Friday, January 05, 2007

Writing contests: on judging and being judged

A friend has asked why I don't judge contests for unpublished writers. I explained that I'm easily bored, and I confessed that I frequently toss books aside when they fail to hold my interest. An unapologetic page-skipper and chapter-skimmer, I don't finish books that don't grab me. Which means that even if I were able to discipline myself to read a manuscript that failed to excite me, I'm not sure a tiny bit of resentment wouldn't color my critique. And that would be both singularly unhelpful and unnecessarily cruel to an unpublished writer who entered the contest looking for validation and useful feedback.

"But you're judging the RITAs," my friend pointed out.

Yep. I am, but only because Romance Writers of America has coerced me. If an RWA member wants to compete for a RITA, the most prestigious award in the romance industry, she has to judge at least one of the other categories. That's because the organization keeps dropping hints along the lines of, "If you judge not, then neither will you be judged." It has been said that if there are too many books and too few judges for any of the RITA categories, the first books thrown out will be the ones whose authors are not judging other categories for the RITA. This strikes me as patently unfair because one need not be an RWA member in order to enter the contest. And since only published RWA members may judge the contest, a burden has been placed on the member-entrants that that the nonmember-entrants are not permitted to bear.

I'm glad non-RWA members are eligible to enter the RITAs because that broadens the field of competition and enhances the value of a win (American Christian Fiction Writers, please take note). But there must be a better solution to the problem of finding enough judges to evaluate all of the entries. I can't think of one, but there are a lot of smart cookies in RWA, so somebody ought to be able to come up with something.

Sometime in the next couple of weeks I'll receive the books I'll be judging for three of the RITA categories. (Yes, I lost my head. I even agreed to judge the final rounds.) Although I know many people will think it unfair, I won't promise not to skip pages and perhaps even whole chapters in the books I judge. But if a book fails to capture my interest from the beginning, then it isn't, in my view (and this is a profoundly subjective thing) a terribly good book, and I honestly don't see how forcing myself to read every word on every page is going to change my mind about that. It's far more likely to annoy me and cause me to score the book even lower--and what author could desire that outcome?

I know I've just shocked many of you, and I imagine this post will be excerpted and roundly criticized on a few romance writers' blogs. I'd just like to point out that RWA offers no guidelines for their judges except to stress that each book must fit its category and should be judged individually, and not against the other books in a judge's panel. As long as I conscientiously do that, I'll have fulfilled my duty.

Before somebody asks--no, I'd have no problem with a contest judge who started to read my book and was unable to finish it. Isn't that how "ordinary" readers judge a book? All RITA judges are published romance authors, but they're romance readers, too--with their own ideas about what constitutes a good novel. I readily acknowledge that not all readers enjoy the same books, so my self-esteem doesn't rise or plummet according to whether people like my writing.

I am a writer whose work is about to be judged by her peers. I'm willing to stand still and let them hit me with their best shots. And that's why, when it's my turn to evaluate the work of other authors, I won't be pulling any punches. Can a judge be any more fair than that?

Technorati Tags: , , ,


Angela Breidenbach said...

Hi Brenda,
I came to see your blog because of your post on ACFW. I am really glad I did. Your post helped me learn quite a lot. I've been blogging since I purposely joined a class in November. You put that class in a nutshell in your comments to ACFW folks. (I'm saying hi again because I met you in Atlanta. It was a pleasure then and is a pleasure now.) Excellent advice! I'm working on it:-)
Thanks for setting a great example,
Angie B

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I think your position is eloquently stated...and fair.

How else would someone judge a book, other than if they personally liked it or not?

If a judge states that they like all of the books, then their opinion seems to get diluted!

Robin Bayne said...

I agree Brenda!

I used to be a first reader for a small press, but had to give it up because the publisher expected me to finish each manuscript and give a thorough report. Life is just too short to finish books that are just awful.

Brenda Coulter said...

Angie, how nice to see you here. Thanks for stopping by. If you come back, how about giving us a link to your new blog?

Bonnie and Robin, the argument has often been made that we should be judging "craft," regardless of whether we enjoy the books in question. However, RWA has no such rule for judges--which is as it should be.

The fact that I frequently skip pages and skim chapters while judging books might bug a lot of authors. But unless and until RWA tells judges how to evaluate the books, anybody who says I'm doing it wrong is making a value judgment that I simply reject.