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.

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