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
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.