The annual conference of the Romance Writers of America, held a few weeks ago, was a great time. But it’s tough to get past a truly horrifying discovery: Not only did somebody write a Christian romance novel with a Jewish heroine and a Nazi “hero,” it was nominated for two RITA awards, the genre’s equivalent of the Hugo.
In 1944, blonde and blue-eyed Jewess Hadassah Benjamin feels abandoned by God when she is saved from a firing squad only to be handed over to a new enemy. Pressed into service by SS-Kommandant Colonel Aric von Schmidt at the transit camp of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, she is able to hide behind the false identity of Stella Muller. However, in order to survive and maintain her cover as Aric’s secretary, she is forced to stand by as her own people are sent to Auschwitz.
Suspecting her employer is a man of hidden depths and sympathies, Stella cautiously appeals to him on behalf of those in the camp. Aric’s compassion gives her hope, and she finds herself battling a growing attraction for this man she knows she should despise as an enemy.
Stella pours herself into her efforts to keep even some of the camp’s prisoners safe, but she risks the revelation of her true identity with every attempt. When her bravery brings her to the point of the ultimate sacrifice, she has only her faith to lean upon. Perhaps God has placed her there for such a time as this, but how can she save her people when she is unable to save herself?
Smart Bitches, Trash Books has a very good outlining of everything that’s appalling about this premise. Apparently it heavily features a Christian Bible that helps Hadassah/Stella in her suffering. And yet this book garnered not one but two RITA nominations—awards given by the RWA for “excellence in romance fiction”—in the inspirational and first book categories.
How this happened, technically: There’s a corner of the romance business, a very specific subgenre, known as “inspirational.” Some of those books are simply sweeter and less explicit, starring soft-focus idealized Amish characters, for women who don’t want to read about cocks all over the place unless they’re chickens. I am not one of those women, but fair enough. But the category also contains a lot of outright, hardcore Lifeway Christian Bookstore-style evangelical novels. And as Tablet has covered, that particular type of Christian (always weird about the Jews, generally) has lately gotten very into the character of Esther. Then there’s the popular romance trope of trying to write the darkest hero you can and still somehow redeem him. Combine that with the Christian idea that anyone is redeemable through God’s grace, throw it all in the world’s worst blender and you get this book.
And award ceremonies generally are notoriously screwy, especially for something as chopped into subdomains and fiefdoms as romance. Contemporaries are judged separately from historicals are judged separately from romantic suspense.
That’s an intellectual explanation, anyway. I still cannot fathom how this book made it to print, amassed a bunch of positive reviews at Goodreads and elsewhere, and then got nominated for RITA awards which, again, is the highest honor in romance publishing. Not just in the inspirational category, either—it got a nod in the best first book category. It’s about a Jewish woman in a concentration camp and the man who runs the concentration camp. In a story that’s ultimately turned to Christian purposes.
Romance, as a genre, is a sophisticated dance between fantasy and reality. The genre is not afraid to grapple with the uglier realities of women’s lives, but ultimately it’s about imagining a healthy, successful love relationship. You can imagine anything. Why would you choose to imagine this? And this is especially galling at a time when many writers and readers are pressing for not just more diverse books, but more support for those books from big publishers and organizations like RWA. Obviously, a fair chunk of the romance audience has always been white, heterosexual, middle-class, and Christian. But it’s truly jarring to see the genre cough up something like this. “At least it didn’t win” is faint consolation.
And the online romance world is in an uproar over the book. Smart Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books has responded with an open letter to the RWA board absolutely blasting the novel’s inclusion on the RITA slate:
In For Such a Time, the hero is redeemed and forgiven for his role in a genocide. The stereotypes, the language, and the attempt at redeeming an SS officer as a hero belittle and demean the atrocities of the Holocaust....
I am addressing each step in the process of this book by writing to the author, the editor, the head of the publishing house, and of course you, the board of the RWA. I know many of you personally and have a great deal of respect for the responsibilities you carry. I know that you don’t each personally oversee the RITA nominations, nor do you personally judge each book.
But the fact that this book was nominated in two categories is deeply hurtful, and I believe creates an environment where writers of faiths other than Christianity, not just Jewish writers, feel unwelcome. It certainly had that effect on me, because I don’t understand exactly how so many judges agreed that a book so offensive and insensitive was worthy of the RWA’s highest honor.
The conversation about For Such a Time is dovetailing with longer-term conversations about diversity in romance, which have been building in volume for years. Many RWA attendees spoke out after the conference about moments where they felt they were getting pushback for pushing for a more inclusive genre. RWA has already announced (via board member Courtney Milan) a new committee to address the issue of diversity. Hopefully romance can continue moving forward, rather than collapsing into a smoldering reactionary pile of rubble.
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