Thursday, June 12, 2008

Much foot-stamping among the literati

There’s an entertaining catfight going on at the moment in New Zealand literary circles (and no one does catfights better). As far as I can ascertain, it’s all because the judges in the fiction section of the Montana Book Awards selected only four finalists for the shortlist rather than the five that they were entitled to choose. To an outsider this seems pretty minor, but apparently it’s caused much angry stamping of feet among the literati.

Graham Beattie, literary blogger and former managing director of Penguin, was on Kathryn Ryan’s Nine to Noon programme today wailing that a slew of famous and accomplished writers had been left off the list. Perhaps I’m missing something here, but surely if the judges had selective five for the shortlist, there’d be only one less author left feeling aggrieved. You’d still be left with a whole lot of wounded egos.

Anyway, isn’t this the nature of awards? The first point about competitions is that some poor sod has to choose the winners and there will always be arguments about their judgment. The second is that there will inevitably be more losers than winners, and some of those losers are likely to feel sore – especially if they’re big names.

Beattie seemed to be suggesting that because some of the excluded authors had illustrious reputations whose entries been well reviewed, the judges had grievously erred. But finalists can’t be selected on the basis of reputations; if they were, there would be no room for brilliant unknowns. In any case, it would have to be a very long short list to accommodate all the distinguished names Beattie rattled off.

Most competitions are not much more than a lottery. Lots of entrants may submit excellent work, but the winner will be the book that strikes a particular set of judges as just that much better than the rest. It’s a subjective process and a different set of judges might come to an entirely different conclusion. But if entrants who miss out are going to bitch endlessly about the results, then perhaps they shouldn’t have entered in the first place. They’d save themselves a lot of blood pressure pills.

You really have to wonder whether awards are worth all the grief they cause. The Qantas journalism awards have just had a thorough going-over – not for the first time – for perceived shortcomings. Wine competitions have been dogged by controversy. Many awards have huge significance for insiders but make bugger-all impact beyond the circle of the industry or profession concerned.

Some of the most respected wine producers don’t bother entering wine awards because they take the realistic view that it’s their customers they need to impress, not their industry peers or a set of judges. They’ve already proved themselves in the marketplace, where it really counts, and their reputation doesn’t depend on winning a trophy that will soon be forgotten by everyone but themselves. In the words of the old Mini ad, they don’t have to prove a thing.

I note that on his blog, Beattie says “authors are offended” by the Montana judges’ decision. Well, maybe it’s time authors learned to take offence less readily. Then New Zealand’s literary scene might start to shed its reputation for preciousness and bitchiness.

If writers and publishers want book awards, then they should accept that the results are not going to please everyone. If they can’t live with that, then they shouldn’t enter. Simple, really.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with yoru assessmet about the subjectivity of judging. You'd think they'd have been able to come up with a 5th book out of the 35 on the "long list" - but hey they didn't. One of the issues is of course sales. The Montana "shortlisted" sticker on a book apparently can create a sale just like casual wine buyers looking at those medal stickers on bottles in the supermarket. So only 4 books shortlisted means less sales.