Judging for Yourself

Both the Lammies and the RITAs have announced their finalist lists for the year. Now, before anything else, I want to make sure I begin with a simple declarative here: there are some really great things that are happening on both lists.

And there’s some buts. I don’t know how coherent I’m going to be today, either, because it’s exhausting and it’s not new and… yeah.

Most centrally? Oh holy crap are the RITAs white. They’re super-white. There is so other way to put it, there’s no point (but a lot of harm) in not calling it what it is: a sincerely racist problem systemic to the whole shebang of the RWA and the RITAs and pretty much romance as it’s covered, read, reported on, bought (by agents or publishers), represented, and marketed in general, and definitely as it’s awarded.

There are other people talking about this, and talking about it brilliantly. Romancelandia has a terrible history (and present) with Black Women and this is another damn example. So. Yeah. Check out Courtney Milan or Bree (Kit Rocha) or Rebekah Weatherspoon or…

You get the idea. The math doesn’t lie. It’s just freaking impossible for the RITA finalist list to be anything other than a racist mess.

I don’t want to detract the focus from that point at all, but I’m also not going to stand here and try to speak for black women because the white guy—queer or not—is so not the person to do that.

I’m gonna start firmly in my lane, and talk about queerness, though, because the RITAs and the Lammies both had some stuff there, too.

Queerness in the RITAs

The one thing that gave me the biggest jolt of happiness (pretty much the only jolt of happiness) in the RITAs was seeing Aurora Rey’s “Lead Counsel” from The Boss of Her: Office Romance Novellas in the RITAs for Romance Novella. You know how I adore novellas, and I love reading women-loving women romance, so seeing the RITAs give love to an #ownvoice lesbian romance? That’s so worth celebrating. Even if it is one out of—sigh, again—forty-five super-white books on the RITA finalist list.

I’m going to pause here to tell anyone reading who hasn’t heard of Aurora Rey just how amazing she is. I adore her books. I’ve listened to a half-dozen of her books on audio, and enjoyed them all. Her women often have curves, the settings are vibrant, the scorch does indeed sizzle, and you should totally bring snacks because I always end up hungry at the descriptions of the food. I particularly loved Autumn’s Light, the last in Rey’s Provincetown-set Cape End Romance quartet, which is also a finalist for the Lammy for lesbian romance, too.

Given the RWA’s recent letters to the editor discussion (if you missed that, I responded here), seeing that queerness represented on the finalist list felt good. And I’m going to admit when I saw it there, I stopped looking at the list for a while, just to enjoy the moment. And then people came over and we played board game and it was a good night and then I went back to see the rest of the list and…

Well. Of those forty-five books on the RITA finalist list? There’s Rey’s queer women, and then there’s some m/m romance: Relay by Layla Reyne, Out of Body by Suzanne Brockmann, Loving a Warrior by Melanie Hansen, and A Fool and His Manny by Amy Lane. There’s also a polyamorous romance with two men and a woman, Three-Way Split by Elia Winters (which I haven’t read by by all accounts is freaking solid on the polyamourous front, and doesn’t shy away from the men having feelings for each other as well as the woman and that, my friends, is so fantastic and queer).

So, on the one hand, six titles with queer characters feels like a win on that front. It was, what, 2013 when there was a book that included a scene with two men together that made it to the finalist list (a menage, I believe), and by 2015 there were three finalists (all m/m), so this is a double in the space of three years, I guess?

But, truly, yay for Aurora Rey. More m/m is also not unwelcome, though I’d really have loved to see any #ownvoice in there, too—that’s another part of the “buts” I’m talking about here, because it’s really frustrating to see—and if I side-step over to the Lammies for a moment, something happened in the Gay Romance category that’s super disheartening as a queer man who sometimes writes queer romance with queer men characters.

Gay Romance and the Lammies

Oof. I’m not gonna lie, seeing the Gay Romance finalist list was a gut-punch.

This year’s finalists for the Lambda Literary Gay Romance category are The CEO’s Christmas Manny, Angela McCallister, Crashing Upwards, S.C. Wynne, Detour, Reesa Herberth & Michelle Moore, Learn with Me, Kris Jacen, No Luck, Kayleigh Sky, Of Sunlight and Stardust, Christina Lee & Riley Hart, Point of Contact, Melanie Hansen, and Undue Influence: A Persuasion Retelling, Jenny Holiday.

It is really hard as a queer man to look at that list and not notice the lack of queer men authors. Gay men absolutely submitted titles for consideration this year (the submissions list is always public and my eyeball math says somewhere around 30% of the submissions were written by men) so just on the basis of math alone, out of eight finalists, having two #ownvoice queer men on that finalist list shouldn’t have been too high a bar, and would have been representative of the authors involved. (It’s also maybe worth noting a queer man hasn’t won in the gay romance category since Jeff Mann in 2015, but at least there were queer men as finalists in the gay romance category over the last three years).

Now, that’s not how it works, I know, and believe me I know someone will happily tell me it’s totally possible the judges just felt stronger about the other books. The books aren’t judged by author, but by content. Absolutely. And I know that Lambda reaches out, in part, to previous winners to make up the more than sixty judges who read the (more than a) thousand books this year. But I can’t help but look at the other categories—all the other categories—where the #ownvoice content on the finalist lists is much, much higher (often completely so), and feel that sense of dejection.

So how does it work?

Judging For Yourself

This year, I got to be a judge for the RITAs. If you don’t know how judging works for the RITAs, the bare-bones version is this: if you enter your book(s), you’re not allowed to judge books in the same category as the one(s) you entered, and you’re randomly assigned books in the categories you didn’t enter. Five people read each book, and you submit your judge results via four questions, the first three a yes/no, and the fourth is a score of how much you enjoyed the book.

  • Does the entry contain a central love story?
  • Is the resolution of the romance emotionally satisfying and optimistic?
  • Does the entry fall within the category description?

Assuming there aren’t too many “No” answers to the questions above (which, by the way, is a really big problem with polyamorous romance if your random judges believe that the only HEA or HFN is between two people, say, or with queer romance were a judge to decide they just don’t “believe in that”), the highest and lowest scores of the five are then dropped, and the finalists are selected from the top scorers as a percentage to create a list.

The notion here is that authors are being judged by their peers, but… are they? I mean, from the results, it’s obvious there’s significant bias in place against black authors, and given the general make-up of the population, as Courtney Milan said, this is just impossible to attribute to anything else. It’s also, as she said, systemic. Like, even on the most basic level: the RWA sure isn’t a friendly place to exist as a black woman (or, again, to stay in my lane, a queer guy), which makes it far less likely for someone so marginalized to want to pay to be a member. Which means entering a submission to be judged for the RITAs will cost more (because it costs less to submit a book if you’re a member). And also means that the judges are less likely to—wait for it—be your actual peers. If the only people judging the contest are the people who are a part of the status quo who don’t see the problem how can anything possibly change? But what I so often see—asking people to pony up cash for the chance to maybe, perhaps, make it a bit better—added with the cost of them having to watch themselves be erased and ignored and diminished in every discussion? That’s insult to injury.

Lest it sound like I’m only grousing at the RITAs, I’m not. This cash/status quo systemic gatekeeping also happens with the Lammies, by the way. You can’t submit if your book is only an e-format, so there’s the cost of physical copies and the narrowing of the field away from smaller e-publishers, which, surprise!, means more favouring to the larger, wealthier publishing world, which is heavily biased to the cisgender and male and white—so while the Lammies certainly have more racial diversity on display in their finalists than the RITAs (but, again, that’s a bar is set to the lowest setting), it’s still a really, really white list of finalists.

Now, when you agree to judge for the RITAs, you also agree not to speak identifying specifics about books you’ve read (ie: no author names or titles) but this year I had my first shot at judging for the RITAs and it was not a pleasant experience—and I mean this specifically as a queer man.

I joined the RWA last year because I wanted to get more involved and see if I could nudge things from within, and I signed up to be a judge as part of that. And then I proceeded to have to read multiple books where the only queer characters in the entire book were killed off. I can’t be more specific than that (again, that’s part of the rules) but my point here is this: those authors, who saw absolutely nothing wrong with killing off the only queer characters in their books, could absolutely be the authors judging my queer romances.

It wasn’t every book. Most of the books had zero queer characters at all. But if a queer character showed up? BLAM. They were dead before the final chapter. The worlds in these books were either (a) completely without queer people, or (b) killed them.

That doesn’t make me feel like the judges are my peers. And I gotta tell you, this whole “kill off the only queer” thing? It’s not new. It’s never been okay. And it’s not just me.

As for the Lammies? I honestly don’t know. I have anecdotal stories from people who took part as judges (who, of course, can’t give a lot of specifics since nondisclosure is in play), but it sounds like judges are drawn from previous winners as well as people in the field. Also, a few of these have judged multiple times, and how things worked changed each time.

I tried to track down an official system for how the Lammies are judged, and as far as I can tell (from a document that may be outdated, since it’s from 2012, but it was the only thing I could find), there isn’t really a system in place to judge categories. The group of judges for each category (hopefully more than four people, but with a single administrator in charge to do their best to break ties, also gathered with an aim for diversity among the judges) more or less just figure out amongst themselves how they want to select finalists/winners. It’s not a scoring system (though they can use one if they like), or a ranking system (again, that might be what they decide to do) or anything else specific. They discuss and debate. The LGBT+ content has to be there, but the measure of artistic quality—which of course is subjective and is going to need discussion—isn’t assigned any sort of specific framework.

So, the RITAs are judged by authors who belong to the RWA who are not currently also submitting to the category in question with a three-question binary and single score system aiming for the winner to be chosen from among peers, and the Lammies are judged by a panel of over 60 literary professionals (this year) who, uh… come up with something they agree to do ahead of time to choose finalists and declare a winner, the system for which could be widely different category by category.

Okay, So Now What, Smart Guy?

So. What’s the point of it? Why rage at the lack of black women in the finalist lists—again—and not just write off the whole organization? Why work to try and make the RITAs a more inclusive place where queer lady romances showing up on the finalist list isn’t a surprise (pleasant or otherwise)? Why not be content to see gay romance characters if not gay author voices? Why look at a sub-category of the Lammies and raise a brow when there’s no authors listed who belong to the category itself as an #ownvoice?

And what can we even do about it? How do you even start to fix that?

I have no freaking idea. I’m tired. I give up.

No, that’s not true. It matters because it’s important to see yourself represented, in general and specifically in discourse about you (and yes, even when it’s fictional). So. It’s another year. Another string of awards. Another sign that we’re not doing better. And that sucks. It’s also another chance to make a concerted effort to raise voices.

I have the privilege of having cash enough to continue to join the RWA, which means I can continue to be a judge, and boost voices (especially the voices of black women), and continue to speak up, and use my vote for more diversity within the organization (especially black women), and do what I can to push for changes in the way the awards are handled (specifically by listening to black women, many of whom I’m seeing offering concrete ideas online already) and, and, and… Basically, I can try to do whatever the hell I can. And I will.

But first I’m gonna go read a book or two or three, and try to reclaim some joy from the genre.




6 thoughts on “Judging for Yourself

  1. Thanks for writing this and sticking your neck out, ‘Nathan. I briefly considered writing about the Lammies gay romance finalists, but I had a title in that category and figured anything I had to say would come across as sour grapes. As you rightly point out, these problems are entrenched in processes that select out (or select in) authors, all part of the big gnarled juggernaut of institutionalized racism, and a very specific but parallel situation in the gay romance community. I think your speaking out about these things is a vital part of the solution though I’m sure it feels like screaming into a void at times. But that’s the only way change happens, however slowly — by raising awareness of fairness. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks.

      Re: the Lammies. The “sour grapes” projection is real, absolutely—I’m not sure I would have gone there either had I been in the running in the category. Alas, my last romance was only an e-novella, so it wasn’t allowed to even try (which, again, is a whole other problem).


  2. Tangential: You’d think the LGBTQ+ special interest chapter of the RWA would be all over having a lesbian title be a RITA finalist–and you’d be wrong. I think three of the RITA finalists are members of the queer romance chapter, which has yet to post anything on social media publicly congratulating them. I feel as if Aurora Rey in particular deserves better from RRW. I’m not all that surprised, but I am disappointed.


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