Sto­ries that mat­ter most de­mand se­ri­ous as­sess­ment

Ahead of next week’s Prime Min­is­ter’s Lit­er­ary Awards, judge He­len Trinca con­sid­ers the chal­lenges of pick­ing a win­ner and of mak­ing the prize count

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

There are five of us in this con­ver­sa­tion and right now that feels like four too many.

My fel­low judges and I are de­bat­ing the short­list for the non­fic­tion and Aus­tralian his­tory sec­tions of the Prime Min­is­ter’s Lit­er­ary Awards, and I am los­ing the ar­gu­ment.

I am pas­sion­ate about a par­tic­u­lar book (and no, I won’t re­veal the ti­tle) and I want it to get up. Not as the win­ner, nec­es­sar­ily, but recog­nised on the short­list as an im­por­tant work.

But I can’t get trac­tion: the oth­ers ig­nore my en­treaties. This book is just not on their radar.

I re­tire hurt but, af­ter as­sess­ing al­most 200 books across the two cat­e­gories, I have to con­cede that no doubt there are other ti­tles my co-judges are sim­i­larly dis­ap­pointed did not make the cut.

That’s the way it goes on judg­ing pan­els, and while I would fight hard to keep a book off a short­list, there’s a point when you need to ad­mit de­feat about the ones you can’t get on. As one of my fel­low judges said to me last year when I was just start­ing out on this gig, don’t tie your­self in a knot about the short­list, just make sure you are re­ally happy about the win­ner. Which is good ad­vice, given the PM’s awards are the rich­est in the coun­try. With win­ners get­ting $80,000, it’s im­por­tant to feel you have done every­thing you can to en­sure you’ve backed the best book of the year.

Some­times, of course, the win­ner is a no­brainer. I’m not a judge of the fic­tion sec­tion of the PM’s awards, and I have no idea who will be an­nounced as the win­ner on Wed­nes­day morn­ing, but I de­cided months ago that Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come should win. No ques­tion. The fact I have not read many of its ri­vals (too busy read­ing my non­fic­tion) doesn’t con­cern me. All care, no re­spon­si­bil­ity. But se­lect­ing the best from my own cat­e­gories taxes the emo­tions as well as the brain. Book awards are con­tro­ver­sial. Google Booker and see how the Brits beat each other up over whether the pre­mier prize has be­come too elit­ist or too pop­ulist in re­cent years. It’s im­pos­si­ble to please ev­ery­one and judges are well ad­vised to adopt the 80:20 rule and re­mem­ber that you will get it right some of the time.

But the sheer vol­ume of en­tries is a prob­lem for all such com­pe­ti­tions: it is a chal­lenge to com­pare so many books. Some awards have ad­min­is­tra­tors who do the first cull but the PM’s pan­els do the lot, which re­quires a good deal of scan­ning and speed read­ing to en­sure each book is as­sessed by at least two panel mem­bers. (In fact, we all try to have a look at every­thing. Some of the pan­els work a lit­tle dif­fer­ently, split­ting the first round of read­ing in dif­fer­ent ways.)

Our chair, Lynette Rus­sell from Monash Univer­sity, does dou­ble duty, read­ing all en­tries to pick up any­thing pre­cious we have missed, while the rest of us, broad­caster and writer Sally Warhaft, Greg Melleuish from Wol­lon­gong Univer­sity, Richard Water­house from Syd­ney Univer­sity and I, start read­ing the fi­nal group of about 50 books.

This part of the ex­er­cise, for which judges are paid $4000, means I have my head in a book when I am out­side the of­fice for about three months. Friends com­mis­er­ate over lost week­ends but I am hav­ing a won­der­ful win­ter. Read­ing the best work pub­lished in the year is a joy; it’s a deep dive into the na­tion’s his­tory and cul­ture.

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