Monday, May 25, 2020

Tossing out the Ritas by Cheryl Bolen


I was outraged this week when I received a communication from an organization I’ve been committed to for three decades, the Romance Writers of America. The new replacement board—after the organization’s entire board resigned at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020—decided to scrap our Rita awards and rename them the Vivian.

Membership was not consulted about this move. 

The Rita has been for more than 30 years the romance writers’ equivalent of the Oscars. It’s even a gold statuette of an elegant lady in a long dress, and the winning books are voted upon by peers. It’s the highest possible honor, imo, that a romance author could ever attain. Like the Oscars, it’s presented at a gala ceremony at the national group’s annual conference with many hundreds of onlookers. Most the honorees coming swishing up to the stage in long formal gowns.
It’s a really big deal.

It’s About White and Black

The original Rita award was named after two of the RWA’s six founders, Rita Clay Estrada and her mother, Rita Gallagher, who both happened to be white.

RWA’s new board thinks the award should have been named after another of the organization’s founders, Vivian Stephens, who is black.

I believe the board’s rationale is that they perceive the Rita contest has discriminated against women of color. No African American had ever received a Rita until 2019, when two different winners were African Americans.

Apparently, this new board wants to completely revamp the award by throwing out everything about it to make it more inclusive to women of color.

The topic of inclusion is not being addressed in this blog.

Erasing History in One Fell Swoop

My gripe is that this board has wiped away the award’s prestige which had been painstakingly built over a period of 30 years. Publishers had come to slap “Rita Winning Author” or “Rita Finalist” on book covers. Publishers and agents alike had come to recognize that authors who had been nominated for Ritas were authors of the highest caliber. And authors, like me, who had never won a Rita have long aspired to one day wear a title like “Rita Winner” or “Rita Nominee” or to walk up on that stage and collect the award in front of our peers.

It had taken a number of years for the industry to recognize the importance of the Ritas, but it had come to be a meaningful award in the romance publishing industry. The award gave credulity to a genre that had gotten a negative reputation for many years.

Think about renaming the Oscars the Hatties after Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Oscar. 

Perhaps because I write historical novels, I’m a huge advocate of history and tradition. I don’t like changing either. I’m angry that this new board has slapped in the face all those talented authors who have earned Ritas during the last three decades.—Cheryl Bolen’s June 1st release is the Christmas novella, One Room at the Inn, which appeared in last year’s USA Today bestselling anthology titled Winter Wishes. This is the first time her novella has been for sale in English as a solo title.

19 comments:

  1. I was not happy with the change either. This was a major decision that should have had general membership discussion--at the least. On a happier note, congrats on the June 1 release One Room at the Inn--hmm, I can imagine the fun in that story! Have a good Memorial Day.

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    1. Nora, I'm glad you agree with me that membership should have been consulted.

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  2. I quit my membership after our local chapter folded several years ago. I'm glad I did.

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    1. Jan, I think I've stayed in it all these years because I love connecting with my local authors through our chapter activities. So sorry you've lost that support group.

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  3. I joined RWA 32 years ago with great enthusiasm. Over the years I became less enchanted until I let my membership lapse a couple of years ago, before the board resignation. This is one more slap in the face to those authors who revered and supported the organization for decades.

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    1. Wow, Kathleen, you've been around slightly loner than me! I thought RWA adapted well to the changing publishing landscape and continued to support them. Until this year. The PAN loops got really nasty. Lots of mean girls. I think my tenure will be coming to an end.

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  4. I haven’t been a member for over 3 years...but I feel happy that the Vivian has been introduced and that Ms. Stephens’ contributions to the romance industry are being recognized. RITA winners will always be RITA winners and VIVIAN winners will carry the torch forward with excellence in romance writing.

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    1. I totally agree about Vivian Stephens. She should have been honored long ago. I just hate tossing out the Ritas.

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    2. I believe change was long overdue and the VIVIAN is the face of this change. I hope you enter and win and get to walk across the stage in your finery.

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  5. I dropped out at the end of 2019 after the latest "kerfuffle." This makes me glad I did. Not that a "Vivian" award wouldn't be a good thing, but in addition, not in replacement.

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  6. Liz, it looks like we think alike about this. Once more!

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  7. I dislike people who try to rewrite history. I live in the South-Southwest where every county seat has a memorial to the Confederate soldiers. Taking them down does not change the Civil War. We all know that was a terrible event. I hate when people try to make history politically correct. It wasn't. We can't alter it. We're supposed to learn from history. Well, you see my soap box. I loved RWA years ago. I think the first year I had questions was in the late 90s. I stuck until my local chapter folded about three years ago. I really hate the divisiveness. I don't see the RITA as color-coded. It was named after two of the six women founders. That makes the name Rita the predominant name. If it had been named the Vivian then, I would have been fine with that. Changing it is what's wrong in my opinion. I am very much in favor of tradition. Whew, I covered a lot of soap box issues.

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    1. My sentiments exactly, Caroline. After all, we love history.

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  8. I didn't know about the name change and think Vivian is an interesting name, but for an award for Romance, it should reflect at least an "R" in the name.

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  9. MHO, is that this is not the right move. Does the Rita contest need to change? Yes. Does the name need to change in order for that to happen? No. I agree that Vivian Stephens should have been recognized long ago. Not sure this "fix" is the right fix for the organization or the contest. There are other underlying "things" that have to be addressed. I have been an RWA member since 1989. I did not renew my membership this past February. I was a long time supporter, member of several chapters, and even chapter president. But the org is no longer for me, and I'm not confident in the current leadership, but who knows?

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  10. Wow, Maddie, you stuck with it even longer than me. I think I'm done.

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  11. I was devastated by all the in-fighting in RWA when it first started in late 2019. I knew the late Rita Gallagher, and I know Rita Clay Estrada, her daughter. Vivian Stephens was an editor who published romance. She created the Dell Candlelight Ecstasy line for which my friend Elaine Chase wrote. I understand she loved the romance genre and wanted to support it. I think a "Vivian" should have been awarded to a publishing professional from the get-go. However, the Rita was always about the writing—not the promotion of the genre, but the promotion of the best books of the genre. Judged by authors and given to an author, it took 3 decades to build recognition and make the Rita have the same kind of status as the Edgar, the Shamus, the Hugo, etc. Now that's gone, and will be sorely missed by all authors, regardless of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation—all of which played a part in this "makeover" of RWA. Like most complex issues, there apparently is no easy solution.

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    1. Very well said, Joan. I agree with you about naming an industry award for Vivian.

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