Judging Other People’s Books. What Do I Know?

Last summer I was asked to give input into a new literary prize in the making.   Input is easy to give.  I explained my take on several items in question and enjoyed the company of other writerly persons in the room.  I thought I was finished.

Then in November I received my judging instructions.

Now, I clearly remember saying that I didn’t want to be a judge, that I wouldn’t have the time, and while I had the interest, I might not be the best possible person for this job.  Odd as this may sound, I graduated from college with only one literature course.  My graduate education was in counseling and family studies.  I have always read mainly for pleasure, and usually I choose non-fiction or well-written commercial fiction as my books of choice.  Do I know anything about literary fiction?  Well, sure.  Do I know enough?  That is the question.

Still, wouldn’t it be silly for the author of more than sixty novels to believe she’s not qualified enough to judge someone else’s work? 

So I changed my mind when push came to shove and said yes.  The major reason I agreed was the word “accessible,” which came up in our discussion.  I was told that the book that wins should be accessible to readers, unlike some awards that pride themselves on books no one has read or could if they tried.  And I was told I would receive three books to start.  I could manage that, right?

I’m almost finished with my first book.  It’s not something I would have picked up to enjoy on my own.  The experience is transforming.  I like this book. I like it a lot, but does it deserve a major award?  Can I articulate why if I recommend it?  Am I going to feel this way with every book I’m sent?  After all, no one is sending their worst efforts.  What constitutes a winner?  How much “heft” must it have to stand out from the crowd?

I find that “heft,” for want of a better word, is what I’m searching for.  Don’t ask me what it means, but hey, I’ll know it when I see it, right?  Or maybe I’ll know it after I’ve seen it and the book continues to haunt me.  Or when I find  myself unable to put it down, not because it’s filled with cliffhangers, as so many fabulous works of commercial fiction are, but because the concept, the prose, the vision is so glorious I want to bathe in it.

Does such a book exist?  And doesn’t the fascination with a book, it’s style or lack of it, it’s purported genius, depend a great deal on readers’ own lives and tastes, and what they bring with them when they open it for the first time?

All of us make choices in the books we read, don’t read, like, don’t like.  I’m having a good time analyzing my own.  Do you know yours?

Just to be clear, if I have any question whether a book deserves to go on to the next round, it will.  Let the next group of judges weigh in.  I will have done my part to get it there.

And in other business?  Congratulations to Donna Maine, the winner of a Pepper Martin mystery by Casey Daniels, last week’s giveaway.  Donna, yesterday was definitely your lucky day.



  1. Lil on January 14, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    One of the reasons I joined a library book club was to broaden my reading horizons. I think we naturally gravitate to certain genres of books and reading books outside those genres can help us judge quality better. I also like reading writer’s blogs because you can help us appreciate more of the inner workings of a book’s creation. Therefore, as a reader/writer/blogger, I think you are qualified to evaluate others in your craft. But, what do I know?

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