A Few (More) Words About For Such a Time
ETA: I’ve been informed that RWA did changes its rules for its most recent awards, requiring authors not to judge categories in which they’d entered material. Nevertheless, I’m leaving this post up, to reflect my concerns at the time, based on my knowledge at the time.
If you spend any of your online time in or around the community of romance writers, you have likely read volumes about Kate Breslin’s inspirational romance For Such a Time, which was recently nominated for (but did not win) a Romance Writers of America RITA award for Best Inspirational Romance and for Best First Romance.
If you aren’t aware of the controversy, here’s an article from Newsweek that summarizes the matter fairly neatly:
(And for people who don’t want to take the time to read the Newsweek article: Breslin’s novel is a loose retelling of the Book of Esther, set in a Nazi concentration camp. The heroine falls in love with the commander of the camp and ultimately converts to Christianity to cement their love and life together.)
A couple of points for the record: I have not read For Such a Time. I am Jewish.
Many, many, many people have written about the problems with Breslin’s novel, focusing deserved attention on: 1) the fact that sex without consent is rape, and that prisoners are incapable of giving meaningful consent; 2) the offensiveness of religious conversion being mandatory for a character to achieve her “happy ever after” in a romance novel; and 3) the perversion of presenting Time as a retelling of Esther’s story, given the many narrative differences between the two.
I embrace all of those concerns. But I have one minor point to add to the matter, one that I have not seen referenced elsewhere. (Of course, if you have, please point me in the right direction!) My point is this: The rules for judges make it substantially more likely than not that problematic material like Time gets nominated for awards.
For the 2014 RITA awards (recognizing books published in 2013), RWA substantially revamped its rules for the contest. Several categories were removed, and judges were required to certify that books were romances, answering two key questions: “Is the love story the main focus of the book?” and “Is the resolution of the romance emotionally satisfying and optimistic?”
In 2014, at the conclusion of the first round, only three books were nominated for inspirational romance, and only three books were nominated for erotica. At the time, many onlookers speculated that the short nomination lists were because the judges for those categories tended to answer the first question in the negative. For inspirational romances, the relationship between the characters and God is often the main focus of the book. For erotica, the sexual exploration of the characters is the main focus.
For the 2015 awards (recognizing books published in 2014), RWA changed its rules again. The trimmed list of categories remained, and the questions remained. But for the 2015 awards, RWA no longer required judges to recuse themselves from a category if they wrote books in that category. Therefore, authors of inspirational romance could judge inspirationals (and authors of erotica could judge erotica.)
In this environment, Time was nominated for two RITAs. (Best First Book nominees are not read separately and nominated; rather, authors who are submitting first books note that status on their submissions, and the top 4% of all first books move forward to the Best First Book category.)
I submit that Time would not have been nominated for a RITA if it had been judged by authors who did not include inspirational authors. Instead, Time resonated in an echo chamber, where authors publishing narratives with similar themes of Christian redemption chose to amplify Breslin’s story.
Do all authors of inspirational romance believe that Jews must convert to be saved? Of course not. Do all authors of inspirational romance accept non-consensual sex as romantic and redemptive. Obviously not.
But the closed system of the current RITA judging allowed this embarrassment to proceed to the second round of judging. A more open system — additional judges — resulted in Time not winning the award.
It’s time for RWA to reinstate its recusal requirement for judges.