Monday, August 13, 2012

Denis Edwards on judging book awards

The 55th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the November 1994 issue. The illustration was by Anna Crichton; the intro read:
The best way to lose friends and influence people is to judge a competition or an award. Denis Edwards talks to some recent judges – who all asked to remain anonymous – about the pressures they faced.
There’s a convention in journalism that the writer should interview lots of people, get a range of points of view and open up the mysteries of the issue for you, the reader. By the end of the article you are supposed to have the subjects’ knowledge and opinions laid before you, so you’ll know everything, and can make up your own mind.
When this works it is wonderful. The writer has a glow of fulfilment at a job well done and the readers get their minds opened to an issue and all its shades of meaning.
Trouble is, it doesn’t always work like that. People know their pearls of wisdom are going to be written down and will appear in print, preserved for posterity.
There’s a reason for all this preamble. The subject we are talking about here is the judging of literary contests. Now, this has provoked anger in the past, no doubt about it. But it’s also a subject on which people can become circumspect.
You don’t, for instance, get many people going as public as Vikram Seth’s English publisher who looked over the Booker Prize shortlist, saw A Suitable Boy wasn’t on it and called the Booker jury a “pack of wankers”.
New Zealand lends itself to this. Everything here is on a small scale, and everyone knows everyone else, or at least knows where to find them, making it virtually impossible to avoid a lively quote upsetting someone you’ll eventually find yourself sitting beside at a literary do. Mix in the prob­ability that today’s judges are tomorrow’s contestants and, the concept of revenge being alive and well, it’s a bloody miracle anyone is prepared to say anything about anything ever.
Judge A has seen this in action, and sounds a clear warning about underachieving, and possibly jealous, writers becoming judges. Think of the horror erupting if he’d gone on the record and named names. Boutros Boutros-Ghali wouldn’t have been able to get troops here quickly enough.
Judge B, a veteran of judging, laments an apparent love of revenge among our writers, editors and publishers, pointing out that Australians seem to have a much healthier and more mature attitude to these things: “They have a blow up or a dispute then there is an explosion, sometimes even stand-up fight. And that’s that. Things get going again. Here things seem to fester and simmer away forever.
“Being a judge gives you tremendous power, at least for awhile. When you’ve got someone driven by jealousy you’ve got trouble, with yesterday’s men trying to keep tomorrow’s talent from getting ahead of them too quickly.”
Brisk stuff this. Little wonder no one was prepared to put it on the record, to be caned with it in times to come.
Everyone agrees about one thing: they get plenty of opportunity. Blame New Zealand’s size for this. Because it’s small, there is a shallow pool of suitable people for the work, which as all again agree, is onerous.
This creates a pattern: judge once or twice and then duck out of sight for a few years, to be smoked out once more by a call to do your bit. Reasons for accepting include preventing someone seen as grossly unfair taking control of everything, or giving one’s own agenda another outing, or simply a sense of noblesse oblige.
Being asked can be flattering. Then there’s the gratitude, the profile piece in the local paper, the little zing of having arrived; of having washed up far enough on the literary beach to be seen as worthy of assessing everyone else’s efforts. Sadly, some judges’ qualifications for this are not always high. In other countries, decades of either teaching writing, or a shelf-full of one’s own tomes are a prerequisite, but here a book of short stories or a book of poems – even a handful of book reviews – will sometimes do.
This, the flattery part, does not last. For some, the afterglow lives only for as long as it takes to bore all their friends with the news. It is quickly replaced by the chain gang part, with the judges dragging themselves to the letterbox and trudging back to the study to end up with another couple of hundred manuscripts to wade through.
This is lesson one. Judging is hard work. Judge C estimated that he read over 200 short stories through once, and then a shortlist of about 20 several times. “It wrecked Christmas that year. I had to read all this stuff and most of it was awful. All these people were labouring away, and basically they were producing shit. That’s a bit harsh and it’s a bit sad but that’s how it is. If reading it all doesn’t take the edge off your Christmas I don’t know what would.”
Judge D, judging a similar competition, reported being deeply saddened by the entries. “Here were all these scripts done on typewriters and computers and things, and they’d had to learn to work them and all the rest of it. All that effort, money and equipment was out there somewhere, and so little of worth was getting on the page,” she said. “I found that really upsetting, because it all seemed such a waste. It really did.”
All agreed the toughest part about being a solo judge was just that, being alone. It took strength not to cave in and find something readable that resembled one’s own
work, and toss the prize in that direction.
It’s tempting, after the hundreds of entries have been whittled down to 20 and then to four or five or so. Exhaustion has long been a factor by now. That, plus uncertainty as to what is truly good or merely good, causes confusion and doubt, which is why the familiar looks the safest port, and the prize goes to the nearest clone of yourself.
Knowing this is useful for those taking the cynical view towards entering competitions, and intending to write something aimed specifically at the judge. It shouldn’t, but it might just work. Judge C points out that Owen Marshall is judging the lucrative Sunday Star-Times competition: “If I were entering I would be inclined to set the story strongly in New Zealand and salt it with the values of the east coast of the South Island.”
On the other hand, someone’s inability to do that is no reason not to enter. “Competitions are lotteries, pure and simple. I don’t see them as a pointer to whether someone has real writing talent or not. As often as not the winner comes right out of left field, from someone who has one brilliant story in them, and you never hear from them again.”
There are exceptions. Marshall is a regular finalist in writing competitions, proof of his skill and versatility. Though, as Judge C says, “He can do that, but I don’t think there are very many more like him out there.”

This is getting close to the heart of competitions: winning the things. Someone has to. Well, actually that’s not quite true. The judge could decide there is no worthy winner, say so and let it go at that. Doing that means learning the precise meaning of the expression “in your face”, as explana­tions are sought, sometimes bluntly, from disappointed entrants. Taking the “no-winner” route is something best left for judges with the reassurance of an international airline ticket in their pocket and a taxi waiting to take them to the airport immediately after they make the announcement.
The in-your-face factor is also seen after a winner is named. Feminist fury rained down on journalism lecturer and commentator Brian Priestley’s head when he decided to give a feature-writing award to someone other than Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle, authors of the Metro article, “The Unfortunate Experiment At National Women’s”. Priestley, it appears, has not offered himself as a judge since.
There are tales of judges doing more than just nod in the right direction of political correctness. There have been harsh words over attempts to steer prizes towards women and Maoris because the judges are women or Maoris. Judges have been reminded that some big names are among the entrants and their fame should be acknowledged with placings and prizes. In recent years, publishers have been known to remind judges of the importance of their books, and how much it would mean to them to be a winner this year.
However, take heart. Despite all these attempts at manipulation, the judges I spoke to all shared one thing. They tried to be fair. This wasn’t easy, as they all discovered – and quickly. Each responded to the pressure by doing their best to weed out the bad writing and reward the good.
All agreed that short-story competitions are definitely not a place to experiment with new forms. Strong stories, with power, insight and emotion are the way to go. All that roaming the further reaches of post-modernism will get you is the deconstruction of your chances of scoring a cheque.
Oh, and don’t copy other people’s work. It’s far too easy to spot. As one judge said, “Judging was a voyage of discovery for me, in that I discovered why my work gets published and sells. It is original, not like anyone else’s, and I think people like its uniqueness. I was looking for the same thing in other people’s work and it was disappointing to find so little of it in the entries. The ones who did were the winners. It was as simple as that.”

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