3/12/09

Clichés and Adverbs

I'm reading a book by an LDS author who has written many books. The book I'm reading is filled with overuse of cliches & adverbs. Isn't this generally considered poor writing?
Yes.

Why is she getting away with using a cliché or adverb on almost every page? And, why oh why (feel free to not use this next part when you address this question on your blog) is this book nominated for a Whitney Award? The story is great, but the overuse of these two elements weakens the writing.

You are the third person in two days to ask me this, and while neither of you mentioned the title of the book specifically, I believe I know which one you're referring to because I have the same issues with it.

The answer is: this author has plenty of readers who love her books and apparently do not mind her use of clichés or adverbs, or they are willing to overlook that for the sake of the story. And this group of loyal fans is also the reason the book is up for a Whitney—because those fans nominated it.

Could a new writer get away with this? No, because they don't have an established group of loyal fans. Simple as that.

23 comments:

Annette Lyon said...

Speaking as a Whitney judge (although I don't think that book was in either of my categories), every one of us judged differently. For me, things like cliches and adverbs would have been a bigger problem than for another judge I spoke to who was willing to forgive things like that if the storytelling itself was solid.

It's a very subjective thing.

Anonymous said...

The fans could have nominated her book for a Whitney, but there's a small group of judges that determine the finalists. I was keenly disappointed in their picks for finalists this year and wondering how they determined the ones they did because some of the finalists are very weak books. It is a puzzling process.

Anonymous said...

The switching of point of view mid-scenes is also prevalent in that book and very annoying as well.

And, I just don't think those things can be forgiven, no matter how solid the storytelling is because many will put the book down and not finish it, good story or not. The anguish of reading weak writing is not worth the payoff from a good story.

Carl said...

There are many, many people who no longer read LDS fiction because their conception of LDS fiction is exactly what that author's books generally are. If she actually wins an award, it will only reinforce the stereotype and misconception. It's an unfortunate nomination.

Scarlet Knight said...

I believe it's not just the LDS Fiction.

I went to LTUE a few weeks ago and picked up a couple books from an author (not LDS) that was mentioned many times at the conference- I won't mention names. ;)

I was shocked to find that most of both books TOLD the story instead of showing. I stuggled to stick with them (actually I only made it through one of the books).

So I have to agree, if the author has a following, they can break some rules.

Anonymous said...

LDSP Wrote: And this group of loyal fans is also the reason the book is up for a Whitney—because those fans nominated it.

Hold on there LDSP. That's not the whole story. Any author can get nominated. It takes five reader-friends for that. Becomming a finalist requires a panel of Whitney judges.

Don't blame us readers for messing up unless what you mean by "small group of loyal fans" are the five adoring judges on the Whitney panel.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, are you suggesting that the judges picked their author friends for finalists regardless of the merit of the book?

Emily M said...

I think it depends a lot on 1-the field of books eligible for the category you're talking about, and 2-the given judge for that particular category. Forgive me, but the romance category, for instance, is not traditionally know for its lack of cliches and adverbs. As Scarlet Knight points out, even in the national market, an author with a following can get away with cliches and adverbs. Newer authors, not so much. So in a certain category, if the genre standards are different, the field of eligible books is going to reflect that difference. And so will the finalists chosen.

Having read a good chunk of the finalists, IMHO this year's strongest categories overall are novel of the year (although I wondered how those finalists were determined, and why _Waiting for the Light to Change_ wasn't one of them...) and youth fiction. But that may reflect my general bias in favor of those categories.

Anonymous said...

No, I'm not suggesting that Whitney judges selected their friends. And yes, I am suggesting they may have unwittingly let biases, like friendship, influecne their selections. Judging is such a complex endeavor. I know. I've been a judge and performance analyst across the US and Europe for over twenty five years.

The Whitney panel of judges are likely accomplished authors, experienced editors or prolific readers. They done well. But its hard not to let healthy biases creep into your judging in unhealthy ways. In a reading and writing community that is comparatively small in number and regional in geography like the majority who come from out there in Utah, biased judging is likely to happen. Often.

Friendship is a good bias. Resepct for pioneers in the industry is a good one too. Personal preference is a divine attribute. Discriminating tastes make the world an adventurous place. Secular values like logic have huge merit. Spiritaul values reach the depths of the human soul. Attitdues toward love, hate, forgiveness, loneliness, money, repentance, religion, family, politics, liberalism, conservatism, environmentalism, and chocolate impact a judge's sense of beauty and art. They also make judging a mess.

If you're a judge and your friend has a novel under consideration as does an author who you think is personally annoying, or prudish, or too religious, or not pious enough, who's going to get the nod when their novels are critically indistingushable? They both have good stories. They both contain decently crafted characters. One has great dialouge. The other exciting action. They both rely too heavily on cliches and adverbs. You end up selecting the author you like and then you craft a logical explanation as to why the other novel wasn't selected. That's fair. That's how selections are made. So if you're a Whitney judge and you did that, great. What else could you do?

However, there are some things the Whitney awards committe could do in terms of what is known as an institutional equilizer to give balance to the panel. Its similar to what our system of jurisprudence does as they assemble courts. To enhance the judicial process of selecting meritorious works of art in popular fiction the Whitney awards may want to examine how that's done in other venues like gymnastics events, American Idol, dancing contests, or ice sculpturing, where a judge makes the final determination of a winner.

As a judge of popular fiction you may insist that what you're doing is overlooking a few cliches in favor of a powerful story (or condeming the story in favor of terrible cliches) but often the vote for one selection is in reality a vote against another. Which is a very different selection than voting in favor of a particular work.

Bias, though essential to making decisions in our personal lives, can unduly influence our judgement in a situation like the Whitney awards. You vote for one novel becuase the other author is too molly Mormon. Notice the distinction. Vote for one novel and against the other author. You may view her writing as out of touch. Maybe she preaches the kind of repentance that makes you uncomfortable. Is she, or her writing, in your view, a public embarassment? Weird? Annoying? Objectionable? Wall-flowerish? Arrogant? Inconsiderate? Too sweet? Uneducated? Overly educated? Too precise? Too bombastic? A cad?

One solution is to have a large, unrelated pool of judges who have never met most if not all the authors from which you choose your panel. If you don't have a large pool, which is probably the case in a thriteen million member church when the base pool needs to be in the hundreds of millions if not billions to statistically select against bias, then the solution is to include a diverse array of judges.

In order to statistically select against bias in the case of analyzing art, like popular fiction, you normatively begin as a foundation using two main determinants and then add others if the need arrises. The first is gender. You need about an equal number of male and female judges. Second is popular fiction preference. A gymnastics judging panel, for example, can not be made up entirely of men and women who claim that a gracile body structure is more pleasing to the eye than a stout body structure if you hope to select against bias in your panel. So it is with the Whitney panel. You need a diversity of judges, some whose preference is adventure, others who prefer mystery, others romance, and still others with an affinity for religious/spiritual story or its mirror image, a secular story.

I don't see in the Whitney judging panel a large pool from which to select. That's understandable in an award that is growing and in a church that will likely never produce billions in a potential base population from which will come your judges. A better suggestion is to try to establish a more diverse panel.

Good luck. Selecting a diverse panel is not a simple task and finding qualified volunteers is not an easy job.

Anonymous said...

All of the books I've read so far are very well-written with the exception of 2 that I can think of which are littered with cliches, adverbs, and other weaknesses.

The Whitney awards is a great endeavor, and let's not forget, still in its infancy. It's subject to learning from its mistakes.

I have great hopes for this awards program and really believe in it.

However, I do not think that bad writing in a finalist can be accepted even if it has a good story. Both a good story and good writing need to be present in order for a book to deserve being picked as a finalist.

The way the Whitneys are set up is excellent. Having fans & redears nominate books seems fair and then having the judges narrow it down to 5 finalists is also fair and reasonable. However, those judges cannot judge the books the same way readers do. Some readers love books because of the story, not caring or understanding if the writing is good. This luxury should not be allowed by the judges. They must judge on a higher standard-good story & good writing. No exceptions. So, the judges let a few books slide this year because of good stories. Forgive them, but let's not let it happen again.

Pick judges that care about writing, not just the story. Pick judges that understand good writing. If you don't cringe every time you see a cliche or a POV switches, then you cannot be a good judge of writing. Let's hope that the thoughts expressed on this blog will be read and taken into account when picking judges for next year. Good writing does matter. Some fans don't care about that and will continue reading books in the LDS and national market that are badly written. Authors are making bank on those fans who don't care, but somebody needs to hold these popular authors accountable. Good writing can get authors on the bestsellers list, but please, please not on lists of finalists for awards such as the Whitneys that are judged by writers who should know better.

I love the Whitneys, really I do, but please learn from this mistake. Unless this writer improves her writing tremendously, I hope to never see her as a Whitney finalist again.

RobisonWells said...

Hey all,
I figure that it's about time that I enter the discussion. I've been watching it from the sidelines and am very interested.

I'm not here to defend the awards. Actually, I'm interested in a lot of the ideas that have been discussed, and am always on the lookout for ways to improve. I think a little criticism is healthy.

I'd like to ask a question if I could. I'm not sure if there is just one person posting as anonymous or several, but I'd like to ask him/her/them how they would specifically restructure the judges? (The list of judges is here.

Obviously, your point about gender is very true. The vast majority of our judges are female. But what other changes would you recommend?

All of this said, the Whitney Committee has a policy that we will not make any changes to award rules based on complaints about an individual winner or finalist. If there are systemic problems or elements of bias, we are eager to fix them. But we won't make changes because some people disagree with the individual books.

(As a matter of fact, I have no idea which book/s this discussion is referring to, and I don't think it makes much of a difference. There will always be controversy, and I think that's healthy. No book, movie, music or piece of art will ever appeal to everyone. Even the classics of literature have critics.)

But again, if there are procedural problems we definitely want to fix them. I only ask that your recommendations be specific: I can't do much fixing unless I know what's broken. (If you want to email me privately, that works too: robisonwells at msn.com)

Thanks! I'm glad that people care enough about the awards to bring up concerns like these.

Rob

Anonymous said...

Rob:

I am responsible for two anonymous posts. You can call me Washington DC if that helps. My first post began the second paragraph with:

Hold on there LDSP. That's not the whole story.

And my second post began like this:

No, I'm not suggesting that Whitney judges selected their friends.

In my experience with judging panels the two main determinants, as I suggested in my former post, is gender and diversity. I don't mean those in politically correct terms. Society has adopted an evolved definition, if not a profane one. But back in the day, my day, when educational psychologist, organizational behaviorists and your run of the mill pollsters were cutting their teeth on test development and introducing statistical analysis, which were essentially a battery of questions designed to evaluate, for example, preferences, they came up with some pretty foundational ideas that continue to be the basis for selecting jury pools and empanelling judges.

As far as the elimination of bias goes, there should be a couple of aims. First, selecting a cross section of judges where preferences are distributed evenly. Second, instituting a voting procedure where the extremes are removed.

Developing your voting procedure is a simpler task than is selecting an evenly distributed panel with regard to preferences. When your judges vote, allow them to score the work numerically rather than with a comment system like good, bad, above average. You can go to the cumbersome extreme of identifying specific characteristics of a great novel and have your judges rate the work in each of those categories, similar to what gymnastic judges do by awarding points for difficulty from a long list of tricks, composure, strength, flexibility, etc. Or you can simply allow the judge to give you a gut reaction rating. That's a simpler approach for your panel, especially if they are volunteers who donate their time and expertise to your project. They can rate the novel on a scale from say 1 to 10. Those scoring systems tend to work best when they are accompanied by a list of items to consider as they arrive at their gut-reaction score. Your form, for example, can ask the judge to:

Rate each novel from 1 to 10 (one being the worst classification and ten being the best) while considering writing technique, grammar usage, inventiveness, creativity, plot, dramatic elements, characterization and any other element your committee deems important. It is not advisable to give expert judges a ranking system, for example, 1 = don't read this book, 2 = missing important plot elements, 10 = buy this book and read it multiple times. Let each judge come to their own sense of numerical equivalence, or what we call, individual comparativeness. Most judges recognize a technically well-written novel when they read it. Too many adverbs and lots of clichés are easily recognized by all your experts. Some judges will only give a rank of ten if the book is as good as the best novels they have ever read. That’s fine. And so are judges who group novels according to good, average, below average, and failing. Let them figure out their final numerical assessment. You need at least five judges to make this system statistically viable. You then throw out the high score and the low score and average the remaining three scores.

The second aim is to select judges who will give your panel a cross section of preferences rather than a narrow view. This tends to act in a similar manner as does the throwing out of the high and low scores and it is based in two elements. First you must have an even number of male and female judges. That's hard to do with a five judge panel. It’s also hard to find six capable volunteer judges, but that would be the ideal since a four judge panel gets you into statistical trouble with regard to bias and skews your results by not cancelling out the extremes and selecting for, rather than against, bias. Three women. Three men. More than that all the better. Your goal for improving your judging panel should include at least a six member team.

Women view a novel in a different light than do men. They are usually concerned with what is best or what could be called a merciful choice or conclusion, while men are more concerned with what is just. A satisfying ending to a story for a male judge is making certain that the hero got his just reward and the villain a just punishment. A satisfying ending for a female judge includes making sure the heroine made the moral choice. It is what we call, in performance analysis, the Adam and Eve factor. Most novels will include elements of justice and mercy, and those tend to appeal to the logic and emotions of both genders. It is imperative that an unbiased panel have an even number of men and women. Without that balance, your judges will weight their selections far too much in favor of either merciful stories or just stories.

Finally, you should balance the preferences of your judges. If you empanel six judges, three male and three female, who all have a preference for x-games, sky diving, and Russian roulette, you will likely end up with five action adventure finalists in your romance category. It will also tick off a lot of romance writers and fill your inbox with complaints. It is a mistake to ask potential judges to fill out a questionnaire asking them which genre they prefer. What you want is a profile of their preferences and there is a number of short twenty or thirty question psychology tests that will help you determine the best make up of your panel. Look for a personality profile test or a personality preference test. You can find them online, in the library and in the psychology department of most universities. Make sure you ask an expert in the field which test would help you the most.

If you have five x-game loving, sky-diving, Russian-roulette playing judges in your pool, assign one to each of your categories and they will ensure that the adventuresome elements in each genre don't go missed. The same is true for judges who like opera, play bridge and walk their dog every evening. The profile questions are usually very simple and they usually require a choice between two or more options. Do you prefer hikes in the woods or swimming on a beach? If you had to choose between watching the nightly news or listening to music which would you choose? Do you think kindness is more important than directness? After taking a short test like this you can develop a profile for each of your judges which will help you maintain some preferential balance to each panel and keep you from over-weighting any panel in favor of one specific personality or preference type.

Hope this helps as you empanel your judges in coming years. Let me know if I can be of anymore assistance.

All the best,

Washington DC

Michelle said...

I think some of you are taking the friend thing too seriously, I know alot of these authors and have read many things from all of them.

When I like a book it is because of the story, plot, dialogue etc. I notice errors just like the rest of you. When I notice an error I usually make note of it and hope to learn from it.

However, just because I have met the author and like them doesn't mean that I am going to "love" the book. Or recommend it to someone else.

I would hope and assume that the Whitney judges feel like I do.

RobisonWells said...

Thanks, Washington DC.

We have already have a voting system that I'm very pleased with, and I don't think we'll be changing it. But I appreciate your thoughts on the judges. I'm not sure I agree with all of it, but we'll definitely discuss it all as we move forward. We really do want to make the awards as good as possible.

Thanks.

Anonymous said...

DC, This was totally offensive:

"Women view a novel in a different light than do men. They are usually concerned with what is best or what could be called a merciful choice or conclusion, while men are more concerned with what is just. A satisfying ending to a story for a male judge is making certain that the hero got his just reward and the villain a just punishment. A satisfying ending for a female judge includes making sure the heroine made the moral choice."

You seriously think that qualified judges are so influenced by their gender that they can't possibly consider the quality of writing beyond what their DNA suggests? That's ridiculous.

I think this year's finalists are better than last year's. Some of your suggestions are unrealistic. We're looking at a program in its infancy, one that doesn't have a massive pool of ready, willing, skilled judges to pick from. And all the judges are surely people who believe in the Whitneys and are willing to put in all kinds of time and effort on a *volunteer* basis. Considering what the program is working with, the results are nothing short of astonishingly good.

Gordon G. said...

No offense, Washington DC, but I think those suggestions are ridiculous.

It reminds me of that early scene in Dead Poet's Society (of my fav movies) where the textbook says that the greatness of a poem can be found by graphing it's quality versus its importance. The teacher's response: "Excrement! That's what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard! We're not laying pipe! We're talking about poetry. How can you describe poetry like American Bandstand? "I like Byron, I give him a 42 but I can't dance to it!"

And about the gender thing, is it really fair to have an even number of male and female judges critiquing in the romance category? The vast majority of those books are written for women. Why does an award winner have to appeal to men and women equally? (It's been a while, but I remember reading on some LDS author's blog that her publisher said 75% of their readers are women?)

I think the Whitney Awards are doing a good job. Trying to judge novels (works of art) with a bunch of scientific rankings doesn't make much sense to me.

Anonymous said...

The ranking system I suggest is not focused on the selection of a novel. I leave that to the judge or judges in the panel. My attempt was only to suggest a system that would direct the bias inherent in each judge toward a fair selection.

I suggested the judges should be permitted to use a gut-reaction 1 to 10 scale with some guidelines provided by the Whitney committee which could include characterization, writing technique and myriad others. Judging requires some sort of weighting of one novel over another, without which no winner could be declared. A good ranking system recognizes that there is bias in every judgment. If there were no bias, then it would be impossible for a judge to make a selection and it would be better, then, to go to a popular vote rather than an empanelled team of judges.

Men and woman have bias. Some helpful. Some destructive. God, on the other hand, has only has helpful, fair or what we would call divine bias. It is that basis on which God judges men holy, impure, penitent, sinner, etc. The guidelines used by God include but are not limited to commandments, covenants, and scripture. It is also clear that God employs equally principles of both justice and mercy—and interesting point when you consider that men tend to be biased toward justice and women tend to be biased toward mercy.

Since it would be nearly impossible to empanel God on any Whitney selection team, an honest system of judging recognizes that bias is at the core of making judgments and attempts to select for fairness, however that is defined by the Whitney Committee. It is true that one woman’s sense of fairness is another women’s despotism. The only course toward fairness if comparison with other judging systems in the same was that nations compare the “fairness” of their laws. As much as a judge may think herself without bias, we have, as yet, to find any humans that qualify in that category no matter how pious, religious, evil, penitent, uneducated, or brilliant they may be.

A good voting system also attempts to minimize the extremes by tossing the high and low score and then coming to some sort of mathematical result from which you can determine your selection. You have two options with some cross over that lay between these options. You could choose to use the highly complex gymnastics option where experts agree on the points awarded for a multitude of metrics. Or you can use the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, which I suggested for your Whitney awards, and employ a gut-reaction sort of metric allowing each judge to determine their own internal comparisons and arrive at a numerical 1 through 10 assignment. You could also employ the excellent, above average, good, below average, and poor assignments, but you will eventually have to use some sort of mathematical calculation in order to compare one novel to the other across a panel of five or six voting judges. If you used a panel of one judge, you could dispense with any numerical ranking and allow that single judge to rank the top five selections. However, once you empanel more than one judge you have to have some basis for comparison between judges. As cold and calculating as it may seem, mathematics is the best system we have available, until, of course, Christ sits in judgment as a single empanelled judge.

There is a compromise employed by juries where the entire panel must come to a unanimous decision. That requires the judges meet, discuss, opine, deliberate, counsel, and sometimes twist the arms of other judges until they come to a unanimous conclusion or ranking of, in this case, five novels which are then named as finalists. This is known as a jury rather than a panel and the judges are referred to as jurists rather than judges. If the jury is unable to come to a unanimous decision, they would appeal to a judge to make the final determination. That would most likely be a simply decision in the Whitney award case, where the determination would be between the fifth and sixth selection where one is selected as a finalist and the other is not.

The idea of having an equal number of male and female judges has little to do with the demographic of the readership or the genre. Should female judges not be in empanelled in equal numbers on a male gymnastics event because most male gymnasts are male and most of their fans are male as well? Balancing male and female readers recognizes that a male judge, for example, tends to weight the justice component in a romance novel more heavily and a female judge tends to weight the mercy component more heavily. And since most romance novels include elements of both justice and mercy it is advisable to have both men and women judges. If you choose to empanel only female judges in a romance category, it is likely that the novels whose plots depend more heavily on the mercy component of the story will fare better than the romance novels where the mercy and justice components are given fairly equal attention, or where the justice component is more prevalent in the story.
Les Miserables is an excellent example of a novel which contains elements of both justice and mercy in fairly equal balance. Studies indicate that women tend to weight more heavily the mercy component in the story while men tend to weight the justice component. There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of studies performed looking at the mercy and justice components like the one sited below. It appears to be the main difference between preferences of men and women. It may also point out the need for men to learn from women and women to learn from men in order to become Godlike, in Whom justice and mercy are personified in full measure. Regardless of how you interpret the results of the mercy and justice tendencies inherent in men and women, it is widely accepted that in order to maintain a degree of fairness it is recommended that judging panels include gender balance regardless if its men's gymnastics or women's fiction.

I'm sorry if these suggestions have offended readers of this blog. That was never my intent. I must say that I have spent far too much time detailing these ideas. I wish you the best of luck in your judging endeavors and your writing work.

Washington DC

Journal Article Excerpt

Age and gender differences
by Kimberly Badger , Rebecca Simpson Craft , Larry Jensen

Jensen, McGhie, and Jensen (1991) investigated whether men and women differ in what they view as important. They predicted that women would have a more caring value orientation. A questionnaire with 40 contrasting adjectives and phrases was developed to measure this caring perspective. The adjectives and phrases were selected from enumerations of gender differences extracted from three sources - Gilligan (1982), Noddings (1984, 1988), Bernard (1981), and Belensky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1986) - and then categorized. The questionnaire was administered to 56 husbands and wives, who were asked to circle the item in each pair that was more important to them personally. Significant differences between men and women were found for 14 word pairs, and for all word pairs the differences were in the predicted direction. The 14 pairs were logic versus intuition, power versus compromise, character versus kindness, consistency versus forgiveness, freedom versus children, facts versus feelings, what people do versus what people are like inside, justice versus mercy, enjoy work versus enjoy people, determination versus patience, achievement versus getting along with others, success versus friends, competitive ability versus cooperative ability, and being in charge versus helping.

A similar study by Stimpson, Neff, Jensen, and Newby (1991) also found gender differences in preference for a caring value orientation. Women were asked to rate adjectives, which had been extracted from the Bem Sex-Role Inventory, on a 5-point Likert scale. It was found that women considered the following adje...

Anonymous said...

Washington, D.C.,

I have enjoyed your comments immensely and hope that at least some of your suggestions might be employed or seriously considered. There is obviously a lot of bias currently in the Whitney judging system as evidenced by this year's finalists.

Thank you for spending so much time outlining those suggestions. You did, in fact, make several excellent points that could educate and strengthen an awards system in its "infancy."

Anonymous said...

DC, I can't help but wonder if you have any clue how the judges voted or ranked the books. You're assuming a lot without knowing what actually went on behind scenes.

I find comparing God's system of justice and mercy to judging literature a bit silly. That's so off it's beyond comparing apples to oranges.

And the next anon, I disagree that there's an "obvious" bias. I haven't seen it at all. There's a wide variety of finalists--and two self-published finalists, no less. Only one category seems to have a slant toward one publisher--but isn't there a possibility that that publisher happens to put out good stuff in that genre?

If it's not publisher, then I don't know what bias you're referring to. I'm not seeing it.

Anonymous said...

I think some believe the judges themselves are biased, but I don't believe that to be true. I believe the judges, normal men and women with lives, families, and writing careers themselves, are sacrificing time and exerting great effort to fairly judge the books.

An old saying goes something like, "You don't know someone unless you've walked a mile in his shoes." It's easy to throw out judgments or criticisms, or make assumptions, if you haven't put forth the kind of effort these judges have. I can't imagine how many books they read to narrow down the finalsts to 5, all the while trying to take care of their families, jobs, and their own works-in-progress.

I think they've done a tremendous job. If you aren't satisfied with the results, make sure the books you believe are better written get nominated next year.

Anonymous said...

Let me try one last time to clarify my comments. First, it appears that far too many who are offended by suggesting that judges have bias base their arguments on a politically correct definition of the term. Sadly, in our world, the idea of bias has been given a negative connotation and the general population equates the notion of bias with racism, ugliness, or something to be shunned. Not only is bias an okay attribute in your personal character, it’s critical in order to make a decision. Without bias you simply could never come to any conclusion as to what you deem acceptable, lovely, or beautiful. Ever.

A critical examination of your system of judging has little or nothing to do with the spirit of volunteerism. It also does not suggest that the judges are flawed, or imperfect, or unfair (which is the term I believe you intend to use when defending the current Whitney judging panel rather than the word bias).

As I mentioned previously, judging systems are established with the generally accepted idea that all experts have bias. Otherwise they would not be experts. They do not possess a clean slate. They are not babes from their mother's arms. They have experiences, education, and expertise that we hope their fellow judges do not. They are a diverse lot with diverse ideas, preferences, and beliefs which strengthens their collective judgment. A panel of judges with homogenous preferences, ideas or beliefs would make for a very unfair panel.

When you analyze your judging system, the first step you take is to select against extreme judgments. The truth, statistically, is somewhere in the middle. So when judging performance, or in this case art, you throw out the low and the high opinions. One judge loves the novel and gives it a ten. Another judge didn't give it high marks and it gets a 3. The other judges fall between the two extremes. You throw out the 10 and the 3, average the remaining three scores and you end up with the statistical truth about where this novel scores in the mean distribution opinion of this particular panel.

Secondly, you assemble your panel in the same way a sociologist, anthropologist or ethnographer assembles their research team. When a researcher performs a study, she has to find a statistically reliable (not unbiased, but reliable) tool to measure the data. That's all I'm suggestion you consider for your Whitney panel. Make sure that your system of judge selection produces a statistically reliable tool. The tool, in the case of the Whitney awards, is the panel of judges. Let me explain:

A medical researcher may decide that a stethoscope is the best tool to research a particular aspect of heart disease. A chemist may decide that a thermometer is the best tool to measure the heat activation energy required to catalyze a reaction. What does an anthropologist, ethnographer or sociologist do when they research a culture? The same thing that good performance analysts do when they select a panel of judges. Like the stethoscope or the thermometer, the panel of Judges (or teams of anthropologists, sociologists, or ethnographers) is the tool of measure. Notice I said that the panel of judges IS the tool, not each individual judge. You cannot make each individual judge a reliable tool, but you can put in place a system which will select for reliability across a group of judges.

When a team of anthropologists study living cultures they inserts themselves into the jungle village, for example, and observes the villagers. Each anthropologist is, however, not without bias. In order to prevent individual bias from tainting the data, each researcher follows a few rules that will make sure the tool (in this case the researcher) for data collection is reliable and the researcher institutes generally accepted measures for establishing that reliability. The first is triangulation. The researcher observes that only women prepare tortillas at home A, but she needs more data to support her theory that only women prepare tortillas in this culture. So she goes to home B and sure enough, only women prepare tortillas at home B. But to she needs at least three points of data to make sure she is close to the truth so she goes to home C to see if women only prepare tortillas. If she hadn’t done this, it is possible that her experience in her own home where her father prepared all the tortillas could have influenced her decision. In the case of Whitney judging panels, you accomplish a similar reliability by throwing out the top score, the bottom score, and averaging the three data points in the middle.

It is also imperative that the judging panel represent a diversity of background or experience. In order to do that you can, with confidence, select an equal number of male and female judges to your panel. You can also select, for example, personalities types, blue, red, yellow, white etc. since it has been shown that those differences in personality types tend to be generally representative of the larger population. Instead of that type of selection you could, for example, use the four quadrant brain system which would ensure that panelists represent logical as well as artistic thinkers. You could use any of a myriad of tests or factors to ensure that each panel is not overly weighted for any one specific preference.

Again, I had hoped not to have to clarify my comments, but in light of the offense that I seem to have engendered, I wanted to be perfectly clear that I am only suggesting ways to insure that your judging system works for you. I never intended to suggest that your current panel of judges is somehow unfair. They are biased to be sure, otherwise they would never have been asked to judge these novels. Experts, by definition, are biased. The system of empanelment, however, had obvious flaws, for example the ratio of men to women is lacking. That is a systemic flaw which has nothing to do with the expertise, fairness or objectivity of each individual judge. It is only an observation about the system.

Good luck with your efforts. You are doing a splendid job. And now I must take my leave and get back to crunching my own numbers. I wish all of you well. Someday I will check back in with this website, but for now, goodbye.

Washington DC

Anonymous said...

Just a guess, but I'm thinking DC's view of the "obvious flaw" in the system might mean his/her own book wasn't a finalist. As if there must be something wrong because the panel didn't recognize their brilliance. I find all the protesting a bit too much.

LDS_Publisher said...

To the previous Anon, play nice, please.