secret panel

An Established Writer once confided that a certain writing award (NOT the National Book Award mentioned below) was decided by secret counsel. As in, the same people win over and over again, a delicious inner circle of writing. Was he being snide? Was this a fit of jealousy? I stared at him. “I’m serious,” the Established Writer insisted. He looked totally sincere.

Hrm. Maybe. I considered the idea of The Man in writing awards. I was surprised, but not all the way surprised: I have a deeply cynical side that takes this kind of possibility in stride. Makes sense. Everything in the world, in the end, has an influential inner circle, which is why I find that joke in the movie “Meet the Parents” so hilarious. It speaks the truth.

I do want to know who The Man the inner circle might be.

Then a timely Los Angeles Times insider-perspective article on how the National Book Award is decided came out. Written by Marianne Wiggins, one of the panel of judges for this year’s National Book Award, it provides some juicy insights into being The Man that “secret panel.” (btw, the award I mentioned above is NOT the National Book Award).

The article shows the judge’s vulnerabilities and her personal screening process:

This year, I was a judge. What that means is that between the beginning of May and the middle of August, I (and my four fellow judges) read 258 books. Each. The same 258 novels. To put that in perspective, it’s pertinent to note that outside of a Bible and a phone book, many households in the United States probably own (and read) zero works of serious fiction.

Nonfiction outnumbers fiction in new titles published each year by 4 to 1, so the nonfiction judges read twice what we did — 500 submissions. One judge remarked that she came home one day to find her children had constructed a fort out of them. In my case, I constructed an elaborate system of piles: read, unread, couldn’t get past Page 10, crap, bloated, vomitous, kill-me-now and praise God.

Then comes the bartering between the judges on the panel:

Through conference calls and e-mail, the five of us started to get a sense of one another’s tastes and personalities, and we discovered that we had more in common than not. Peter Behrens’ “The Law of Dreams” was an early favorite, as was “The Echo Maker” by Richard Powers (my hair-on-fire favorite and the eventual winner) and “White Guys” by Anthony Giardina. All of us were in favor of Roth’s “Everyman,” though we agreed it was not his strongest book (except for No. 4, who called it equal to Tolstoy). Judge No. 2 kept pressing for “The Zero” by Jess Walter. Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” made me cry but left everyone else unmoved. Judge No. 4, an admitted friend of Roth’s, had another favorite — “Only Revolutions” by Mark Danielewski, which none of the rest of us could fathom but he would not give up on. We began to know that in every conference call No. 4 would speak at length and very movingly in support of the book, and I finally said, “If Danielewski had written the novel you’re describing, he’d deserve a Nobel, but I can’t find a wormhole into that experience on the page.”

Nevertheless, he was persistent — a strategy that, in the end, paid off.

Roth gets kicked off the short list. Ultimately, the last few moves to determine the finalists for the Book Award are an interesting series of subjective moves, made under the guise of equal representation. In short, an entirely subjective choice–but are you surprised? It’s art, how do you make an entirely objective choice in this matter?

On the other hand–I find you can never really quantify effort and quality and such. I just spent the last two months conducting employee reviews–and what I’ve learned is that there is really no perfect evaluation process. Like Roth, there’s always one employee who just kicks ass, but doesn’t perform to his individual capacity this particular evaluation period. Do you reward him? Or let others have a chance? Like Pynchon, there’s always one employee who is late to turn in the form, but you allow him consideration because he’s fucking Pynchon. Then there are the up and comers, who would benefit most from recognition. So you try to recognize them, perhaps at the expensive of Roth (but is that all the way fair?).

I think the blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors, Critical Mass, where I got wind of this article in the first place, sums it well:

It seems a shame that Roth was ushered aside simply not to be insulted, but this raises a question that I think will be on a lot of prize-makers minds in years to come. As writers live and presumably work longer — though the likelihood of them writing at Roth’s level is unlikely — the question of how younger novelists will unseat the senators, as Ian McEwan has called America’s establishment voices, will grow.

Do judging committees try to read blindly for the best book? Is it even possible to do this? Do prizes exist to give new voices a chance? There aren’t really any clear answers to these questions. What to one person seems fair will seem outlandish to another. So for all the griping about how there are too many prizes, it’s good there’s a handful. That way, all the writers — be they senators or junior pages — get their chance at recognition.

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1 Comment

Filed under The World, Writing

One response to “secret panel

  1. It IS entirely subjective. How could judging writing be otherwise? I guess the only way to pick a prize like that is to say, which book knocked peoples’ socks off most consistently, more than other books.

    I really feel that now that I am an editor and on the receiving end of stuff. It IS subjective. Sometimes it’s just bad writing and that is, of course the easiest to say no to; when someone can’t even put together a grammatically correct sentence. But what if you know it’s good writing and you just don’t LIKE it? That is a lot harder to even explain.

    There are plenty of Pulitzer and NBA winners whose writing I don’t like; it’s a good thing I don’t sit on those panels.

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