Passing Judgment

by | March 27, 2015 | General | 3 comments

by Jean Roberta

Every writer who has hoped to win a prize, but didn’t, should serve a kind of literary jury duty by volunteering to be a judge in a book award contest. It’s much like being an editor, except that the only payment is fame, glamour, and a sense of accomplishment. 🙂

Last May, I went to the Bisexual Book Awards in New York City, a fun event at which the finalists read from their work. (My “bawdy novella,” The Flight of the Black Swan, was nominated, and so was Twice the Pleasure, an anthology of bisexual women’s erotica, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel, in which I have a story, “Operetta,” which one reviewer called “a meringue.”) I didn’t seriously expect to win anything, since this is the best attitude to adopt at such times, and I didn’t. However, I was invited to be one of the judges in the “Erotica” category of the awards for books published in 2014. (The ceremony will be at the end of May 2015.)

I was grateful for the honour, and I accepted. Little did I know that over the coming months, 22 books (most in the form of PDFs) would arrive in my inbox and my actual mailbox. They were more diverse than some readers might expect, although writers of erotica generally know how broad our field is. Francesca Lia Block and Alison Tyler of Los Angeles were among the authors of nominated books, and one book was set in Canada. There was BDSM and a multicultural cast of characters. There was historical fiction and suspense. There was magic and shapeshifting, not all of it cute. There was lightness (more meringues) as well as heaviness and graphic murder. There were several self-published books, and several from publishers I hadn’t heard of before; I found this informative.

Meanwhile, in my actual life, there were student essays to grade, pets to feed, meals to cook, and floors to mop. (My spouse and I have been the official cleaning ladies of the local LGBT bar/watering hole for several months. We get paid in money and compliments from bar patrons who find relief in washrooms that show no signs of the previous night’s debauchery.)

The deadline for the Erotica judges’ decisions was March 15, a Sunday. This meant a three-day marathon of reading for me and, I suspect, for the other three judges, one of whom politely resigned due to a personal emergency.

Living in the imaginary world of one novel can be a delightful experience, best enjoyed on a beach or a luxury hotel room. Rushing from the imaginary world of one novel to the next, 22 times, is like being a lunatic or a mystic who can’t turn off the voices in her head. Some of the books were – ahem – more effective on my libido than others, but I didn’t want the state of my crotch to be the determining factor in my decisions.

I added criteria of my own to the official guidelines. I ruled out several books that were thinly-disguised (or undisguised) examples of m/m erotic romance with no sex scenes involving women. One of these novels, in particular, was well-written, moving, believable, and was part of a series starring intelligent, compassionate, three-dimensional characters who change over time. However, I needed a somewhat objective way to eliminate titles until I was left with a choice that could qualify as bisexual in every sense, as well as being quality literature.

None of the books I read seemed to dramatize the tired old joke that bisexuals will jump on anything that moves. Few of them seemed to be written by horny teenagers. Bisexuality, it seems, has come of age.

I asked for a time extension of one day, but I was reminded that the judging had to be wrapped up, sooner than later. When I exchanged emails with the remaining two judges and the organizer, I was surprised at how much overlap there was among our choices for the top five finalists. One novel, in particular, appealed to all of us, so we reached a bloodless agreement to name it the winner.

So now my role in the decision-making is over, and I’m waiting – along with all the authors of nominated books – for the public announcement of the winners in all the categories of the Bisexual Book Awards, which will undoubtedly be scheduled (as it was in 2014) close to the Lambdalit Awards so that writers and fans can attend both.

One thing I know beyond a doubt is that judging, no matter how many rules the judges impose on themselves, is always subjective. And of course, the more nominees there are, the more competition there is.

If your book was nominated for a book award of any kind, but you didn’t win, don’t fret. It’s not you, it’s us.

Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:


  1. Lisabet Sarai

    I've served as a judge for several years in the Lone Star Romance Writers annual contest. (Don't ask me how I got involved in a Texas-based contest when I live in Asia. I honestly don't know!) It was an enlightening experience.

    I saw quite clearly that imagination and passion can be totally orthogonal to writing skill, which rather surprised me. There were stories that had wonderful plots and characters but were riddled with grammar errors — and vice versa.

    There was no conferring between judges. Each of passed in our ratings and I assume there was some algorithm for combining them. However, I was startled a year or two later to read an excerpt from a published romance that I recognized from the contest (and hadn't rated too highly). The prose had improved quite a bit–so I guess the judges' feedback might be helpful after all.

  2. Jean Roberta

    Interesting, Lisabeth. I've discovered the lack of overlap amongst engaging plots, character development, and clear, grammatical writing. It puzzles me too, but part of the problem seems to be the education system, at least in North America. Students don't seem to learn grammar in any formal way in public school any more, so there are many creative adults who rely on their "instincts" or vague sense of whether something "sounds right" when they write. I'm wondering if an editor's hand had an influence on the improved excerpt you read.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      You may be right. I don't feel as though my formal education in grammar has that much to do with my ability to write grammatical English. Wide reading (I believe) is much more of a factor.

      On the other hand, our grammar was always graded, and we were led to believe that correctly structured English was important. It may be that this sense of relevance has been lost. That is, today nobody really cares.

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