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Judge not lest ye be judged

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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Natalie Kon-Yu is a lecturer at Victoria University and has been published nationally and internationally. She is a contributor and commissioning editor of both Just between Us: Australian Writers Tell the Truth about Female Friendship (2013) and Mothers and Others: Why not all Women are Mothers and not all Mothers are the Same (2015).

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Comments

  1. “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.”

    Are you referring to sex or gender here? If gender, it was more than a two way split when last I looked (so much more difficult to determine).

    • This is the problem with studying Judith Butler, I come from a ‘gender as performance’ background. So when I speak about gender I mean acting in a masculine or feminine way, regardless of biological sex. And I’m aware that using the old binary may not encompass all genders, so I’m sorry for my assumption here.

      • Fair enough. Probably better then to remain open while reading submissions and not make the judgement to begin with, though I can sort of see how unequal performative fields might be perceived through symbolic expression. Regards.

  2. Natalie, When you say that you ‘found’ yourself in the position of being a judge, it sounds like you just woke up one morning and there you were. Or as though you got lost while walking and ‘found’ yourself in another suburb.
    Given your prior reflections on judging, I’m wondering how you made the jump from judging judges to judge, and what your reasoning was for taking on the role?

    • I said ‘yes’ when asked to judge this because I believe in this prize as I believe in any prize which reaffirms good writing. And I’m still judgmental of judges and judging in general, myself included.

      • Mm. Sounds like you are trying to have it both ways without really mounting an argument for being a judge. And all lit prizes would claim they reaffirm ‘good writing’. Isn’t that the problem, that ‘good writing’ is always innocent of gender and so on. You have plenty of arguments as to the problem with judging. I’m just looking for an articulation of what ‘judging’ might look like that takes all the quandaries of judging in to account.

        • I really think the fairest way to judge in our literary culture, which is beset with issues of racism, sexism and privilege, is to judge blind. I also acknowledge that this is not always possible, however I strongly believe that as judges, we must be cognizant of these issues and try to make sure that we do not come to people’s works with assumptions based on gender, sexuality or race.

  3. It seems so obvious that, if all of the publication/lit prize industry was based on anonymous submission (at the least) and anonymous publication (at best) then the quality and relevance of published writing could only increase. Why is no one doing this? Get the ego/celebrity out of writing that – so often – seems published due largely to the author’s PR-ability, and get back to ideas and language. There’s no reason authors wouldn’t be paid for their work in such a system, and it could help counter the mediocritisation of Aust Lit which seems, to me, to derive largely from the power of networking and self-promotion? Instead of writers ‘making a name’ they can focus on making their work, and the relevance/quality of their work will be the only thing anyone else can, or should, end up judging.

  4. “Instead of writers ‘making a name’ they can focus on making their work, and the relevance/quality of their work will be the only thing anyone else can, or should, end up judging”

    Yes indeed, Helenanon. But that would require a lot of hard work, producing the best and brightest. It’s easier to make a name, and quicker. Mediocrity is in demand. People don’t want the best that can possibly be because that’s elitist, separatist. Mediocrity is easier, less threatening. It’s reassuring, comforting that you can do the same.

    • No writer of fiction today would dare write anything that isn’t marketable. Prizes facilitate sales. The branding that comes with winning a prize means media coverage, which equals sales. There’s little innovation around in Australian fiction because there’s no market for it (and most of it tends toward a political consensus. How boring is that!!). And articles like the one above — all it wants to do is talk about prizes prizes prizes. Why not ditch that and write on a work of fiction, perhaps an obscure one? And could the author of this article write anonymously.? I doubt it. I’m sure she posted a link to this on Twitter and FB.

  5. Hi Holst,
    I understand the frustration in focusing on prizes from a reader’s perspective,but prizes are actually important in how we, as a culture, think about literature, especially how we think about literary merit and great work. I do detect a note of hostility in your comment, and a huge slab or assumptions. How do you that I’m not working on a piece of obscure fiction, or that I haven’t published work anonymously? And, please, if you can find the links to this on my twitter and fb accounts, then feel free to post them here. Though let’s be honest, only certain kinds of work, and certain kinds of authors are going to be marketed these days. Would you prefer that those of us who challenge the literary status quo try harder to hide our work? Whose interests would this serve?

  6. Folly to expect *writing* to differ from the dominant mode of production and consumption. (Now there’s something to write about – how it might and should differ.) I seem to remember Brer Rabbit and Brer Bear getting along fine and dandy because one could read writing but not reading, whereas the other could read reading but not writing. Ain’t that where we’re at, still?

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