What it's like to judge a literary prize

What it's like to judge a literary prize

'Don't judge me if I read all day...'

Posted on 19th June 2015 by Simon Savidge

Simon Savidge, of Savidge Reads, has recently had the joy of judging the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. Here, he explains the secret life of a literature judge, lost in a world of books the rest of us can only dream of...


Before the final eight winners of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize are announced tonight, we asked blogger, reviewer, journalist and 2015 judge Simon Savidge to share the joys and pitfalls of spending almost three months locked away in a room reading, before the judging commences.

When I told my friends that I was going to be judging the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize their first response was excitedly ‘ooh all that reading’. Then once I started and they asked how many books were submitted (over 70) and how long we had to read (just under 3 months) they would do the maths and then look at me pityingly and say ‘oh all that reading.’ Yet whilst it’s been hard work over all it has been a hugely rewarding and eye opening (occasionally eye bleeding) experience and then there is the judging...

It’s funny because people assumed such extreme reading would put me off books, it hasn’t by a long stretch and that is in part because the submissions we had for Fiction Uncovered were so strong this year, that as we were reading it didn’t feel like a job. I was off on adventures from the British coast to snowy Siberia, from the Lake District to the dark streets of Paris, from ancient China to the clubs and pubs of Manchester and a host of other places in between. All whilst meeting wonderful characters along the way and getting lost in their stories. So engrossed did I become that I had to be reminded that there was a real world out there and maybe I should leave my reading chair and go see it, preferably picking something nice up for tea on the way back.

The second way it’s truly eye opening is that the criteria for the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize is quite specific. The authors must have published something before, so not be ‘the next big debut’; they must be British and they must be blooming marvellous and yet for some unknown reason have not made the prize lists, had the word of mouth or been advertised on every tube stop in London and the train stations beyond. I thought I knew my fiction yet when the submissions came I found I had read two and knew of another eight, the other 60 or so I had never heard of before. This was really exciting and as I read writers from Swansea, Newcastle, Bath, Brighton, Lancaster, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Glasgow and London, and publishers from Yorkshire, Wales, Scotland and Norfolk, I was invigorated and excited by the diversity and vibrancy of British fiction and British authors. It was quite a book buzz and a high I am now keen to get again.

On a personal level I also learnt about my own reading which was also insightful and has probably changed my reading habits for good. I learnt that sometimes a single short story in a collection can have as much power as an epic novel.  The first fifty pages overall can be very indicative of a novel as a whole. I learnt font matters. It shouldn’t but it does. Some books get better with distance, others burn out. One bad sentence can kill a book dead. There are lots of ‘very good books’ the ones you really love and want to hug to a pulp are few and far between, this is no bad thing. I learnt all that and more.

This of course leads to the judging, which really makes all the reading before seem a doddle. We have been lucky; we get to chose not one winner but eight yet still it is a fractious process. Firstly you have to work out what you want from a winning book which is really hard to describe. I can only call it ‘the book tingle’ when you read a book and everything flows exactly right. We’ve all had it, you want to hug the book afterwards and pass it on to everyone you know and can’t shut up about it. Though of course everyone has a different version of what that is, so when we make the final choices all the judges will be wearing body armour and crash helmets ready to fight to the death for our winners.

Quite from being put off reading ever again by having undergone such extreme reading in the last few months, I am actually more excited about my reading and what lies ahead in my reading life. If I was asked to judge another book prize tomorrow I would without even thinking about it, in fact I am now making it a life goal to judge all the prizes (yes, even the Bailey’s though that might be trickier to achieve) while I wait for the calls and emails to flood my inbox I am off to let battle commence for the judges meeting, then celebrate eight fine winners. Tomorrow I will be back to the real world and falling into every bookshop I pass to find as many other hidden gems as I can.

Simon Savidge writes the book blog Savidge Reads, is co-founder of The Green Carnation Prize, hosts the podcast You Wrote the Book and co-hosts The Readers podcast.