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Who will Judge the Judges?

2 December 2002

Controversy surrounds literary awards on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the US there has been a flurry of words relating to the judging of the non-fiction National Book Award (which went to Robert Caro for the third volume of his huge biography of Lyndon Johnson) following on from judge Michael Kinsley's admission that he hadn't read most of the 400 or so books submitted for the award: 'Chris Merrill, our chairman, says, "I read enough of each book to know whether it merited further consideration." Me, too. Sometimes that was none at all.'

But the truth is that you cannot possibly read this number of books in the time available. Inevitably you have to glance at some books and rely on the views of other judges for others. Christopher Merrill, chair of the panel judging the non-fiction award, rose above the controversy and provided a useful re-definition of the point of such awards: 'Life is too short to spend reading bad books; if we succeed in steering readers toward what we considered to be the best book this year, then we have performed a service.'

In the UK the controversy is only just beginning with the news that Granta has set up a panel to find the Best of Young British Novelists for 2003. In spite of the perhaps inevitable hoo-ha surrounding the previous lists in 1983 and 1993, all the evidence suggests that this list has proved a brilliant way of promoting young literary writers. The 1993 list looks very impressive in retrospect, every one of them seems to have been worth including, even ten years later, and amongst them were such luminaries as Kazuo Ishiguro, A L Kennedy, Alan Hollinghurst, Lawrence Norfolk and Jeanette Winterson. The 2003 list should continue this distinguished record, in spite of a feeling that there is less talent around. Bill Buford, former editor of Granta says: '... it is going to be interesting. I think that everyone will be surprised by how much talent there is on it.'