Lately I’ve been writing a lot about women and literary prize culture; specifically about the scarcity of female novelists and female characters both as recipients and topics of award-winning fiction. It’s fairly easy to be critical of this, to sit in judgement of those who deem women writers and women-characters to be less-than when compared to their male counterparts. In judging literary prizes, I have to admit that what I’ve actually been doing, to some degree at least, is judging judges. The books they like, the ones they don’t, and, importantly, how they come to make their decisions. Let it be noted – I’ve been very judgemental about judges.
So it was strange, a few months ago, to find myself in the position of judging a prize. I was painfully aware of my own subjective position as both reader and writer when I said yes to the role, because I know that what I deem to be good writing is largely personal, shaped over years by my own reading habits. I was also wary that as an academic researching literary feminism, I have certain expectations of what makes a ‘good’ piece of writing, and I know these expectations are not universal. For me, by virtue of the things I have read, and those I have stayed away from (Jonathon Franzen, any book with a title written in all-capitals and embossed with gold, any book with guns, navy ships, or a magnifying glass on the cover) the things which I deem to have literary merit are not universal. Indeed, I’d argue that any claim that a book or story is universally good is problematic, and carries with it an assumption about writing that is steeped in ideologies of race, class, gender and sexuality.
So when judging the Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize, if I was presented with a dead female body in the first page of a story, I dismissed it even though I read it in full. As a feminist, I’m not interested in rewarding writing which uses dead women as plot points. And given the number of stories which featured these gorgeous corpses, I feel justified in my choice; that is, the sheer volume of stories with this plot point could be seen as unoriginal rather than misogynistic. A lucky break.
Also lucky was the fact that I was not the only judge for this award, which meant that my parameters were not the only ones used to define good writing. And, more importantly, this prize was judged blind, which meant that the judges didn’t know the names of the authors, or their gender, sexuality or race. In her essay ‘Karl Ove Knausgaard Writes like a Woman’, Siri Hustvedt cites an old study to prove that we have expectations of work based on the gender of its author: ‘In 1968, Philip Goldberg conducted a now famous study using college women as his subjects. He gave two groups of students the same essay, authored by either John T. McKay or Joan T. McKay to evaluate. John’s was rated superior in all respects.’
Think of how different our literary world would look if we read everything blind. You would never have to read a story, as many critics, academics, reviewers and judges do, and note that because it is written by a white heterosexual male, it must possess merit. A phenomenon Hustvedt refers to as the ‘masculine enhancement effect’. Readers may not, as many do, pick up a book by a person of colour, and look for the traumatic, moral story at its heart. In her brilliant essay ‘They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist’, Jenny Zhang writes that we expect trauma narratives from writers of colour, and asks, ‘Why are we so perversely interested in narratives of suffering when we read things by black and brown writers? Where are my carefree writers of color at? Seriously, where?’ In many cases these biases are unconscious, shaped by many years of being told what good writing is in a culture that actually has racist and sexist parameters for writing. I remember being an undergrad and in love with Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things only to be told by a wealthy white woman that Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance was THE book to read about India. And I recall being angry at this, but not knowing, at that time, why I was so mad.
I wonder now how different the Booker, Pulitzer or Miles Franklin shortlists would be if these awards could be judged blind. No doubt the reviews pages of magazines and papers, and high school English and Literature curricula would be unrecognisable to us. I tried to guess the gender for the three winners of the Overland VU Short Story Prize, and only got one out of three right. It’s an error which comforts me. Of course we cannot read things blind; our culture is so quick to categorise, market and define authors and their work, but this experience has reminded me how important it is to come to a piece of work free from our expectations of who should by writing and about what. It crowds out all that damaging chatter and leaves us alone with the words on the page, and the mysterious ability they have to take us out of ourselves and leave us somewhere else.