2/19/11

Whitney Judging by Jeffrey S. Savage


I apologize for being so late with this. (And not just because I fear the wrath of an angry LDSPublisher.) Between my day job and the last two days at LTUE, I haven’t had a spare second. Then Rob Wells and Daron Fraley forced me to eat sushi with them and carry on long conversations about the future of LDS novels.

I highly recommend LTUE to any Utah writers—especially if you enjoy fantasy and Sci-Fi. Where else can you get a three day conference with tons of awesome authors for $25? Nowhere, I think. I wish I could say the same for eating sushi with Rob and Daron. Daron does embarrassing tricks with fish eggs and Rob flings rice everywhere.

But I am here and excited to discuss what I consider to be a very intriguing controversy. Or maybe controversy isn’t even the right word. Examination? Comparison? I’ll let you decide.

As I mentioned last week, author Ronda Gibb Hinrichsen asked the following question regarding the upcoming Whitney Awards.

In the past, I've created my own rubric . . . but who's to say what I feel are the important elements in a book are the same as those chosen by another author/reader? I absolutely love the Whitneys, and I will continue to support and help with it as much as I can, but I feel its current, unregulated judging process is much too subjective to really MEAN anything more than a popularity contest. But maybe popularity is what we want it to mean?


First of all, let me say that this discussion isn’t unique to LDS literature. Nor is it even limited to literature. There has always been the question of who should decide what is great art and how. Critics? Other artists? The buying public? Obviously a book that sells millions of copies isn’t necessarily a better work than one that sells only a few hundred. But at the same time, is it fair to ignore millions of people who show their appreciation for a movie, movie, or piece of art? That is the very why there are different awards in the movie industry.

In this case though, I don’t think the real question is about sales vs. quality as much as it is about how to judge a book. (Other than by its cover which you’ve already done here.)

When you read a book for enjoyment, you notice the characters, the voice, the plot, and, yes, the writing. What you don’t normally do is break it down and rate it on a scale of one to ten for clarity, character, beginning, grammar, etc. You either think, “I like that,” or, “that didn’t work for me.”

When you enter your work in a contest, you often expect the rubric, Ronda mentions. You know that your book will be judged on certain set criteria. If your plot is great, you may get ten points out of ten on plot. If you don’t understand basic grammar, you may lose ten points.

Which is better for an award like the Whitneys? Let’s start with a wonderful background on how the process works on Annette Lyon’s blog. And a great two part examination of one Whitney judge’s experience judging romance novels by Michele Holmes.

Notice that a book can be nominated for an award by anyone without a monetary stake in the book. (So no spouses or publishers.) Since it only requires five votes to be nominated, any LDS author with five friends and a qualifying book can get on the list.

In order to become a finalist, the book has to make it past a panel of five judges. Here’s where things get a bit tricky though. The five judges are not given a rubric by which they should judge the book. They must read all of the entries, and then they are asked a series of online, one-on-one caparison questions. Do you think book A is more deserving of a Whitney than book B? Do you think book B is more deserving of a Whitney than book G. Etc.

Because the judges are not composed of any one group or publisher, there is no inherent bias. Finalist have come from nationally published titles, self-published titles, and virtually every LDS Publisher. But because the judges are not given a set of standards or guidelines, they must choose the books that they find the most deserving. If they are offended by one aspect or another of the book, it can affect their voting.

This issue was brought up when The Lonely Polygamist was not selected as a finalist despite the fact that it was critically acclaimed by national reviewers. No one knows how and why each of the judges voted the way they did. But some have assumed that the graphic sex and language in the book were a major factor. There was an interesting discussion on the AML blog. Read Josi Kilpack’s response here and the ongoing discussion above and below it. On the other hand, there have been complaints in the past that some books that were voted in as finalists were too violent or graphic, or that subject matter was questionable.

Once the five finalists have been chosen, they are voted on by LDS authors, publishers, book store employees, etc. Again there are no guidelines other than that you must read all of the books in any category to vote in it. It’s up to you to decide which book you think is most deserving.

Is this a popularity contest? And if it is, is that bad? Here are the thoughts of a few LDS authors.

Annette Lyon:
Sure, it's impossible to avoid all subjectivity, but to say that an award is meaningless w/out a rubric is like saying the Oscars mean nothing. Or the Hugos or the Nebula or the Edgar or the Pulitzer any number of other awards, literary and otherwise, that have no rubric for the voting academy.

Granted, no system is perfect, but I think anyone would be hard-pressed to find a better system. The Whitneys take the best elements of several awards programs and combine them into something pretty cool.



Rob Wells:
The assumption that is built into the voting process is that, while it may be a popularity contest, the people who are voting are all experts (whether they're writers or retailers or publishers). So, while it's completely subjective and up to the whims of the voters, those voters are smart people who know what constitutes a well-written book.

So, yes, it's not perfect, but I think it's pretty darn good.

(On the flip side, I'm kind of horrified by the thought of a non-subjective measuring stick for novels. That kind of reminds me of the opening scene of DEAD POETS SOCIETY, where they are instructed to mathematically graph a poems greatness.) :)


Heather Moore:
I agree that the Whitney is way above a popularity contest. NY Times Bestselling authors are beat out all of the time. . . . It was really cool that GRAVITY VS THE GIRL won last year--a self published book that was just a gem to read. Also, in 2008, TRAITOR by Sandra Grey won Best Novel. It was her first book! So there was no popularity in that. I don't think any of the Storymakers even knew who she was, but she wrote a dang good story and was recognized for it.

I really, really think the Whitneys are about literary achievement and not necessarily a people's choice award. The books aren't voted by a bunch of raving fans, but professionals in the industry who make books their livelihood, and take it seriously.


Deanne Blackhurst:
. . . if I'm understanding it right, we sort of compare each book in a catagory in basic writing skills. So feasably I might not really enjoy a particular book but find that overall its writing qualities are the best of the five. Is that right? And the areas of writing skills that I use may not necessarily be the same another judge uses but that's okay because the idea is that with the number of judges it should end up being fairly well balanced.


What do you think? As a reader, would you rather know a book got an award because it scored highest in set areas or that more people liked it? As an author how would you like your book to be judged? Would you prefer more of a People’s Choice type award, or the favorite of the critics? And how do you feel about a book that might have incredible writing, but content that would probably offend most Mormons?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and remember there is still one more day of LTUE tomorrow. It’s not to late to come by.

Next week, how LDS authors and readers are using technology to connect with one another. And whether that’s a good or bad thing.

10 comments:

Melissa J. Cunningham said...

I'm not especially experienced in writing. I've only been writing for three years or so. I've never published a book, (yet) and I'm not 'popular' as far as authors go, but I do know a good story when I read one. I also notice when a book is not written well or has a lot of editing mistakes. I think it is entirely possible to judge a book without factoring in who wrote it, and I think it should be that way. I feel like I've made close friends with many of the published LDS authors, but I also recognize which ones I think write the best story with the least amount of mistakes. I hope it's not a popularity contest though. That would be sad. May the best story win! =)

Melanie Jacobson said...

I get to judge the Whitney finalists this year so I've been thinking about how I want to approach this. My natural inclination is to choose what is well-written over what is well-liked, and to say that objectionable content is not a factor for me personally.

However . . . even though I'm a tiny little fraction of the judging pool, I also feel a responsiblity to promote LDS-authored fiction on a broader scale and so I'll use broader criteria. I think I'll approach it from the standpoint of: what best reflects the LDS experience (or values, in case of national market titles) and also tells the best story? If I had one shot in each genre to convert someone who didn't read LDS fiction, which book would I hand them and feel confident I could change their mind?

And that's still not specific. But that's my starting point and I'll refine it as I go. (To be honest, I make a lot of judgments off of gut instinct.)

Anonymous said...

In answer to Jeffrey Savages question, if I had to choose between an award given to me by fans or one given to me by critics - assuming I can't have both the fans adoration and the critics respect ;) - I would rather have the critics award. It would mean more to me that these authorities on writing considered my work worthy of the award.

J Scott Savage said...

Melissa and Melanie,
I agree with both of you. I would hope that most people asked to judge books for an award could focus on the book itself and not the author.

Anon,
That would be such a hard call for me. Having professional reviewers rip your book is tough. But ultimately I am not writing for them. So I think I'd have to go with the approval of my readers first. But it would be nice to have both! :)

Donna Weaver said...

This is a hard one indeed. There are many critically acclaimed books that are a real snooze for me. But that's me. There have also been some books that were wildly popular that I loved and could understand why they were so popular. As a reader, I might be inclined to choose the popularity. Readers know what they like.

But by the same virture, as a writer, if I had a book on the list I think the award would be more satifsying if my work was judged on how well I crafted it.

Popularity contests show the winner in sales (whether or not the ones that don't sale are just because people didn't like them or because people didn't know about them).

Anonymous said...

The thing is, even professional reviewers are your readers, because I'm sure they love good books themselves! So if a book of mine was found enjoyable and well-written by them it would be more meaningful to me than otherwise. :) Of course, this is all just speculation on my part, since I have yet to even attempt to publish a book.

Sheila said...

As a judge I look for a good story. The story does not have to be LDS based. Many of the books that are finalists do not have LDS characters in them. What I do look for is a well written story. I look for characters that capture my interest and an overall good story that I can recommend to my blog readers. I have never looked at the Whitneys as a popularity contest. I have had really good friends with books in the midst of the competition, but I have not voted for their books. I have always voted for the book I feel is most deserving of the award.

As I am reading, I look for many things, one being how well written the book is for the genre the book has been placed in. I compare all of the books within that genre and how true the story is. I look for the book with the best hook and how fast the story draws me in. I look carefully at how the story is wrapped up. I detest bad endings; but I am not saying all endings need to be happy, but wrapped up to a degree. I could care less who wrote the story, who published the story or how many copies were sold. I am looking for the best well written story that I will want to read again and again. That in my opinion is the book that is deserving of a Whitney Award.

Emily M. said...

Stuff I look for when I read:

1-Voice is important to me right now. Sometimes when I've read all the books from one category right in a row, the voice of each book blends with the last one. Any book that has a distinct, unique, and fresh voice will always stand out to me. My favorite example of well-done voice for the LDS market is Josi Kilpack's Sadie Hoffmillern books.

2-If there are Mormon elements, do I like how they are done? Or do they irritate me? I want the books that portray our faith well to succeed. That's one reason I really loved last year's In the Company of Angels, and the previous year's Bound on Earth. It's very subjective... to me, it means transcending the easy marker of "Mormons keep the Word of Wisdom and the law of Chastity" and really portraying what it's like to serve and sacrifice as a Mormon, with joy and pain and all that rolled in together. If all that distinguishes a Mormon character is the Word of Wisdom and the Law of Chastity, that's sad to me. We are so much more. All that is a tall order, but it's so encouraging to me to read books that do this well.

3-I don't expect poetic/lyrical writing from every genre, but I love it when I find it. Counting the Cost, last year's romance winner, had such amazing writing. It was fun to savor the way she turned a phrase. Having said that, it's not an absolute requirement for me, just a great bonus.

4-Does the book's conflict go as deep as it can? Or does it stop short and play it safe? I really pay attention to that kind of thing. I'm not saying that a book in a given genre needs to go beyond its own genre conventions, but within those conventions, don't play it safe.

5-Does the book compare favorably with nationally published books in the same genre? That's what the Whitneys do; they put all the books, local and national, together. And I don't think it's unfair to ask this question; it's the nature of the way the Whitneys are organized.

There's more... like am I really reading and enjoying, or just skimming? and why?

Great questions and food for thought. It's always interesting to see how others evaluate things.

Jonathan Langford said...

A couple of comments:

1. I really like the Whitneys 3-tier process: nomination by readers, screening by a panel, and then selection by a fairly large quasi-professional community. Sure, there will always be arguments over what gets included and what doesn't, but that's always the case. (For myself, I'm amazed that Doug Thayer's The Tree House wasn't a nominee for 2009, but I'm guessing that it didn't get the requisite five nominations.) The breadth and range of finalists is itself impressive.

2. I think a rubric would be the absolute worst thing that could be done. A rubric tells me that someone has a theory about what good writing "should" be, and that this theory is being imposed on a field of literature. Already I think that's something we're too inclined to do -- define what Mormon literature ought to be, rather than look at it for what it is. I'd far rather trust in fallible but flexible and varied human judges.

Anonymous said...

Give me all the glory. I don't care where it comes from! Mwah, ha, ha!!!!

Seriously, Dear F. Scott FitzSavage, I have a word about judging. Here goes:

I think the Whitney Awards are on a really solid judging foundation. I think Rob and company have done super job refining the process. And, as a partial answer to your question, I think the process combines elements of both reader's choice award and professional opinion award. So its a good mix.

The only thing that could improve the award is maturity of the judges. The final step in the judging is less affected by the "maturity" thing, but the second to last step, where a small panel of judges selects the five finalists can lead to some maturity problems. What do I mean by that?

Let's just say that a large majority of your judges, not all, are of a certain age. Say between 35 and 45 years old. Add to that, let's say they come from a guild of LDS authors that was founded, in part, to promote new authors--to sort of school newbies, give them a chance, support them, bring them into the profession, that sort of thing. I could add more and more categories, but you get the picture. If a majority of your judges come from pool that has a shared identity, a shared vision, a shared belief about authors, etc. then it stands to reason that a newbie author has a really good chance to win something. Even novel of the year. Or maybe most of your judges are female, which means that stories that have more, rather than less romance that is done well, has a better chance of WORKING FOR THEM. See what I mean? None of those things is a terrible bias. Age. Desire to help aspiring and new authors. Gender. But if you judging pool is weighted heavily toward an increasing number of shared "world view", you could end up with a bit of a slant.

Its not a big deal. In fact, I call this "maturity" because as the judges mature, and the pool of judges becomes more diverse, say, you get some judges who really HATE new authors sort of like how Charlie Chaplin hated kids (was it him or another early 19th century actor?)or maybe some judges who are 65 years old or male or whatever other categories you'd like, then the award begins to mature a little bit, it tends to get rid of any slant or skew or bias that may be part of the judging.

That said, I don't think its a huge issue. I think the judges are terrific. I think the award will only get better with AGE. Ha! And I think this whole thing is loads of fun.

All the best to you. May you win best novel of the year every year for the rest of your writing career. You deserve it man.