Tuesday, January 12, 2010

So Subjective

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.


Sarah M Eden said...

Kudos to you for being willing to be a judge. I'm too much of a coward. I prefer letting y'all do the hard work and make the tough calls while I just show up at the banquet, enjoy the dinner and not worry about a thing.

Amanda D said...

I think it would be great to be a judge, but it would be so hard at the same time.

Different people definitely have different tastes. I know if my sister doesn't like a movie, then I will for sure. :)

Can't wait to hear the finalists. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

It would be hard to be a judge, I think. In the end, we just have to be honest about our reading experiences and allow that there's a good variety for a reason, right? Well, it's that I'd be doomed.

Daron D. Fraley said...

I think that is EXACTLY why one agent and/or publisher will pass on a book, while another agent and/or publisher will pick it up. And yet neither group can guarantee a book will be a successful best-seller.

A good product, well-timed introductions to the right contacts in publishing, sufficient exposure to the right kind of readers who will spread the word, and a little bit of luck all seem to contribute. At least in my opinion...

Erin said...

I completely agree with everything you say here. I have pretty picky tastes in terms of what I like to read (and I tend to put a book down if I'm not fully interested by the end of chapter 1). Everyone's feelings about books are so subjective.

P.S. I hope Tower of Strength ends up on the list too!

Happy Mom said...

I'm experiencing this on a very small scale right now. A woman in my book club has raved about a book for two years. We're reading it this month and it's pitiful. Inconsisten, not believable, contrived, you name it. I tend to be gullible and accepting of a plot unless the flaws are glaring. But time after time I find myself saying, "Huh? That doesn't make any sense"

I wonder what she sees in it and then wonder what she's thought of the books I've recommended. Most of all, I'm not sure how to discuss this book without sending the messge that anyone who likes it is a moron!

Can't wait for the finalists!

Luisa Perkins said...

It must be a fascinating process. I look forward to reading the list of finalists!

Unknown said...

I really don't think I could do this job. I have a little editing job for a blogging aggregate, and I have to decide what is published and what is not. It is so HARD to be objective about the submissions if they are either poorly written or put forward an opinion I strongly disagree with!

I usually end up cleaning it up (which is my other job) and then sending it back to the managing editor with the note "I didn't like this at all, which probably means you should publish it!"

Emily M. said...

It is subjective... I guess. Except even when I know that in my head, in my heart I think all my favorites are right.

I'm excited to see the list of finalists. And I wish I could be a fly on the wall for the finalist selection process.

Lara Neves said...

This is one reason I love being in a book club. Come discussion time it always fascinates me how different our reading experiences were. It does open my mind to why someone would like or dislike a book, but I usually don't change my own opinion, because my own life experience is what made me like/dislike it in the first place.

Crossing my fingers for Tower of Strength!

Stephanie Black said...

Good luck with the judging! That's a tough job. Do you fill out an evaluation form for the books, or do you just list your top choices for a category?

Annette Lyon said...

Good question Stephanie!

The voting process is an online Condorcet-type ballot, where we're asked to put every single book in the category against every single other book. So: Does #1 or #2 more deserve the award? Does #1 or #3 more deserve it? and so on, until you get through every possible combination.

It's a really cool system, and it factors more than just a plain old favorites list would.

Amber Lynae said...

It is funny how we all come out the reading experience with different views.

Stephanie Black said...

Annette, thanks for the explanation. That's a really cool judging system!

Carolyn V. said...

Ohhh! Fingers crossed on the Tower of Strength. Your insights are very interesting. It's true, I've liked one piece of work and my friends haven't (and vice versa). =)

Melanie Jacobson said...

How could Tower of Strength NOT be a finalist? It totally will be.

That Girl said...

Huh. I wish we could just copy and paste this post whenever blogging "book-wars" start. (You like Twilight?! Ick! Pride and Prejudice? You've gotta be kidding me!)

We like what we like, end of story.

I am sooooo glad I'm not a judge.

Tanya Parker Mills said...

Perhaps, there ought to be ten judges for each panel just to broaden the pool a bit. But, then, I'm sure it was difficult enough to find five!

My hat's off to you for your diligence. Thanks for the post.

Charlie Moore said...

In the end the cream does rise to the top. Regardless of how books are voted on, I think good literature shines through. Realizing that people have their own likes and biases, my contention is that good writing (an author who can put all the elements of a great story together)will usually supersede people's biases and their books will be liked by many.

Good luck to everyone chosen in this years Whitney pool for 2009 releases. I have my favorites and it will be interesting to see if others like what I like. That probably won't be difficult since I've enjoyed almost all the LDS genre books I've read.


Jessica G. said...

People still can't believe I hated "A Thousand Splendid Suns" and "Tuesdays With Morrie."
This is why I never trust people when they say they like my writing...
And I totally envy your position!

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

Well said Annette!

And I'll be shocked if you aren't a finalist (and I really hope you will be because I'm only going to the Gala if someone I know is up for an award).

* said...

My sister hates Harry Potter and all sci fi, dystopian, and most fantasy lit. Period. I don't like mystery or suspense lit, much. So it surprises me when we agree on one single book between us we like.

Here's to hoping you're a finalist.

wendy said...

That sounds like a big undertaking --to judge a book. and your last paragraph I think sums it up pretty well.
One like one kind
One like the other
and they are both good, just different

but I guess there is that whole side of usage of words, and all that other "literary" stuff I know nothing about.
I just read to be entertained, uplifted, moved, or made to think

Annette Lyon said...

One thing to consider, though, is that there ARE elements that can be clearly drawn as sloppy and bad writing and some that are drop-dead excellent, and you can't quibble on them.

That's one reason why, to some extent anyway, the biggest conflicts I see in the judges' opinions tend to be the middle books--the ones that aren't FANTASTIC and the ones that aren't terrible. The middle-ground books end up being argued over far more than ones that are obviously stellar or obviously just horrid.

Cranberryfries said...

Which is why, I believe, English classes across the world will never really be just about English or writing or reading. They will be about what the teacher wants you to get because of how they view the world. Interesting. Can't wait to hear about the winners.


Amazon's famous Prime Day events are huge for so many reasons, and for bookworms, it's even better: books aren't high-ticket ite...