The Travails of the Literary Prize Judge

Western Australian novelist Kim Scott was named the winner of the 2011 Miles Franklin Award for his novel, That Deadman Dance. The award ceremony was hosted last night by the State Library of Victoria, the first time it has been held outside Sydney. Next year’s prize will be awarded in Brisbane.

Congratulations to Kim, and also to the other shortlisted nominees Chris Womersley and Roger McDonald, and for that matter to the writers on the longlist too. According to the judges, the novel is “[s]upple and accessible in style, generous in spirit and outlook, [and] a fascinating, powerful portrait of Australia’s earliest days.” Here is a quiver of reviews.

Some 50 to 70 books are submitted for consideration by the award’s panel of five judges every year just before Christmas. The five judges have three to four months to read the novels before they return to those “that have some aspect of them that just really sticks in your mind”, in the words of Mitchell Librarian Richard Neville. The judges whittle the entries to a longlist, then to a shortlist. And then, some years at least, they batten down the hatches.

Judging a major national literary prize is no easy task - just ask Carmen Callil, who recently quit the judging panel of the prestigious Man Booker International Prize after it was awarded to Philip Roth, a decision she disagreed with. Judges of the Booker Prize must read some 100 books between April and August - a mind-numbing five books a week, or a book every weekday. It raises the question, does this style of reading lend itself to discernment? In a 1998 essay on the delicacies of judging the Booker in Times Higher Education, Valentine Cunningham wrote, “Committees thrive, of course, on compromise, and some Booker winners can only have made it as every judge’s second choice. And every judge has some regrets.”

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