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On judging for literary prizes

Madeleine Thien, author of Dogs at the Perimeter, a novel, and other fiction titles, stated a few days ago what has long been needed to be said about the judging of prizes, from a Canadian perspective.

Asked to be the judge of Amazon Canada’s First Novel Award, Thien had a somewhat bruising (so I imagine) and very revealing experience, which you can read here. She says it in better than any summary of mine, so please, check out the link to her article “On transparency.”

  • Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel, both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His newest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews, is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

2 thoughts on “On judging for literary prizes

  1. I have served on the juries for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the James Tiptree Jr Award, and I am still on the jury for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Each of these juries has behaved in very different ways (inevitably, they are all judging very different criteria), but none has behaved in the way that the First Novel Award seems to be structured. It doesn’t actually make sense as an award structure. One person deciding the shortlist, and only then does the jury get a say? I would refuse to serve on any jury set up that way, because I would not be judging for the best novel (or whatever the criteria is) but only for the best among the selector’s personal favourites. In any jury of, say, 5 people, you would get 5 different shortlists, with perhaps some overlap but with very significant differences. And that has been the case with every single award jury I have served on or chaired. It is the give and take between the members of the jury that finally narrows it down to a shortlist all can agree on that, to my mind, gives any award its legitimacy.

    But not only is the award structure illegitimate, it is plainly dishonest. The claim that the shortlist was decided by the jury must have come from the award, in other words it must have come from people who knew the statement to be false.

    Somehow, I think that the Amazon Canada’s First Novel Award is not an award I shall ever take seriously.

  2. Paul, hi. Thanks for your comment. I judged a provincial literary contest once, and that went smoothly, but it was only me as the judge. With more people there are more (and different) opportunities for things to go wrong. (As well as be improved, in some cases.) The Amazon canada prize is now not to be taken seriously by anyone, thanks to Thien.

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