Throughout the history of fiction, a divide has separated literary fiction and genre fiction. We only have to look as far as the review pages of “serious” journalism sources to see the difference in how much respect each is accorded.
If we write genre fiction, we might bemoan the lack of respect or media coverage, but the same lack of respect occurs at the reader level too. At various times in recent history, readers of science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, young adult, and romance have also been looked down on (along with probably more genres that I can’t think of off the top of my head *smile*).
Within the romance genre, many outsiders have attempted to make readers ashamed of their reading choices:
- “Oh, you read that?”
- “I can’t take anything with those covers seriously.”
- “Aren’t they just porn for women?”
Therefore, as a romance author, I try very hard not to shame readers for their reading choices. We all read for different reasons, and there shouldn’t be a pecking order for how valid or noble those reasons are.
I fully admit that I’m a genre girl. I like being entertained at the same time that I’m getting insights into characters, relationships, and human nature.
Heck, I’ll even admit that I enjoyed Twilight despite the much-maligned quality of the prose. (I’ve seen worse writing craft. Believe me. *smile*)
My point is that our reasons for reading and what we personally enjoy are extremely subjective. Because of that, conversations that imply that readers shouldn’t enjoy certain types of stories make me very uncomfortable.
I might find no redeeming qualities in a story, but that doesn’t mean others wouldn’t. Or that the story wouldn’t speak to anyone else. Everyone will have different measures for how to quantify that very subjective “good” or “enjoyable.”
Yesterday, members of the romance writing community received their scores from this year’s RWA RITA and Golden Heart contests. As usual, many were shocked by how their scores were all over the map.
Contest scores, especially in the RITA and Golden Heart contests, can be hotbeds of subjectivity. So I thought that digging deeper into the different factors affecting contest scores might also shed some light on the subjectivity of readers and their choices. *smile*
The Subjectivity of Enjoyment
At the preliminary round, the RITA and Golden Heart entries are judged by a writer’s peers. However, judges aren’t allowed to judge a category they entered.
Depending on how widely read within romance’s subgenres they are, there’s a chance a judge might receive a bunch of entries in a subgenre they’re not familiar with—or that they even dislike.
In other words, entries are often judged by people who aren’t that story’s target market. Not surprisingly, that means they’ll be less likely to enjoy the entries, which causes problems with the next issue.
Stories will often appeal more to those in their target audience.
The Subjectivity of Contest Scoring
RWA doesn’t provide guidelines for how to score entries. In past years, the only hint for providing a score was essentially “how much did you enjoy this story?”
That’s a great scoring mechanism for duplicating how non-writer readers might react to a story. Readers will either like our story or they won’t, and they probably won’t analyze why.
But when those judge-readers aren’t a story’s target audience, it’s tougher to get consensus on which stories are “better” than others. What are they judging each entry on? How much it doesn’t offend them? Or irritate them? Or hit their pet peeves?
In addition, some judges start at a score of five (figuring that to be average) and add or subtract based on the quality of each entry. Some judges start at ten and subtract for things they don’t like.
Those two approaches can spell the difference for whether an entry gets enough high scores to final, as judges in the first category are likely to score entries between 2 and 8 or so, and judges in the second category are more likely to score entries between 5 and 10.
(And none of this is meant as sour grapes for me. *smile* My scores were strong even though I didn’t final. However, many authors I know received scores far below what I would have given them, so I started thinking about the causes of the huge variations.)
Readers can have different levels of pickiness.
The Subjectivity of Genre Expectations
The romance genre is made up of several subgenres, which each feature their own tropes and expectations. Some romance genres focus almost entirely on the romantic relationship. Other subgenres can include extensive worldbuilding and/or a strong external plot that might (in the eyes of some readers) take away from the romance.
For example, the romantic suspense subgenre includes a strong mystery or thriller plotline, as the characters attempt to evade the bad guys. Paranormal romance might have extensive worldbuilding of made-up cultures and a big “save the world from the bad guy” plot.
So what happens when a reader of contemporary romance has to judge a packet of romantic suspense entries? They might give higher scores to those stories light on suspense, as they’re looking for the focus on the characters and relationship alone.
Or what happens if a reader of historical romance has to judge a paranormal romance featuring a psychic working for a secret government agency?
They might not realize that paranormal romance features far more than vampires and figure the story is off-base. Or they might look at all those worldbuilding scenes between the psychic and her boss establishing the conflict with the Big Bad (and where the hero is nowhere to be seen) and think the story is “not a romance” (which can disqualify an entry).
In other words, stories that fall outside of the stereotypes or that feature deeper or bigger plots might suffer in the scoring.
Readers can have different expectations of stories.
The Subjectivity of Acceptance
Every reader is also going to have a different line of what they’re comfortable with. If we feel uncomfortable when reading, that could affect our enjoyment of a story.
Without guidelines, some judges might lower scores for stories with elements they don’t like to see:
- sexuality beyond hints or just kissing
- characters of different races, religions, etc.
- characters with a job they don’t approve of (a pacifist judging a military SEAL romance), etc.
In other words, stories that “push envelopes” might be punished with lower scores. And as luck-of-the-draw is entirely responsible for which kind of judges each entry receives, “safe” stories might be more likely to final.
Reader discomfort can be individual.
The Subjectivity of Problematic Elements
Over the last couple of weeks, one story has highlighted the subjectivity of what people find problematic or offensive. There’s no end to the articles written about the Nazi romance that was a finalist in the RITA this year. (Note: Language at many of those links.)
On Amazon, this book has hundreds of 5-star reviews. Library Journal gave it a starred review. RT Book Reviews named it a Top Pick. Then 4 to 5 judges gave it high enough scores to final in the RITA (it didn’t win).
Obviously, many people didn’t see a Jewish prisoner in a World War II concentration camp falling in love with the SS officer in charge of the camp as problematic enough to affect their enjoyment of the story.
As an “inspirational romance” (a faith-themed romance), the story likely appeals to those who focus on the message that even a Nazi SS officer can be redeemed through faith. (Inspirational romances technically don’t have to be Christian in nature, but I don’t know of any that focus on a different religion.) However, for many, many others who learned of this book through the RITA contest (i.e., not the target audience), the entire premise is understandably offensive.
Most conversations I’ve seen about this book have focused on raising awareness of why it’s so offensive. But a few people have veered into reader shaming, which is a different issue.
Readers will find different things problematic.
Where Should the Line Fall?
I’ve seen statements that this book should have been disqualified from the RITAs because the power differential between the hero and heroine prevented consent, so it couldn’t have been a romance.
That’s a very slippery slope. We see huge power differentials in romance tropes like billionaires and their secretaries. In paranormal romances, the non-human member of the couple typically has abilities the human member doesn’t.
In the niche of dark romance stories, motorcycle club and fight club criminal heroes are downright threatening to the heroines. There are even a few sex-trafficking-victim-falling-for-her-kidnapper stories out there.
In short, romance has stories with power issues everywhere. In fact, as Sarah MacLean teaches in her conflict workshop, every romance will have a conflict rooted in power.
The heroine needs something from the hero and vice versa. The story often is about the couple’s power negotiations.
Yet, it’s sometimes not obvious how the couple balances each other out. And while that can be a sign that the author didn’t write the romance arc strongly or cleanly enough, in many stories, one member of the couple needs something external and the other member needs something internal. That difference can lead to a reader impression that there’s too much of a power differential between them because one need is more obvious to readers than the other.
When that balance feels off (whether it really is or not), consent can be difficult to “prove.” It might seem easy to say that only stories with clear consent could have the emotionally satisfying ending required to be a romance, but a statement that a story with X premise, such as slavery or imprisonment, could never be consensual is going to be subjective.
Some readers would take a slave heroine falling for her scifi alien master at her word when she says and shows that she’s happy in her relationship. Some readers wouldn’t—no matter how well the author “sold” the idea.
Some readers simply can’t suspend their disbelief to get over their suspicion of Stockholm Syndrome. And that’s their right.
But I also don’t want to see readers who can suspend their disbelief and trust in a heroine’s happiness shamed for their reading choices. On some level, if we state that we will never believe a heroine’s claims of happiness because of the situation she worked through during the story, we can end up patronizing the character.
In no way am I defending that book. No matter the quality of the writing, I don’t think a book with a premise that is so offensive and hurtful to so many demonstrates the best the genre has to offer—as should be the goal of the RITA contest.
So none of this post should be taken as pushback against the very necessary conversation about the problems with that book and the need to raise awareness of those issues. There are many reasons any reader, no matter their background, might have for being horrified by the premise, the characters, the romance, the plot, the resolution, the theological depictions, the writing craft, the emotional arc, etc.
However, I think it’s misguided to focus on the subjective consent issue as an “easy” answer for how to prevent a story like that from reaching the RITA finals again. Those conversations can shame readers who enjoy dubious consent stories, those who don’t struggle with separating fiction from reality for problematic elements, or those who are simply able to suspend their disbelief more easily.
As a romance author who faces “shaming” issues constantly, I’m very sensitive to the possibility of reader shaming. We all enjoy stories for different reasons, and we all have different reasons for reading what we do.
So the issues of subjectivity will follow us as authors as we query, submit, deal with editors, pursue reviews, and search for a readership. But hopefully, we can avoid shaming based on subjectivity when it comes to readers. *smile*
Have you run into subjectivity issues with your writing or reading? Do you have thoughts about the RITA or Golden Heart contest? Had you heard about the issues with that book in the RITAs? Do you disagree with my thoughts about reader shaming? Have you ever been “reader shamed”?Pin It