If you haven’t seen it yet, there’s an interesting article at the Guardian by Giles Foden on what it was like to sit on the panel of judges that chose the Booker prize winner this year (via). It sounds like the process was messy. One disagreement he describes was between those who “wanted to apply comparative principles across the range of books” and those who “wanted to voice their subjective preferences novel by novel.” As I read the list of comparative principles the first group wanted, I felt a twinge of horror:
The comparative principles, out of which it might be hoped measures of objectivity could be drawn, were not very sophisticated. It was just a simple taxonomy including the following: plot and structure; theme; language, tone and style; characterisation; impact and readability. But even these basic foundations to judging a novel could not be adequately established.
It seems that this approach was quickly abandoned and the judges turned to the more subjective method, judging the novels one by one on their own merits.
I think this “simple taxonomy” is dreadful. Can you really break a novel down into its parts in this way and expect to arrive at a valid judgment of which novel is the best? (Or perhaps the better question is whether it is possible to decide on a “best” novel at all.) Of course, you can break a novel down into its parts and analyze it; this is something I do in my writing and in my classroom. It’s a valuable way to understand how a novel works, to understand it on its own terms. But to use this method as a way to judge a contest or to award a literary prize? To use it to compare one novel to another? It seems like a recipe for choosing mediocrity.
I do not think it’s possible to be objective when making this kind of judgment. This method implies that there’s one correct way of doing things — one correct format for a plot, one best way to create characters, one theme that is inherently better than another, one style that is preferable to another. And “readability”? I’m not sure what that means, first of all, but secondly, is the more “readable” novel better or worse than the less “readable” one?
These criteria remind me of rubrics some teachers use to grade student writing, lists of the qualities of “good writing” that we are looking for, for example, structure, coherence, logical argumentation, correct grammar, etc. I’m not arguing against rubrics for grading here, and someday I may come to use one myself, but I worry that they miss the most interesting thing about student writing, which is some undefinable quality that has to do with originality and voice. Rubrics are useful to judge whether writing is competent or not, but to judge if it is interesting and worth my time to read? Then they don’t work.
A quotation I just came across in The New Yorker is relevant here; in an article on abridging classic novels, Adam Gopnik writes:
… masterpieces are inherently a little loony. They run on the engine of their own accumulated habits and weirdnesses and self-indulgent excesses. They have to, since originality is, necessarily, something still strange to us, rather than something that we already know about and approve.
Is there any rubric that can give this kind of originality its due?