Don’t judge a judging panel by its glamour but by its expertise
Every time I see a press release for a literary prize, I check who’s judging it. Sometimes I feel a niggle at one or two of the choices, but nothing too distressing. OK, so I wasn’t wild when Michael Portillo was made chair of the Man Booker some years ago – or rather, I was wild, but in the way of a tiger who’s just seen his dinner limp to safety. But this was as nothing compared to my feelings on reading the line-up of judges for the 2010 Costa Book Award, which is given out next week. I was so sure I had misstyped, I had to ask The Herald’s arts correspondent to confirm I wasn’t seeing things. Sadly, woefully, I wasn’t.
The Costa, formerly known as the Whitbread, is one of the most respected of the UK’s literary prizes. Under Costa’s aegis, it brought in the nifty idea of a booklet with extracts from each of the shortlisted books, which were available at Costa outlets with your morning espresso. As most readers will know, it has five categories: novel, debut novel, poetry, biography and children’s book. The winner of each of these is put forward to a final panel who will select the overall winner. Up to this point, the categories are judged by relatively lowprofile experts or enthusiasts. Like a brook trickling into the ocean, one from each group joins the final judging panel, where they risk being subsumed by crested waves, the glitzier, mediafriendly additions to their ranks.
This year, the prize is chaired by Andrew Neil. New additions include actors David Morrisey and Elizabeth McGovern, and TV presenters Natasha Kaplinski ( below) and Anneka Rice. (Last year, the panel included actors Caroline Quentin, Dervla Kirwan, and the 1970s supermodel Marie Helvin.) Now, I imagine Andrew Neil will be a whip-cracking arbiter who won’t stand for any nonsense. Although when he worked at The Scotsman he once told a friend of mine that his problem was that he “read too many books”, that doesn’t mean he won’t do this job well.
But for one nonliterary figure to be joined by four others with not a single bookish credential between them is a slap in the face to literature. The presence of household names in a photocall may win the Costa prize a few extra column inches, but it severely diminishes the value of this once-great prize. The category shortlists this year have already proved lacklustre, with poetry and biography the strongest of the bunch. Now, the fate of the final five is to be decided by what is effectively a lay person’s vote.
In what other arena would non-experts be asked to make life-changing choices over another profession? It’s like asking me to judge an Olympic event for gymnastics. I can have an opinion on who looks more agile or strong, but never having trodden on a beam or leapt on to parallel bars the finer, crucial points will completely escape me. My opinion, in other words, will be mere witter.
When he won the Man Booker prize in October past, Howard Jacobson was only half joking when he said that year’s judges were particularly astute. When I heard Andrew Motion was to chair the prize, and saw who his fellow judges were, I knew it would very likely be a good year, as it proved. Compare the current Costa panel with, say, the threesome who’ll judge this year’s Man Booker International Prize: world-renowned publisher Carmen Calil, novelist Justin Cartwright, and literary critic Rick Gekoski. That’s a group whose judgement I can respect. Some argue that there’s a balance to be struck between a panel comprised of professional readers and high-profile names, so that some lustre attaches to the award. I wholly disagree. Lustre is not about fleeting glamour. It comes from the reflected glory of a fine, worthy winner. Five or 10 years on, no-one will remember who the judges were for any prize, but if the book was well chosen, they’ll not only remember it, and maybe even have read it, but – more importantly – it will still be in print.