Thursday, October 13, 2011

My kooky ideas about improving literary award juries

So it looks like there’s another fracas developing around the shortlist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry here in Canada. Whenever I see stories like this, my mind begins filling with all kinds of thoughts on how we might improve literary judging in this country, to make it less incestuous, more objective, more considered and less prone to conflicts of interest.

The problem is, I’m never convinced that the recommendations I’d make would ever work. I’ve only judged a small handful of writing contests and have never sat on a major jury for anything, so this is mostly pie-in-the-sky stuff. However, if you happen to run a major literary award and are in the mood to have a complete novice tell you how to do your job better, then this is the blog post is for you.

And even if you don’t run a major award but have opinions on these recommendations, I encourage you to leave a comment below. I’m especially interested in hearing why these ideas would never work.

Without further adieu:

Recommendation 1: Pick a five-person jury, no less. Make sure your choices come from a good mix of occupations within Canada’s broader literary infrastructure – academics, literary journalists, head librarians, published authors, arts administrators, etc – and also make sure there is a good regional, gender and (increasingly important) generational mix on your list. Vet the list for obvious conflicts of interest (e.g. you've accidentally picked an author who has a book in the same category she's judging.)

Recommendation 2: Get your five-person jury to read all of the given books under consideration. Don’t rush them – it’s gauche and totally beneath you to force your jurors to race through a mammoth fall list and make their decisions in time for a holiday shopping rush. Any award worth its salt won’t reveal a calendar year’s winner until the following spring. The reading should be a full-year undertaking, with decisions not happening until the first couple of months of the new year.

Recommendation 3: This is the most important one. Do not reveal the jury list during judging, even to the jurors themselves. I cannot stress this enough. Jurors should work at every stage of the process in complete isolation and ignorance of one another. There is no legitimate reason for jurors to interact with one another whatsoever. I would posit that if jurors discover who else is on the panel with them, it could taint how they read and judge the books under consideration. And if biases, agendas or axes to grind do exist, they will most likely wreak their havoc during ‘discussions,’ so eliminate discussions entirely. Instead, do this:

Recommendation 4: In lieu of a discussion, have each of the five jurors make their decisions based on a simple points system. This is what I suggest: from the full list of books under consideration, each juror picks a top 10 list, and each book on it gets 1 point. From his or her top 10 list, each juror then picks a top 5 list and gives those books an additional 2 points each (for a total of 3). Then, from that top 5 list, each juror picks an overall winner, which gets an additional 3 points (for a total of 6).

Recommendation 5: Allow each juror to also have a “worst 5” list. This can be comprised of books that he or she thought were awful, over-hyped or otherwise undeserving of the award. For each book on this list, he or she will award minus 3 points. This step is important, since it can help neutralize the biases or agendas that arise even when jurors work in isolation. After all, one juror’s “worst 5” selection might effectively nullify another juror’s overall winner. What remains can be a truer and more objectively achieved consensus. Once all the lists have been made, jurors then send them to your independent curator for review and tallying.

Recommendation 6: If conflicts of interest in the judging arise, the curator should resolve them at this stage. For example, let’s say one of the jurors is a writer who published a collection of short stories with a small press two years ago, and has now given three slots on his top 5 list to short story collections from that same press, then your curator may want to send the lists back to him and tell him to reconsider.

Recommendation 7: Once any conflicts of interest are resolved, the curator tallies up all the points from all books on all the jurors’ lists to come up with a master list of the top 5 books (this is your shortlist) and your overall winner. In the event of a tie (either for first place – i.e. the winner – or fifth place – i.e. the last slot on the shortlist) go back to the jury and ask them to re-rank the tied books (and only the tied books) to break the deadlock. Award points accordingly. No need to reveal the broader results of the voting or even who their fellow jurors are, even at this stage. Just ask everyone to reassess the tied books and get them to say “I rank this one first, this one second, this one third, etc.” Keep sending books back to your jury until the necessary tie(s) are broken. Finalize your shortlist and overall winner.

Recommendation 9: Reveal the shortlist at a press conference sometime in, say, early March. No need to reveal the jury list, even now.

Recommendation 10: Six weeks later, in mid April, reveal the winner and (finally!) the jury list at a gala celebration. Broadcast it nationally on CBC. Bring in ice sculptures and free booze. Toast the nominees and the winner.

So if anyone can help me punch holes in this, I’d definitely appreciate it. Leave comments below.

1 comment:

  1. Mark,
    I think these are excellent suggestions. Of course, the ideal approach might also involve having jurors read "blindly"--i.e., read proofs of the books from which the authors' and publishers' names have been removed--but in practice that would be ineffective: for one thing, jurors would certainly recognize their friends' work. At any rate, your suggested approach would serve to minimize bias. And by keeping the jury apart and in ignorance of each other, it would eliminate another problem: that some jurors have more dominant, forceful personalities than others, or simply possess greater argumentative stamina, and hence are able to push more of their choices onto the shortlist. (I'm not commenting on the current GG poetry list, by the way, as I know little about it; I decided a few years ago that I'd try NOT to follow these things closely and not to care and I find I'm happier that way.)
    Thanks for your comments.
    Steve Heighton