Judging A Book…

So in the not too distant future (or in the recent past if you read this later than I posted it, which is pretty late) there will be a big announcement in the bookish world as to which novel and author have gone and won some award they call the Man Booker Prize, just a small thing no biggie. Of course I jest. In actuality within the next twenty four hours, and actually possibly weeks months and years to come, most of the bookish world is going to be discussing the decision made by five people in a room on the very subjective nature of what makes a truly great book… or possibly which book they all liked equally and therefore chose as the winner. So, not afraid to open a tinned can of worms, I thought I would talk a little bit about the whole book judging thing really.

You see when the Man Booker winner is announced there will be arms in the air with jubilation and also arms in the air with indignation. That is the way with books awards, well with any awards. I have experienced this a few times having judged both The Green Carnation Prize (for a few years) and then this year, yesterday in fact, I had the pleasure of judging the Not The Booker Prize for the Guardian. The latter was all the more nerve wrecking as the judging was all done live, we had no four walls and a swanky lunch (I am imaging the lunch, it might just be a cup of tea and a digestive) unlike the Booker.

Not The Booker’s Prize… a coveted Guardian mug.

For the judges there were two clear favourite books and forerunners, not in the eyes of the public but more on that shortly, those were Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life After Life’ and Meike Ziervogel’s ‘Magda’. Two books which couldn’t be more different in terms of length but are equal in how brilliant their stories, writing and vision were – oh and how much they made us think. The winner in the end was ‘Life After Life’ which will tick some people off. Interestingly as we were talking having said at the start I wanted ‘Life After Life’ to win I started thinking ‘hang on a minute Simon, Atkinson doesn’t need the publicity, she probably has plenty of mugs and doesn’t need a Guardian one and Magda is as amazing in so many ways and think what this could do for a debut novelist…’ yet I had to be true to what I considered the best read FOR ME on the list. Which is of course a very personal and subjective thing, for me though I was looking for prose, voice, story, characters, something new, impact and thought provoking nature. Both books had all these things, personally Atkinson just hit that chord where I felt it had been written for me even when Ziervogel blew me away. This probably makes no sense so let us move on; suffice to say I was very torn.

We also went against the popular and public vote of Zoe Venditozzi’s debut novel ‘Anywhere But Here’. We didn’t do this because we were being controversial, we did it because we all agreed that Zoe can write bloody brilliantly (review coming soon) and it is a very impressive debut but we all had a slight issue with what happens in the book as it goes on, which I won’t spoil. That doesn’t mean we didn’t like it, quite the opposite is true, it means we can’t wait to see what she (and indeed Lucy Cruickshanks) do next. Unlike the Booker, or any of the main awards actually, we COULD say that publically which was really nice. I don’t think the Booker longlisters who don’t make the short list get more than a ‘nope’, though I could be wrong – doubts it. Back to my point, the public weren’t wrong, the judges weren’t wrong, it is all subjective. Different judges could have had a completely different outcome.

Books are subjective by their very nature; we will all read a book differently. Even with the people that I respect the most in terms of books, I can sometimes think ‘what on earth did you see in that twaddle?’ It is the same with loved ones; I cannot begin to tell you how many books Granny Savidge Reads and I would debate, be they crime series, classics or modern literature. Yet some books you just meet on the middle on how much you love. It is those, above the ones you all like, that you discuss the most and get excited about the most. Like at a book group. You see when it comes to books we all judge them and that is what makes me laugh when people are up in arms about a set of judges decisions. (I include myself in this; I have been very cross with panels before, and then laughed at my outrage.) From the cover of the book till the final page – if we make it that far – we are constantly judging a book on everything we have read before and what we deem a good read for whatever reason be it on the writing, the enjoyment factor or the dreaded ‘readability’.

The best things about prizes are though that they get us all talking about books and igniting the passion for literature of all types and genres. And they make people want to read long and short lists. All good stuff! So before we judge the judges on what they have judged the best book of the year (remember that the publishers were the ones who actually chose which books to put forward) in whatever prize they are judging, that we all judge books all the time don’t we?

12 Comments

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12 responses to “Judging A Book…

  1. Well said. And also somehow I had missed that you were involved in Not the Booker this year. How exciting! As I type this Booker prize winner has _just_ been announced. I’ve not read any of the shortlist but they all sound great and I now want to read multiple authors I’d not encountered before, which to me is what prizes are for. Whether I do or don’t agree with the judges is beside the point really.

  2. The Man Booker Prize….??

    Never heard of it.😉

  3. Kats

    Exceptionally well said, Simon! Whatever gets everyone talking about books and then reading some more has got to be great!

    Tell me more about Meike Ziervogel; her name sounds 100% German but the book doesn’t even exist in translation on the Swiss/German market?

  4. Well done on being part of the alternative prize, what a busy time you have keeping up with all the reading and writing such thoughtful posts.
    It does seem to be a subjective vote in the end, when all the analysis is said and done, which is why for me the shortlist and the longlists are the real gems, for that is where we might find our own personal preference, if the clues are well articulated in the blurbs etc.

    That said, I am thrilled at the actual Man Booker result, Reading it for me reminds me of reading b>Dostoyevsky especially in the sense of developing character, but from the goldfields of Hokitika, and despite being set in the 1800’s we also know she was reading all the volumes of Jung while writing, another whole layer of character being mined.🙂

    Magda was an incredible read and really stirs up the thoughts, I imagine it was fascinating to discuss it with others. Meike Ziervogel not only writes a good story, she does a great job in choosing contemporary European translations for us through Peireine Press which I stumbled across recently and have so far enjoyed the first two books in the 2013 series. Have you read any of the Periene Press books Simon?

    • I think there is too much focus on the winner with prizes and not actually as much focus on the short and long lists which I think are just as important.

      I have struggled and struggled with The Luminaries. I can see its potentially good but at the moment its just frustrating me. I think Catton is trying to do something very clever and sadly it feels like tricking the reader not including them.

      Magda is AMAZING!

      • Regarding The Luminaries, I just decided to put all that clever discussion of its structure and connection to astrology aside and just read it like it was a mystery novel, which is what it really is. A very long mystery, and she is indeed attempting to keep the reader from guessing the plot.

      • But did you not think that she cheats a little there. Like you say she’s attempting to keep the reader from guessing but I actually think at the expense of plot. Maybe it will grow on me.

  5. Sometimes in our book group we deliberately choose books we know will not agree with everyone, rather than hoping that most will enjoy them. Our discussions are always better when someone hasn’t liked a book as much as the rest actually!
    I have some preconceptions about Life after Life (isn’t it just Groundhog Day?) which I will hope to blow away when I do get around to reading it, but I will love discussing it whatever the outcome for me.
    It’s the joy of discussing books and getting people to read books that matters, over taste – although it must be easier to judge a book prize if you all enjoyed a particular title. You did well talking about the Not the Booker shortlist.🙂

    • I think the books that not everyone will agree on always make the best books to talk about in a book group, less so on a judging panel as they just go by the wayside, though with the NTB there was one book which we all just sort of enjoyed slating – awkward.

      Life After Life is just marvellous, so clever, so crafted. Just marvellous. Nothing like Groundhog Day at all though that was one of my worries.

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