Statement from the RWA Board

The Board of Directors of the Romance Writers of America (RWA) has received a great deal of heartfelt and moving feedback about some of the finalists in this year's RITA contest. We want the membership to know we have heard your concerns and have spent days discussing them.

The question that we must answer is what RWA as a writers' organization should do when issues arise regarding the content of books entered in the RITA contest. Discussions about content restrictions inevitably lead to concerns about censorship. Censoring entry content is not something the Board supports. If a book is banned from the contest because of its content, there will be a move for more content to be banned. This is true, even especially true, when a book addresses subjects that are difficult, complex, or offensive.

There were 2,000 entries in the RITA contest this year. The RITA is a peer-reviewed award. There is no vetting of content before a book may be entered. Books are entered, not nominated, and those books are judged by fellow romance authors. The Board believes this is how the contest should be run. RWA does not endorse the content of any book entered in the contest. We do believe, however, that education and conversation are important in dealing with the concerns expressed. To that end, we will open an online forum on the RWA website for members to discuss their concerns. This is not a perfect solution, but we believe open dialogue, not the censorship of content, is the right way to handle the issues expressed.

18 Comments
8 Likes

Perfect response

August 7, 2015 09:25 AM by Melanie Macek

I'm happy to read this decision. While I may not personally like some of the content people put in their books, ultimately it's about the writing and sometimes touchy subjects only gain traction because people react to them. Thank you for not censoring entries and for continuing to stand not only with the writers, but with the readers, of romance. And thank you for allowing self-published authors to entrer. It was nice to see that up there on the screen. 

The issue is not censorship

August 7, 2015 10:36 AM by Darlene Marshall

There's a difference between censorship and judging a book's subject matter to be so tasteless and offensive that it should not be considered suitable to win Romance's top award. RWA's own guidelines say: "An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love."

It boggles one's mind that a relationship predicated on an unequal status of mass murderer and victim can lead judges to find that "emotional justice". In addition, we're not talking about a book in a mythical time of Vikings or gladiators, we're talking about a novel set in a time real people, RWA members and romance readers, lived through and still suffer its effects as children and friends of survivors, and simply as caring human beings.

The RITA judges are held to a high standard because they're supposed to be judging the best of the best. That is not censorship, that is a call to action.   

Will this forum focus on raising awareness of problematic elements?

August 7, 2015 11:20 AM by Jami Gold

Given that the book at the center of the controversy received "starred reviews" and "top picks" from several review sources, the problem is much broader than what RWA could have or should have done. There's a general lack of awareness of certain problematic elements in the romance community, especially within certain genres.

In addition, only four high scores are necessary for a RITA nomination. Four people judging a book in a category that many (most?) members opt out of is hardly representative of the RWA organization as a whole.

So I'm disheartened by the focus on RWA as the "source" of the problem, while giving a pass to those organizations who gave high reviews without mention of the problematic elements of the story. Seeing RWA as a valid target while not seeing Library Journal as a valid target strikes me as a bit too close to a "beating up on the romance genre because we can" attitude.

Rather, I'd like to focus on how we can raise awareness of potentially problematic elements within the genre as a whole. Discussions like those taking place on Twitter today get people to think beyond their assumptions, and a place for those discussions to also happen within the RWA community might help. It might take only one person to say "Hey, would anyone else be bothered by a story with X as its premise?" to raise awareness that certain ideas are problematic and not the best representation of the genre.

Censorship

August 7, 2015 12:31 PM by Gwyn Cready
I can't believe we're even talking about censoring books--especially in RWA. Critics have tried to censor the voice of women romance writers for years--through criticism, shaming, and mockery. We should fight forever for the right to dislike the subject matter of a book, but it would be a grievous wrong to ever support legislating content.

So, anything goes? Or are there limits?

August 7, 2015 01:23 PM by Beverly Diehl

I don't agree this is a question of censorship.

There are already guidelines for the RITA and Golden Heart awards: books must be a certain length, fit a certain genre, there must be a HEA or HFN and other criteria. Is it "censorship" when books that don't fit those criteria are disqualified?

If, by some wild chance, a book would be submitted for the RITA's or Golden Heart and upvoted by the judges that had at its core a 14 year old girl and a 44 year old man, would that be okay? How about a love triangle among a man, a woman, and a German shepherd? How about a novel where the heroine's deepest desire is to die, and the hero slowly, erotically, lovingly kills her?

If the answer is no, of course RWA would disqualify such a novel, then the answer is, yes, there ARE lines that cannot/should not be crossed. Then question becomes how/where those lines are drawn. 

As a volunteer with more tasks than time, I understand how hard it is to set such guidelines. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be set. 

I also think we need to consider exactly what kind of message it would send to the public if a novel that is, at least on its surface, so offensive to thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people, would actually WIN the RITA or Golden Heart.

 

Change definition of romance to include agency/consent?

August 7, 2015 01:55 PM by Tamara Hogan

In my mind, this isn't an issue of censorship. Perhaps it's time for our organization to enhance its defnition of romance to explicitly address themes of agency and consent. Process-wise, if a contest judge encounters a book that doesn't exhibit these themes, he or she could flag it as 'not a romance,' which would eliminate it from further cntest consideration. 

Easier said than done, certainly - but I think it's something we should consider. 

From a purely logistical standpoint...

August 7, 2015 05:40 PM by Natalie J. Damschroder

I firmly believe a few things about the RITA and GH contests. 

1. Finaling is EXTREMELY difficult. The finalist entries that I have read through the 20+ years I've been a member of RWA have merited that status based on the quality of writing and storytelling.

2. While inherently problematic because it is done by fallible humans with subjective perspectives, our judging process should be sufficient to weed out extremes. Truly horrific material is not likely to final, generally speaking. (I am not familiar with the book that spawned this discussion, so I'm speaking very generally.)

3. It may seem easy for us to say "X in a story is universally offensive and should never be allowed" but that can't actually be determined without someone reading the book. It's all too easy to misrepresent or misconstrue something, or simply be affected by personal bias. Generally speaking.

Therefore, logistically, for certain books to be disallowed, someone would have to be designated to read 2000 entries BEFORE the books go to judges, and for that person to make a unilateral decision about whether or not to allow the entries to be judged. That strikes me as both impossible and ridiculously unfair.

No censorship, but reflectionn

August 7, 2015 07:21 PM by Kate Forest

I am so glad this book wasn't censored. As a Jewish woman, I feel it is important to know what is said about Jews. I generally don't read Inspirational romance, although I have and have enjoyed some Amish stories.

This brought to light, not only the cluelessness or anti-Semitism of the author and publisher, but also of the general RITA judges.   I have also learned that it is common in inspirational romance books for Jewish characters to be “redeemed” by converting to Christianity. This makes me truly sad to know my sister authors are out there continuing this offensive theme. But I’d rather be sad and knowledgeable than happy and ignorant.

I hope readers and writers listent to the comments and change their outlooks. I hope writers treat Jewish characters with more sensitivity and depict them in more realistic and uplifting ways.

So please don’t censor books because they offend me. But know that if offended, I will make noise.

Response to Beverly

August 7, 2015 08:00 PM by Courtney Milan

Hi Beverly,

Just as a brief point of clarification, the RITA rules are available here: https://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=531

There are no content restrictions aside from the requirement that the book be a romance as defined by RWA policy. That means that if the first-round judges rank a book that involves a German-shepherd menage highly enough to final, and those same judges agree that it is a romance as defined by RWA policy, that book will final. Likewise for every scenario you express.

The current contest rules do not engage in the drawing of any content lines whatsoever.

It's up to all of us

August 8, 2015 12:30 AM by Andrea J. Wenger

Many thanks to the Board for their serious consideration regarding this matter. I agree that censorship and content restrictions would hurt the RITA. Given that it's a peer-reviewed award, it's really up to all of us to educate and learn from each other. With the many discussions about diversity going on, I'm hopeful that we'll all make better, more sensitive choices as authors and judges in the future.

I hope that with the call to write more diverse books, we'll all be kind to one another. Too many authors are afraid to write more diverse characters and themes because they're afraid of getting something wrong and offending people. Writing for publication is an act of courage, and even with careful research it's possible to get things wrong. RWA is an extremely supportive community. Let's help each other get things right and make an effort to forgive when no offense was meant.

Emotionally satisfying and optimistic?

August 8, 2015 11:39 AM by Pam Rosenthal

Thanks to Courtney Milan for referring us to the RITA rules. Because that's where the roots of this controversy lie for me. The fact of the matter is that unless you honestly believe that a single conversion to Christianity outweighs the fathomless suffering of millions of Jews and the dehumanization of the perpetrators of this crime, there is no possible satisfying and optimistic outcome to be drawn from such a depiction of the Nazi holocaust. And I should add that for me, as a proud secular Jew, there is nothing emotionally satisfying or optimistic to be drawn from the depiction of any Jew's conversion. On the contrary, it adds one small insult to unspeakable injury.

I'm only thankful that RWA did not censor this book. I and others need to know. Just as the author and her readers need to know what I and others like me are feeling.

It's as Simple as Common Sense

August 9, 2015 02:23 PM by Chloe Adler

I'd like to weigh in here as a Jewish woman. I do not believe in censorship either but I don't think that's the point. The point to me is common sense. Personally I am extremely upset about this topic. Everyone above already covered the many fantastic points that can be made. I could reiterate them all but going around in a circle is unconstructive. I am only weighing in as a Jewish woman who is deeply offended (to the core) by this subject matter, which is moot as well - but to be nominated for a RITA? Regardless of the "guidelines" it comes back to common sense and not offending 14.2 million people.

Statement from RWA board

August 10, 2015 01:26 AM by Esther Erman

I'm the daughter of 2 Holocaust survivors -- each the sole survivor of their respective families. I am appalled at the level of ignorance this book so proudly displays. Then there is the bigotry.  Might I mention that having blue eyes did not save my grandmother from a gas chamber. Her granddaughter had the blue eyes and blonde hair and still went into a gas chamber at age 11.

There is lots of information available about the Holocaust. Anyone who wants to write credibly on this topic would have no lack of materials.

The good reviews in several places do point out a level of ignorance among people I would hope had some education.

Censorship? No. Guidelines discouraging blatant bigotry and ignorance from being considered desirable elements in a romance? Would that really be so hard to present as part of the image of the organization we can take pride in being members of.  

Moving ahead

August 11, 2015 06:53 PM by Esther Erman

This week I have been listening to A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead, about what happened to French female resistance fighters during World War II and I've learned a lot. Most of these women were not Jewish, and yet they went through hell in Auschwitz and Ravensbruck. They noted whichever hell they went through, they had it better than the Polish Jews -- which group included my mother. I'm sad to say that I've learned something this week, too late for my relationship with my mother. The point is, though I know lots about the Holocaust -- personally and academically -- there's more to learn.

Thus with this past week's uproar over a book, I feel moved to do something positive to ensure a better situation for our books, for our reputation, in the near future. I am not yet sure what sort of action to take, but I am sure that people of good will can come together and come up with something hopeful. Let's see what that will be.

Saddened

August 12, 2015 05:24 PM by Andrew Palmer

I have to wonder if the board would have given such a bland and "corporate" response if the story in question had been involved a facility that kidnapped and tortured gay men to turn them straight, with romance beween the head of said facility and one of her "successful" patients?

The Story versus RWA's Mission

August 15, 2015 08:06 AM by Sharon Struth

Like many others, I find the storyline of this recent RITA finalist in bad taste and set in situation where romance cannot outweigh the atrocities. But I can't say the author should be chastized for writing the book. It's fiction and as fiction writers we write the story that calls to us. As readers we have a choice to not read the book or voice concerns about material we don't like.

The bigger issue is that this organization allowed such questionable material to be considered for its highly esteemed award. Only a short two years ago, several categories of romantic books were disallowed in the RITA awards because they didn't fit the organizations goals of promoting pure romance and happily ever afters. Many contributing members of RWA who may have had appropriate material no longer had a "fit" in the contest for a novel wiht strong romantic elements. Which when I read this book, that's what it is. I'm not sure how you can say this book about Nazis and historical horrors fits into your organizations goals. That would not be censorship, rather following your own rules. The book is printed and selling. It's not being censored. But this book doesnt really fit the true meaning of RWA sanctioned romance--not when a prisonered victim is faced with life or death, but then somehow sees love. It's creepy, surely not what RWA supports, and doesn't fit the rule I was made to understand when RITA categories were eliminated a while ago. 

Where's The Line

August 17, 2015 01:29 PM by Wolf "Hugh" O'Rourc

For those people advocating drawing lines, ask yourself how you would feel if the novel had gone this way:

- The main protagnoists are a commander in charge of the attack and genocide of the Sinjar Mountains and a Yazidi (total poulation 200,000-300,000) converting to Sunni Islam,

- or a Turkish general in charge of the deportation and an Armeninan Christian (total poulation 6-8 million) converting to Sunni Islam,

- or a Christian Serbian general involved in ethnic cleasing and a Bosnian Muslim (total poulation about 2 million) converting to Christianity,

- or a stalinist functionary overseeing the Gulag system in the Sowjetunion and a Christian "converting" to an atheist communist philosophy,

- or what about a Hutu militia leader taking part in genocide and a Tutsi victim?

Would you advocate just as strongly for disallowing the book? And who gets to draw the line where it is no longer acceptable? Genocide? What if the UN does not declare the action to be genocide? Mass murder? Serial murder? Does it depend on the number of survivors? What if the protagonist were the literary figure Hannibal Lector? Is any exploration of the Stockholm Syndrome unacceptable as romance?

 

Response to above

August 18, 2015 05:55 PM by Andrew Palmer

Yes, I would consider any of those examples equally aggregious.

And no, I would not consider any exploration of the Stockholm Syndrome as being an exemplary representative of the romance genre that RWA espouses to represent.

I'm not upset with the author for writing the book; I understand the innocence in her intent. Nor am I upset with those who buy it. I oppose censorship and heck, if dyno porn can make money, anything can. However, for an organization that so carefully defines romance with regards to which stories fit within its "ideal", as represented in the annual RITA awards, RWA dropped the ball on this one.

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