A judgement on literary judging

Late last year I was asked to sit on a judging panel for the 2014 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. The invitation outlined the proud history of the awards in ‘establishing the values and standards in Australian literature’. If that wasn’t enough to entice me, a tidy sum of money was offered for reading approximately eighty books in my award category. It also listed the time frame and the procedure by which the shortlist would be decided.

I immediately had two visions. One was of panel members sitting around a circular table covered in a linen tablecloth with fine china, drinking tea and discussing the finer points of each novel in a cordial and respectful way. This meeting would last for eight hours and the ‘shortlist’ would consist of thirty-two books. We’d spend another eight hours whittling it down to six.

The second vision was of three (male) panel members grumpily lounging in a back room of the State Library arguing that all the entries on this year’s list were nowhere near as worthy as their own books and wondering what were the chances of not awarding a prize this year. In the late afternoon, someone would point out that if we didn’t choose a winner then the Liberal government would be $30,000 richer. So we’d pick the book that contained the most swear words and had the best cover.

Did I mention my category was children’s literature?

Of course, I’m sure that neither of these scenarios is true. I’m absolutely confident that the judges spend many hours of considered and thoughtful reflection. They debate the literary merits of each book with calm assuredness and integrity before deciding on the worthy shortlist and winner. How do I know this?

Why, because my books have won the Award twice before!

The invitation to be on the other side of the Awards fence set me thinking for days afterward. What does it mean to be a judge? I shiver when I write that ‘j word’, even now. To be in a position of such power where you can award a fellow author a substantial amount of money and hopefully play a role in promoting their literary career! As soon as I imagine that, the opposite thought arrives. What’s it like to be in a position of such power, where you can dash the hopes of seventy-nine fellow authors?

By what criteria should I be placed in such a position? Just because I’ve written twenty-odd books and won a few awards? Don’t they know I have an editor and a publisher who fine-tune my rambles to such a degree that sometimes I can’t recognise my own writing? Can we have an award for editors, please? I’ll be first in line to judge that!

And how does one pick the ‘best’ book in a category? Sometimes I’ve wasted hours on the first chapter of an ‘award-winning’ novel. By the end of page twenty-six, I not only wanted to strangle the author, but give the judges who awarded this trash a gold sticker a good throttling as well.

In whose language does impenetrable equal quality?

On the other hand, on occasions I’ve been so immersed in an award-winning novel that I’ve inadvertently walked into tree branches while reading, proving that the judges were intellectual giants and that men should never try to do two things at once.

I’m sorry, I can’t be a judge.

I recognise the hypocrisy of my decision. As someone who has profited enormously from literary awards, I should give something back. But the whole concept of  ‘peer assessment’ rankles. To judge my peers and find them wanting. Or elevated. It’s not for me. I’m a coward. My ego does not stretch to being the arbiter of taste.

Sure, meet me in the pub and we’ll discuss literature. I’ll be quite happy to say ‘P’s latest book is a festering mess of camel vomit.’ I’ll also admit that I’d give my right arm to write like ‘G’. I’d only sell my left arm to the deity that can give me the ability to take a free-kick like Alessandro Del Piero. But pub banter never hurt anyone.

Don’t misunderstand me. I firmly believe in literary awards. Any promotion of literature is to be applauded. Any amount of money thrown at authors instead of mining tycoons is a good thing.

Let us now all pause and reflect that one of the first decisions of Campbell Newman on taking office in Queensland was to scrap the Premier’s Literary Awards. The literary community in the deep north bounded together and established their own awards with donations from fellow travellers. Although the prize money is now considerably reduced in the re-named Queensland Literary Awards, it’s a yearly smack in the chops for Campbell and his ilk who appear hell-bent on transforming the Smart State into the Stupid Quarry.

So, if I don’t want to judge my fellow authors, who should?

That’s easy. We’re all judged every day by our readers. P’s camel vomit book is selected from the bookstore shelf much more frequently than my latest masterpiece, hereby proving that I have little ability or the world has no taste. P’s reward? $1.99 royalty cheque. Don’t get me started!

Perhaps academics should be selected for the panel? What would be the collective noun for academics? A theory? A headache? A tweed? However, in some literary genres, the only occupation available to writers is as an academic. A million voices shout ‘poetry’.

It seems as if ‘peer assessment’ is the only option.

There is another more sinister reason why I cannot be a judge. I know quite a few fellow children’s authors. I like them all, except P. What if my favourite author, and friend, had an entry in the 2014 collection? How could I possibly read their book with any objectivity? I love their work. I want them to win, for all the times their books were beaten by lesser entries, for all the hours of pleasure they’ve given me and fellow children. But this is not a lifetime award. It’s for the book, not the author. Could I trust myself to be so incorruptible? And, horror of horrors, what if the other judges wanted to award it to P?

This is perhaps the longest conscientious objector letter ever drafted. I should have just paraphrased Groucho Marx and insisted that anyone who wants me on their panel is a panel I should avoid joining.

I wish the judges well. I’m confident they’ll deliver a list of brilliant books that deserve due recognition. I’ll be sure to buy the winners at my local bookstore. Unless it’s P, of course. If they win, I’ll sneakily transfer their book to the lower reaches of the poetry section. No-one ever goes there.

Steven Herrick

Steven Herrick is the winner of the Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature in 2000 and the Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult Literature in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2005. His latest book, Pookie Aleera is not my boyfriend, was joint-winner of the WA Premier’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature this year.

More by Steven Herrick ›

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