Don’t judge a judg­ing panel by its glam­our but by its ex­per­tise

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Rose­maryGor­ing

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.

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