Earlier on this year I wrote an article for the CWA Red Herring Magazine about being a Dagger Judge and judging books for book awards in general. I have decided to put it up on the blog. I hope that it gives some insight into what judging books for awards entails. Comments welcome.
Book awards are fantastic things and authors love winning them, but what about those people who judge the award? How do they feel about the pressure that is on them?
Being a judge for a book award is an honour, and as someone who has judged the CWA Short Story Dagger among other awards I have enjoyed it immensely. However, judging a book award is not an easy job as there are tough decisions to be made. Be prepared to have your views challenged and your taste in books widened.
When judging a book award there are various things to bear in mind.
What you like, others may not and vice versa. You have to broaden your horizons as you are bound to read a book which you find disappointing but others think is wonderful.
Do not pre-judge the book because you’ve read a negative or positive review. Approach it with your mind as a blank slate.
Consider the sense of place, characterisation and plot. Do you still think about the book after you’ve finished reading it?
And this is what we’re looking for in the books submitted:
- Immersion in a different milieu
- Originality of approach
- Fresh dialogue/descriptive power
- Demonstration of trust in the reader’s imagination
- Well-written prose that’s consistent in holding readers’ attention
Whichever author wins the award has won because their book stood out to all the judges. Nevertheless, just as with readers, every judge's taste in books is different, which is why when the longlist and shortlist are revealed there’s always an eclectic mix of books.
Just because it is a popular book does not make it a well-written book and just because it is a well-written book does not make it a popular book. Nor are judges swayed by the popularity of an author: it is entirely about the book; every book is judged on its merit.
I found that judging awards takes a lot of commitment; commitment of time and more – you have to love crime so much that you’re prepared to spend a lot of time reading books that take you out of your comfort zone.
The Dagger judges operate entirely independently from the CWA and are made up of booksellers, reviewers, librarians, journalists and readers who are fascinated by the genre. The CWA committee has no say in the decisions over what books win, nor do they have any say in the books that are submitted. The judges can only read the books that are submitted or which they call in. The onus is on the publishers to submit their books. No author has any say at all in the composition of the judges for each Dagger; our Daggers Liaison Officer takes the lead in that.
Aside from the Chair of each judging panel, the judges change every three years. Judges enjoy a meal on the CWA at the final judging meeting.
No one takes on the role of Dagger judge for such benefits. It’s done for the pleasure of being part of the most prestigious book awards in the world. It’s also exciting; I found myself immersed in a genre that is constantly changing. I’ve been reading crime for over 40 years, and getting the chance to give back to the genre that has brought me so much pleasure was very satisfying. It also helped me to fully appreciate the hard work of those at the heart of the awards - the authors.
Former Chair of Judges of the CWA Short Story Dagger