What makes a good book? What makes for good writing?
You'd think those questions would have pretty straight-forward answers.
Mmmm . . . not so much.
This is my second year serving as a Whitney Awards judge, and we're rounding the bend on finishing up the reading of the nominees so we can cast our ballots for who we think should be the finalists in our category or categories. I'm judging two of the six categories, and there are five judges per category.
I know every judge has their own way of looking at quality. Every judge is qualified to serve as one. Yet we all rank different elements as higher importance or lower importance. (Is the plot arc more important than character? Is the writing on a sentence and paragraph level more important than plot? And so on. The list is endless.) Whatever we use as our personal guidelines, we are to apply the same ones to every book we judge.
I'm not going to discuss specific categories or titles (although since my own book is eligible in Historical, I'm obviously not judging that one). What I'll do instead is offer some general observations.
In one category, I thought there were three clear front-runners. While I still had a couple of books to read in the category, I would have been very surprised to see any of those three knocked off my list of predicted finalists. The last two slots would be fought over by the others. Actually, not all the others, because there are always a handful of nominees that just don't hold a candle to the others. But there were several that could have filled those last two slots.
Then lo and behold, I find out that one of the judges absolutely detested one of my top 3. Um, what? Every other person I've talked to who has read this book has love, love, loved it. Except this judge. I'm dying to know what the other three judges think, and now I'm wondering whether this book will be a finalist after all. I think it absolutely deserves to be. But I'm sure this judge has their reasons.
It's so subjective.
In my other category, something similar happened, only I was on the other side. I read a title I thought without a doubt was on the "um, yeah right, this has no chance" pile. And then I heard another judge in the same category lauding it. I had to do a double-take. I had half a mind to shake the judge and say, "But no human being acts like that! The characters were cardboard, the plot was contrived, and the writer was trying too hard to have a specific tone and missed the target by a mile. Can't you see that?"
Or maybe I'm the one with no clue. So maybe that book will be a finalist even though I couldn't stand it.
In a little less than a month, the finalists will be announced. I'm sure there will be plenty of excited people. Others will be sad they didn't make the list. There will be lots of buzz about why certain titles are there while others are not, and whether LDS fiction has improved or not over the years and what were certain judges thinking, and whether the Whitney system is accurate and all kinds of stuff.
But the bottom line is this: everyone likes different things. Even "quality" is, largely, subjective. And as frustrating as that can be at times, it's the reality. It's why I have a daughter who loves brownies but hates chocolate ice cream. They're both chocolate. As far as I'm concerned, they're both delicious. But she has a different taste.
And that's okay.
On the other hand, I really hope that one title is a finalist and one isn't.
And since I'm being honest, I kinda wouldn't complain if Tower of Strength ends up on the list too.