Man Booker confidential: judge reveals how winner is picked
In the end, we asked ourselves what each book was risking, writes 2017 judge Helen Mort
Helen Mort: When you engage in a judging process, all you have to hold and trust is words on a page and all they evoke in you as a human being, not just as a judge
In the build up to the announcement of this year’s Man Booker Prize, there’s been inevitable speculation around the odds of each author winning, from Paul Auster to debut novelist Fiona Mozley.
With half of the shortlisted authors coming from the US, there’s been some debate about the “Americanisation” of the prize since it was opened up to US-based novelists three years ago. Responding to this, chair of judges Baroness Lola Young said: “All we can say is that we judge the books submitted to us and make our judgement not based on nationality or gender, but what is written on the pages.”
From the outside, it’s easy to view such egalitarian pronouncements with a vague sense of suspicion. When judges claim to only focus on the books themselves, it almost seems a cliche (along with the often used competition mantra: “it was a tough decision”). While literary critics might absorb notions of the “Death of the Author”, adopting the context-free reading Barthes celebrated, can we expect an eclectic panel of judges to do the same?
One might be forgiven for thinking that a panel would be influenced by factors beyond each novel’s pages – perhaps not just nationality and gender but considerations such as whether the author has won a major award before. However, as a judge on the panel for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize awarded to a work of fiction in translation, Lola Young’s words accurately reflect my experience of the process.
This year, I formed part of a judging panel led by Edinburgh Book Festival director Nick Barley and comprised of novelists and translators from around the world: writers Chika Unigwe, Elif Shafak and translator Daniel Hahn. As the sole poet on the literary jury, I was honoured to be in such established company but daunted by the challenge of reading more than 100 translated novels, maintaining a rate of a novel per day.
Most of my experiences have been of judging single poem competitions and I’m familiar with poets asking me what I look for as a judge. I often sense that competition entrants try to second-guess the tastes of judges as a predictor of what they might choose. My last collection explored the history of women’s mountaineering, and as a judge I frequently find myself reading pieces about pioneering female explorers or rocky landscapes. While those topics pique my interest, I’m actually more often drawn to poems that are quite different from my own work. I sense I’m looking for the poems I couldn’t write myself.
I carried that knowledge with me to the series of intensive meetings we had in London to decide the longlist, shortlist and eventual winner of this year’s Man Booker International. Nick Barley encouraged us to approach the reading in a spirit of generosity which complemented that approach: we set out to find the merits in each novel and spoke about every single entry at some length, the discussions intensifying as the list was narrowed.
We also started from the premise that every book we were reading was an achievement, a work of literature that was not only hard-won in terms of its original composition, but in its translation to another language. As Daniel Hahn put it, we were tasked with a “delicious and impossible responsibility”. As the pool of books became smaller, our discussions inevitably became more difficult. I’d echo Sarah Hall’s comment about judging this year’s Man Booker: “as the books sustain the tests of technicality, of interiority, of strength of character, it becomes harder (to choose) because, what is a perfect novel?”
Reflecting back on the process, our chair Nick Barley observed: “We started out hoping that we might have criteria….but we realised quickly that each book is a bit like a human being…an individual and we had to really begin by just describing what the book was like. In describing the book, we started to realise what its qualities were.”
How do you compare those individuals? How would you choose a favourite child? At times, it seemed unimaginable. Midway through the judging, Daniel Hahn gave a talk for Radio 4 about our onerous task: “Sometimes it feels as if we aren’t being asked to choose between, say, Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, but between Middlemarch and The Marriage of Figaro, each of them a supreme example of its type….so, which is better: King Lear or chocolate ice cream?”
In the end, we found ourselves asking what each book was risking and how well it made those risks work on its own terms. Sometimes we argued passionately. Sometimes we agreed enthusiastically. We changed each others’ minds, then – occasionally – we changed them back again. We were looking for work that was generous and daring, where the writer was controlling the words, but the words and characters also seemed to be controlling the writer. Lola Young is right. When you engage in a judging process, all you have to hold and trust is words on a page and all they evoke in you as a human being, not just as a judge.
Helen Mort was born in Sheffield. Her first collection Division Street’won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize. Her collection No Map Could Show Them (Chatto & Windus) is a PBS Recommendation. She blogs at Freefall