Judging Fiction: A Literary Jury Member’s Experience

The third rule of Fight Club (if someone yells "stop," goes limp or taps out, the fight is over) doesn’t apply to the literary version.
Donna Morrissey accepts the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award

In November of 2016, The Globe and Mail’s Mark Medley wrote a story about the Giller Prize jury where he described it as “sort of a literary Fight Club, the first rule being you don’t talk about being on the Giller Prize jury.” The $25,000 Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award is a regional prize, but the rules aren’t that different—as jurors, we couldn’t talk about it either. And unlike the Giller judges, the East Coast Literary Awards jurors operate in anonymity. Throughout the process, our identities are kept secret, and afterwards, the choice to disclose our roles is up to us. It’s a tough decision, because it’s easy to hurt feelings in such a close-knit community. But I also think it’s a valuable experience to share. So here goes nothing.

It was crisp but not yet cold when Jonathan Meakin, the Executive Director of the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia, arrived at my door with a cardboard box. It was November, and I know this because a) I have an email from Jonathan that proves it and b) the melted pumpkin that we peeled off the doorstep a month ago was still in respectable shape.

If it wasn’t for Reminders A and B, I’m not sure I’d remember when I received that box full of fiction, because the next few months were such a flurry of reading that they all blur together. With 43 titles, it was a very full box. Not Giller-full, mind you, but still books-threatening-to-slide-out-of-the-top full.

After Jonathan left, I dragged the box into my office and unpacked the goods. There was a wide range of submissions—lots of contemporary and historical fiction, along with a few short story collections and romance and fantasy novels. Mostly traditionally published with a few self-published exceptions. Some short, some with serious heft. I won’t mention which titles were submitted, but suffice it to say that I was duly intimidated by both the quantity and the quality. I was familiar with the work of many of the authors and had heard wonderful things about many others, so the idea of choosing between three and eight books to bring to the jury meeting was daunting.

For the next three-and-a-half months, I read before bed, I read through meals, I read in the ski lodge and I read in the car (only when my partner was driving though, I promise). The amount of work involved was overwhelming but it was also personally rewarding and professionally valuable.

As I read each book, I had to balance analysis and critique while allowing myself to get lost in the stories. The reading part was pure pleasure. And the analysis taught me how to improve my writing—being immersed in excellent Atlantic Canadian literature for three-and-a-half months taught me more than any creative writing workshop ever could. The close, careful reading gave me a stronger understanding of structure, setting, character building and plot pacing. Particularly, I learned that subtlety—when done right—can be extremely powerful and provocative. I knew this in my head, of course, since “show don’t tell” is the mantra of most creative writing instructors, but after carefully analyzing so many books, I feel I really understand how it all works.

I also made discoveries. Because I was determined to be as objective as possible, I became even more aware of my biases than I already was. As a reader, I noticed that strong character development is what makes or breaks my personal reading experience—but I still needed to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of each book equally.

As rewarding as the process was, the responsibility weighed on me. There were two other people on the jury, so the decision-making responsibility wasn’t just mine. Still, awarding a single author $25,000 was a lot of pressure. Depending on lifestyle and obligations, $25,000 may be enough for an author to take nine months off and write a new book. It might be enough to buy a much-needed car or pay for a couple years of university. There were probably 10 different authors who deserved that $25,000. But there could only be one and we had to choose.

The decision-making process started with a personal longlist. By mid-February, I painstakingly chose nine books and sent them along to Jonathan, who merged them with the lists of the others into one long “composite longlist.” After that, we chose a date for an in-person jury meeting—and that’s when it got really tough.

I walked into the Writer’s Federation on the big day, said hello to my fellow jurors and Jonathan, and we all trooped upstairs to the boardroom with our books. The next couple of hours was spent discussing the merits of the works on the composite longlist—and it was not an easy process. All three of us were passionate about certain titles—and while there was some overlap, there were also a couple of outliers that we were each willing to fight for. For the record, the third rule of Fight Club (if someone yells “stop,” goes limp or taps out, the fight is over) doesn’t apply to the literary version.

For two hours, we discussed and argued and praised and critiqued while Jonathan kept careful notes on the proceedings. (He may have actually been drawing stick figure cartoons or writing down the names of less argumentative people he wished he’d chosen for the jury, but we assumed he was taking notes.) By the end, though, we had a shortlist—and a winner—that we were all satisfied with. The shortlist was Darren Greer’s Advocate, Donna Morrissey’s The Fortunate Brother, and Ami McKay’s The Witches of New York. And we were all exhausted, but still civil, which I count as a win.

On May 31st, I had the pleasure of seeing the whole process come full circle when Donna Morrissey accepted her award. Choosing a shortlist and a winner was a difficult, exhausting task, but it was nothing compared to the long hours, late nights and emotional labour that go into writing an incredible, significant book like The Fortunate Brother—and so many of the other submissions.

Written By

Sarah Sawler is a Halifax journalist, book reviewer and author of 100 Things You Don't Know About Nova Scotia.

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