My 2016 Whitney Awards ballot and observations

cover of Ally Condie's Summerlost showing two young people riding their bicycles at sunsetCongratulations to the winners of the 2016 Whitney Awards, which were presented last weekend. This year my participation was limited to being a part of the voting academy for two categories: Middle Grade and Historical Romance. I chose the Middle Grade category because I had already read Summerlost and loved it and wanted to see how the competition stacked up against it. I decided  because I judged (meaning I was part of the panel that selects the finalists) the Historical category a few years ago and had enjoyed some of those novels that had. Plus I’ve read some historical romance and some historical fantasy with strong romance elements over the past few years and was interested in what the landscape looked like for Mormon authors.

Here is my ballot with the finalists ranked 1-5. Summerlost was my number one for Middle Grade and also won novel of the year for youth fiction so the rest of the academy, and I were in complete agreement on that one:

Middle Grade

Summerlost, by Ally Condie (actual winner; Novel of the Year: Youth)
The Wrong Side of Magic, by Janette Rallison
Ghostsitter, by Shelly Brown
Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood, by Liesl Shurtliff
Mysteries of Cove: Gears of Revolution, by J. Scott Savage

For Historical Romance, I thought Sarah Eden’s novel was the best of the bunch, although my second place choice My Fair Gentlemen was the winner. This is probably the most in tune I’ve been with the rest of the voting academy in any of the years I’ve participated:

Historical Romance

The Sheriff of Savage Wells, by Sarah M. Eden
My Fair Gentleman, by Nancy Campbell Allen (actual winner)
Willowkeep, by Julie Daines
Lady Helen Finds Her Song, by Jennifer Moore
The Fall of Lord Drayson, by Rachael Anderson

Some Observations
  1. This year the Whitney Awards had academy voters both rank titles and give them a numerical ratings (1 through 7 with a score of 4 meaning “Average—meeting expectations for an award-winning novel.”). The rankings determined the category winners. The number ratings were used to calculate the overall winner for best debut, best adult novel and best youth novel. I think this is a fantastic way to go about, and I’ve been impressed at how the Whitney Awards (for all that I often disagree with the voting [but not this year!]) continues to improve its processes.
  2. Summerlost was far and away the best novel I read of both groups (and even better than the other finalists in categories that I didn’t vote in such as Speculative: Adult). This shouldn’t come as a surprise because I’ve written fondly about Ally Condie’s work before so I suppose I’m biased toward liking her work. But there’s a reason for that bias: she’s very good to excellent on all levels (plot, characterization, prose, worldbuilding).
  3. Each of the other middle grade novels had something very interesting about them and something that wasn’t quite there. I recognize that I’m not part of the target audience, but I don’t think that what I found deficient in them was a matter of taste. And, look, I don’t work in publishing and don’t understand the constraints and decisions made in producing viably commercial work. But I’ll say this: I believe that with better editing those authors could have produced books that went from just okay to very good or even excellent. Sure, one might say that could apply to any book, but I think in the case of these four books what needed to be fixed was possible and would have made them better even for their intended (much younger) audience.
  4. I was disappointed by the Historical Romance category. Again, this isn’t a primary genre that I read in. But I have read quite a bit of work that’s relevant to this category in my life (especially in the regency [and immediately adjacent] periods), including both historical romance and historical fantasy as well as novels written during those time periods (including all of Jane Austen’s novels) plus quite a bit of nonfiction, and I was quite looking forward to these novels. Some of the advice I gave to historical fiction writers back in 2015 also applies here. But I’d also add that when it comes to a romance plot, what keeps the heroine and the love interest apart and then how those obstacles are overcome needs to be solidly grounded and that there’s a real opportunity to create a tension between the two characters and between them and their social (and economic and cultural) environment that illuminates both their character and their historical circumstances, and when you do that, it’s can be quite the wonderful reading experience. Look, romance plots are really hard. Historical romance is even more difficult because you have to be good at both romance plots and characters and at the worldbuilding and plotting that historical fiction requires. I’m not saying I could do any better. But I have read much better examples, and it frustrates me that this year’s crop weren’t better.
  5. That being said, all of those novels had something going for them (especially the top three and especially Sarah Eden’s [which is a western rather than a regency]) so I have hopes that these authors will continue to push themselves. I really would like to see this category become a strength for the Whitney Awards because I think there’s value to Mormon readers in exploring romance in a way that doesn’t have some of the baggage that contemporary romance brings with it.
  6. This is my standard yet strongly-believed plea to include more Mormon characters and/or settings and/or thematics in the work you write whether it’s for the Mormon market or the national market. Even Summerlost is a bit of a missed opportunity in that way. It’s clearly set in a version of Cedar City’s Shakespeare Festival. I know that commercial fears come into play here. I also think that often those fears are overblown–even on a national level–and that the specificity that can be brought in when Mormon material is deployed can be a real strength. It is for other minority cultures. Why not ours?

4 thoughts on “My 2016 Whitney Awards ballot and observations”

  1. .

    I need to do this again next year. It’s been too long and there’s no better way to see What’s Happening Now than to jump into the Whitneys. I appreciate your write-ups.

  2. I read the general fiction, historical romance, contemporary romance, and historical fiction categories this year. There were some great books and some not-so-great books, and I generally agree with your opinions. None of the historical romance books really stood out to me–they were very similar and had similar strengths and weaknesses. I also put the Sheriffs book at the top of my list because it was a little better than the others, but this wasn’t a strong category this year.

    Three out of the five contemporary romance books dealt directly with Mormonism, two of them much better than the other. This seemed to be the only category this year that had books with Mormon characters. Both Melanie Jacobson and Jenny Proctor are consistently solid writers and they almost always deal with Mormon single adults, in settings outside of Utah. I was really pleased that Jenny Proctor’s book (Love at First Note) won because I particularly liked how it had non-Mormon supporting characters who were three-dimensional, decent people that the protagonists had no desire to convert.

  3. I managed to vote in only 2 categories this year, something I felt better about thanks to the addition of star rankings for the overall awards–I didn’t have to feel guilty about not reading every single finalist! Love the new system!

    One thing to note about Historical Romance–and about Romance as a genre in general–that may clarify a bit regarding expectations and quality:

    Romance, regardless of time period, is typically categorized as either “single title” or “category.”

    SINGLE TITLE romance novels are longer, tend to have a wider scope on themes, more complicated and woven plots, larger casts, and so on. An example: Sarah M. Eden’s HOPE SPRINGS.

    CATEGORY romances, on the other hand, are a different animal. They are expected to be shorter works with a more specific, narrow focus with one main conflict, fewer subplots, a smaller cast, etc. An example: Sarah M. Eden’s COURTING MISS LANCASTER.

    This year, ALL of the Historical Romance finalists were CATEGORY romances. It’s not that the authors aren’t capable of writing books with more depth or whatever. After all, Eden, whose THE SHERIFFS OF SAVAGE WELLS was a finalist this year, also wrote HOPE SPRINGS, which is definitely a more complex book on several fronts than SHERIFFS or COURTING MISS LANCASTER.

    HOPE SPRING has more layered conflicts and themes and a grander setting and backstory. Plus, HOPE SPRINGS won Best Romance as well as Best Novel for 2014.

    I have a suspicion that any disappointment in the Historical Romance finalists this year is from readers assuming that a quality romance is a book that delves into deeper issues, complex plots, etc. In other words, some voters assume that “quality romance” equals “single title romance.”

    This year, they got category romances instead. If you’re expecting something very different, that could understandably feel “less than.”

    And yes, single title and category romances are very different animals. Yet they’re both valid forms of romance, and both are published all the time.

    Yet criticizing a category romance for not being a single title is similar to complaining that the film SOME LIKE IT HOT doesn’t delve into the raw depths of humanity like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Meanwhile, SOME LIKE IT HOT is regularly listed as one of the funniest movies of all time (and is often listed as THE funniest). As a comedy, it never tries to be a sweeping WWII epic like Lawrence of Arabia. They’re different kinds of films altogether. Yet the movie’s Oscar, 2 Golden Globes, and other awards (including one for Lemmon’s performance and another for Billy Wilder’s writing) are ample evidence that it’s an excellent film in its own right.

    Whenever I cast my Whitney ballot, I try very hard to set aside my personal tastes about whether or not a book is something I enjoyed and/or would reread and instead focus on WHAT the author was trying to accomplish within the bounds of their genre and HOW WELL the author executed that goal.

    To make any kind of informed vote, I need to understand the expectations and conventions of whichever genres I’m voting in. In other words, what does QUALITY mean in THIS genre? My personal tastes and expectations need to be set aside when making that kind of judgment call. After all, the Whitneys aren’t a popularity or personal taste contest.

    This year’s HR finalists are all very talented. A a look at some of their other work shows that they are all skilled writers in a variety of areas of the romance genre–whether that’s single title or category romance. Several of the authors have written both, and they’re very good at both forms.

    That’s the crux: there are TWO forms of romance, and not everyone realizes that.

    Hope that helps clarify a bit!

  4. Thanks, Annette. That context is helpful. Some of the historical romance novels I’ve read have been category romances (although I know them more as series romances), and I’d say that what I mentioned point number 4 still applies. To be more specific (and I’m going to keep these general so I’m not singling out any of the non-Sarah Eden books that were finalists [that title isn’t really included in this list because of its western setting]).

    1. Part of the tension and charm created by Regency (and [sort-of*] Regency-adjacent) romances is the way notions of social propriety complicate gender relations. Playing with or complicating those notions is something most any romance novel set during this time period should do. But however much you do so, you should be consistent across the novel in the valences in effect for both the couple and those around them. Not because of the needs of historical accuracy (although that’s always nice to have), but because to do otherwise completely muddies the system of tensions set up by the existence of social propriety.

    2. The same as number one but in relation to class.

    3. Very few (if any) authors are going to be able to out-Austen Austen. But if you’re going to go for wit and humor (and I think you should–a humorless courtship would be awful [both for the romance novel readers and in real life]) then bring some zest or quirk or, most importantly, specificity to it. One of the most frustrating things for me with the novels is that I felt like quite of few them (maybe even all of them) had a fantastic heroine, but she wasn’t quite let off the leash. Or she was let off the leash in the wrong way (that gets back to the point about propriety and setting up the rules, etc.). Sometimes it had to do with the plot mechanics she was in; or the other characters weren’t honed enough; or simply because she didn’t quite come into full enough resolution. To expand on that (clumsy) metaphor: too many were standard def where they had the potential to be high def. And, again, this isn’t me judging them against a literary fiction novel aiming at some sort of psychological realism, but rather the category they’re in.

    4. The Regency period (especially for the gentry and aristocracy who tend to be main characters in Regency romance novels) doesn’t exist in a socio-political vacuum. This is an era build on British colonialism. That should be acknowledged. That doesn’t mean every romance novel needs to expose the horrors of colonialism. Not at all. Nor that the characters should completely speak to modern sensibilities (if anything most historical romances could do a bit better at creating just a bit of separation between their characters and modern sensibilities). And it all takes some skill and finesse, but I do think that there should be some nods, either overt or subtle to the socio-political conditions that create the lives our main characters lead. Even Austen does so, and she was writing during the era.

    5. A successful romance novel is able to balance on that edge of the reader knowing that the couple is going to get together but not quite able to see how they will overcome the internal and external factors that keep them apart. Similar to, in fact often intertwined with, my point above about propriety, authors need to be able to set up the broad strokes, the rules, for the reader and then tease out the nuances and the risks so that what looks like a locked door between the couple slowly gets unlocked (and then bursts open for the happily ever after ending).

    6. This may seem to conflict with my points above, but some of the issues with the novels this year is that they tried to do too much with sub-plots or additional narrative layers or were clumsy with things like symbolism, resonance, humor, minor characters, etc. Romance, in particular, tends to be stronger than other genres in its use of symbolic resonance, that is, the use of physical items or sensations that then get repeated in varied ways throughout the novel. I like the way some of the novels went for this effect in a robust way. I don’t think all of them pulled it off and was even more disappointed in those that weren’t more ambitious about it.

    I have no idea if her romance novels exhibit what I’m talking about, but a good discussion about what I mean by symbolic resonance is what Emily McKay says about archetypes and talismans in her post “Everything I Ever Needed to Know about Writing”. Her discussion of goal, motivation and conflict is also very good.

    7. On a sentence level, some of the novels were pretty good. All of them needed work on how they described and/or portrayed emotion.

    Each of the novels had things they did right when it comes the points above. None of them quite put it all together for me. Perhaps I have unrealistic expectations, but I know as a reader what it’s like when it all comes together in one book, and I’d love to see as many Mormon authors as possible make that happen, especially since I prefer the romance novels I read to be sweet rather than spicy when it comes to the heat level.

    *the sort-of because there are differences between how the Georgian and Victorian eras treated notions of propriety and how the Regency period did.

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