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.