Apples, oranges and literary awards

Comparing like with like is a relatively simple evaluative task. But that’s not what faces the judging panel of some competitions.

As a judge for the 2021 Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards, it was with mixed feelings that I sat through last night’s announcement and celebration of the winners at the State Library.

Of course I’m delighted that the shortlisted contenders in each category were so variously meritorious, and I admire in particular the work of those who emerged with the glittering prizes. The public recognition that these awards attract is enormously encouraging for writers.

But once again (for this isn’t the first time I’ve been a member of this kind of panel) I felt misgivings because it’s inevitably a matter of choosing between apples, oranges and a mélange of other literary fruit. Even within a category such as Writing for Children, we had to rank picture books for the very young in the same list as sophisticated novels for pubescent readers. The Emerging Writers category, too, required us to appraise works that are generically quite different: they ranged from collections of poetry to family histories, from historical fiction to novels with contemporary settings … and so on. Hardly commensurable!

However, I was impressed by the conscientious and thoughtful way in which the panel members engaged with this challenging diversity of texts and exchanged impressions harmoniously with one another during our meetings. In all, the deliberative decision-making process took several months.

Thank you to my estimable fellow judges: Rashida Murphy (an excellent chair), Jay Lachlin Anderson, Liana Joy Christensen, Michelle Michau-Crawford and Josephine Wilson.

And warm congratulations to all the following shortlisted writers:

Emerging Writers:

David Allan-Petale, Locust Summer
Elfie Shiosaki, Homecoming (category winner)
Cindy Solonec, Debesa
Emily Sun, Vociferate
Josephine Taylor, Eye of a Rook

Writing for Children:

James Foley, Stellarphant
Steve Heron, One Thousand Snapshots
Denis Knight & Cristy Burne, Wednesday Weeks and the Tower of Shadows
Shirley Marr, A Glasshouse of Stars (category winner)
Katie Stewart, Where Do the Stars Go?

Writers’ Fellowship [project]
Nandi Chinna (category winner) — Poetry
Julia Lawrinson — Memoir
Caitlin Maling — Poetry
John Mateer — Poetry/Prose/Fiction
David Whish-Wilson — Travel memoir

4 thoughts on “Apples, oranges and literary awards

  1. Hi Ian,

    Firstly, many congratulations to all nominees, not just the winners. But also to the winners–an extra dollop of kudos on top.

    Secondly, thank-you Ian, for being the first to bring the news of the outcome of the WA Premier’s awards out here to the Centre.

    Thirdly, the ambiguities of literary merit is an old drum, but I can’t resist giving it a thump as well. I’ve been talking with friends recently about the difficulty of judging staged works. In competitions where a number of plays appear at once, it often seems that relatively straightforward works with simple premises and plots, and lots of jokes, tend to get more favourable responses from both audiences and judges. Now, all successful drama has to be interesting to watch and interesting to perform. And as the plays get shorter, depending on the terms of the competition, there is less scope for additional “messaging” anyway. But perhaps the additional elements that some plays are loaded with–personal, political, tragic, and so on–are harder or more uncomfortable to digest when you’re sitting in an audience on your day or evening off, and entertainment without that extra effort or impost is all the more appealing.

    I used this example: imagine you’ve got two finalists in a full-length play competition, and you have to pick one, and only one, winner. The first finalist is “Noises Off.” The second is “Death of a Salesman.” Both are exemplars of their respective genres, but the aims and technical challenges of a farce and a tragedy are very different, in terms of both writing and performance. Is it really possible to set different criteria for each, and then pick a winner according to how closely each play approaches those separate ideals? I would probably want Miller’s play to win over Frayn’s, but how much of that would result from my own personal bias towards the tragic over the farcical? And I haven’t even mentioned the different historical and social urgencies and limitations between the two of them, either.

    I can only imagine the kinds of conversations you had with your fellow judges over issues like these, concerning all the worthy works you had to arbitrate on. I’m mildly envious, actually 🙂

  2. Thank you, Glen – a characteristically thoughtful response. Your examples from the theatre illustrate in a cogent way the fundamental challenge of comparative evaluation.

  3. Yes, indeed. This matter of comparing works demonstrating such very different aims, talents and techniques – and then, of course, the huge elephant in the room which we never really want to tackle, is the politics of selection. The ways in which works, possibly of lesser technique or ability or achievement by any other measure, simply happen to fit the endorsed values and politically weighted virtues of the day. The right topics or themes, often quite pious and didactic. This is a hugely vested issue and arguments are there to be had but often simmer around the edges. Sometimes, judgements and selections have been challenged and contention has erupted, and this in itself leaves many participants, judges, contenders, people weighing in to debates, with less happy feelings. This is very often the case and more open in the art world and with winners of painting competitions, as in the case of Dobell’s great painting which wasn’t a portrait but a caricature, and are the boundaries so clear, but possibly harder to tackle or contest in publishing and when fiction is involved? Although there are the very famous and notorious cases, protests of valid kind and others more like sour grapes. Especially when fictions are often deemed to be excellent if they do challenge expectations and generic distinctions, but overwhelmingly, still, the political correctnesses of the day tend to win out or market viability and what may have more mass appeal.

  4. You’ve put your finger on a big complex problem, Robyn. As one of the WAPBA judges, I need to avoid public discussion of the extent to which this may be relevant here, but anyone in the arts field — literature, painting, or other forms — knows the truth of what you say. Some independent critics (e.g. in the visual arts, there’s Christopher Allen, columnist in the Weekend Australian) are brave enough to speak out candidly.

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