It is a truth universally acknowledged that awards are contentious. This very site has, in the past, made a habit of poking at awards - running the gauntlet of debate, from looking at the use of "best" in awardspeak to who awards are actually for. Particularly when it comes to genre fiction, it can be difficult to compare one work to another directly. Apples, oranges, durians… insert your own fruit metaphor here.
Award judging is hard. I know: I've done it. For three years, I was one of the panel of judges for the British Fantasy Awards - specifically for the Sydney J. Bounds Award (or - as it's often referred to - the "Best Newcomer Award". There's that B-word again). Each time, we read horror, fantasy, SF, and slipstream. We read books that ranged across type and form: YA, short stories, novels… you name it. And then we had to compare them. Again: apples, oranges, durians, kumquats.
One of the biggest challenges for any judge has got to be the same thing that makes reading such a personal experience: every reader, every judge will, inevitably, bring their own baggage to a book. With a pile of twenty, thirty, fifty, a hundred books to choose from, what's to stop every judge from picking their preferred genre of submitted book early on, reading those and then finding themselves unable bring themselves to champion anything else - particularly by the time they've read through the entire pile, and book ennui is starting to set in? How can a book that was read one-hundred-and-forty-eighth be guaranteed the same level of excitement as that first shiny submission? What about external bias: perhaps when two or three judges have read Book X ahead of the other judges, and entirely unintentionally load it up with their own baggage ahead of its turn in front of the final member(s) of the panel?
The Booker Prize has an interesting system to get around this. All submitted books are sent to judges in batches, individually numbered. All submitted books are read in numerical order. Once all the judges have read Batch 1, they meet to decide which of the batch (if any) should be considered for the longlist… and then it's on to Batch 2, 3 and so on. There's no chance of Judges Jack and Judy, for instance, talking about how much they hated "The Long and Unbearable Jog to the Raging River of Tomorrow" and accidentally tainting Judge Joan's reading of it.
This system also acts as a leveller: it's impossible for judges' responses to books to be unevenly influenced by the order in which they read them. If five books feature unreliable child narrators, everyone will come across them at the same point - as opposed to the one judge who coincidentally reads all five in a row and by the fourth is ready to throw both the offending book and child narrator out of the nearest window, to the utter bemusement of their peers who had "The Velvet Grass of Forgotten Childhood Games" down as a surefire winner.
Let's get back to that idea of "best". It might be a contentious word, but "best" is very much in play when it comes to the big heavyweight prizes. Is "best" subjective? At a recent talk at the Bath Literature Festival, a former Booker judge suggested not. There are, of course, the obvious limits: perhaps a better way of looking at it is that any "best" book is the "best book out of those submitted for the prize and considered by the jury that year". For books to be considered, they must be submitted (or occasionally called in by the judges). Publishers may be able to submit as much of their year's output as they like - or they may have to whittle it down to a single book, negotiating the minefield of their authors' egos along the way (and that's before we even start considering the possibility of politic submissions: that it isn't their "best" or favourite book submitted… but rather the one felt to be the most likely to make it to a shortlist.) And it's always possible that the actual, very best book published in any given year was actually put out by a tiny press based somewhere entirely obscure, who would never dream of submitting anything for a big prize… but if you ain't in it, you can't win it.
So, having qualified the use of the word, what actually makes something the "best"? The key, apparently, lies in re-reading. To make it through to the final discussions at a big literary award, a book has to survive the initial reading, then the longlist reading, then the shortlist reading. At each read, it has to bring something new, something fresh. And it must remain just as beautifully, cleverly constructed and written as it was at first glance. When the judges walk away from the table with their decision made, that final book must have been able to convince a majority of them that it had what it takes.
With rereading such an important part of the process, too, no wonder judging injuries are common. Above and beyond the odd papercut, with submission lists regularly topping a hundred and fifty books and only a finite amount of time in which to read (and reread and rereread) them, eye strain, headaches and migraines are common. Mouth ulcers, muscle cramps. Nightmares (all three of the former Booker judges at the Bath Festival told of how they had woken up in the night screaming, convinced they had gone blind…). Whoever thought that reading could be so dangerous?
And what, ultimately, is it all for? Do awards sell books? Does being labelled "the best" set a particular novel or novelist on a whole new course? Possibly. What is the point of an award - any award? The answer is simple, and explains why, despite the intense workload that can come with it and all the attendant perils, people agree to be judges. Among the migraines, the headaches and the piles of books balanced on every flat surface of their houses, award judges love reading. They love the thrill of discovery that comes from a great new book, and - perhaps more importantly - the opportunity to share that book with others. Awards celebrate books: both specific and general. They celebrate reading and writing, stories and language and words on a page… and whoever might walk away with a trophy or a medal at the end of the ceremony, the real winner is anyone who cares about books.
Lou Morgan's first novel, Blood and Feathers - an adult urban fantasy - was published by Solaris Books in 2012 and the follow-up, Blood and Feathers: Rebellion, was released in the summer of 2013. Her first YA novel, Sleepless, will be published by Stripes / Little Tiger Press as part of their Red Eye horror series in autumn 2014.
She has been nominated for two British Fantasy Awards (Best Newcomer
and Best Fantasy Novel) and her short stories have appeared in anthologies from Solaris Books, PS Publishing and Jurassic London. When not writing, she tweets as @LouMorgan.