By Jean Baird | May 2, 2010


I’ve been at this project now for months, reading the shortlisted and winning books. In order to meet the demands of a prize that requires reading 100 or more books, considering the time allotted, jurors must be reading 5 or more books a week. I’m not convinced that is possible—or desirable. How do judges figure it out?

In the interview from the 1974 report Christian Bok gives a detailed account of his involvement with the CC poetry jury. Is that same approach doable when a novel list includes books of 300 to 600 pages? I don’t think so.

But before I head off in that direction, let’s look at some comments I received about Bok’s interview, from George Stanley. “I liked Eunoia – but it’s hard to understand Bok’s critical (I guess) language.  E.g., George or Fred or Erin’s books “are far more lyrical than they are radical” – are these opposites?  “They represent a more readerly practice…”  Is there something else to do with poetry than read it? The work by Darren Wershler-Henry as described–it seems quite reasonable that the CC would have to decide whether it qualified as “poetry” or not–who says it is? Bok calls it a “conceptually sophisticated artifact,” which no doubt it is, but is surely pushing the envelope when he refers to “the collective brilliance of people writing on the Internet–the inadvertent poetry.” Why not just call it art? Did Duchamp call his Fountain (urinal) sculpture?”

These comments reinforce for me the need for jurors to discuss books.

Charlotte Gray; My own view of awards is that they are useful, and the books that are shortlisted are ALL good. Who gets to take the big prize is a crapshoot – the conclusion of a long (and sometimes fiery) negotiation. And the shortlist itself reflects not just good books, but also the judges’ tastes. When Vincent Lam won the Giller, with his very first book of short stories, it was a political decision on the part of the judges (one in particular, who wanted new voices recognized.)

Over the years others have told me it was the ex-GG throwing her weight around that created that Giller shortlist and winner, but who knows if that has any basis in reality or is just part of the wild conspiracy theories that surround prizes. Another theory is Atwood manipulated the prize that year—a nifty feat since she wasn’t on the jury. But how can one juror or one jury decide to change the perimeters of the prize?

Charlotte mentions the importance of discussion and negotiation and again I wonder about those prizes when that is discouraged or doesn’t happen at all. A frequent judge for the BC Book Prizes reports, “I’m trying to be as objective as I can in my judging. I read a few chapters of every book and assign them to one of three categories: No/Maybe/Yes. The nos are definitely out usually on the basis of poor writing skills. The maybes are readable but usually lack some quality that would make one want to read the book all the way through. The yeses are well written, readable and engaging. Apparently we are permitted to consult eventually with the other two judges in our category but in two previous stints as a judge in the Roderick Haig-Brown category I haven’t bothered with any consultation and have just chosen the books that I thought were the best written and most interesting on my own.

Charlotte, again, “But it’s like democracy – infuriating, until you consider the alternatives. There is no way of making the process “better.”  It all depends on the quality of the books and the independence and good judgment of the judges. And all the organizing institutions (GGs, Writers Trust etc.) do their darndest to get the best judges. The GGs is a problem because the volume of books that the judges must consider (over 200 for non-fiction) deters established writers with projects underway from volunteering.”

I think one way to make prizes better is to encourage discussion. How else do you know if the other jurors have even read the books, or cracked the spines. That happens. Another way is to make the process more transparent. If you can maneuver the GG site you can find lists of all the books submitted for prizes for any given year. That does not happen for the Giller—the Giller doesn’t post such lists because publishers don’t want writers to know which books have been submitted (remember a publisher can only submit 3 books to the Giller).

Merilyn Simonds suggests that the Trillium prize is also a problem for readers since it is open to books in any genre: fiction, non-fiction, drama, children’s books and poetry—often 300 books are submitted. Her system—go through and eliminate non-qualifying books (I would think that weeding out non-qualifying books should be the job of the prize administration but jurors say it is common for such books to show up). She reads the information on the dustjacket, some from the beginning, middle and end of the book. Then she sorts into yes/no/maybe piles based on the quality of the writing. Next she starts reading the yes pile. If she isn’t engaged by page 100, out it goes. Merilyn errs on the side of generosity. She makes a list of books she thinks are worth discussion, in order of preference. All this happens before discussion with other jurors. She says that only once did the first book on her list win the prize, though she always fights hard for her first pick.

Frank Davey, from an unpublished essay in response to a kafuffle on the Canpoetics list:

Should there even be awards? – awards recurrently tainted by suspicions of corruption, incompetence, and literary nepotism. It’s quite possible that the cumulative results since 1936 [of the GG] would have been equally credible if juries had been confined to drawing up shortlists and the awards had been made drawing the winner’s name from a hat. ‘Nothing to do with lasting influence or impact on national poetic consciousness’ wrote Robert Kasher in the first hours of the Canpoetics discussion – presuming, perhaps rashly, that there is a “national poetic consciousness” beyond a grubbing for awards. The awards have always been a lottery anyway, governed by the chance of who else publishes that year and who the council happens to pick as jurors. Probably no other poetry book could have won in 1986 once Purdy’s collected had been printed. Miki’s book would have had difficulty winning had his book been judged by the 2003 jury of Marilyn Dumont, Gary Geddes and Phil Hall, and Tim Lilburn’s book, the 2003 winner, would have been unlikely to win under the 2002 panel. At dog shows – a venue in which I have had exponentially more success than in poetry competitions — one at least has the opportunity to select which panel of judges one wishes to compete under. With the GG it’s impossible to hold a book back until a propitious panel appears.”

Tom Chatfield in Prospect:

“It is a central paradox of writing that true greatness only becomes apparent over time, and yet that the judgements of the future are substantially dependent on what the present chooses to publish, publicise and preserve. Viewed from the pinnacles of hindsight, literary history looks like a stately procession of great texts. A snapshot taken at any particular moment, however, reveals a far messier business; one clogged with readers, writers, commercial obligations, prejudices and misconceptions. Everything we might call the canon of literature—those enduring works that collectively form a standard we judge others by—is busily being forged or maintained within that snapshot. And somewhere close to the heart of this business lies one of the most ancient and contentious of all artistic institutions: the literary prize. Prizes are an attempt to mould, and to preempt, posterity. Their answers rarely satisfy; they seem, sometimes, to possess an astonishing capacity for ignoring talent. Yet they occupy an increasingly crucial, and volatile, position amid those imperfect processes by which writing is turned into literature….”

Chatfield also looks at the impact on sales:

“By the 1990s, winners could regularly expect to shift over 500,000 copies. Within hours, this year’s victor, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, was topping online British fiction charts. Before being shortlisted, it had sold fewer than 1,000 copies. During its time on the shortlist, it sold around 2,600. Now, post-victory, there are predictions of global sales of over a million.”

I find this particularly interesting since administrators of prizes will insist that being on the short-list impact sales. Perhaps, but clearly it’s winning that usually counts.

Chatfield continues: “While big-selling popular fiction can afford to take its awards with a pinch of salt, prizes such as the Booker are increasingly vital to the field that likes to think of itself as quality literature. Along with the book clubs—among which Richard and Judy are in Britain what Oprah is to America—their influence on booksellers can determine entire publishing house budgets. Which leads to a question that’s weighing increasingly heavily on the shoulders of critics and prize-judges alike: in an overcrowded field, over-reliant on its relatively few hits and sporadic PR injections, might ambitious literature lose the big audience, as poetry and classical music have done?

“If a panel is too exquisitely tailored to match media and public expectations, the context of lasting literary value begins to look rather distant. At what point does a jury become a focus-group, or jury selection begin to look like a popularity contest? And just how significant is any award when there are so many of them that most literary CVs boast at least one gong? It’s an unwritten part of the contemporary media deal that, in exchange for PR and banter and sales, everyone is expected to be either a good sport or a calculated curmudgeon.


“Simply decrying the populism and commercialism of modern times, however, won’t make these problems go away. And it’s also to miss perhaps the most important point of all: that literature is, among other things, a confidence game; and its health depends a lot on what one is and isn’t able to say and do in its service. Unlike a sporting contest, the notion of a literary winner is itself a kind of fiction: an act of propaganda and persuasion. If the current landscape of literary prizes is approaching deadlock, then, its problem is not so much over-extension as the sheer narrowness of the ground that’s being battled over—ground where the delicate balance between populism and underlying standards is increasingly warped by the need for easy headlines and safe sales. Even before it arrives, every controversy has a hollow ring to it. The sniping, the joke awards, the populist panels: these aren’t half as amusing or interesting as the media pretend. At a lean time for everyone in the print industry, it doesn’t do to bite one of the few hands that’s left feeding you. But the increasingly interchangeable (and arbitrary) feel of each literary event in the calendar cannot serve the long-term interests of a trade that ultimately relies on fresh talent, readers and ideas for its survival.

“It’s a troubling, self-destructive trend—and one that may yet see shopping for serious literature driven entirely online. Yet there is, too, a pale glow of illusion surrounding the wilder claims made for prize sales figures. Winners can and do sell big, but no victory guarantees vast sales, and the tail-enders of shortlists often fare poorly. Most importantly—and despite the wishful claims of some publishers—there is still no substitute for word of mouth. In 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid lost out to Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss in the Booker, but considerably outsold it, becoming one of the best-performing literary novels of the year (it was also, in my opinion, a far more ambitious and exciting book). Prizes grant opportunities, but their pronouncements remain at the mercy of the reading public. And the bottom line is that this public are ill-served by much of the current marketplace of overlapping awards and those “prize-winning” books manufactured to claim them—sensitive, trendy tracts of needlessly effortful prose whose elegant openings so impress some juries.”

On to the 1975 Booker nominees:

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; Heat and Dust John Murray, Thomas Keneally Gossip from the Forest Collins

Yes, folks, that’s correct. This gutsy, or uppity (?) jury created a short-list of two books.

Jury: Peter Ackyrod, Susan Hill, Roy Fuller, Angus Wilson

Notes about these people appear in Susan Hill’s comments from The Guardian, below.

Thomas Keneally—Gossip from the Forest VPL

The dustjacket: “Compiegne, November 1918. A railway carriage waits in a siding in the dank forest.” The train is waiting for the odd group who have been designated to force the armistice to end WWI. It is often said that that armistice set the stage for WWII. The German representatives seem so unlikely, the appointments designed for politics rather than success at the task at hand (and interesting to be reading about these appointments while Stephen Harper appoints 18 new senators).

The structure of the book takes the reader right into that carriage, and into the minds of these characters, all with their prejudices and terrors. But ultimately the novel raises more questions than it answers. Keneally gives no credits or sources and you can’t tell what is fact and what are the fictions he has created to further his own narrative (and given the intimacy of some of the information it’s hard to believe it isn’t fiction). Either it is presumed that the reader will have a great amount of background information or that that information isn’t relevant to the narrative.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala—Heat and Dust VPL WINNER

A young nameless woman, the narrator, is curious about the first wife of her grandfather, Olivia, and she trudges off to India to try and finds answers. Fifty years before Olivia has scandalized the British community by having an affair with the Nawab, aborting his child, then abandoning her husband to live with the Nawab. Jhabvala intertwines the two stories. This book has the same condescending attitude toward “natives” that has happened in other books on these lists. The writing if fine, if not really stimulating. The main problem, given the structure of the novel and its emphasis on generational things, is that we never find out why the nameless narrator has any interest in this wicked almost-grandmother. It seems merely a device. As does the narrator’s pregnancy at the end, from a brief affair with a “native” creating the promise of an Anglo-Indian baby. It’s contrived, and unconvincing.

It must have been a bad year for publishing if these are the only books the judges could muster up.

1975 Susan Hill—The Guardian

“Peter Ackroyd was the young, newly appointed literary editor of the Spectator. Roy Fuller was a distinguished older poet. Angus Wilson was in his years as founder of the creative writing course at UEA and one of the elder statesmen of the contemporary novel. It was a daunting experience to join them as a judge. I took the mountain of submitted novels on my honeymoon, and our first meeting was scheduled for the day I returned. I discovered that Angus had spent a holiday at the same Italian hotel a few weeks earlier. So we should all have been in mellow mood, and three of us were. But Roy Fuller was not the easiest man to work with. He was acerbic and disliked being contradicted, and when it came to choosing a shortlist he refused to join in, on the grounds that we had agreed on our winner, so a shortlist was superfluous. The Booker management committee was, rightly, having none of this and insisted.

“I had been shortlisted myself three years earlier, and it had given my career a huge boost. I fought hard. We all did. Fuller grudgingly agreed to allowing a shortlist of two – the winner and one runner-up. Otherwise, he was going to walk. It was tricky and it spoiled what should have been an enjoyable experience. I was very happy with our winner, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust, but I wish we had stood up to Fuller and if he had walked out, so be it.

“My personal Best of Bookers is JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur. The omission of Penelope Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Blue Flower even from the shortlist in 1995 I find quite inexplicable.”

I’ve heard that comment from many Canadian writers, I wish we had stood up to …

But seriously, folks, she took the books on her honeymoon? How dismissive is that—both of the novels and the new husband.


  • Jean Baird

    Jean Baird is the co-editor, with George Bowering, of The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (Random House, 2009), and the author of The Booker Project.

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