Tuesday, 9 September 2008


Another great article in Saturday’s Guardian, this time about the judging of the (Man) Booker prize, which will be awarded this year, I hope, to Joseph O’Neill for Netherland. Come on the Irish!

A lot of what the judges say is relevant to other literary competitions and it just goes to prove that the whole thing is down to personal taste and subjectivity. There's been a bit of grumbling on another blog about the judging of lit comps, some of it quite ill-informed. Writers should try not to take it personally if their story or book is not shortlisted. It does not mean it is faulty. It does not mean the judge ‘has it in’ for you (especially in anonymous short fiction competitions!). It just means that on that day the winning piece was judged to be the favourite. Shena McKay said in her piece 'as a judge you are responsible for disappointing a lot of people'. This is so true but it can't be helped.

One thing the judges of the Man Booker did not mention is the fact that one is not comparing like with like. No two books, and no two stories, are the same. It is HARD to pick the so-called ‘best’ of a group of great stories or books. You just have to plump for the one that speaks loudest to you in the end.

Here are some of my favourite quotes from the article:

‘…our job was to pick the year's best book, regardless of its author.’ Hilary Spurling, 1979

‘The prize was founded, in part, to encourage competitiveness. Which of the six novelists will make it to the finishing post? This grisly notion constitutes a perfect recipe for envy, back-biting and self-glorification.’ Paul Bailey, 1982

‘I think that the best argument for the whole cruel and unfair business of prizes is that they can lead readers to writers who wouldn't otherwise be read much or perhaps at all.’ Marina Warner, 1985

‘The Booker may at times have tended to increase the unhelpful dichotomy between popular storytelling and books which are classified as literary novels, but most of the winners have combined high literary achievement with compelling storytelling.’ PD James 1987

‘The success of the prize has had an enormous impact on the reception of literary fiction and other kinds of writing, not only directly, but also indirectly through the proliferation of new prizes that have imitated it. But the overtly competitive nature of these prizes, heightened by the publication of longlists and shortlists, takes its psychological toll on writers; and, given the large element of chance in the composition and operation of judging panels, the importance now attached to prizes in our literary culture seems excessive. A committee is a blunt instrument of literary criticism.’ David Lodge, 1989

‘I'm glad I was a Booker judge relatively early in my career. It stopped me thinking that literary prizes are about literary value. Even the most correct jury goes in for horsetrading and gamesmanship, and what emerges is a compromise.’ Hilary Mantel, 1990

‘…the absurdity of the process was soon apparent: it is almost impossible to persuade someone else of the quality or poverty of a selected novel (a useful lesson in the limits of literary criticism). In practice, judge A blathers on about his favourite novel for five minutes, and then judge B blathers on about her favourite novel for five minutes, and nothing changes: no one switches sides. That is when the horse-trading begins.’ James Wood, 1994

‘Some wonderful books win the Booker, of course, just as the flypaper occasionally catches some really large flies. But it means - or should mean - nothing in literary terms.’ James Wood

‘And as far as I remember, not a single judge (including me) ever changed his or her mind, or shifted his or her position, in response to an argument put forward by a colleague.’ Jonathan Coe, 1996

‘Being a judge gave me much more anxiety than being on the shortlist myself, even with the horrible bookies' odds and the risk of being depicted as a cartoon racehorse, because as a judge you are responsible for disappointing a lot of people.’ Shena McKay, 1999

‘What did I learn? Discussion is futile. No one changes their mind about a book. You might as well have a show of hands straight away. There aren't many bad books (only one novel ended up in the bin after two pages), but there are a lot of so-so, nondescript novels that leave no trace. Publishers are idiots.’ Tibor Fischer, 2004

‘As usual, no minds were much changed by the panel discussions - candidate B merely came forward when one judge's candidate A was voted down. John Banville came out top with The Sea. King of the As and Bs. Teeth were gnashed in the press the next day; but they would be if Jesus Christ had written the winning novel.’ John Sutherland, 2005

‘Once an author is on the shortlist anything can happen.’ Giles Foden, 2007

The rest of the article is here.


BarbaraS said...

We looked at the process of judgment on one of the literature courses I did for my degree (06). And what criteria that judges will use in looking at the list of novels, varies from year to year and person to person. It is subjective and personal and no-where was this demonstrated better than in our last assignment, where we had to invent our own literary prize and compare and contrast two books (well, we did that year - it changes from year to year) and sweat over the justification of which novel we would award the prize to. So, I have a soupcon (where's me wotsit for the 'c') of what judges must go through. I think you're right, though: it's about what has the right mix of ingredients and has the clearest, most attractive voice.

OSLO said...

Looks like Joseph O'Neill missed out this year, so Sebastian Barry will have to carry Irish hopes. I heard him read from A Secret Scripture at Kilkenny Arts Festival and he had the audience rapt with his old woman narrator impersonation. A real gusto performance that brought the book alive for me - I was only a third the way through at the time. But who knows with the Booker - three Irish winners in a row??

Women Rule Writer said...

Hi B - it's still hard though, isn't it? AS many of the Booker judges said, you ain't gonna change anyone else's mind. How could you? If I like book A, then I like it. No amount of telling me book B is brilliant is going to make me love it!

Hi Oslo - yeah, poor Joe. Still, we have Seb! Woo hoo!
We've won every second year since 2005, so maybe we're not due a win until next year.

BarbaraS said...

Oh that's very true, WRW yes. what one person really loves, another may detest, despite the evidence!

Jane Holland said...

Fantastic quotations. I particularly loved 'Publishers are idiots!' having had several blood, sweat and tears literary novels, all over 120,000 words, rejected over the years, and come to the conclusion - probably erroneous - that I can't come fiction.

Maybe I'm just more naturally attuned to poetry though. Because I've had as many rejections - if not more - as a poet, yet I still continue to write and hope.

Or is it just that poems are short, and art is long?

Women Rule Writer said...

Yeah, I liked that too, Jane!! Often they are idiots with strange reasoning powers. 'Your book doesn't sing to me!' 'It's too quiet!' Oh, sod off.
Art is art no matter what length. We mustn't get hung up on size! LOL.