Saturday, September 15, 2007

Depends What You're Judging

Any author would be a fool not to be glad of the exposure gained by winning a prize, but that should not prevent us from noting certain invidious aspects of the whole prize game. Notwithstanding the buzz of critical comment (especially on the web) each time the result of the Booker or any other literary competition is announced, there is an ingrained public acceptance, I think, that the winner has been judged The Best - with the danger of a consequent diminishing in the public perception of those works over which it has won.

Great then that Giles Foden, one of this year's Booker judges, has this to say about the judging process, now at shortlist stage:
Filters affect outcomes. If one looked only at literary style, Anne Enright or Ian McEwan would win. If one considered books as nothing but psychological mechanisms, Mohsin Hamid would be the victor: The Reluctant Fundamentalist does subtle things to manipulate its readers. For implicit polemic and strong portrayal of character, however, Indra Sinha would be the choice. If it's strangeness and beauty you're after, look no further than Nicola Barker's Darkmans. Then there is Lloyd Jones, the supposed new favourite and (according to some reports) an "unknown writer", whose Mister Pip would win if the sole criterion was the emotional impact of the story.
Judges in other years have revealed the way that some of these criteria can outweigh others, and other factors that come into play, such as compromise choices. One time that I was on the judging panel for a competition for an unpublished novel, the eventual winner hadn't even featured on most of the judges' personal shortlists.

Articles like Foden's contribute towards transparency, but I sometimes think it would be good if judging panels went the whole hog and officially owned up to their 'filters'. Though thinking back to that particular first-novel competition, you can see why they don't...
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