and which treat Jewish people as sort of tokens by which everyone else can prove their virtue or villainy. This is really deeply embedded in western culture. And can, I think, genuinely be seen as a subtle and pernicious form of anti-Semitism.

      I’m not sure how I feel about the comparisons with other problematic romance settings. I don’t feel comfortable you can’t make that comparison because it sees to knee-jerk but there’s definitely a spectrum, with vampires at one end and the Holocaust at the other. I think my broad rule of thumb is how likely is this to have personally affected people who might actually read this, with the slightly more complicated rider that ‘personally affected’ quite often means ‘is dealing with the social consequences of’. So I think slavery is another one you have to be really careful with, especially slavery in the American south because that has direct and immediate cultural relevance for real people who are really going to read your books. Crime is a funny grey area but I think if I had to articulate what the difference is it’s that there has almost definitionally never been a mainstream culture in which crime has been considered okay. Individual people’s experiences of crime are individual. And so a book that romanticises a criminal lifestyle isn’t, I think, going to contribute a widespread normalisation of criminality. By comparison, a book that presents a romanticised portrayal of slavery or the Holocaust, which shifts the emphasis onto the perpetrators of those evils as worthy people genuinely reinforces a culture that erases and devalues the victims of those institutions and their descendents.

      Or something. Like you said, it’s complicated 🙂
      *And, of course, I’m making an assumption which is that the author is not herself of Jewish extraction. Although the premise of this book skeeves me, I can’t rule out the possibility that the author is genuinely a messianic Jew and is legitimately trying to tell an inspirational story from that perspective. And while I don’t think that’s likely, I really don’t want to be playing authenticity police.

      • Kaetrin says:

        Yes, I think this is spot on.

        “I think my broad rule of thumb is how likely is this to have personally affected people who might actually read this, with the slightly more complicated rider that ‘personally affected’ quite often means ‘is dealing with the social consequences of’. So I think slavery is another one you have to be really careful with, especially slavery in the American south because that has direct and immediate cultural relevance for real people who are really going to read your books.”

  4. Pam/Peejakers says:

    Wow, lots of great points here Alexis. Though at the beginning it was hurting my brain a bit because, mathematics! Or maybe just the complexity of the process you described was at fault 🙂 But, you explained it well, I really liked your examples. I had no idea how the process worked, but I get it now, I think. And, uh, let me say, good grief 😛 I guess it’s like a lot of voting, we sort of assume things/people are competing with each other, but in a way it’s more like a dog show, where the various breeds only compete within their own group.

    I was pretty appalled when I heard about the book. I didn’t realize it was a retelling of Esther, that actually sounds intriguing – if it hadn’t been for the Christianization aspect, which just seems completely creeptastic to me. I think I’d still be pretty iffy, personally, about the recasting Ahasuerus/Xerxes as a Nazi concentration camp commander, but, as you said, if it had been a Jewish inspirational written by a Jewish person, it’s really not for an outsider to judge.

    One thing that does bother me though – and this is kind of at the heart of being respectful to other people, to my mind – is that even if something doesn’t seem offensive *to you*, I would hope we should be able to see that it might be (or in this case, almost certainly would be) offensive to someone else. And by offensive I don’t mean “make them angry”, though it may well do that, but “hurt them”. That seems like a complete failure of objectivity, not to mention empathy. I don’t necessarily mean on the part of the author, because that gets into self-expression/censorship issues. But more on the part of those who nominated the book. I guess that’s what a lot of people would call being “politically correct”, but I kind of disagree. To me, PC means, doing/not doing things because you think other people will be angry at you & kick up a fuss, so you can look at that resentfully as an attempt by other people to control you & react defiantly to it. But I think it’s another matter entirely to recognize that people can be genuinely hurt by things you do & say, and try not to do that. Though I have to admit, that’s a distinction I don’t think a lot of people get, because I didn’t get it myself until quite recently 🙂 So I guess I have no business judging that either . . .

    With regard to the RWA thing, maybe it would help if they had an oversight committee, or actually had a vote of *all* the RITA judges, to weed out anything that a certain number of people found to be offensive. Though, probably the latter wouldn’t even be possible as it would require *all* the judges to read *all* the nominated books. But like, maybe they could have a committee of people assigned to do just that & then flag up anything that might be problematic & present to a more diverse group for discussion of whether it should be excluded . . .

    I don’t know. Just seems like they should be able to do *something*. But obviously it’s horrendously . . . *determinedly avoids a certain word* . . . knotty conundrum (hows that?)

    • Pam/Peejakers says:

      Actually, as you pointed out in your reply to another comment, we don’t know if the author *may* have been Jewish, so I should correct myself on that point. There’s a lot to think about here. Everyone is making very good points.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

      In defence of the RITAs (and I think sort of mentioned this in your comment), it’s not that there’s anything wrong with the process per se, it’s just that the nitty gritty of awards processes never stand up to close scrutiny. When you hear “RITA nominee”, or for that “Nobel Prize Winner” or “Booker Short Listed” you don’t really stop to think about what that actually means. You just sort of accept that it’s a generally prestigious thing. Like, as you say, it’s easier to assume it’s like an election when in reality it’s more like a dogshow. In fact, it’s more lie a dogshow with about a thousand judges in the first round, none of whom see the same set of dogs. Which, again, sounds mad but how else do you accurately judge a show with two thousand dogs in it.

      This is a slightly spurious analogy but I often say that issues like this are like DDT. They sort of build up in the food chain. So, yes, you can make a case that, because of freedom of expression, we can’t really say that the author shouldn’t have written this book because she’s allowed to have her beliefs and express them how she wants to. But you can then make the case that the first round of RITA judges shouldn’t have blocked it because they too are entitled to their beliefs (and some of them probably did genuinely agree with the author that this was a valid and acceptable story). And that even if they didn’t, that it’s not immediately clear that they have the right to block a potentially well-written book from being nominated for a prestigious award merely because it does not align with their political views. And so it comes down to the final panel who, as it happens, didn’t give the book the award for best inspirational or best first novel but, if they had, once again you could argue that they didn’t have the right to overrule the nominations made at a lower level just because the book did not align with their sensibilities.

      So you wind up with this situation where we can all sort of agree that something should have been done but at which it’s also fairly that no-one had the specific responsibility to do it. And, even more problematically, you can make a freedom of expression argument that at every stage everybody had a responsibility not to do anything about it.

      I think ultimately this is why I see the problem as a broad social one, rather than as a specific structural one. In a roundabout way, it’s the same issue I have with racist jokes. I don’t believe people should be banned from telling them because freedom of speech. But I do believe that they rely for their humour on people believing things that are fundamentally a bit racist. No-one makes jokes about how black men like brussel sprouts because no-one thinks that’s “a thing.” In a way it sort of comes back to what Laura Curtis was saying in her comment which is that what’s terrifying about this is that the author, her publisher and at least three out of five RITA judges reacted to this book as if it was an emotionally satisfying romance, when the social, historical and cultural context makes it impossible for a lot of people to see it that way.

  5. Interesting post.

    I’m not sure I see way for RWA to structurally eliminate these issues, either, but I certainly think it would help legitimize the awards as a whole if there was more guidance in what the scores mean (assuming the system is still as wide open as it was when you judged).

    I recently judged a contest for a chapter of RWA that had a fairly clear explanation of what their scoring meant. I don’t want to reproduce it without their permission and can’t remember it in detail, but something like “0-5 means the book is substantially below the level expected of a published novel; 6-7 means the book is approaching the level of a publishable novel,” etc. Obviously this was a rubric developed for pre-published manuscripts, so the RITAs would have to have a different set of descriptors, but it wouldn’t be that hard to come up with some, surely?

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I have a sort of general rule for life which is if you ever find yourself asking the question ‘how hard would it be to do [x]’ the answer is almost certainly ‘actually much harder than you think.’ The RITA guidelines may well have got clearer since I did it, my information is slightly out of date. But I absolutely agree that more guidance (difficult though it might be figure out exactly what it should be) would be nice.

      I think it’s probably easier to provide that sort of thing when you have a very specific purpose because then the metric can be specific as well (e.g. ‘not publishable’ ‘nearly publishable’ and ‘publishable’) although even then you’re never going to get people’s expectations totally calibrated. So, to take that rubric as an example, I’ve read some pretty terrible published books, so does that mean that 0-5 on that scale should mean ‘worse than the worst book I know has been published’ or should it mean ‘below the standard I personally consider appropriate for a published novel.’ And, of course, on the flipside of this, if this is manuscripts that we’re looking at, I can think of a great many very good books that probably wouldn’t have been as good as published novel at the manuscript stage.

      For what it’s worth, I think my obsession with criteria is partly because I have a background in education and so I tend to think of these in much the same way as I’d think of exam marking. Which could mean I’m doing it very, very wrong. But, again, that’s kind of part of the problem because there’s no way of really figuring out what’s right.

  6. Talia says:

    Refreshing to see a measured, practical response to the kerfuffle, thank you for this! I wanted to add a few thoughts:

    First, the RITAs, as they’re currently structured, allow judges to opt out of two categories, but you can’t opt in anymore. Still, I suspect a lot of judges opt out of inspirationals, so there’s still a likely self-selection process. Plus, there are far fewer entries in that category, as evidenced by the small number of finalists every year, which in turn makes it likely that a book can become a finalist with a lower averaged score than in some other categories (i.e.: the overstuffed mid-length contemporary romance, which has a cutoff of 10 finalists but I’d guess far more than 250 entries).

    Second, I have a friend in the SF/F community, and (even before the current Sad Puppies insanity), she told me that the RITAs are refreshingly egalitarian compared to other awards. Because of this mass peer judging, books by authors at every level in their careers get nominated (and even sometimes win). This is not as true in other genres. It’s certainly not true for the Emmys, which are a popularity contest, pure and simple.

    I’m uncomfortable with what I’ve read about this particular book, and I don’t love that it was nominated. But I’m not sure there’s a better awards approach than the one we’ve got.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thanks for these clarifications. It’s really useful. I think regardless of whether it’s opt-in or opt-out I share your instinct that judging inspirational romances is probably pretty niche. I agree the current system has a lot to recommend it, especially compared to SFF which is incredibly easy to exploit and has a depressingly large number of overtly toxic elements. I think, as I say, this isn’t really a structural issue with the RITAs. It’s either a conceptual issue with prestigious awards as a whole or a broader issue with society.

  7. OK, so, lots of thoughts.

    First, my own biases: 1) I am Jewish and 1st generation American 2) I am a romance reader 3) I am a romance writer 4) I am a member of RWA and judged the RITAs this year, though not the inspies.

    This controversy has absolutely changed my view of the RITAs, and not for the better. As a romance writer, I used to aspire to being nominated for a RITA. Winning one, well, that was not something I really imagined. I find it disingenuous for RWA as an organization to claim that a nomination does not imply sanction. If it did not imply approval, there would be nothing specific graphic for authors to use on books and websites when their book receives a nomination. The fact that this could final cheapens the award itself, makes all those “RITA Nominated!” badges on books worthless to me. I don’t expect it to do so for other people, but having seen the sausage ingredients, the sausage is no longer nearly so appealing.

    As repulsive as I find every single aspect of this book, I would be utterly unsurprised if it won awards for inspirational fiction, or even literary fiction. The book, with of its offensive and horrific elements, is not particularly new. The “blonde Jewess” trope, the “Jew who survives through the power of Jesus” theme (not conversion, note, just the power of Jesus) is as familiar as the other students shoving pamphlets in my face in college that exhorted me to become a Jew for Jesus.

    What I find most disheartening about this, what has made me question whether RWA is an organization I even belong in, is the idea that out of the 5 or 6 people who were given this book, at least half of them thought that A) was a romance, and B) that this romance had an optimistic and emotionally satisfying conclusion.

    Obviously, my definition of romance is not the same as theirs. People say that we have had “problematic power dynamics” in romance before. And this is true. But personally, I see a huge difference between “a problematic power dynamic” and Stockholm Syndrome. When you have to have sex with someone to survive, it’s not love. The human condition is such that the mind makes the best of every situation and the best of a situation where you are utterly dependent on someone else is to believe that you love them. It is akin to accepting that a sex slave would fall in love with her trafficker. That a slave would fall in love with a slave owner who killed all her relatives and let her live only because she was light-skinned enough to pass.

    The relationship in this book cannot, fundamentally, have an optimistic outcome. He is a war criminal. And more than that, she can never, ever, grow old with him while honoring her own heritage. If she is to be with him, she has to be, at best, a Messianic Jew. The erasure of her heritage may be “optimistic” as far as inspirational Christian fiction goes, but it is the antithesis of “romance,” which asks us to accept each other and all our human differences from one another.

    • Caroline says:

      Just wanted to reply that this comment is outstanding.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you for the comment. I’d say I can understand where you’re coming from, but that sounds a little bit presumptuous.

      I agree that the RWA are being a little disingenuous here and absolutely see why this is a dealbreaker for you. I think the double-think around the nomination process requires a certain level of privilege. It’s one of those things that, from a strictly mercenary perspective, it benefits the industry if people continue to treat awards-nominations as if they have value while at the same time nobody has to take any responsibility for who gets nominated. But if you’re directly by the issue, it’s not really something you can just go along with.

      I think sense of belonging in this kind of situation is really difficult because one of the depressing things that one inevitably realises about this community is that it genuinely contains a small (and sometimes not even particularly small) fraction of people whose beliefs you’ll find genuinely abhorrent. Ultimately the thing about RWA is that it’s a professional organisation for the romance industry and, like any industry, it will have members across the whole political spectrum. I think when when choose who to interact with in our day to day lives (even our day to day professional lives) we naturally self-select so that we don’t run up against the people whose world-views are antithetical to our own. I think it might be one of those things where we can accept on a rational level that a certain percentage of romance writers or World of Warcraft players or knitting enthusiasts will have attitudes we find personally repulsive but nothing quite prepares you to be confronted by the reality of it.

      And I understand that it’s all very well for me to sit here and being terribly analytical about systems and processes and stuff but the realisation that five of our peers read this book and thought it was an emotionally satisfying romance must be genuinely really devastating and alienating.

  8. EE Ottoman says:

    The fact that this book had to pass through so many hands to make it as far as it did and no one was like “hmm, maybe not” it my biggest issue right now (asides from my personal feelings about it.)

    I also think you’re right and structurally there’s not all that much that can be done. At the same time I don’t think a RITA nomination or win is going to stop being meaningful. I think it comes back to the fact that RWA has an overall issue with diversity and that inspirational romance is pretty non diverse.

    There’s obviously no good fix for that.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      At the risk of making generalisations, I think the fact it’s an inspirational explains a lot. I have some experience of very evangelical Christians and from what I’ve heard about this book, I can absolutely see why people who subscribe to a very specific brand of evangelic Christianity would think it was amazing. I think you sort of have to bear in mind that we’re talking about world view in which Jesus trumps everything. To put it another way, when someone exploits a great and tragic event for their own benefit, what people say is “is nothing sacred?” but, of course, to the people wrote, published and I assume reviewed this book, nothing is more sacred than the story this book is telling because it’s literally about Jesus.

      I think one of the things that’s worth pointing out about this book is that it’s been a RITA nominee for about six months and nobody really noticed. And I think a big part of that is that inspirational romance is a very, very niche subgenre and, had it not been a highlighted by a review on SBTB, most people wouldn’t have realised this book existed. A lot of people seem to be asking how this book can have received the accolades its received and the simple answer seems to be, because it’s only been read and reviewed by people who share its world view on quite fundamental level.

      • EE Ottoman says:

        oh I absolutely agree that’s what happened, and Lord knows I’ve known enough of those particular Christians to know that this does fit into that world view.

        On the other hand until I started reading article about this book, including this one, I hadn’t realized that only people who wrote/read regularly inspirational romance would be judging the inspirational romance. Which is what it practically ends up being if the people who are into inspirational sign up to judge inspirational and everyone else says no thanks. It makes sense that you’d want people who write/are into a type of romance to judge that type of romance. There is also literally no reason for people choose categories that don’t like reading if it’s their the ones making the choice. On the other hand I think this who issue perfectly illustrates the weakness in having people peek the categories they judge themselves.

  9. Having started my professional life working in children’s book publishing, I always end up comparing the RITA process to the process that the Caldecott and Newbery Awards go through. Those awards are granted not by authors of children’s books, but by librarians, who have had the job for a long time of evaluating/policing quality literature for children. A group (12, or is it 15?) librarians are appointed to the judging committee (a prestigious job!), and devote major hours to reading widely among the books nominated and sent in by publishers. They write nominating reports; they read the reports of other committee members; and they meet, face to face, twice a year to discuss a whittled-down list of potential winners. They have to reach a consensus about the winner, and any “honor” books, during their second meeting, which takes place at the same American Library Association conference at which the awards are announced.

    This process, of course, is not without its own flaws. But at least people judging the awards are comparing many books, not just reading 5…

    • Alexis Hall says:

      That definitely sounds like a more rigorous system but I’m not sure it would scale for the RITAs. Unless you raised the barrier for entry and drastically cut down the number of initial submissions which, would again, come with its drawbacks. I suppose you could sort of have a middle ground in which you treated the current “nomination” process as a first cut and then let the actual panel decide on a short-list from the nominees. You’d then effectively have a situation where being “RITA nominated” meant being on the shot list and implied that you’d definitely been looked at by an actual panellist with oversight of the field. This would make comparisons fairer and it would also avoid the difficult situation we’re in now where RWA seems to be trying to distance itself from the book without distancing itself from the honour the book was awarded.

      I don’t think this ultimately solves the problem of what you do with books that could be judged harmful to some readers because, to an extent, an “official” panellist isn’t necessarily any more likely to have good instincts (and by good instincts, of course, I mean instincts that align with mine) than a randomly selected volunteer. What it would do is increase accountability and transparency.

      • Kaetrin says:

        I’m interested in the phrase “harmful to some readers”. I think that’s just such a slippery slope. Absolutely this book has caused real harm and hurt to some (all?) of the Jewish community. I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter. It definitely matters, of course it does.

        But I’ve seen plenty of other books (with different themes, settings and protagonists) described as “harmful to some readers”. In some cases the harm is more of the mythical variety but in others the harm is very real. But we don’t generally talk about those books in the same way as some of the discussion about FSaTaT. There is certainly not the same volume of outrage when those other books are nominated for a RITA (I don’t think there is anyway).

        For instance, I have seen rigorous assertion that Fifty Shades of Grey is harmful to certain vulnerable women (mostly young women). My own take on that would take up too much space but suffice to say not everyone agrees with this. I’ve not read 50 and don’t intend to but there are plenty of people who love the book. Because it is, or may be “harmful to some readers” should some (what?) action be taken?

        I’ve seen comments from women (there’s one in Africa I’m thinking of particularly) who said that any book with a military hero is a no go for her because her lived experience of the military is that they are anything *but* heroes. To her, a military man presented as hero is genuinely hurtful and harmful. Should military hero books be excluded from the RITAs because of that?

        Even in this thread, there are people (who are absolutely entitled to their opinions) who think that some kinds of romance (MC romance, hitman/mafia romance) are harmful, not so much because they are about criminals, but because the heroes are generally uber-alphaholes who treat women badly and the same kinds of arguments come up as applies to Fifty Shades of Grey.

        There are women (and men, no doubt) who are genuinely hurt and harmed and triggerd by romance books which include rape, either by the hero/heroine or by another character. Should any book with a rape theme/containing a rape be banned from the RITAs?

        I’m not comparing the Holocaust to any of those things. My point isn’t about making comparisons at all. (I don’t think comparison of trauma is a good idea – at a certain point it’s all fucking awful). I’m trying to say (possibly badly) that there are many kinds of books which are, for one reason or another, genuinely harmful or perceived as genuinely harmful to a particular (often marginalised, often minority) group of readers. If the RWA were to introduce some kind of exclusion on the basis of “harm” what could be left out too? Who decides that? Which books are actually left *in*? That concerns me very much.

        In my industry there is a saying: “bad cases make bad law”. The idea behind it is that a very specific and particular set of circumstances goes before the court and the decision fits that particular and specific case but when the law as then made is applied more widely, it has unexpected, unintended and, very often, unfortunate consequences. That’s what I mean. Unless the RWA introduced a rule that said “no Nazi romance books” (or perhaps something even more specific) there will undoubtedly be unintended consequences. In this case it might be that “problematic books make problematic rules”.

        • Alexis Hall says:

          As you quite clearly articulate here there are no easy answers and no clear dividing lines. As you say, it’s very hard to find any theme that hasn’t harmed somebody. Heck, there are people who think the whole concept of the romance genre reinforces heteronormative, patriarchal paradigms and should be dispensed with. I think you can make a strong case that storytelling is an inherently political act, even if the story is being told primarily for the purposes of escapism or entertainment. And, ultimately, strategies in this situation have to be about minimising harm rather than eradicating it completely.

          I think the issue is that you can’t really have fixed rules about this kind of thing. I mean it would be kind of weird for the RITAs to have a specific ‘no Nazi heroes’ policy, especially if it was the only policy of that type they had. I do think you can get a sort of qualitative feel for the sorts of things that are likely to be seen as harmful by a significant proportion of people. And I think that, in a situation that clearly admits of no clean solution, the closest thing we’re going to get to one is a sort of nebulous exhortation to be aware of people whose experiences are different from your own. And sometimes sets of people will have genuinely irreconcilable needs and feelings about this kind of thing. To take one of your examples, I can completely see that a reader who has experienced terrible things at the hands of the military would be unable to accept a military hero as a viable protagonist. On the other hand, a reader who has experienced terrible things as part of the military would be equally unwilling to accept that a character whose experiences reflect their own is somehow unworthy of love or redemption.

        • I agree with all this. I’m wondering how much self-selection we can expect readers to do, and how much self-editing we should expect from authors.

          I wouldn’t classify my strongly negative reaction to extreme-alpha heroes as one of hurt, certainly, and maybe that’s part of the difference. So it’s okay to expect me, as a reader, to just avoid books that feature this sort of hero. But when I look at the African reader who can’t accept military heroes, it’s a bit more complicated – easy for her to find and discard books with such heroes, for certain, but maybe she’s hurt just by knowing that the books are out there?

          It sounds cold-blooded and insensitive to suggest that this be a numbers game – if there are LOTS of readers likely to be hurt by the simple existence of something, then maybe authors should make sure that thing doesn’t exist. And what if there are readers who are healed by the same thing that hurts someone else?

          I just finished reading a really interesting novel with a heroine who has rape fantasies as a result of being raped. (Asking for It, by Lilah Pace). I ended up having some issues with the storytelling, but I think the premise itself is really interesting, and it seemed like a worthwhile issue for fiction to explore. But I can see how rape survivors could end up having really different reactions to the subject matter, some strongly positive, some strongly negative. That tension is valuable to society as a whole, I think, but that doesn’t mean some people wouldn’t be hurt by the story.

          I’m also wondering how much of this comes down to the problematic stories being set within the Romance genre, because of the HEA requirement. Romance novels have a certain tidiness to them because of the way they have to end, and there are some topics where tidiness seems simplistic to the point of being disrespectful. I think the Holocaust is definitely one of those topics.

          (This turned into one of those “here’s a bunch of thoughts” posts – sorry if it wandered away from your original idea, Kaetrin!)

          • Teresa Noelle Roberts says:

            I think Kate Sherwood makes an excellent point that certain types of stories don’t fit well into the romance rubric. I can imagine a novel in which an SS officer and a Jewish woman fall in “love” or at least some form of twisted codependence that they may think of as love because their world is so horrible that merely twisted starts looking good if it brings some human comfort or pleasure. But it would be a dark, tragic book–I can’t imagine any circumstances where you could give this story a happy ending and not have it feel false and hurtful. Such a book could even contain a genuine spiritual awakening or shift on one or both their parts (though not the weird, partial one that apparently takes place in the book under discussion) and that would probably make matters even more grim.

  10. Two more things I’ve been thinking about in re this controversy:

    1. Romance readers don’t typically read for ideology, and romance judges aren’t trained to judge a book based on its ideology. So it’s not surprising to find that for some readers and judges, the ideologically offensive aspects of this book flew right by them.

    2. The only guidance RWA gives its judges is to give a book a score between 0.0 and 10.0. To try to formulate more concrete guidelines, especially ones that asked readers to judge on content/ideology/message, would lead to major controversy, similar to the controversy that happened last decade when some parts of the organization tried to restrict the definition of “romance” to “one man and one woman.” It would highlight the major conflicts/ruptures between different factions within the organization, something that the organization would far rather paper over.

    • I disagree with this – I think Romance readers absolutely read for ideology, but it’s a mainstream ideology, and one that’s so ingrained that many of us don’t even recognize it as such.

      But when RWA resisted the inclusion of LGBTQ romance, that was ideologically based. When readers overwhelmingly choose books with alpha heroes, THAT’S based on ideology, too. And obviously when an entire sub-genre of romance is centred around a single religion, THAT’S ideologically based

      I agree that readers and judges probably aren’t consciously reading for ideology. But I absolutely think it’s there, anyway.

      • Kate: Yes, that’s what I meant, that readers aren’t CONSCIOUSLY reading for ideology. They fall back on their own ingrained idea of what’s “normal,” not recognizing that it’s ideologically based, and that it may be vastly different from others’ views of what is “normal” and “acceptable.”

        • Yeah, okay, that makes sense.

          It’s a form of critical vs. uncritical reading, really. And in some ways I think that’s part of what romance is about – it’s an emotional journey rather than an intellectual one. A fantasy rather than a reality?

          But something like this, where the author is drawing on a REAL situation, and such a horrible one – it demands critical reading, I think. And you’re right, a lot of romance readers may not be looking for that.

      • Pam/Peejakers says:

        Kate Sherwood, yes, this ^^^.

        I was also thinking, no I don’t read romance specifically *for* ideology, but ideology is a human thing that broadly exists everywhere. Aren’t we constantly noticing & evaluating in that way, in daily life? I also hate to think we are so compartmentalized that when we read within a genre we confine our thinking to the criteria defining that genre. I don’t think we lose our ability notice moral or ethical or psychological, or any other issues just because that’s not the primary point of a story. It would be really disturbing to me to think that these kinds of things could just fly by most people . . .

        That said, when it comes to actually judging something, you do have to do that based on the instructions you’re given. So, even if you notice an issue, the rules are essentially telling you to disregard it. Sort of like a trial juror, who is supposed to disregard any instinctive sense of a defendant’s guilt or innocence & make their decision based only on the evidence & instructions of the court. Obviously there are no easy answers.

        • It’s tricky, because I think we DO sometimes ignore our own ‘real world’ beliefs in order to believe in the fantasy.

          Personal example, as real-world person, I’m a strong, strong pacifist. Hate guns, wish we had no military, etc. But I’ve written cop heroes who shoot people and soldier heroes who do the same. And I let them be heroes in my books, without REALLY reconciling their behaviour with my own beliefs. I mean, my cops and soldiers are GOOD cops and soldiers, of course! They’re responsible and they do their jobs because they want to protect people, etc. I’m not completely selling out. But… in the real world, I’m not comfortable with the jobs these people are doing. So why am I okay with it in my stories?

          And when I read? I can’t stand full-on alpha-hole heroes, but I don’t really expect or maybe even want my true values to be represented. In real life, I think the accumulation of wealth by certain individuals is close to obscene; in fiction, I just accept that there will be billionaire heroes.

          Maybe I’m just a really shallow reader/writer, but I think maybe… I don’t quite know. But I think it is part of the fantasy. If I read a book with a billionaire hero who becomes a philanthropist, I think I’d love it. But I don’t demand it. (I’ll also watch action movies where hundreds of people die, so my lack of connection between fiction and real world ideals isn’t limited to romance).

          I do sometimes throw books when they cross a line. But my line is way different in reading than it is in the real world. I’m not sure why…

          • willaful says:

            I completely agree, and where the line is varies so much from person to person and even book to book. I love the concept of “reader consent,” because it helps explain myself to me.

          • EE Ottoman says:

            it feels very kind of … like a brushing off of the genre to say romance readings don’t think critically about the books they read or industry professional don’t think critically or romance is just about the fantasy.. I’m very cautious of implying that. I think it’s a) not true or a fair representation of the genre and b) a slippery slope kind of argument.

          • I hear what you’re saying, but to me, it would actually be more dismissive to say that they’re critically thinking about the books and still choosing to read/publish/write books with such problematic elements. Because for me, while this is clearly an example of problematic elements gone overboard, there are other aspects of romance novels that I wouldn’t accept in a different setting.

            To broaden the idea beyond just romance: to me, there’s nothing wrong with reading fiction in a different mindset than when I’m reading non-fiction. With non-fiction, I’m looking for valid premises, coherent arguments, logical conclusions, based on intellectual truths. With non-fiction? I guess there’s a similar vibe – I want a setting I can believe in, events that make me feel, and a satisfying conclusion, but it’s mostly based on emotions rather than intellect. I don’t mean that there’s a crystal clear line between intellect and emotions and I do expect my non-fiction to acknowledge emotional realities or my fiction to be intellectually coherent, but my focus in definitely on different things.

            I didn’t intend for my earlier comments to seem dismissive of romance. I think a focus on emotion is a completely valid and valuable aspect of literature. And I think if we’re presenting romance novels as intellectual treatises, we’re going to have to do a hell of a lot of work on our motorcycle gang heroes, our alpha-holes, our class issues (especially in historical novels), etc. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t do that work anyway, but at least for me, it’s not completely necessary that the work be done in order for me to still enjoy romances on an emotional level. If I was coming across some of those tropes in non-fiction? Well, it wouldn’t be pretty.

          • Alexis Hall says:

            I just wanted to say I think this is a really interesting set of points. I think if not most then many writers and indeed readers have eventually struggled with the conflict between what they consider acceptable in real life and what they consider acceptable in fiction, and the seeming inconsistencies in our own instincts. I’m not quite as pacifistic as you are in that I generally think that police forces and standing orders are a necessary thing in the real world, but I do generally think that violence is bad in real life and, well, awesome in fiction.

            If I had to articulate what I think makes a difference (and as Willa says, basically the lines are in different places for different people) I think I’d say it does, in fact, come back to ideology. The thing about violence in fiction (and I am aware that I’m kind of teaching my grandmother to suck eggs here) is that it is a way of representing struggle and conflict. When you show somebody literally and physically fighting for something, you show that the thing they are fighting for has value and so when I look at violence in fiction, I’m mostly looking at what the fight is about, not what the fight contains. I think what makes the fantasy of the action movie different from the fantasy of the romance novel is that romance novels are about love in a way that action movies are not usually about violence. The kinds of action movies that I tend to find offensive are ones where the violence is in pursuit of a goal I disagree with, rather than ones in which I disagree with the violence itself.

            By comparison, if I’m offended by a romance, it is often the romance itself that troubles me. If I had to sum it up really quickly, my strong negative response to a romance is “how can you think that is romantic” whereas my strong negative response to an action movie is “how can you think that is worth fighting for.”

            Um. Or something 🙂

          • Absolute agreement on the “how can you think that is romantic” issue. “How can you think it’s romantic to have the hero disrespect the heroine’s autonomy like that” is the big one for me. I’m not really objecting to the behaviour so much as the attitude toward the behaviour, if that makes sense?

            I have to think more about the “how can you think that’s worth fighting for” corollary… I don’t watch that many action movies, so I don’t think I have the same library of reactions to catalogue. Hmm….

      • willaful says:

        And when so many read for female *virginity* and total female monogamy – absolutely. You can’t read the GoodReads reviews on a Harlequin Presents in which a heroine dares to have sex with someone after the hero and not know that.

    • Kaetrin says:

      I disagree with this Jackie. I think the RITA judges who chose not to opt out of inspirational romance, which, as I understand it are largely Christian books, are absolutely reading for ideology as well as romance and, to some Christians (not this one I hasten to add), and at least 3 of the 5 RITA judges, the book fits within that ideology. As Alexis said, that’s very likely why it finalled in the first place.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      For what it’s worth, I very much agree with what what many other people have already said (including, in fact, you yourself in later comments) that everybody comes to everything with an ideology and it’s quite important to recognise that. I think ideologies are a lot like accents: everybody has one, but if yours aligns very strongly with the one that’s presumed to the be default, it’s easy to imagine that you don’t.

  11. Excellent post and so many thoughtful replies. I don’t see an easy answer to this either.

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned yet is that a RITA judge has the option to return books that she believes she cannot judge properly for any reason, which could range from her relationship with the author to something about the book’s content. As we’re instructed to judge the writing/storytelling, a judge might interpret this to return a book she found offensive or disturbing.

    I haven’t exercised this option myself and I don’t judge the inspirational category. Of course I don’t know if it happened in this case. But a rule that makes sense in general could also result in a horrifically offensive book being passed on to a judge or judges who might score it more generously than the original recipient(s).

    • Alexis Hall says:

      This is a really a good point. I did briefly think about mentioning it but, frankly, I felt I’d already rambled for long enough. One of the things, I’ve found really difficult about this whole situation is I’ve kept asking myself what I would have done if I’d been given that book to rate. Obviously I wouldn’t have been because I wouldn’t have signed up for inspirationals but it’s still worth thinking about.

      One of the things I found difficult to deal with when I was judging, was I often didn’t particularly or agree with the particular books I’d been given, but I could see how they were excellent examples of the category for which they were submitted. Again, the process isn’t that transparent so I don’t know how other people approach it, but I wanted to be as far to the books as possible so I ended up scoring based on how well I thought the book achieved what it was setting out to achieve. Otherwise I’d have given low ratings to what were probably very good books.

      For what it’s worth, I had actually had a submission for another award I was judging that I did return to the moderator because I found it so personally offensive. I was upset at the time so I wrote quite a passionate email about why I didn’t think it should be in the competition but, with hindsight, as you say, it probably just went to another judge who didn’t have my sensibilities and so you do wind up with this weird situation where, potentially, judges who would be bothered by certain types of content actually actively select away from judging it.

  12. Pingback: This is what an exclusionary society looks like. | Her Hands, My Hands

  13. Dallas says:

    Goodness, when I first came to read this post, there were 13 responses. Now over 50… And many of my own thoughts have been expressed by some of these responses. But I had to take some time to think about it a little more, and so I will add the following, even if it is a bit redundant at this point:

    As a Jew, I am disappointed, but not at all surprised, that a devout Christian would write this story, considering it to be inspirational, and that many other Christians would also approve of it. As has already been mentioned, it’s the standard “healing power of Jesus in the midst of great darkness” theme. (Though I cannot help wondering, where was Jesus when millions of Jews, gays, gypsies, and other “undesirables” were being rounded up and killed in the most inhumane ways possible? Oh, wait, maybe he was very busy helping Aryan-looking Jewesses find love with repentant Nazis.)

    Certainly here in the very Christian U.S., my experience has been that most non-Jews are clueless to some degree or other, and sometimes (though usually unintentionally) thoughtless and insensitive, when it comes to Jews and the Jewish experience. That’s just the way it is when you are a tiny minority in a big country. For example, I have to assume the RITA judges were not Jewish (or at least, most of them were not Jewish), and thus it did not *occur* to those judges that this book might be a bit too objectionable to pass on through to the next round…

    Now that I understand a bit more of the RITA judging process, I’m wondering how many Christian-becomes-Jewish and Christian-becomes-Muslim romances have been submitted to the inspirational category. Any? And how were they received?

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  16. Lea Schafer says:

    Just a quick observation. Many of the comments have mentioned judging the inspie category as if opting in to that category means you love it. You can’t opt in; you can only opt out. When you can only opt out of two categories, it is more often a choice between, for lack of a better description, “the lesser of two evils.”

    For instance, most judges opt out of their own category. Every entrant is also required to judge, so they usually exclude the category they entered. (I excluded romantic suspense, the category I entered.) Then you only have one other choice to opt out of. Considering the number of categories, that leaves you with possibly judging a lot of categories you don’t necessarily enjoy. I opted out of YA, mostly because those books are long (as are historicals, which I also considered) and because reading about teenagers mostly makes me want to gouge my eyes out. (It’s a personal thing; I didn’t enjoy being a teenager and really don’t want to read about them now. That kind of displeasure, I felt, would not allow me to judge those books appropriately.) My Rita packet contained three inspie titles, not because I necessarily wanted to judge them, but because I wanted to judge another category even less. (I did not receive this particular book, however.)

    Did the judges for this book want to judge inspie? There’s no way to know. Maybe they did; maybe they didn’t. Maybe they were familiar with the conventions of the inspie sub genre, and maybe they weren’t. That’s part of the judging that no one can discern because the judges aren’t obliged to provide such information. But the fact that, by default, they were given inspie books to judge does not mean necessarily that they wanted them. (Yes, I do have to admit that I groaned a bit when I saw my packet. 🙂 But I did the best that I could with the books I received.)

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  18. Apparently 51 comments just isn’t enough, for me…

    What about eliminating the Inspirational category from the RITAs? The case at hand is obviously an egregious example, but I’m not sure I’m really comfortable with an organization that claims to be The Voice of Romance Writers having ANY faith-based categories for their awards. “Inspirational” really means “Christian”, right? Or even more, maybe it means “Evangelical Christian”? Why is there an award for that in an organization that purports to speak for all romance writers?

    Especially when there’s no LGBT or m/m category. You could argue for Inspie inclusion since it’s a marketing category, but gay romance is a marketing category as well and seems to have no separate award. If we’re avoiding ghetto-ization by not segregating gay romance, maybe we should do the same favour for Inspie romance? Let them compete on the larger stage and see how they do.

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