Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged....

Nothing like a bit of old fashioned biblical wisdom to kick off a post. Especially this one which - according to my blogger records - is my 100th post! (Actually, now I think about it, it's probably about my 110th, because before I set up shop here at blogspot, I kicked things off over at Goodreads)

Either way, it's an achievement that calls for celebration. Or at least a biblical title. Just because.

At the moment, I'm buried in the middle of judging for the ACT Book of the Year Award. This means that I've got until the middle of August to read through about 25 books and then pick a single 'Book of the Year' from among them.

Naturally, I can't say anything about the specifics here, but it's probably okay to mention that they're a diverse range of books, covering just about every possible genre, readership, subject matter and style.

Of course, as a writer, I've been on the other side of the equation many times: having your books entered for various prizes and competitions is all part of the publishing game. And in all honesty, it can be one of the more difficult aspects of the job. Of course, it's lovely when you win one; it means recognition, praise, sometimes even a cheque.

Prizes are also important in that they contribute to the cultural zeitgeist: the type of books selected for shortlisting in a significant prize like the Miles Franklin or the Booker will often reveal an awful lot about a society's concerns and preconceptions.

And then there's the value that big prizes add to various fields of creative practice: earlier this year, it was announced that the Australian Prime Minister's Literary Award would be expanded to include two new categories: Children's and Young Adult Fiction. With a tax-free prize of $100,000 per category, this is by far and away the richest and most lucrative prize for children's and YA writing in the country. For one lucky Aussie writer (and it won't, sadly, be me. At least not this year,) that prize has the potential to make an enormous difference to their writing career - aside from the prestige and profile that'll come with it, there's also the fact that - for most of us - 100 grand is an unthinkable amount of income - it'll allow the winner to actually write for a while, instead of having to eke out their living in other ways.

Aside from the benefits to the individual winner, though, there's also the broader cultural consideration: the addition of these two categories, and the placing of them on equal footing with the 'adult' literature and 'history' categories is a significant shot in the arm for all Australian writers of children's and YA fiction, because it's a very positive indication of wider acceptance of the importance of children's and YA literature in the broader literary discourse. (I actually talked about this on The Book Show on Radio National earlier on this year - link here, if you're interested) Just the fact that RN was prepared to run a 20 minute discussion on the subject is a sign of the impact that prizes of this magnitude have in terms of a field of writing's cultural capital.

But, of course, competitions need to be judged, and the process of judging requires judges, and as soon as you find yourself in that position, you quickly come to the unpleasant realisation that the process of judging other people's creativity is, ultimately, a process concerned more with exclusion than with inclusion. It's a process of bringing to bear your own personal experiences, likes, dislikes, knowledge and opinions on the creative output of other people, most of whom wil generally be very different from you. It is, in short, a horribly subjective process, no matter how much you wish it would be otherwise.

As a writer, I work very hard not to tie any self worth to my successes or failures in literary prizes - you can't afford to. It's difficult, though, and I know writer's who've been crushed at being overlooked in competitions which they felt their 'babies' should have won. And, with a different set of judges, perhaps they might have.

Because from a judge's point of view, that's the biggest challenge - reading these books and knowing from experience the hours of labour behind every last one of them, and that it's my job to help select one - just one - for the honour of being 'the winner'. Yes, it's a subjective process. It has to be. But it's an important process, too - it's a contribution to broader society, and someone needs to do it.

Ultimately, all I can do is read each book with care and an open mind, talk honestly and thoughtfully about them with the other judges, and we'll see where we end up. And whichever book does eventually get across the line, it's important to remember that the selection of a 'winner' is a judgement upon the perceived merits of that one book - not the perceived weaknesses of all the others.

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