Judging a literary prize is the one thing that no algorithm, no matter how sophisticated, can do. It is an intensely human and subjective endeavour. Now that the winner of this year’s Stella prize has been announced, I can say with complete honesty that this was the hardest prize I have ever judged: partly because of the sheer volume of books that we five judges had to read, in a relatively tight time frame, and partly because the quality of the books made it such a difficult process.
I spent a lot of this summer reading so intensely that on some days, I simply never got dressed. I taped the three criteria to my bedside table -original, excellent and engaging- and repeated them to myself like a mantra whenever I was unsure.
Some books snuck up on me unexpectedly, including a couple I had missed when they came out. One or two had completely failed to appear on my radar, causing me genuine concern: how could it be that I had overlooked them, when my role at Booktopia gives me the opportunity to see everything that’s out there? Answer: I’m human. An algorithm could come up with a formula that suggests what I might like based on previous preferences, but it won’t necessarily spot the book I failed to notice.
As the process and the summer wore on, emails trickled through in the heat, becoming more urgent as deadlines neared. Oh the relief of realising some of my most fervently held enthusiasms were shared!
I thought of what it takes to do this as a kind of fitness, requiring muscle tone like a long distance athletic challenge. You need reading stamina to stay the course as well as lots of uninterrupted time.
When it came to whittling the longlist down to the shortlist, I read all twelve books again to get to six. There was no way round it. The revelations on re-reading were astounding and sometimes conviction-shaking – which just goes to show how much you miss when you are binge-reading, swallowing a book down without digesting it properly.
Our deliberations, when we finally came together on a warm day in Melbourne, were respectful, polite, fair but intense. Navigating towards the shore of consensus, we avoided the rocks of heated argument, all equally keen to avoid boiling it down to the simple, bald maths of a vote.
Being the first cab off the rank in the sequence of the year’s literary prizes is interesting: when the lists appear for prizes like the Miles Franklin it is surprising to see where you overlap and where you don’t.
I think it’s great for the vigour of the culture if one book does not scoop all the prizes, but it was surprising to see that our winner this year was not even longlisted for The Miles Franklin, given that The Strays certainly ticks the box when it comes to the vexed criterion of depicting an aspect of Australian life.
If Joan London wins it for The Golden Age, that would mean a pair of prestigious wins by two fine women writers who use language with similar precision, delicacy and maturity, despite the fact that one is making her debut, and the other is arguably one of our finest midcareer novelists. Both books about outsiders with heightened sensibilities, and which bring a fresh perspective to complex aspects of our past.
Caroline Baum is Booktopia’s Editorial Director, for which she produces The Booktopia Buzz. She also writes for the Sydney Morning Herald, Qantas in flight magazine, Slow Magazine, SBS Feast and other publications about books, food, travel, the arts, and aspects of contemporary life.