Charlotte Gray: “It is all about the chemistry between the judges — respect for each other’s opinions, conscientious reading of the books, the balance between personal tastes and quality of books under consideration. For every prize there are ALWAYS about a dozen books that could be short listed, and of the shortlist, at least 3 that might win. (This is why I like the recent development of long lists.)
“The juries that don’t work are those where there is a dominant member with his/her own agenda. Or where a book that nobody is wild about wins because the other short-listed candidates trigger strong reactions both ways. When I’m on a jury, I usually start by trying to get my fellow jurors to agree that we won’t shortlist any book that one or two of us is not prepared to see win.”
Just how are juries selected?
I’ll look first at The Writers’ Trust prizes. The varied work of the Trust has been discussed earlier so for this section I will look strictly at the prizes it administers. Much of my information has come from James Davies. James came to work at the Trust during the time I was there running Canada Book Day/Week. I remember him as bright and personable. James manages the literary awards, the Woodcock Fund, Berton House and the annual lecture series. He also works on various initiatives related to communication and fundraising.
The Trust has an Author’s Committee of 10 to 12 writers from different parts of the country, representing various ages, writing genres and styles. (There is recognition that historically the Trust has been very Toronto-centric and there are concerted efforts to correct this situation)
One of the tasks of this committee is to make recommendations for juries. Each authors’ committee member is asked to suggest 5 potential jurors for each prize that the Trust administers. This process creates a potential list of as many as 60 candidates for each prize. One specific meeting of the committee is designated to discuss these lists, shorten them to the top choices (10 to 12 per prize) and also make sure that the resulting list has a mix of gender, geographic representation, and ethnic background. The Trust wants to include A-list writers but also is mindful of diverse styles of writing and age demographics. The Trust also likes to include writers with past associations with the organization—previous prizewinners, previous committee members, past board members. Always with an eye to flexibility, the Trust will not have a juror repeat within a five-year period and prefers the time to be ten years or more.
James takes these lists and starts contacting people. If the number one person on the list says “yes” and is a white male from Ontario, James will go down the list until he comes to a female from elsewhere in the country. It’s always a juggle and sometimes people would say “yes” but cannot participate that year because of prior commitments. James gives potential jurors some time to consider the invitation and can’t really forge ahead and ask others until he knows he has commitments. Once a candidate has agreed to participate, James provides full details about the prize guidelines, deadlines, process, payment, etc.
The Trust exists to support writers so paying jurors (most of whom are themselves writers) fair compensation for work is important. The Trust pays jurors $6000 for the fiction prize, $4500 for the non-fiction, $2500 for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. Traditionally the fiction prize is the most onerous with 100 to 120 books submitted, therefore the highest pay compensation. This past year there were 150 submissions, so like other prize administrators, the Trust is looking for ways to limit entries in the fiction category.
Current submission policies are: “All Canadian-based publishers of original manuscripts may enter two books. Companies publishing more than two eligible fiction titles may add one book for every additional two eligible (or fraction thereof) on their fiction list, up to a maximum of five. For example, a publisher with a list of seven qualifying fiction books would be entitled to submit five—two for the first two, one for each of the next two, and one for the final book. Please note that the rules regarding the number of submissions differ for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize from all other prizes administered by the Writers’ Trust.”
I asked James if he has a blacklist of jurors. “Yes,” he does. Now James is the soul of discretion. He didn’t even hint at who might be on the list. And he doesn’t share his blacklist with the authors’ committee. I believe James is truly doing his best to compose the best juries possible and he isn’t about to engage in any gossip that might threaten that goal. But he did say one of his fears is that when he leaves the Trust that the new person in his position won’t have that knowledge. James works around the blacklist.
Once the jury of three is determined James sets a schedule for shipping books, and discussion. Each jury is tasked with interpreting the guidelines and picking the short list and winner. The jury is self-governed but James is available if they wish him to sit in, to answer questions, etc. If the jury doesn’t want him to attend, he does not. James arranges for four (or more if needed) teleconference calls. Sometimes jurors communicate by email between meetings. Once the short list and winner are determined, each juror must sign off.
James says there have been times when two jurors were decided but one was still reticent. The jury waited a couple of days, and had more discussion. In each instance the undecided juror agreed with the winning choice and James believes this decision was not forced.
James says the pleasant juries can be better to work with but he doesn’t see any notable difference in the final decisions whether the jurors become best buddies or whether they fight from beginning to end.
I interviewed a large number of jurors from The Writers’ Trust prizes. Bruce Meyer remembers his jury experience as “very civil.” His 2009 non-fiction jury began by discussing what merited good non-fiction. They agreed to look for good writing and to pass on books that were self-aggrandizing. Bruce says the whole experience was a good one; the Trust’s administration was extremely well organized and professional. He also liked the fact that the jury was encouraged to speak with the press about the books, after the winner was announced. In other words, no gag order.
The 2001 non-fiction jury on which Wayne Grady sat as a juror also agreed that literary merit should be the first consideration for short-listed books. His experience was similar to Bruce’s more recent experience. Brian Brett’s 2002 fiction jury was his “most pleasurable” jury experience. All members were open-minded and there were no problems. I heard more or less the same story from other jurors. This situation is very interesting to me because these same writers were more than willing to tell me about bad experiences with other juries, deep concern with the present state of the GG prizes and the impact of prizes on writers—but more on those issues later.
Someone told me that a successful prize requires an enlightened bureaucrat. At the present time it seems the Trust has that person in James Davies. The conclusion of these jurors is that the success of these juries is that they provide a structure that encourages communication and discussion, and lots of it.
But this is not the whole story. The Trust also administers a number of prizes that are not governed in this fashion.
The Bronwen Wallace prize. “Established in memory of poet Bronwen Wallace, who died at the age of 44, this award alternates each year between short fiction and poetry. As Ms. Wallace’s first book was not published until she was 35, this annual award is given to a writer below the age of 35 who has published poetry or prose in literary magazines, journals, or anthologies, but has not yet been published in book form.” Caroline Smart who was a friend of Wallace helps select the jury each year. Any time the same person or people are controlling the jury pool it can allow for juries to be skewed. And maybe sometimes that is desirable. But in the instance of the Bronwen Wallace any possibility of that seems to be minimized by extensive communication with the Trust and a blind jury—the jurors do not know the authorship of the pieces they are reading.
“The Writers’ Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize is awarded annually to a new and developing writer of distinction for a short story published in a Canadian literary publication. This award is made possible by James A. Michener’s generous donation of his Canadian royalty earnings from his novel Journey, published by McClelland & Stewart in 1988. The winner, selected by a three-member, independent judging panel, is announced at the Writers’ Trust Awards event.” Ellen Seligman and Anita Chong from M&S create a list of preferred jurors. Then with discussion with Trust staff, three jurors are selected. They meet in person with M&S advisors. Some jurors for this prize found the M&S presence intrusive.
“Established by a group of anonymous donors, the Matt Cohen Award recognizes a lifetime of distinguished work by a Canadian writer, working in either poetry or prose in either French or English. A founding member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, Mr. Cohen was a celebrated and prolific writer who died in 1999 at the age of 56. The winner of this prize is announced annually at the Writers’ Trust Awards event.” The selection committee, with discussion with Trust, is Patsy Aldana (Matt’s widow), Graeme Gibson and Wayne Grady.
“The Vicky Metcalf Award for Children’s Literature is awarded to the author of a body of work in children’s literature. The winner, selected by a three-member, independent judging panel, is announced annually at the Writers’ Trust Awards event. Vicky Metcalf created this award in 1963 to stimulate the writing of literature for Canadian children. She held a passion for storytelling and published several children’s books. The prize has been administered by the Writers’ Trust since 2002.” Funding for the prize still comes from the Metcalf Foundation. There is no submission process. The president (Kirsten Hanson) along with Susan Perren (Children’s book reviewer for the Globe) and Deirdre Baker (children’s literature professor at UofT and children’s book reviewer for the Star) recommend the jury members who often are past winners of the prizes, academics, and booksellers. The structure of this jury process indicates an awareness of the different dynamics of children’s literature. There is less rotation of jury members because the Trust and the Metcalf are pleased with the results. It is worth noting that publishers are not consulted or included at any stage in the jury process.
“Established in 2007, the Dayne Ogilvie grant is presented to an emerging Canadian gay or lesbian writer who demonstrates great promise through a body of work of exceptional quality. Writers who identify themselves as gay or lesbian are eligible and while no age restriction exists, the grant is intended for developing writers. The winner, selected by a three-member, independent judging panel, is presented with the prize annually during Pride Week in Toronto.” Now the jury is independent but the first year of the prize Don Oravec sat on the committee of two. Don is the executive director of The Writers’ Trust. Should an administrator have influence on a prize? I don’t think so. Under any circumstances. I know that Don worked very hard to get this prize started and to find sponsorship for it, but I think it was an error to have him act as a juror. It creates the impression, and in this instance the reality, that the administrating body has influence on prize outcome.
In the magazine publishing industry there are guidelines about what sponsors can and cannot (should not) do. The guidelines are there to ensure that sponsors and advertisers are not influencing editorial content. The book publishing industry is very different—regular readers will remember the article I cited some time back, about an editor who moved from magazine publishing to book publishing and was shocked to find that in the book world, increasingly, editorial decisions are made by the marketing department. Should such distinctions exist in the prize/award system?
Don seems fully committed to the Trust’s involvement in prizes, and if you are going to do something you should do it well, and to the rules presently accepted and under the instruction of your board. That is: agencies give prizes and they use these prizes as a platform for promotion, of literature and themselves and their programs if they have them. Accordingly, there’s an incentive to maximize prize exposure. And therefore you see rivalry between agencies and bids to outdo one another. It’s called mimetic rivalry. But the point is that if you accept the game, then you’re subject to its rules. By that analysis, The Writers’ Trust is acting rationally by trying to own the richest prizes in the country. In the process, however, it has moved very far from its roots.
In the “objects of the Corporation” of The Writers’ Trust the first article is:
“1. To promote interest in and the study of literature, and to advance knowledge and appreciation of Canadian writers and literary works.” Regular readers will know my bugaboo about CanLit in schools so that word “study” really interests me. Prizes don’t promote the “study” of literature and don’t create readers.
In spring 2011, Margaret Atwood was flown in from Toronto to be in Vancouver for the Writers’ Trust fundraiser “Margaret Atwood in Vancouver,” where she “will narrate a theatrical performance based on her bestselling novel, The Year of the Flood,” the Writers’ Trust said in a news release. The event was held at the swank Fairmont Hotel and was attended by the outgoing Premier Campbell and a number of BC celebrities.
At the event Atwood presented David Suzuki with the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award. “The George Woodcock Award annually honours an outstanding literary career in British Columbia. Since 1994, the City of Vancouver (Mayor of Vancouver’s office), the Vancouver Public Library, and a non-profit society (Pacific BookWorld News Society, founded in 1988) have sponsored the award.” It was announced that The Writers’ Trust has come on board as a sponsor of the prize.
In July of 2010 the Woodcock Award was presented to Ann Cameron. In October 2010 it was announced that the 2011 Woodcock would be given out early to Chuck Davis—Davis was dying of cancer. To give out the award for a third time in 7 months raised a few eyebrows. To give an award for lifetime achievement in the literary arts to Suzuki raised a few more. And I understand Suzuki’s acceptance speech at the ceremony had many eyebrows twitching, too.
Did The Writers’ Trust succeed in making inroads with the literary community at this event, which it claimed was the first event in 25 years to be held outside Toronto? Here’s one response by an attendee, at the event on a comp ticket because how many folks in the literary world can afford a $175 ticket?:
I think that BC has become accustomed to being an after-thought to the industry/prize machinery coming from Toronto. A problem with geography perhaps.
I attended the last CBA event in Vancouver in 95. From that moment it’s been nothing but collapse in terms of the relationship to the sense of a ‘national’ industry. Publishing/writing industry.
The communities have adapted, moved on, succeeded.
So, I would say that there needs to be an ongoing commitment to cultivating a sense of national connectedness for the WT. One night won’t change anything no matter how big the names are.
Again, if that’s a part of their goal or strategy. Who knows if it is?
I don’t know what they’re thinking.
Their website – and the program for the Atwood/Suzuki event – reads like a corporate brochure. Impersonal, formulaic, generic.
Who are they talking to?
But here is my favourite response to the WT Vancouver fundraiser and the celebrity/cocktail party vision of the literary community that it represents:
I have a new suggestion for the Writers’ Trust. The Rupert Murdoch Award. No one would have to write anything at all. The cost of a ghost writer could be re-channeled into a shopping trip to Holt Renfrew. Mr Murdoch could simply instruct his reporters to monitor the phone calls of worthy candidates like Conrad Black or Silvio Berlusconi (for the international award, because we always bring in a famous non-Canadian as the headliner) or Robert Mugabe, or even Hosni Mubarak, and make the decision on the basis of the literary merits of each conversation. Jack up the price per seat at the ceremony, get George W. Bush to do the fundraiser, and Attila’s your uncle.
Katherine Govier, a past chair of The Writers’ Trust; “I did not think that doing prizes big time was the way for the Trust to go. I think programs that are inventive and reach people and give writers work–for instance Writers in Electronic Residence–are a far better investment in the whole field.”
Jury: George Walden journalist and former Conservative MP. Kate Kellaway, critic and writer for The Observer. Peter Kemp, reviewer. Adam Mars-Jones, writer and critic. Ruth Rendell, everybody knows.
Barry Unsworth—Morality Play VPL
Once again I am reminded of the UK/BBC penchant for historical romances and costume pieces. Nicholas Barber is a young priest. He finds his assignment transcribing text boring, gets spring fever, runs away, has an affair, then takes up with a group of travelling players. The troupe members find themselves in an unnamed, probably late 14th century town somewhere in England, performing plays to raise some money so they can carry on their journey. Two days before they arrive, a 12-year-old boy has been murdered, a trial has happened, the boy has been buried and the murderer is in jail awaiting hanging. The troupe decides it would make more money by putting on a play about the murder. As the players take on the roles of actual people, and research those parts, things seem more complicated than originally presented.
All the usual historic themes are here—corruption at all levels of religion and politics, corruption that comes with power, the daily struggle for life, particulary against the plague, the relationship between good and evil, and the importance of storytelling and giving voice to our own stories. There’s not much complexity. Like the characters they portray, the members of the troupe are themselves stock characters. Though this novel is much pared down in approach from Sacred Hunger, often the historical detail is clumsy in its presentation, imposed. There is too much telling.
It’s a dim and minor historical mystery compared to Umberto Eco’s work. And I wonder if Unsworth is targeting a niche (though also large) audience.
Justin Cartwright—In Every Face I Meet VPL
The first chapter, from the perspective of juror Julian Capper, tells us a murder has been committed on Monday, 5 February 1990. Most of the rest of the novel is a day in the life of Anthony Northleach, specifically the day of the murder. Anthony is a highly perceptive everyman—we learn about “his marriage, his work, his sexual relationships and his connection to the events and sports of the world around him.” It’s the end of Thatcher’s England, in all its seediness, and the anxious awaiting of the release of Nelson Mandela.Representing the seediness are a 19-year-old prostitute, who is also the mother of a young boy being raised by her 30-something mother, and her black boyfriend/pimp. These two are less convincing, almost stereotypes, but they certainly work to increase the tension.
The climatic scene surprised me. The final few chapters, where we return to the courtroom, infuriated me. I wanted to jump into the novel and clobber Julian Capper. It’s a tragic-comic assessment of 1990s London disguised as a crime novel.
Tim Winton—The Riders VPL
Fred Scully and his wife, Jennifer have been travelling, mostly in Europe, for years. Just before they are to head home to Australia, on a whim, they have purchased a decrepit old Irish house. Jennifer and their daughter Billie return to Australia to sell that house and settle up and Scully stays behind to start renovations on the cottage. 90 pages into this 370 page novel when Scully arrives at the airport to meet his wife and daughter, only Billie appears. For days she is mute and never does say what has happened. The rest of the novel is Scully’s frantic chase through Europe in search of Jennifer, Billie in tow. It seems he is chasing a shadow.
This is the Australian version of The Odyssey, where the journey is more important than the outcome, and even the journey turns from a search for Jennifer to one of self-discovery. Lots of references to Quasimodo, too, since Scully is a rugged, scarred guy. The Riders of the title are ghosts who each night appear at the ruined castle near the Irish cottage. Like Scully and Billie by the time they return to Ireland, the riders are scarred, bloodied and worn down. But unlike the ghost riders, Scully and Billie move on with their lives; they start living and stop waiting.
It begins as a straight ahead tradition narrative, then becomes almost a check-list of traits of a post-modern novel; multiple narratives (Scully, Billie, the local postmaster, various women), different points-of-view, plurality of meaning, reader response, reader participation, dark themes, fractured world, open-ended texts, wide variety of and mixed genre, boundary breaking, gaps, metafiction, social criticism, and the placement of marginalised groups into texts.
The novel requires the participation of the reader. I really wanted to know what had happened to Jennifer, almost as much as does Scully. But Winton provides no easy answers. For those reasons the book is interesting but it also contains some of the most long-winded descriptive passages ever, including those by Carol Shields.
Salman Rushdie—The Moor’s Last Sigh VPL
I read the first 50 pages, honest. But couldn’t carry on, so put it aside and read the Pat Barker winner. Then, tried again.
I asked a Faithful Reader if he would do a guest review: “Absolutely not. I’d rather have my hands cut off at the wrist than have to read another novel by that self-promoting torrent of verbal diarrhea.”
Rushdie has received ample attention in these reports. This book is going back to the library.
But for those Rushdie fans I would highly recommend “Forget those damnfool realists!” Salman Rushdie’s Self-Parody as the Magic Realist’s “Last Sigh” by Laura Moss. You can access a pdf of the essay at this link:
You will need to open an account and create a password. It’s free, and well worth the effort for this close examination of Rushdieland and magic realism.
Pat Barker—The Ghost Road VPL
This is the third book in a trilogy. On the bookjacket it says the first book of the trilogy, Regeneration, was “shortlisted for Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize.” Oh yikes, I thought. I don’t remember a single thing about that book. I checked my reports—it’s not there. I checked the Booker website—it’s not there, either. But in all sorts of other material I found the same claim including the ever accurate wikipedia.
The trilogy takes the real characters of poets Owen and Sassoon and therapist Rivers and intertwines them with created characters. A WW1 novel written in flat middle-brow style. Other people who have read the whole of this wildly popular trilogy say this third novel is the weakest of the bunch. I am suggesting this novel won because of the impact and response of Regeneration just as The Jewel in the Crown is the reason Staying On won the prize for Paul Scott.
In this instance there is a ripple effect since The Ghost Road ended up as one of six books brought forward to win the 40th anniversary of the Best of the Bookers. Ridiculous.
For the record, I’m sick of the use of diary entries as a narrative technique. Even dumber in this novel since we are told the diary was burned (so how can I be reading it?)
Penelope Fitzgerald—The Blue Flower VPL
This novel is not on the Booker shortlist. It’s the novel so often mentioned as the big oversight. So in trying to correct the “mistake” of not shortlisting Regeneration this jury misses Fitzgerald’s much-acclaimed “masterpiece.”
From The Guardian—Ruth Rendell
I was always being asked what it was like to be on the Booker “jury”. But I could never see us as that. Jurors have to decide between guilt and innocence while we had to pick the best. The best of 140 in our case – or 6.3 books a week. Reading that number is normal for me, but books I want to read, not ones I have to. It makes a big difference. We got on well, we judges. We disagreed but never quite quarrelled. I used to lie and say I read every word of every book. The truth is that I did my best, but I am a judicious skipper. Going home to Suffolk, I finished a novel and left it in the train. A man called out to me that I’d forgotten it, but when I said to keep it he was delighted. I hope he liked it better than I did.
So what did I get out of being a judge? The pleasure of giving the prize to Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road, my choice, not one I was persuaded into. A mild antipathy to new novels so that now I tend to read more non-fiction. And my friendship with Peter Kemp, a fellow judge, which began in those Booker days.