Judging the Booker

If you haven’t seen it yet, there’s an interesting article at the Guardian by Giles Foden on what it was like to sit on the panel of judges that chose the Booker prize winner this year (via). It sounds like the process was messy. One disagreement he describes was between those who “wanted to apply comparative principles across the range of books” and those who “wanted to voice their subjective preferences novel by novel.” As I read the list of comparative principles the first group wanted, I felt a twinge of horror:

The comparative principles, out of which it might be hoped measures of objectivity could be drawn, were not very sophisticated. It was just a simple taxonomy including the following: plot and structure; theme; language, tone and style; characterisation; impact and readability. But even these basic foundations to judging a novel could not be adequately established.

It seems that this approach was quickly abandoned and the judges turned to the more subjective method, judging the novels one by one on their own merits.

I think this “simple taxonomy” is dreadful. Can you really break a novel down into its parts in this way and expect to arrive at a valid judgment of which novel is the best? (Or perhaps the better question is whether it is possible to decide on a “best” novel at all.) Of course, you can break a novel down into its parts and analyze it; this is something I do in my writing and in my classroom. It’s a valuable way to understand how a novel works, to understand it on its own terms. But to use this method as a way to judge a contest or to award a literary prize? To use it to compare one novel to another? It seems like a recipe for choosing mediocrity.

I do not think it’s possible to be objective when making this kind of judgment. This method implies that there’s one correct way of doing things — one correct format for a plot, one best way to create characters, one theme that is inherently better than another, one style that is preferable to another. And “readability”? I’m not sure what that means, first of all, but secondly, is the more “readable” novel better or worse than the less “readable” one?

These criteria remind me of rubrics some teachers use to grade student writing, lists of the qualities of “good writing” that we are looking for, for example, structure, coherence, logical argumentation, correct grammar, etc. I’m not arguing against rubrics for grading here, and someday I may come to use one myself, but I worry that they miss the most interesting thing about student writing, which is some undefinable quality that has to do with originality and voice. Rubrics are useful to judge whether writing is competent or not, but to judge if it is interesting and worth my time to read? Then they don’t work.

A quotation I just came across in The New Yorker is relevant here; in an article on abridging classic novels, Adam Gopnik writes:

… masterpieces are inherently a little loony. They run on the engine of their own accumulated habits and weirdnesses and self-indulgent excesses. They have to, since originality is, necessarily, something still strange to us, rather than something that we already know about and approve.

Is there any rubric that can give this kind of originality its due?


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9 responses to “Judging the Booker

  1. I’m so glad you picked up on the grade-school tone of the “comparative” model, as I did. My jaw dropped in horror. How old are these judges, precisely, and how many years of study and experience do they have all together, that the best they can do is look to ‘O’ level teacher guidelines in choosing a a novel for supposedly sophisticated literary prize? What about the books that don’t fit neatly into those little slots, that try to do something different? “Sorry, this book was nothing like the ones I read in grade 7.”?


    I’m embarrassed that I ever paid attention to this award.


  2. I love the Adam Gopnik quote. Of the Booker books I’ve read thus far, Darkmans was by far the looniest, most original and the closest to being a masterpiece. I suspect the judges selected Anne Enright’s book for being accessible. I like accessible usually, but in a major prize like this, it shouldn’t be the most important quality. Darkmans still gets my Booker prize for its humour and originality.


  3. I also loved that Adam Gopnik quote, as well as that entire article. I felt he did a great job articulating that indefinable “something” that really good classics have.


  4. “Readability” – When I first received “The Remains of the Day”, I picked it up and read half of the first chapter, but put it down. Over a few months I restarted this novel several times. Finally, I forced myself to finish the first chapter and things started to steamroll.

    Something about the writing style required me to change my perspective; perhaps the fact that a Japanese author wrote it in English. Once I got through the first chapter, each chapter flowed more and more easily. It was a very strong story, touching on some important facets of human interaction.

    Had I given up for readability concerns, I would have missed out on a great book.


  5. Love the Gopnik quote! I balked at the notion of readability on the comparative list. It’s almost like they were trying to figure out which of the books the public would be most likely to buy if they chose it as the winner.


  6. I always wondered how they chose the winner for a prize like this–I’m almost surprised that Foden even owned up to attempting it the way you describe. Reading is such a subjective activity and some authors seem to break all the rules, and how do you measure that? There are times that I feel like I am in the presence of greatness even if I may not necessarily like a book–if that makes sense? The Gopnik quote is great–I will have to look for that article now.


  7. Imani — I liked your take on this article over at your blog … yes, embarrassing indeed.

    Charlotte — that’s interesting that Darkmans seems to fit Gopnik’s definition — you are making me want to read it!

    Diana — I loved the article too — including the parts about DVDs and directors’ commentaries, which I didn’t talk about.

    Bikkuri — great example — and isn’t readability a changing quality — from person to person, from age group to age group, culture to culture, etc.

    Stefanie — yikes, that’s no way to pick a prize winner! It’s trying to appeal to as many people as possible, but in an insulting kind of way.

    Danielle — isn’t it interesting to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse? And I know what you mean about seeing a book is great even if you don’t enjoy it necessarily — I think it’s possible to appreciate something but not like it. The article isn’t online, unfortunately.


  8. verbivore

    A bit late getting to the discussion. I love the Gopnik quote and I think he nails something. I guess we should never be able to neatly categorize greatness, that would make greatness too easily attainable.


  9. When I worked in reference publishing, I had the opportunity to sit in on the committee meetings that chose the awards for best reference books published each year. Sit in on a couple of those meetings, and you completely lose respect for the prize (despite the fact that as a publisher, you’re dying for your books to win). It didn’t take me long to realize that probably all book prizes were the same, which is why they don’t mean as much to me as they used to (despite the fact that as a reader, I’m dying for a favorite of mine to win).


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