Why I Skipped the RITA Awards

By the time Thursday night arrived, I already knew the bartender at Mix. Kim, a kind-eyed, bearded hipster who had admitted that he had no idea how to make a Brandy Alexander, had been serving me Domaine Chandon for days. I was in my happy place — surrounded by my three besties as we helped each other strategize for pitching sessions on Friday. Only one thing killed my buzz: I couldn’t stomach the idea of attending the RITA Awards.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t brought a dress — a cute one was in my closet. A black sequined Art Deco number hung next to a beautiful feathered headband that would have put Gatsby’s Daisy to shame. It wasn’t that I’d had a long day and didn’t want to deal with squeezing tired feet into pumps, or with walking long hallways before settling in for dessert and decaf at a crowded table. In light of scathing statistics, it just seemed silly to support an event this unclear. Why go, if no one knows what winning a RITA means?

I’m an author who cares about authors, and an indie author at that. I freelance as a developmental editor. I spend scores of hours each month — both paid and unpaid —helping other authors succeed. I am the one cheering the loudest when my friends achieve victories, big and small. I’m ride or die when it comes to injustice. But I just don’t see the justice in the RITA Awards.

This fact of injustice— because the 0.5% of black authors who have ever been nominated makes it a fact — was at the root of my moral dilemma. What would it have meant for me to stand up and cheer? The same weekend, I myself won four smaller awards. People who don’t know me stood in vicarious joy for my wins. But how was I supposed to reconcile my own joy for this year’s authors with solidarity for many years’ worth of authors who had been snubbed?

I’ll be the first one to admit that personal feelings intensified the sting. I published my debut novel, Snapdragon, last year. In the seventeen months since, that novel alone has finaled in, or won, nine awards. Add in nods for two more published works and three unpublished, and my total award count is eighteen. I entered the RITAs this year, but did not final. The names of some of those who did final in the RITAs sat alongside mine on the finalist lists of other (non-RITA) awards.

It’s not that my ego can’t handle rejection — it’s the unknowable “what if?” You can only enter for Best First Book once. What if this mess of a judging process caused me to miss my shot? What if my book was good enough and RITA-level recognition could have catapulted my abysmal author-career finances out of the red? And if I can’t win with a novel as loved as Snapdragon, will I ever win?

But that kind of thinking comes with its own kind of guilt. I am utterly torn between opting out of supporting a system (financially and otherwise) that has shown itself to be unappreciative of work like mine, and sallying forth on the knowledge that I must do just that if I’m to take the baton from formidable trailblazers.

Last year, at the RWA National Conference in Orlando, I was blown away by Beverly Jenkins’s speech (like, ugly cry blown away). I identified so much with her beautiful stories about what it felt like to be a little girl who got lost in books. If you’ve ever heard her speak, she has a way of connecting — of universalizing — her love for reading and writing stories. But what she’s faced hasn’t been universal. And I have no illusions that it is because of her — and others like her, most of them unsung — that there is even space for me in the sliver of spotlight I enjoy today.

This gets at deeper feelings I have about the origins of my successes. I’ve seized opportunity for myself, but it’s been on the shoulders of others. I think of my father who remembers being terrified as a six-year-old as he watched the Klan march down his street, who grew into a man who worked two jobs to keep me and my siblings in elite private schools. I think of my grandmother, who who worked as a live-in maid to a family in Connecticut to make ends meet, while her own mother raised her children. I think about how, in 1992, the white child my grandmother raised walked across the same stage as my brother as they graduated from Stanford in the very same year.

What it comes down to is that, as an author, and as a person, I really don’t know how to do both. Struggling financially to keep writing sucks, but, emotionally, I don’t need the accolades now if someone like me gets them years later. At the same time, I don’t want to pander. Something feels wrong about giving the RITA Awards my money and my ostensible support in light of its failures. I can’t smile for wins when I want to cry for the many authors, both diverse and mainstream, who have deserved better over the years.

The winners themselves add additional complexities, as does this year’s much-talked-about speaker, Suzanne Brockman. After the awards let out and I was joined by friends who went, speeches that mentioned diversity were all the talk. I love that diversity was called out and that so many people got behind it. But it’s telling that no diverse authors were on the stage to speak for themselves. I also question those who lauded these speeches: if so many feel strongly about sentiments of inclusion, why aren’t more people boycotting the awards?

This is something I’ve written about in my personal life (Kilby Blades is a pen name). I call it “armchair activism” and it refers to people who say they stand in solidarity with progressive ideas but continue to support systems of discrimination. Is being vocal about hating an injustice, yet supporting the system that perpetuates it, talking out of both sides of your mouth? You tell me.

The worst part of all of this is that nobody wins — not those who never received deserved recognition, and not those who get a visible win in a contest that everyone knows is unfair. The next diverse author to win will wonder whether it’s more than the organization overcorrecting for past mistakes. Open doors to industry and economic advantages for “winners” will temporarily sweeten an otherwise sour victory — because, deep down, it can’t feel good to accept an award that may be undeserved.

This isn’t just a diversity issue, though diversity has taken center stage. Half a dozen factors make RITA judging unfair. Diverse authors and diverse books may be the biggest losers, but the judging system itself — with its arcane score card and low bar for any craft chops or editorial expertise — only deepens the precarious nature of any win. Many letters I’ve written to the RWA Board express elements of this that don’t relate to diversity at all.

So, what do we do now? It’s pretty clear that nobody knows. It’s important that we do have awards and continue to recognize the hard work of authors. In this largely thankless, and unprofitable (for authors) industry, such recognition is part of what keeps us going. And I understand the argument that if diverse authors don’t enter, diverse authors can’t win. I get that the old adage — about how not being part of the solution means being part of the problem — also goes for me.

But it’s so, so complicated. And a big part of me wishes that we would stop using words to express our discontent, and use them instead to offer suggestions and use leverage to create change. Equally important is using things other than our words to take a stand against any institution we’re bent on saying is unfair. Our actions, our dollars, and our presence speaks just as loudly as our words. Sometimes, the sword really is mightier than the pen.