Red hair notwithstanding, I’m an easygoing sort. I don’t go out looking for fights. They take too much energy. I’m barely able to keep up with all the promotional blogging and social networking that is a writer’s lot. Most of my writers’ group lists are on digest. As a result, by the time I see a discussion, 99 percent of the time someone else has already made all the points I might feel obliged to make—and made them more eloquently too. So I restrict my participation congratulating folks on the big things like contracts, publications, awards and birthdays, and cheering their reviews and interviews when I can.
That said, there is one organization with an unfailing capacity to steam my dumplings: Romance Writers of America...
I came late to this year’s RITA contest debacle. Oh, I signed the RITA petition circulated when they bounced the small press entries. But I didn’t get mad. Remember, I’m a laid-back, lazy kind of girl. In addition to everything I said earlier about arriving more than fashionably late to every email discussion, my natural tendency is to see the value in every side of an argument.
Plus, I spent far too much of my government career working for political appointees who will rabidly consume six hours of your work day trying to badger you into believing the sun rises in the west because it supports their party’s current political agenda. Arguing with people like that gets you nowhere. You can’t win even if you’re right. They’re hard-wired to see no further than the limit of their personal ideology. It’s much more effective to let them thing they’ve won, then pull the plug on their pet project as soon as they move on to the next shiny on their screw-up list.
Then I read the message from RWA President Diane Pershing in the February Romance Writer’s Report about this year’s RITAs, and I saw red. Ms. Pershing notes “The purpose of the RITA contest is to promote excellence in the romance genre by recognizing outstanding published novels and novellas.” She goes on to say “The first part of that sentence has been interpreted over the years to mean that entries need to have a wide audience, with large print runs and distribution, to promote the genre itself.”
No. That interpretation is only applied when RWA Board members decide to separate the organization writers into Haves and Have-Nots based on the nature of their publishers not the quality of the work itself.
Ms. Pershing continues: “As RWA has always had to limit entries due to judge availability and time constraints…it has come up with what it considered the most reasonable and responsible way to limit entries. After taking our core mission into consideration, that way was by widespread marketplace availability.”
Excuse me? What about the core mission stated in the first paragraph of the “About Us” page of the RWA web site: “Through education, networking, and advocacy, RWA supports the professional interests of its more than 10,000 members”? Speaking as one of the poor Published Author Network (PAN) patsies tasked to judge every bestseller knock-off and clichéd clinch-fest RITA organizers deign to throw my way, my professional interests are best served by an organizational environment in which my professionally published and edited work competes on a level playing field with other professional published and edited work. It is not served by an ostrich mentality which seeks to hark back to some imaginary Golden Age where the only good work available was published with a large advance by an unrealistically saintly NY publisher who dutifully ensured the book in question was stocked by every major market and publicized beyond its anticipated sell-through.
Black Wednesday, anyone?
With that in mind, I fired off a little letter to the editor of Romance Writers Report. Since I suspect I am dealing with the RWA variant of the political mentality I mentioned earlier, I’m posting the full text in case the RWA powers that be decide the topic is closed. Forwarding is not only permitted, but encouraged.
Elitism in the RITAs: A PAN Member’s Response to the President’s Message in the February 2009 Romance Writer’s Report
If the purpose of the RITA contest is, in fact, “to promote excellence in the romance genre by recognizing outstanding published romance novels and novellas”, you’re doing it wrong. The RITAs are the romance industry’s Oscars. Celebrating excellence is only part of their role. The RITAs also serve to draw attention to books and writers who may have been overlooked in the marketplace. One of the most important functions of the Academy Awards—and Academy Award nominations—is to support deserving indie films, filmmakers, actors, writers and crew whose work would not otherwise find the wide audience its quality merits. This not only encourages national (publishing translation: mass market) distribution but boosts the careers of all involved.
Awards and nominations are critical career-building steps for writers as well as filmmakers. How many times has an award tipped the balance in favor of the author in a contract negotiation? How many times has an award or nomination been the deciding factor in obtaining representation? How many times has it inspired an editor at a major NY publisher to consider a book by an unrepresented “unknown”? They are legion.
To limit RITA participation to “widely distributed books” as is currently defined by the RWA board is to limit the benefits of the contest to a narrowly defined group of “haves”—supporting them based on their publishers not their work. Given what’s at stake, of course “too many” people want to participate. The problem isn’t the number of entries. The problem is the willingness of RWA members at the national level to step up to the plate and help each other, and it should be addressed from that angle.
The United States just inaugurated a president who mobilized Americans at every level of the economic and professional spectrum with one simple message of hope: Yes, we can.
Are you saying RWA CAN’T?
Jean Marie Ward