Elizabeth: The RITA© Diversity Problem

Last week the list of finalists came out for this year’s Romance Writers of America RITA and Golden Heart contests.  There was much happiness by those who saw their names on the lists, but there was also an obvious, elephant-in-the-room issue out there that couldn’t be ignored.

For all of the talk and focus in recent years on diversity, there was a distinct lack of it represented on the lists of finalists.

The topic of diversity was front and center at last year’s RWA conference, with a number of the RITA and Golden Heart award winners specifically commenting on the lack of diverse-author representation in their categories.  That same conference also included a Diversity Summit attended industry professionals, RWA staff/Board members, members of RWA’s Diversity Committee, and other leaders within the organization who represent marginalized populations.  According to the RWA website, the purpose was to “share ideas, identify roadblocks, and reaffirm a commitment to fostering a romance genre that represents the wide array of authors and readers that love it.”

And yet . . . it doesn’t feel like much progress has been made yet.

A few days ago, the RWA president HelenKay Dimon, on behalf of the RWA board released a message, confirming the obvious problem that exists:

“The Board affirmatively states that there is a serious problem with reader bias in the judging of the RITAs. This is most evident in the preliminary round of the RITAs.”

“While we are happy for our finalists, we cannot ignore the lack of representation on the finalist list or the shadow this lack of representation casts on RWA. The Board apologizes to our members of color and LGBTQ+ members for putting them in a position where they feel unwanted and unheard.”

The RWA board is considering several changes to the RITA in order to address the issues of bias in the contest judging, and that makes sense.  If your judges aren’t diverse, then the results of their judging may very well not be either, despite the best of intentions.  It’s like having a group of middle-aged white men making decisions about women’s reproductive issues.  Who wants that?

Un-biased judging is important, but is the problem even bigger than that?  Are diverse authors even making it into the contest to begin with or are there barriers to entry that are keeping them out?

The Board is looking all aspects of the contest and has committed to making changes:

“While we work through this process and the large-scale change to RITA judging and other issues in the contest, we ask that members contact us with their comments, suggestions and concerns.  You can contact any Board member directly or email me at president@RWA.org and I will share your email with the Board.
While we know we may not deserve your trust on this issue right now, we hope to earn it. We are aware that, for some members, this may be the last chance they give RWA and we hope to rise to that challenge.”

So, what are your thoughts on the issue?  What changes would you recommend?

13 thoughts on “Elizabeth: The RITA© Diversity Problem

  1. Over the past few years, I’ve been on a bunch of community boards and have been consistently appalled at the racist stuff coming out of people’s mouths, despite the fact that I live in a left-wing ‘progressive’ community and none of those people would *ever* think they are racist. Frankly, I think you need to be qualified to judge stuff. And I don’t trust people’s judgements about themselves. So, maybe it sounds crazy but maybe you should pass a bias test to judge the awards. For example, do you have multiple diverse friends whose homes you’ve been to or is your own life a bubble? Do you read books written by POC outside of judging? How about POC-authored books with diverse characters? Etc.

    • I think RWA is starting to feel the same about needing to be qualified to judge. One of the changes they are talking about is establishing a vetting process for judges.

      I definitely agree that people are not very good judges of themselves; it’s so much easier to recognize bias in someone else.

    • The only thing I worry about is that people, in an effort to NOT seem like they’re racist, will alter their answers on any questionnaire. The ‘ol “white lie” (pun intended) to prove that they’re worldly, diverse-friendly people.

  2. Unfortunately, I don’t have any suggestions. Obviously, I didn’t judge the RITA, but I did judge the Golden Hearts and there was no diversity in the stories I read. I would like to think I would look at the quality of the story/writing, but I wasn’t tested in my reads. I hope a lot of folks smarter than I am come up with some good solutions.

  3. I have a couple of suggestions, which I’ve debated forwarding to the president.

    1) Once you win, you’re out. You can’t enter again. Consider the RITA the pinnacle of your career. If you win, do you really need to prove to us that you’re a great author by going for it again and again? Go find another reader’s choice contest to enter and open the ranks of the RITA to others.

    2) You can only enter ONE book per author. I say this more from a GH perspective than RITA, as in my category, three entries by THE SAME AUTHOR finaled. Really?!? Do you need to prove to us THREE TIMES that you’re a good writer? This is especially disadvantageous to less prolific writers, who may only put out one book a year. Pick the best of your best that was published that year and submit it. Not the best seventeen.

    3) Put a cap on the number of entries per category. I know they have a min, but the should also have a max. This will cut down on the number of people required for judging. If you can’t get your act together to enter as soon as the contest opens, then too bad for you.

    4) Hide covers/authors when doing the judging. I’m not sure how it works for the RITA, but the GH, putting the author name is optional. I think everything should be anonymous. There should be nothing that forms in a judge’s mind who or what the story is about before they read it, save the genre, and no slant towards a particular author that they may like (or not). These days, with the advent of self-publishing and whatnot, it’s pretty easy to take your manuscript and hide that stuff. If a trad-published author wants to enter, they better coordinate with their publisher, or be prepared to adjust the manuscript on their own. And HEY…I’ll volunteer to help authors get their MS in proper order. Which leads me to….

    4a) PDF/epub entries only. This is the 21st century. Make it easy on everyone. Authors should have to provide a PDF AND epub file. Easy for readers/judges to read the file, and as with #4, you can take out all the identifying stuff.

    5) Judging changes…One of the major problems I have is the mix (or lack thereof) of judges. The idea that they must be PAN only is stupid. Are general/PRO members also not good arbiters of excellence? Perhaps for first round judging, it could be 1/3 entrant, 1/3 any RWA member in good standing, 1/3 reader (who can be librarians or readers, but must be vetted). IDK…but at a minimum, limiting it to PAN members is not helpful, because I fear there is lack of diversity in that regard, anyway.

    Those are some of my ideas. Dumb? Helpful? Ridiculous?

    • In looking at my list, none of these things helps with the diversity issue per se, but hopefully opens the contest to other, less-represented authors and/or judges.

  4. I agree with Justine that the entries should be blind, and that especially means at least no covers, but it should also mean PDFs or epub files that have only number identifiers.

    One thing that would be very expensive, but as long as we’re brainstorming: let’s have all the RITAs judged by the same six or eight judges. Choose and pay the judges (so they’ll do it), incorporating maybe a mix of editors and agents (and a few published authors who have no skin in the game) in equal measure, with half of the judges POC. Using blind entries.

    • I’m wondering if it’s possible for RITA entries to be blind. After all, they are published books, so I would think they would have had a fair amount of visibility before the contest and people would be familiar with them.

      I do agree with the judging changes though.

      • That’s the thing—the judges might have read them. There are so many romance novels published, though, surely there’d be a chance that some of them wouldn’t be recognized. And I guess another problem is if agents and editors are nominating them, they would tend to nominate their own projects. So, okay we’d need TWO sets of editors and agents.

        Do the Mystery Writers of America worry about diversity? I wonder. We should check out the Edgars, see what they do.

  5. The letter from the RWA Board said they had considered (but discarded) the idea of skipping the contest next year while they work out the problems. My alternate suggestion for next year: allow only diverse authors to enter.

    Not a permanent suggestion, but it certainly would shake things up a bit.

  6. Pingback: Elizabeth: Friday Writing Sprints – Eight Ladies Writing

  7. OK, late to the party, but I have a couple of questions first. How many people of color are in the RWA conferences that you’ve attended? And how old are they?

    I’ve got different diversity problems; the kind of fiction I write is romantic, but it doesn’t always fit the RWA definition of Romance. I’ve never joined, mostly because I don’t feel the RWA is interested in diversifying. It is interested in standardizing and branding.

    So, that’s why I wonder if that’s at the root of the RWA’s problems. People (of color, of LGBTQ+ orientation, with physical and neurological differences) don’t feel their fiction (with the same variety) is RWA romance? I mean, of course, you can point to exceptional authors who are members and people of color (we studied Beverly Jenkins in class, for example, and I believe she’s an RWA member), but are they represented? Does RWA look like America?

    The other problem is the Old Folks Club (which also affects the Hugos and the WorldCon in general). Younger people are choosing different venues that are friendlier to their interests. Fan fic is huge, but how many of those authors go to WorldCon? In the same way, how many Wattpad people go to RWA conferences?

    The other thought I have is that it is really tricky for white people to come in and fix this. White people need to encourage POC and sexually diverse and physically/neurologically diverse people to take the lead on fixing these problems. I’m just an average white girl; I know there are a lot of others who could do a much better job than I do on fixing these things, and I want to support their efforts.

    But mostly, I guess, I want to write.

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