Monday, 13 July 2009
The Literary Award
I’ve just spent a sleepless night worrying about a literary prize I’m judging. OK so this is not the Man Booker - only a small regional award, but very important to the authors and publishers who have submitted their books. Literary prizes are coveted these days for their marketing value as well as the pleasure they give to the winners. I always seem to come second: this year my Passionate Sisterhood came second to Wainwright in the best-ever Cumbrian non-fiction on-line poll!! But I still count myself lucky to be there at all. When I was starting out, even a ‘highly commended’ made me feel like a Real Writer and encouraged me to go on. They have another useful purpose too, even if you don’t win anything, they make you finish things and sometimes there’s the possibility of getting feedback from the judges.
Often, in the big prizes, the advertised judges only get to read the long-list; the organisers of the competition weed out all those they think are substandard. Understandable when there are more than a thousand entries, but you do wonder how many really good things get thrown out at this stage.
When you’re judging, you have to ration yourself to reading only so many at a time - otherwise you become tired and find yourself skipping, which isn’t fair to the writers. And there are always compromises. What should get the most marks - the story that’s full of innovation and good imagery whose author hasn’t learnt how to use the spell check and chooses a weird font that makes you think you’re getting glaucoma? Or the one that is perfectly structured and presented, beautifully crafted, but somehow leaves you unsatisfied? I give marks for each aspect of the narrative and I also have a separate group of marks for the ‘wow’ factor. Believe me, a good story needs a wow factor even more than a property developer!
So, you now have half a dozen stories which have roughly equal marks, but no outright winner, and you read and re-read. In the end the one that wins is the one that stays with you - the one you think about when you wake up in the morning. The one you wish you’d written.
There’s always a subjective element - any judges who say otherwise are bending the truth. This time it’s a panel of judges and we don’t agree on everything - but in public we have to present a united front. Any screaming has to be done behind closed doors - or in this case with a computer mouse.
And then what do you wear to a Literary Award? I generally slob around in jeans, t-shirt and cardigan, but the LA demands something much more glamorous. People expect you to look like a writer - whatever writers look like! I stand in front of the wardrobe with about ten minutes to go before I have to leave, in a complete panic. Something young and trendy? Young is definitely The Word in publishing at the moment - anyone over 50 is encouraged to have plastic surgery or sign up for voluntary euthanasia. With that in mind, I put on a short skirt and dangerous heels and look as if I’m auditioning for Big Brother. ‘You’re a judge,’ I remind myself in the mirror. So perhaps I should look serious? Longer skirt, flatter heels, business suit jacket - now I’m a walk-on part in the Granny Diaries!! With two minutes to go and one eye on the hazy sunlight outside the window, I throw on a summer dress and grab - yes! - a cardigan. It’s the Books that are important after all.