Jean’s guide for prize administrators
Administering prizes has become another part of the industry. As James English points out, “the literary-value industry, that is, the whole set of individuals and groups and institutions involved not in producing contemporary fiction as such but in producing the reputations and status positions of contemporary works and authors, situating them on various scales of worth.”
Why is your organization administering prizes?
When the terms Giller effect, Booker effect or Canada Reads effect are used what is being referred to is sales = commerce. Ask yourself, is your organization in the business of selling books? Or establishing reputations? If the mandate of your organization is promoting literature, supporting writers or encouraging readers, then administering prizes might not be the best investment of your time and funding. Prizes only support a couple of writers. Prizes don’t create readers—prizes preach to the already converted.
What criteria are you using to select jurors?
Put lots of research and effort into jury selection. It’s the most important part of the process. Check out “Jean’s Guide to Being a Juror” and use the list of qualifications as guidelines. Strive for a balanced jury. A jury with one senior, established writer and two writers with only one book out likely won’t work. The GG increasingly has minor, little-known writers on juries and the resulting short-lists and winners’ lists show the timid results. Avoid celebrity jurors. They make the prize about something other than literary merit.
Pay jurors well. It is hard and demanding work. If you can’t pay the jurors, why are you running the prize? Some underpaid or volunteer jurors will work hard, but others won’t put much effort into the task.
Pick jurors because they have the skills to be good jurors. Do not pick jurors because they need the money or are famous.
Have a staged judging process, as outlined in the 2006 report. The ability to leave a discussion and come back to it later results in better selection—as reported by jurors.
Other than jury selection what are important details of administering prizes?
A ratio of 60% for prize money and 40% to administration is the minimum to run an efficient larger prize.
Prizes are supposed to be about creating discussion about books, right? So don’t create a prize with mail-in ballots. If you can’t trust your jurors to make wise decisions, why are these people on the jury?
Will you get enough quality entries to give the prize any authority? If a yearly prize is only going to have 6 or 8 books submitted, or less, is it worth the time and money?
Archival information is of value for future scholars and should be kept and at some point made accessible.
Have a table for book sales at the award ceremony.
Sponsors, the folks in whatever form who are putting up the money, should have no role whatsoever in selection of short-lists or winners, or jurors. Having sponsors involved in any of these elements suggests that prizes can be bought. Prizes should not be a way for people to receive tax receipts for giving money to writers they personally want to honour or help. Lifetime achievement awards should be about accomplishment, not about financial need.
But research also suggests that people who administer a prize should not be responsible for selecting the jurors. Here are the reasons:
- Administrators will be dealing with the jurors. Distance is essential. If the administrator has been involved in the selection process there is already a conflict on the part of the administrator.
- If administrators have any say or influence on jurors it gives the impression that the administrating body can influence the prize, which is undermining.
It’s an ordeal of waiting for everyone on the short-list. As the prize administering body you must work hard to include short-listed writers in valid ways. The Griffin Prize does a wonderful job in this area with a sold-out reading the night before the award, receptions and lunches.
Figure out a way to include schools and students. Perhaps have a student at each table. Or have the publisher donate copies of short-listed and winning books to schools. Prizes in themselves don’t create new readers but including schools creates the potential.
Encourage feedback and respond to it. From writers. From jurors. From the public.
Jury: Michael Portillo is a British journalist, broadcaster, and former Conservative Party politician and Cabinet Minister. Alex Clark, a literary critic for many years, writing for publications such as The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph and The Times Literary Supplement. She has been the Editor of Granta Magazine and writes for The Observer. Louise Doughty is a novelist, playwright and critic. She has worked widely as a cultural commentator and broadcaster and is a highly experienced judge of literary awards, in particular those for new and emerging writers. James Heneage founded Ottakar’s Bookshop chain and is now Chairman of The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival. Hardeep Singh Kohli is a writer, comedian, actor, presenter, director and cartographer. He is a regular presenter/contributor for BBC TV and radio shows.
Steve Toltz—A Fraction of the Whole VPL
I laboured through this novel. It took me weeks to finish it. Partly my slowness was due to travel and other distractions. But mostly I slogged along because the book is so self-indulgent.
The narrator is Jasper Dean, writing from prison, though we don’t know why he is there. Jasper is writing the story of his father, Martin Dean. The extravagance of the life of the father and son knows no bounds. Martin’s brother, Terry Dean, is a famous criminal so we learn the lengthy story of Terry’s sports career-ending injury at the age of 8 and his turn to crime. Martin and Terry have an odd relationship because Martin had been in a coma for years when Terry was born. Jasper is also seeking information about his mother Astrid, whom he never met, after finding out that the grave he has visited for years with his father doesn’t actually hold the coffin of his mother. Are you starting to get the picture?
Yes, Australians have a reputation for a quirky sense of humour, passion for flamboyant criminals, and appreciation for satire and sports. But this novel goes over the top, over and over and over:
- Martin associates with career criminals
- For a time Martin runs a strip club
- He writes a book about how to be a career criminal—the publisher credits it to Terry
- Terry becomes famous for murdering sportsmen who cheat, coaches who dope their players, and crooked bookies. (That part is really funny)
- From the book jacket: “It’s a story that takes them from the Australian bush to the cafes of bohemian Paris, from the Thai jungle to strip clubs, asylums, labyrinths…”
And so on…
The sweeping novel is about family relationships, sibling rivalry, the nature of mortality, the purpose of life, and the nature of happiness, love, responsibility and happiness. Toltz uses various mechanics to tell the story, including Martin’s journals and notebooks. And the whole thing just gets tedious.
The first section, about Terry, is the best part. And that’s what kept me reading—the hope that Toltz would return to the success of the first 100 pages or so, because he really can write a rip-roaring story. But it doesn’t happen. Instead the plot is full of philosophical and political rants:
Heroism in war is no longer an act of valour but attendance.
Sometimes the rants go on for pages, about the philosophical approach to life. Martin is a character, so the rants do fit his character but such writing doesn’t serve the novel well. And other times Toltz just seems in love with his own indulgence:
Let’s not mince words: the interior of the Sydney casino looks as if Vegas had an illegitimate child with Liberace’s underpants, and that child fell down a staircase and hit its head on the edge of a spade.
A Fraction of the Whole is Toltz’s first novel. The publisher calls it an “epic debut of the blisteringly funny and talented Steve Toltz.” And it is often that funny and outrageous. But I would argue that it is an overly ambitious novel by a writer who does not yet have the full skill to maintain the pace at such length. Prior to this novel Toltz honed his writing skills on movie scripts.
Aravind Adiga—The White Tiger WINNER
Jean’s Booker Club:
Chinese Premier Jiabao is about to make a visit to Bangalore. Entrepreneur Balram Halevai, known as The White Tiger, learns of the impending visit and decides to write a letter to the premier to tell him “the truth” of Bangalore. The letter is the novel. Everyone in the group had problems with that framing device. The intended audience of the novel seems to be Brits and Americans, not the Chinese premier. Colin Browne, our newest member, said that the writing gave the impression of a book written by committee; Adiga has a lot of points he wants to make and inserting them all through one first-person narrator, particularly this one, isn’t persuasive. Pauline, who is often heard complaining about how many first-person narrators we read for this group, did say this novel is the best so far.
Charlie pointed to the complexity of the hatred that the novel presents and thought that aspect was well done. We agreed the novel is not like the romantic versions of India we have read from other Indian-born Booker short-listed writers, all of whom are what reviewers call NRIs, non-resident Indians—Rohinton Mistry, Salmon Rushdie, etc. Adiga still lives in India. Certainly, Adiga is not trying to aestheticize poverty and squalor. He describes post-colonialism’s being replaced by international corporate screwing, as Renee puts it. India and China are the two rising superpowers. We waggle our fingers at China for its despicable record on human rights and India becomes the darling because of its British ties and so-called democracy. The novel shows the ugliness of the place and the deep corruption of all its public institutions, from government to medicine to transportation and housing. Brian Fawcett, visiting from Toronto so joining us for the evening, suggested the novel is romantic but it’s the dark side.
Balram is sometimes deceptively simplistic and naïve and other times pretty sophisticated in his views. We weren’t always convinced by either extreme. It isn’t an easy or comfortable book. The reader knows from the beginning that Balram has murdered his employer. As we learn the story of Balram’s life, our insider knowledge of the impending murder creates a vicarious pleasure and makes the reader complicit in the act. The murder scene itself seems pornographic. As Colin pointed out, Balram is an immoral moralist and the novel raises the difficult, uncomfortable and not easily answered question—if by killing someone you are doing the world a favour, then is it okay?
The novel has a limited focus. We see the extreme poverty of Balram’s life as child, then the difficulty of being a servant. His employer and family show the extremes. What is nowhere to be found is India’s middle class.
Colin had an argument with the very intent of the book. Does Adiga do anything new? Charlie suggested, probably not.
Why oh why, as we so often wonder at Booker Book Club night, did this novel make it to the short list, then actually win? It is Adiga’s first novel—do Booker juries like to discover new writers and make stars? Do they favour Indian books? As you read the rest of this year’s report you will see that from my opinion, it was not a stellar year.
Denis Bolen was unable to attend but sent his comments:
I found this book almost shockingly easy to read (perhaps it was one of the tomes that started the whole ‘Readability’ debate re the Booker) which was a surprise because I find most Indian writers entirely too stuffy. The conversational/diarist style serves the interior narrative well, despite the lapse in credibility due to framing the whole thing as a supposed letter to the Chinese Premier. Somehow Adiga gets away with it, perhaps because the action is quick starting and continuous.
I also found the amoral tone of the character refreshing. There seems no tolerance for the ridiculous ins and outs of Indian sub-continental religious-cultural nonsense; it is treated instead as simply a convenient entrée to methods of taking advantage of others. Perfectly diabolical. In fact, when/where has there been a darker, nastier and more cynical anti-hero than Adiga’s Ashok Sharma? Dickens used to enjoy creating such blackguards—and let them make mayhem in many different ways, including murder—but they never got away with it in the long term, not like our Ashok.
I have not read the other short-listed books; this one I thought overall deserved attention, but perhaps the Booker people might have been swayed by ethnicity and the remarkable fact of its being a first novel. I give it a seven on the deserving list.
Rex off on Cortes Island also sent his comments, which I read to the group:
I liked this book for a while. I admired the exposé of mass delusion, pretension, and cultural deceit. It was a refreshing “wait a minute” counterpoint to the capitalist rise of the third world.
Early on, I enjoyed some of the vivid detail, but eventually the writing style got a little tedious. It reminded me of annoying movie scripts that remind us every 2 minutes that the bad guys are really bad or that the workaholic husband is ignoring his family. As George S. used to say: Completely without irony.
As a result, the characters in this book become sort of stand-in sock-puppets for the author’s social commentary. Rich snobs are snooty, condescending, and corrupted by money. Okay, I get it. But what about the characters as actual people? I didn’t ever sense these characters were real people. Except sometimes Balram appeared complex and ironic. Eventually, however, even Balram grew predictable, always coming off as the low-class bumpkin preoccupied by the glitter of the new wealth.
The low-class poor did not seem real. They seemed trite. Simple, rural people can be intelligent, complex, nuanced, etc. These people didn’t seem to have much depth or native intelligence. And Balram’s descriptions of village life did not feel authentic, especially when he returned to the place he supposedly grew up in. His descriptions seemed like a school essay, not a memory of a returning hometown citizen.
The letters-to-a-Chinese-leader technique didn’t really work. I kept thinking: This isn’t a letter, it’s a novelist trying to make his story sound like a letter. Interesting idea, but the voice kept shifting from character to author.
Adiga exposes a cultural myth about progress in poor nations, so I give him credit for that. And he is right about the way meanness and bullyism arise during such economic transitions. So points for that. First novel. Okay. Not bad.
Rex’s score: 5.8
I forget at what point in my reading of Rex’s email that Judith cracked us up by saying, “I liked this review for a while.” As our voting will reveal, we were not in agreement about this novel
Deb 7, Colin 4, Judith 5.5, Brian 5.63, Pauline 6.63, Charlie 7, GB 6.5, Jean 5.
The book is an easy read but was not a popular winner with the media:
It is a first novel.
Philip Hensher—The Northern Clemency
Here is another novel that seems to me to be self-indulgent and overly long.
Hensher uses the clumsy and so-obvious device of a house party to introduce the various characters of the neighborhood that is the primary focus of the novel, and very specifically two families—the Glovers and the Sellers. Katherine Glover has decided to have a house party—for reasons we will be told later—and the whole neighborhood is invited. Katherine’s husband Malcolm pours drinks. Daniel, the handsome and personable 16-year old son entertains and eyes the ladies. Jane, 14, puts up with the event. Tim, 9, hides behind the sofa and reads. Katherine hoped the new neighbors would be able to attend, but the Sellers have not yet moved in across the street. Each character is introduced by the clothes they are wearing, the number of the house on the street, job, etc. It’s like bad summer stock theatre.
The Sellers—mother Alice, husband Bernie, daughter Sandra and son Francis—have been living in London, where Bernie works for the electric company. They move to Sheffield because Bernie has been offered a job promotion.
The novel is pre-Thatcher. We are just at the beginning of the labour problems that were to wrack Britain in the 70s. Hensher uses these two families to illustrate the growing isolation of 1970s British culture and community. So, the things you’d expect—changing economies, family relationships, the effects of politics on the individual, and how values change and alter with age. Tim becomes an unemployed radical protestor which provides lots of friction with Bernie and the establishment’s position.
The story, and the stories of each character, are unwound in an interesting patchwork, though not always convincing. There are many plot twists that I found melodramatic, and very Freudian. The young friend of Tim, Andrew, is bullied at school, is attacked, and breaks both his legs. In hospital it is discovered that Andrew has a rare disease (why his legs broke so easily) and will die. Tim visits every day, asking, How does it feel to be dying? Andrew’s mother suffers from depression and is unable to leave the house. All the teachers are horrible and harass their students verbally.
Tim saves up to buy himself a snake, a topic with which he is obsessed. The day that the Sellers move in, Mrs. Sellers sees Tim at the upstairs window holding the snake and reveals this secret to Tim’s mother, unwittingly. Tim’s mother Katherine has a fit, marches out of the house holding the snake about her head and stomps it to death in front of the 9-year old Tim. But it wasn’t this episode that put Tim on the strange path of his life, involving a lifetime obsession with the older girl across the street, Sandra. And it wasn’t Sandra’s bizarre behaviour of opening her shirt, undoing her bra and forcing the head of the 9-year-old Tim between her breasts that sent Tim off the rails. It seems he was marked at birth, as noted by his mother:
She could remember the shock of coming in, one day, and peering over the by then very shabby and well-known bars and seeing, instead of what she had expected, the calm expectation or funny screwed-up understandable rage that Daniel and Jane had displayed, the unnerving face of Tim as a baby, like no baby she had ever seen, lying there on his back observing and calculating with what looked unmistakably like adult resentment.
Tim has a face that even his mother can’t love. It’s no surprise near the end of the novel, when Tim finally confronts Sandra and is rejected, that he walks off into the ocean, and commits suicide.
Sandra is not unfamiliar with sudden death. Her Australian roommate has hanged himself by mistake while masturbating.
The novel is sweeping in its scope and my review is nitpicking. But I do wonder, How did such a heavy-handed novel make the short list? Hensher has a habit of bringing slight characters into an already crowded situation, unnecessarily. Often the plot is clumsy—you can see the puppeteer pulling the strings. Alice has a brain hemorrhage and goes into coma allowing her husband and son to sit by her side and tell the unhearing Alice about their feelings (and showing the reader that Hensher doesn’t know much about brain injury, coma, or recovery). Katherine’s previous employer is charged and Alice is forced to testify. To bring some relief, Katherine’s husband brings out their photo albums to sort, allowing the married couple to retell the stories of their lives and their growing children. Ho hum.
It is obvious that Hensher is mapping the changing landscape of London neighborhoods and the communities of England. But you’d need a lot more context than the novel provides to know whether he has done a good job at this task.
Hensher, you may remember, was a judge the year Hotel World was short-listed, when the jury made a point of saying they were picking novels that would connect with the reading public (versus looking strictly for the highest literary quality). That jury also focused on new faces, turning its back on what some call the established elite or literary old guard. Hensher has received lots of media attention in Britain as a hot, young writer.
Sebastian Barry—The Secret Scripture
Category: The long-suffering and dysfunctional Irish
The framing device of the novel is two written pieces by the two main characters. Roseanne, locked away for decades in a mental institute, is now 100 and decides to put down her story. She steals some paper, writes daily, and hides the papers under the floorboard.
Dr. Grene works at the mental hospital where Roseanne lives; the institution has been slated for closing. It is his job to assess all the patients and determine where they should be relocated. He writes his thoughts in a commonplace book. So the novel is the splicing of Roseanne’s autobiography and the doctor’s commonplace entries.
Although the two stories are often referring to the same incident the “facts” are often conflicting. Dr. Grene finds out that Roseanne’s father was once a police officer. Roseanne’s account refutes this assertion, and when questioned by Dr. Grene, she denies the information.
As usual with Irish novels, themes include the ripple effect of Irish politics for decades and generations, the oppression of religion, and the social issues of Irish society.
Father Gaunt is an evil creation. The young Roseanne is wildly beautiful. Father Gaunt sees her as a threat to all the males in the community.
Roseanne, you are a lovely young girl, and as such I am afraid, going about the town, a mournful temptation, not only to the boys of Sligo but also, the men, and as such and in every way conceivable, to have you married would be a boon and a rightness very complete and attractive in its—rightness.”
He tries to marry her off to a 50-year-old bachelor and at the same time insists that she must convert to Catholicism. Roseanne refuses and marries her beloved Tom, but still won’t convert. There are many intricacies to the plot but the Father succeeds in having the marriage to Tom annulled, Roseanne scorned, declared a nymphomaniac and committed to an institute.
Spoiler alert: don’t read the rest if you have any thoughts of reading the novel. Unless, of course, you subscribe to the belief that knowing what is coming enhances your experience of reading.
Barry has written previously about some of the characters in this novel, specifically Eneas McNulty. Eneas is a brother of Tom McNulty, Roseanne’s husband. Again through a complicated series of events, some years after the annulment of her marriage Roseanne takes compassion on Eneas and they share a bed. Roseanne gets pregnant, is outcast by the McNulty matriarch (another nasty bit of business) and ends up giving birth to a son in the middle of a terrible storm (yup, over the top in the melodrama department). But if that weren’t enough, the baby is snatched from the exhausted and finally sleeping Roseanne’s breast and spirited away to an orphanage, then adopted. Father Gaunt says Roseanne murdered the child. Dr. Grene, decades later, discovers that he is that son. So aged patient Roseanne is actually his birth mother.
Apart from the hijinks of the plot, the framing device falters. Often Roseanne’s sections topple into high lyricism. Maybe, the reader wonders, everyone born in Ireland has the gift of lyricism. Okay, I’ll let that go. But Roseanne is a rural girl and she writes with accomplishment and delivers her story in a well-organized and suspenseful fashion.
Some sections of the Dr’s journal are also hard to swallow. Why would he write a lecture about the politics from decades earlier?
It’s readable, as the jury claims. Barry says the novel was inspired by a story told to him by his mother. “We were driving through Sligo and my mother pointed out a hut and told me that was where my great uncle’s first wife had lived before being put into a lunatic asylum by the family. She knew nothing more, except that she was beautiful. I once heard my grandfather say that she was no good. That’s what survives and the rumours of her beauty. She was nameless, fateless, unknown. I felt I was almost duty-bound as a novelist to reclaim her and, indeed, remake her.”
The novel won the 2008 Cost Awards despite one juror’s publicly saying the jury agreed that the novel was flawed, and no one liked the ending.
Amitav Ghosh—Sea of Poppies
Category: Bollywood comes to the written page.
I try to avoid reviews until after I have finished a novel. But sometimes if I am struggling I do search them out—what are other reviewers and critics finding that I am missing? Sometimes those reviews spur me on to finish the novel, and to find deeper levels of meaning.
Sea of Poppies drove me nuts from the get-go. It’s an extremely well researched imaginative interpretation of people’s lives during the Opium Wars. Not the bigwigs, but the little guys. On-line readers report that this novel is the first of a trilogy and that Sea of Poppies just ends abruptly. In other words, a longer work that has been cut up rather than a complete novel in itself. I wouldn’t know because I became so irritated and bogged down by the bedlam of language (and, yes, I know that is the very point Ghosh is making) that I made it to page 100, read the review from New York Times and returned the book to the library.
The scholarly work and the 40 pages of annotated dictionary at the back make me wonder if Ghosh might have tried for a popular history of the time. But, many disagree with me, as did the 2008 Booker jury.
Linda Grant—The Clothes on Their Backs ebook
Vivien Kovaks is the only daughter of Hungarian Jewish Immigrants. Some months after the death of her second husband, she visits a woman who had an important role in an earlier episode of her life, allowing Vivien to tell the reader the story of her childhood and early 20s.
Vivien’s parents never say much about their lives before escaping to London in the early days of the Nazis. Her father has worked his whole life as a gem setter but otherwise the Kovaks keep to themselves and as a result Vivien had a sheltered upbringing. One day a flamboyant man arrives, announcing that he is Vivien’s Uncle Sandor. Vivien’s father refuses him entry to the house, says he is scandalous and refuses to speak about Sandor.
Years after this event, when Vivien’s first husband chokes to death during their honeymoon, Vivien searches out Sandor, curious about the past of her parents and her own lineage.
The novel is another version of the holocaust survivor novel. Grant can write well, but her plot devices often seen awkward. Vivien’s courtship and first marriage aren’t convincing, simply there to create a reason for her curiousity about Sandor during a time when she is depressed and has time on her hands. Equally unconvincing is the affair she has during this time with a 19-year-old punker. Not enough is done with clothes motif, how they shape us, and we shape them, and how they hide things, or reveal them and connect to our needs and cravings. Parts of the story are rushed, barely more than sketches—like the brief description of Vivien’s second marriage.
The best part of the novel is the relationship that develops between Vivien and Sandor. She wants to believe, as the papers have dubbed the slum landlord Sandor, that he is the “face of evil” but his story is more complicated. Like Falstaff, he is a survivor with a huge zest for life. It isn’t easy to hate him or dismiss him.
Linda Grant won the Orange Prize in 2000 for her second novel, When I Lived in Modern Times. This novel was her fourth, and she has also written successful non-fiction books as well as a noted career as a journalist with The Guardian.
I wouldn’t give the 2008 prize to any of he books on this short list. If this short list is the best, British publishing is in the doldrums.
At the announcement of the short list the Chair, Michael Portillo said, “We particularly think that this is a great year for readability. These books are great page turners.”This comment makes me wonder whether he read Sea of Poppies. The language makes the reading of that novel real work.
He said three or four of the books were very funny, adding: “Book sellers should be pretty pleased with this list.”
That’s commerce, folks, not literary merit.
An interesting excerpt from Alan Bennett’s 2008 journal, from London Review of Books, 1 January 2009:
“4 September. A good deal in the Guardian about the Booker Prize and the experiences of those who have been its judges. I was once asked and had no hesitation in turning it down, the prospect of reading ten novels let alone a hundred was quite enough to put me off. Later I read somewhere that Martyn Goff had said that no one had ever turned down the chance of being a judge, which confirms what several of the judges say – namely, that he’s a tricky customer. Happy to see Rebecca West stigmatized as a bully as I’ve never understood why she was and is made such a fuss of – a sacred cow, I suppose. Roy Fuller gets some stick, too, which chimes with my remembrance of him when he was briefly a television critic. The whole thing reinforces what I always feel – that literature is a much nastier profession than the theatre.”