Judging Awards

As I write this I am home in Sydney, physically anyway. The jetlag thing is putting a glass wall between me and everything else; the world comes to me slowly and full of distorted echoes.

One of the pings that has gotten through is the winners of the US National Book Awards, and I got to thinking about awards and the judging process and the controversies that the major ones often seem to generate. I have been on the shortlist for three different awards and, more importantly, I have been a judge on a number of awards.

But first: I am so thrilled that Pete Hautman’s Godless won the young adult award. I loved it. Run out, secure yourself a copy and read it, people. Forget the young adult (YA) label—this is a book that should be read no matter how old you are.

Is Godless the best young adult title by a USian published this year? I don’t know because I haven’t read them all. More to the point, I haven’t read all the 180 books that were nominated for the YA award. This year I also loved Christopher Paul Curtis’s Bucking the Sarge and my husband’s Midnighters and So Yesterday and Katherine Hannigan’s Ida B: …And Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World (which is really more of a kid’s than a YA book). There are also a bunch of books I’ve heard a tonne about that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet like Lois Lowry’s Messenger and Sharon Dennis Wyeth’s Orphea Proud. None of these books were on the shortlist, which means either they weren’t nominated (by their publishers) or the judges didn’t like them enough to list them.

Rarely is one book clearly superior to all other books published that year. It would be more useful if all these awards switched to publishing a list of five or ten fab books of the year. They could still have their big party of an awards’ night. The short list would be of twenty or fifty books and on the big night the select five or ten would be named. I know I can’t tell you which was the better book Godless, Bucking the Sarge, So Yesterday or Ida B. I loved them all.

Juried awards like the National Book Award are decided by a number of judges, usually five because that’s the perfect number. (Trust me, I was once on a jury of three and it sucked—two against three is no fair.) The judges read through all the nominees—all 272 if you happened to be one of the judges of the adult fiction National Book Award this year. The same group decides which five books should be on the final list and which of those should win. This can be a fraught experience.

When I was on the James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award (which was mostly an absolutely wonderful experience) we decided that we didn’t have to agree about the books on the shortlist (and mercifully we were not limited to just five), but that we did about the final winner. (The Tiptree Award is a particularly flexible award in that every jury gets to change procedure if they want. Other juries in other years, I’m sure, did it differently.) So our short list was an eclectic mix reflecting the various passions of the various judges.

Agreeing to the final winner was hard. Some of us were passionate about books that other judges despised, muttering, "Over my dead body does that book win." We had a veto and we exercised it, which meant we were left with books and stories that we all loved, but about which, perhaps, some of us weren’t as passionate as we were about other, vetoed, books.

Because that’s the thing about fiction that knocks you out; the book that you adore will always have the exact opposite effect on someone else. This is particularly maddening if you happen to be on a literary jury together. I happen to think American Beauty is one of the worst films ever made, but I know lots of reasonable, smart, interesting people who love it. Equally I am passionate about Dorothy Dunnett’s books, but you just have to read a few of the reviews on Amazon to know there are people out there who want all her books burned. Getting five people in a room and getting them to pick the best, frequently leads to compromises, to the award going to the book that some of the judges liked second best. We were lucky in the end all five of us was happy with our choices.

But as with every award ever, some people weren’t. This happens again and again with awards. People get invested in one book that year and when it doesn’t win it’s an affront to God and the natural order of things. It’s not. The answer to what kind of books win awards entirely depends on what kind of people are on the jury giving the award.

This year the five National Book Award judges for adult fiction came up with a list of books written by "five women from New York." There has been much bitching in The New York Times and elsewhere about the apparent same-sameness of their books (I have no idea if that’s true as I haven’t read them—I’m on a YA bender—but the plot synopsises certainly don’t sound that similar. I’m just cranky The Jane Austen Book Club wasn’t on the list). Shouldn’t there be more variety? Shouldn’t there be a limit on obscure books? Before all the publicity, none of the five had sold more than 10,000 copies and some less than a thousand (now the winner, Lily Tuck’s The News from Paraguay, is in Amazon.com’s top one hundred). Certain people argued that their low sales figures disqualify them from making the shortlist. Others have said that rewarding so-called "literariness" over accessibility is a slap in the face to ordinary readers.

What’s interesting about this year’s controversy is that instead of the usual argument about who got robbed (though there was some of that—poor Mr Roth) what’s being discussed is this—what are awards for? Pointing out good books to readers? Supporting the publishing industry by rewarding the books that they’ve poured all their money into via big advances and a large advertising budget? Rewarding the best books regardless of how obscure or how popular they are?

A shortlist is not just a list of the books the judges deem to be best, it’s also a list that says something about the publishing industry that year. It’s a message from a small group of people (the five judges) who are (usually) passionate about books to the wider publishing, writing and reading community (not to mention the media and wider population of people who don’t think about literature except when it gets in the news) and when it sparks such a debate and the kind of thoughtful commentrary I’ve been reading all over the blogsphere then that’s a very good thing indeed, regardless of who’s on the shortlist and who wins.

Sydney, 19 November 2004