Better than sex: Carlo Gébler on judging the International Dublin Literary Award

Akhil Sharma was chosen as the 2016 winner from 160 books. Carlo Gébler reveals what it was like to read them all and then reach agreement with his fellow judges

It started with an email. Well, everything starts with an email nowadays doesn’t it?

It was early in 2015. The long, horrible bit of the calendar that comes after Christmas and New Year. Tempo, in Co Fermanagh, where I live, was at its absolute worst – incessant rain, louring skies, almost permanent dark. The damp produced by the rain was of the extremely penetrating variety and so had very successfully managed to insinuate itself everywhere. My trouser pockets were damp. The matches that I used to light the fire were damp. The bread was damp. It was atrocious and inevitably (how it could it be otherwise in such conditions?) spirits were low. In other words, you might even say I was vulnerable, or certainly persuadable.

On the morning in question I was skulking in my study. I live in a converted school (essentially it’s a National School but when it was built in 1930 the great English architect Edwin Lutyens was the rage so it has a few things he favoured such as dado rails, a Jacobean-style chimney and a Dutch bow-back roof) and my work place, overlooking the old playground, of course, is a converted bicycle shed with corrugated roof and on said roof the infernal rain was tapping a melancholy reveille.

I fired up my Mac, opened my inbox and lo and behold an email appeared, which, once opened, I saw was from Dublin Libraries. And confidential. Oh, yes, that was what was at the top. In capitals. And one’s heart is always quickened by the sight of “CONFIDENTIAL” at the top of an email, isn’t it? Or at least my heart is. It makes me feel important. And connected. And significant. Yes, as I am a sad provincial it really is true that a little goes a very long way.

Anyhow, the subject of the email was The International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award 2016 (and by the way the prize was subsequently re-configured as the International Dublin Literary Award 2016 and that is the name by which it is now known). This award, the email’s writer explained, was structured so that library services in major cities all over the world could nominate up to three titles written by authors in any language as long as there was an English translation and these texts would then be considered by an expert panel of international judges and a winner selected. Judges were currently being selected for the 2016 judging panel and my correspondent wanted to know whether I would allow my name to go forward for consideration as a judge et cetera, et cetera.

Sitting in my study, the rain falling above, the light slipping through the study window so murky it bordered on the inky, I rapidly came to the following conclusion: this would definitely be good for me. I’d get a couple of trips to Dublin out of it. I’d get to rub shoulders with other international judges (always to be desired). I’d read – I’d read a lot (although I wasn’t actually really focused on the volume of volumes issue at this point) – and through all this reading I’d get a sense of where the novel was, or where the novel in the year leading up to the cut-off date was, so a sense of the novel and its health in 2014 or thereabouts. And this wouldn’t harm me. On the contrary. I was a writer. Of novels among other things. So reading novels and talking about these novels to other interested parties who were also knowledgeable and who cared deeply about literary narrative would be good for me; it would be educational, enriching, nourishing and even stimulating.

Then, when I got to the end of this admittedly not very insightful and wholly predictable line of inquiry, an image came in to my head. From school. From geography. And it was one of those side-on, cutaway, cross-sectional views of planet Earth with top soil then clay then rock and so on down through all the layers to the planet’s fiery core. That’s what, in literary terms, all the reading would be: it would be a journey down through the different layers constituting literature at a moment in time, all its different soils and rocks until I got to the core and once I’d finished plumbing the whole, boy oh boy would I know something.

Clear, rigorous, analytical thinking was never my strong point as you can see (and still isn’t): I’m really a malleable enthusiast whose unconscious throws up images which sway him wildly (the image of a cross-section of the Earth being a classic feint by my wily unconscious) and who is then only too happy to fall in with where he is being led. And so I was.

I wrote a breezy, brief reply. Yes, please, of course, please consider me as an international judge, I’d love to do it, I’m free (I did check the dates) et cetera, and I sent it off. And reader, they decided they’d have me.

And now, as in the movies, a jump cut. It’s summer, late summer, August: the days are shortening and in Fermanagh the leaves on the trees are already turning. I hear the sound of a van (one I have been expecting) reversing through my gates and across the gravel towards the study. I go out. It’s a delivery van, white naturally. The driver, having parked and stopped, is out. He has the back doors of the van open. I saunter over and see that inside the van’s oily rear there are boxes. Several of them. They’re the reinforced kind. The kind used for carrying heavy books. And they have my books. The books I have promised to read. Well, some of them. This was only the first delivery. There will be more. And all in all there were or will be 160 novels to read.

The next part was the hard part. This was the reading part. Think marathon training. Or studying for exams. Or some similar malarkey. You have a task. It is huge. An Everest. But somehow you have to get it done.

My first task was to arrange the books in the first boxes in strict alphabetical order and the subsequently delivered books got the same treatment. Throughout the whole judging period I kept everything ruthlessly alphabetical and the sense of achievement that sorting and keeping the books in alphabetical order provided was a perfect antidote to the waves of panic that periodically threatened to overwhelm when I considered the size of the task that I faced.

Next I commandeered a table and laid the books out in order, spine upwards. This, once it was done, allowed me to see everything in one gaze (rather like a general before battle sweeping his gaze imperiously across the battlefield). Then I got my special reading chair and my reading light ready. The seat is a recliner type with foot stool and adjustable back which I set (as I knew how to do from past experience) at the correct angle: not so low as to induce lassitude and not so high as to induce stiffness and primness but somewhere in the middle, that perfect angle that encourages fluent reading without discomfort or distraction. My reading light, a battered old cream number I bought in Habitat about a century ago, I also adjusted (having turned it on – it has a special reading bulb that needed to warm up) so the light fell just where I knew it should. With athletic reading as I knew I was about to embark upon, you have to get these things right. I was in a marathon – remember – so this was getting my kit ready.

Next I got out my specially purchased spiral-bound shorthand notebook. I opened it at the first page. I wrote the name and the author of the first book I had to read using the special Lyra pencil I use for marking passages in books when reading them for reviewing and I put the notebook and the pencil on the shelf beside the reading chair so I could make any notes I needed to make while reading or mark any passages I needed to mark. Then I got the book, went to the chair, plumped the cushion, sat, got myself in to the right position, cracked the book open and started to read. And thereafter I read, and read, and scribbled, and marked, and read more, on and on and on until, some hours later, I had it done. I had got across the book. I had uploaded it in to my psyche. Then, and it was important that I didn’t skip this vital stage, I made my notes. I summarised the plot and novel’s main characters. I wrote down what I thought was good and what I thought wasn’t good, the novel’s strengths and weaknesses if you like. Finally I ascribed it a mark out of 10 (for later reference) and a symbol that indicated it was definitely, in my opinion, in contention, or out of contention, or lay somewhere between those two poles.

Then I put the first book back in its slot on the table, removed the second book on the list and repeated the process. And with there being 160 books you will appreciate that I had to keep going at this as I have described for quite a while. There was a lot of reading – and I mean a lot – and when you have to do that much reading something very strange happens to your psyche. You continue to function. You can still drive. You can still light the gas oven. You can even use the electric hedge clippers. But you feel so swollen and engorged by the vast, voluminous amount of material you’ve crammed in and which you know you can’t jettison until after you have had your conversation or conversations with your fellow judges, the world, the real world you live in, starts looking less and less real and more pale and insignificant and anaemic, while the interior literary world inside your head starts looking more and more real and vital and significant. And as you are reading incessantly, every minute of every day, weekdays, Saturdays, Sundays, for quite some time, this strange reversed experience of reality comes to seem, gulp, ubiquitous and even normal.

And then there comes, oh blessed day, the convocation of the international judges and you find yourself, oh miracle of miracles in the company of those who have been doing the same as you have been doing (Juan Pablo Villalobos, Iglika Vassileva, Meaghan Delahunt, Ian Sansom, and, in charge of the process and us but who would not vote, just steer and chair, Judge Eugene Sullivan, who is an actual real judge in the US).

They too have been reading – reading the very books you have been reading – and writing their thoughts about these books down in little notebooks just like you and they too are filled, engorged with text and they too have come with the need to purge, to vent, and to talk, and you know, and this is the best part, they are the only people in the world you can talk to and you are the only person in the world they can talk too about the issue at hand: you are, together, in other words, a little secret society of experts (your expertise being the books under consideration).

And then, together, tentatively initially but not for long, you start to confer, to talk, and as you do what you are holding, have been holding inside, all these pent-up thoughts and opinions and feelings are released, and your fellow judges’ thoughts and opinions and feelings, similarly pent-up, also get released, and the weeks, the months of reading suddenly, at that moment of sublime connection, and throughout the hours and days of conferring that follow, seem utterly worth it.

You have trained, you have prepared and now there comes, which is a rare pleasure like no other, a profound time of intense connection with fellow readers who have traversed the same terrain, exactly the same one as you have. They are your secret sharers and you are their secret sharer and that is quite the most fabulous form of human connection going on the planet right now (or at least so I thought and still think).

Those who have never judged a literary competition but knowing that I have, these folks in the past have often asked me if its true that when writers and other literary types come together to pick a winner for a literary prize there is only ever viciousness and unpleasantness and bloodshed as each egotistical judge tries to finesse the author they prefer as the winner and very often, this is according to those who have never judged, they do so for personal reasons – like they know their chosen winner, or would like to sleep with their chosen winner, or would like their chosen winner to review their next novel – or something like that.

Tragically, I have to inform you dear reader that judging literary prizes is never like that (at least not in my experience) and the International Dublin Literary Award, 2016, was no exception. The business of arriving at our decision was not unpleasant and vicious as each of us sought to ensure our personal choice or choices triumphed and everyone else’s foundered.

On the contrary, what was notable was the degree of convergence – how much our tastes and our preferences and affections overlapped. This is not to say that we picked the same books ranked in the same order: no, nothing like that occurred. But we did, it was noticeable, often like the same books though we ranked them differently.

Moreover, and this is the really important point, because we spoke the same language, by which I mean, we were all interested in character, narrative, style, literary virtue, and so on, by the time we had sieved everything through we had a shortlist of texts every one of which had virtues that all of us could enunciate and defend.

Now there could only be one winner, and each of us were only ever going to favour one winner in the end and our choices varied, but every book on the shortlist, even if we weren’t going to pick it, we endorsed and judged to have merit and value and to be worthy. Our judgement, in other words, involved much more collective togetherness than is popularly imagined, which suggests agreed literary values are much more consistent as well as concrete than is commonly believed – and for an old cynic like me there’s a thought to warm the cockles of the heart.

So was the judging worth it? Did I get a fix on the health of the novel as I thought I would when I began? Well, I can say emphatically, yes, it was absolutely worth it (for the judging experience) but whether I now know more about the novel I am unsure. I sense, as a result of all the reading I did that the novel is in rude health and I sense, also, that so elastic a form is the novel, modern writers are pushing and pulling it in all sorts of unexpected and unusual directions.

But I knew that before I began – at least theoretically. The process has also obliged me to read some novelists I might not otherwise have read and I am grateful for that, of course. But in terms of having an overview of the novel, getting that full cross-sectional understanding running from crust to core, no, I don’t have that, and, if truth be told, so rich and various, so big and fecund is our literary culture on this planet, and so various are the novels generated by that culture, I don’t think anyone could get across it in its entirety because, quite frankly, it is just too gigantic.