Golden Heartbroken

It’s been a busy time in the realm of genre-specific literature awards. First, the World Fantasy Award stopped modeling the design of their trophy on the face of noted author and racist H. P. Lovecraft.

Next, the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal was changed to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, distancing it from some virulently bigoted passages in Wilder’s books. And now, the board of the Romance Writers of America have announced that 2019 will be the last year for the Golden Heart, the contest for unpublished writers that RWA has run for nearly forty years.

The first two are explicit responses to a canonical figure’s open racism. The third, though, involves the more insidious kind of prejudice that works in the shadows, under the cover of anonymity and institutional process.

All three changes have sparked reactionary backlash: some people see the change as a necessary fix, and others see it as an upheaval and buckle down in defense of tradition. It’s one small facet of the great crisis of our present age: how do we instill empathy? How do we convince people to care about interests other than their own? How do we get a lot of white people to help dismantle a system whose operation is both beneficial to them personally and invisible to those it most benefits?

The Golden Heart’s end is not explicitly about racism. There’s no one Great Name acting as a tarnished lightning rod for critique. But among RWA members, both published and not, the debate surrounding the award’s elimination involves detailed arguments about resources, especially time and money — and race in America is a category we often use to evaluate how well both of those are spent. Mortgage lending, for instance, is filtered through this lens constantly; this is how we ended up with redlining, a major framework by which wealth was siphoned out of black populations and reinvested in white neighborhoods. To see how something similar is at work in the Golden Heart, look at the structure: how the contest is run, what it offers, and who it leaves out.

RWA is a powerful writers’ organization in no small part because it is big — 7,306 general members by this year’s count — and it’s gotten this size largely by being inviting. Unlike the Mystery Writers of America or the Science Fiction Writers of America, RWA allows unpublished writers to be full voting members. Anyone can join as long as they can pony up the annual dues and have a romance manuscript in progress. The manuscript requirement (20,000 words of romance in any subgenre) is fairly new, and when it was added many in RWA worried it was too high a bar, both to new arrivals and to longtime hopefuls who hadn’t produced work in a while. Adding obstacles to a new writer’s path seemed to undermine the organization’s entire purpose.

More crucial ways RWA fails to be inclusive have come under scrutiny in the last two years. In 2017, right as Hurricane Harvey was bearing down on RWA headquarters in Houston, bestselling author Linda Howard unleashed a parallel social media storm in the forums of RWA’s Published Author Network (solid context and summary here). Howard claimed the current RWA board was focusing too much of their attention and budget on what she described as “social issues” and that efforts to better include marginalized writers were a form of reverse discrimination. In the resulting flurry of posts, she and her supporters argued that focusing on minority groups was unfairly diverting time and money from the white, straight authors who make up the bulk of RWA membership; opponents countered that other demographics have been long shut out and shouted down, and that correcting this dynamic was both an ethical duty and crucial to RWA’s future.

Just over a year later, the RWA Board announced that they were reevaluating the Golden Heart, in no small part because it benefits only a fraction of the membership. According to the official RWA blog, only a very small 5% of members enter the contest, and only 40–45 individual writers are named finalists. The post also said the contest costs twice as much to run as it brings in.

On July 18, smack dab in the middle of the national conference – and just before the Annual General Meeting – RWA posted highlights from the quarterly board meeting that presented the Golden Heart’s elimination as an established fact. Comments bubbled up as the news spread, and writers stepped up to the mic at the meeting to weigh in. One defender started to ask how the board could justify spending money on one minority group (marginalized authors) but not another (Golden Heart entrants), but her time ran out before she could complete the question – or before the board was forced to explain that “Golden Heart hopeful” was in no way a legally protected class.

The Golden Heart might only benefit a few, but its advantages are many: finalists from all the contest’s history have cited the vast amount of emotional support, expert advice, and industry access they’ve received as a result of entering. For decades a finalist placement in the Golden Heart was one of the most direct ways of getting your manuscript seen by an agent or an editor at a publishing house. Digital books and self-publishing have made it easier for new, gifted writers to find markets outside traditional publishing paths, but a wider, wilder map needs more training to navigate than a set of fixed directions. Networks become indispensable.

This is where the Golden Heart confers a real advantage. In the months before each category’s winner is announced, every year’s class of finalists picks a collective name; these names crop up for years afterward in group blogs, in book dedications, and in nearly every thank-you speech at the award ceremony. One of the strongest statements in the Golden Heart’s defense this year came from the collective blog of the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood, the name chosen by the winners/finalists from 2009. Elisa Beatty writes: “[the] Golden Heart is an important means for identifying some of the strongest new talent. And then making sure they’re getting the support they need.” In an industry where sea changes happen daily, the Golden Heart provides an anchor: a deadline to aim for, a visible achievement, a link with writers past, present, and future. 2018 finalist Eileen Emerson says that stability trickles down:

We all share what we’re learning with our chaptermates, with our critique partners. So, yes, just 45 people each year get the little gold pin and the ceremony and the chance to be up on stage, but the benefits keep rippling out to our personal networks.

Which is another way of saying that finaling in the Golden Heart is a good way to become a gatekeeper — of information, of industry access, of status. Past winner and emcee of this year’s award ceremony Pintip Dunn put it even more clearly: “Finaling in this contest is the true prize.”

She’s right — because the biggest reward of the contest is offered to finalists as well as winners. I’ve been an active RWA member for ten years, but it’s only this year that I learned about the Golden Network, the only chapter in all of RWA with a membership qualification: only Golden Heart finalists and winners are allowed to join. Not only do finalists have the support of their fellow Golden Heart classmates as they start the next phase of their careers, they also are inducted into a company full of high-scoring authors from years past, many of whom have become notable names on bestseller lists and conference programming. They are able to draw deeply on others’ experiences and knowledge as they move to the next phase of their careers.

In theory, this kind of mentoring is precisely what individual chapters are designed to do for new writers. In practice, big-name authors tend to fade away from participating in local chapters as their own careers demand more of their time. And if you’re adding up to 40–45 new members every year — less the ones who final in multiple years, which definitely happens — then that’s a much larger annual increase than most chapters ever see. With all the talk about sisterhood that surrounds the Golden Heart, it’s very hard not to see the Golden Network as a romance author sorority or gated community, a bright golden line drawn between insiders and outsiders.

So the question becomes: how hard is it to final in the Golden Heart? How many hurdles stand between any one author and this wealth of information and connection? The general answer is: nobody really knows. The judges are anonymous, the scoring system is vague and wildly subjective, and there is no feedback offered to contestants who do not make the list. You are either in or you’re out, and you can’t even ask why.

The more complete answer is: it’s much, much harder to final if you’re writing marginalized heroes and heroines. Author Nicki Salcedo wrote frankly about entering her manuscript with a black heroine in 2011 and scoring in the bottom 25%; the next year, she removed all references to the character’s race, and the exact same book was named a finalist. Compare this to Scarlett Peckham’s experience after her book reached the shortlist in 2017. She didn’t win that year but she did join the Golden Network, and the next year’s list of finalists in the historical category included three of her manuscripts, one of which went on to win. That book (The Duke I Tempted, reviewed in August’s Kissing Books column on this site) went up for sale a scant two weeks after the award ceremony, published by an agent Peckham signed with two months after her triple final. She went from “aspiring writer” to “award-winning published author” in the space of a single year.

Meanwhile, Nicki Salcedo’s manuscript was sent for final-round judging to an editor from a major publisher who said, bluntly and with appalling cruelty: “I hated it.” Salcedo writes about how this painful experience stalled her fiction writing for years afterward, and that she’s only recently started up again. For her, the Golden Heart was not a springboard, but a trap door. It’s an all-too-familiar story for authors of color, who face more than the usual amount of rejection in the wall-to-wall whiteness of publishing.

Two authors’ experiences may not constitute a full data set — but one of the big problems here is that there is no data set. RWA only started recently began collecting data on the demographics of the Golden Heart entrants and judges. We are left to guess at the value of the contest based only on rumor and reported experience. And when judges are anonymous and the process obscure, even one racist judge in the judging pool becomes a problem for every potential entrant. You cannot remove biased judges if you cannot first identify who the biased judges are.

You also cannot talk about the Golden Heart without talking about the RITA Awards, RWA’s much better-known contest for published authors. The RITA shares a lot of process and therefore a lot of problems with the Golden Heart. The judging criteria are virtually identical in language, for one thing. Past years have been infamous for the appearance of Nazi heroes and various other flavors of problematic on finalist lists. And here’s a real kick to the gut: no black author has ever won a RITA — even though black writers have been publishing and popular since before RWA existed and during every year the RITAs have been held. This year there were no black authors on the shortlist for the RITAs in any category, even though some of the year’s most popular and critically acclaimed romances were written by black women.

Some have argued plaintively that you can’t have black finalists if you don’t have black authors entering the contest; unlike, say, the Hugos, which run on reader and fan nominations, RITA hopefuls must submit their books personally, or have a publisher submit on their behalf. This argument identifies a pipeline problem but doesn’t address the question of why black authors especially have come to consider the RITAs a waste of their valuable time and effort. It is not that black romance writers do not know about the RITAs: it’s that they know the RITAs all too well.

When this year’s RITA finalists were announced, some outraged, well-intentioned members offered to pay next year’s contest fees for POC writers. But black writers aren’t staying away in such numbers because of contest costs. Black writers are staying away because some RWA members view them as less than human and judge their books by this twisted standard. Many authors of color have reported suspiciously low scores from one or two judges on a book that otherwise scores highly, alongside editor and agent feedback that describes a book as “not relatable,” among other coded terms. RWA has made recent changes to the RITAs to allow future entrants to appeal if they feel a judge has been discriminatory, but it’s very much an open question whether this will be enough to repair the trust that has been lost.

It is easier to critique the RITA finalist lists, because the books there are published and public and we can have a conversation on the relative merits of the texts. There is some sunlight there to illuminate the broken places. But the manuscripts in the Golden Heart are unpublished and therefore a mystery (Scarlett Peckham being a unique and very recent exception). They may well be picked up by editors and agents, or self-published — but they will certainly be revised and edited, the titles will change, authors will get new pen names, and it may be years before the book is introduced to the reading public.

This means that when we talk about the Golden Heart, we have to talk about the authors, because there is no way for us to talk about the content of the books. And what we see is that marginalized authors are actively thwarted at various points: racist judging filters out some in the initial round, then industry bias gets a few more, then authors begin self-selecting out of a harmful process, and all those contest resources and benefits end up being focused on white authors who write about white characters – and who in turn support other white authors in following years. The exclusion is self-reinforcing.

I’m not saying the Golden Heart is intrinsically racist — no more than any other literary award. What I am saying is that in an organization that has real, long-standing problems with inclusion and where some unknown percentage of members see this as a feature, any tools for advancement are going to be leveraged in racist ways. Writers who fit these biased criteria are going to gain more and more advantages, and writers who already have to struggle against systemic prejudice are forced to struggle even more.

The problem is not just structural: the problem is the attitudes some members are bringing into the structure. The fact that they can do this in silence and secrecy makes it all the more insidious. The changes to the World Fantasy Award and the Children’s Literature Legacy Medal were both about taking away visible icons of racism; the problem RWA struggles with in its contests is racism’s invidious, invisible mechanisms.

Eliminating the Golden Heart solves the problem of racist judges by eliminating all judges in one fell swoop. That space and its newly freed-up resources hopefully can become a home for something new and exciting and potentially valuable for everyone. But all those problematic, anonymous judges are still waiting in the wings (and still judging the RITAs). Whatever replaces the Golden Heart needs to keep in mind the presence of bad actors in the membership. Clarity, transparency, and accountability of the process are good places to start.

The time for defending this tradition has passed. It’s time to build something better for our future.