Judging in a pandemic

Judging in a pandemic

Over the last 15 months during the pandemic my reading has been all over the shop. Sometimes I have almost been unable to put a book down, so desperate am I to escape the reality and the news, sometimes I have been unable to pick up a book, as reality and the news has been too much. Do you know what I recommend for getting you back into your reading rhythm? Judging a book prize, it worked for me.

One of my issues during the lockdowns has been working out what I want to read next, so thank goodness for the Desmond Elliott prize which told me what to read and when I had to read it by. A box brimming with delightful debuts turned up and I was off. Book funks begone, I had no time for them, I was getting to read some of the finest debuts from authors in the UK and champion those new voices that I loved. Not only that but I had two new bookish pals to do this with, Lisa McInerney and Chitra Ramaswamy, and in a time where I was feeling ‘zZomed out’, to know I would be discussing and debating fabulous fiction with them was something to look forward to.

That said, one of the things you slightly forget when you’re reading all of these brilliant books is that you have to whittle them down. First comes the shortlisting, which stings a bit as you have to say goodbye to some books, then came the shortlist to winner, which was agonising at times, made so difficult as we had such a strong trio of contenders. What I did miss in these meetings, where we didn’t always agree but we did always enjoy the process and each other’s opinions, was doing it in the same room. Though I have given it some thought, and I do think being apart made us all state our case for each book we loved all the harder, I am not sure why but I think there is something about meetings online where you feel you need to explain in depth every intricacy of thought as you don’t want to be misheard, and the novels all really deserved this.

Engaging people outside of Zooms has been trickier I think, less so since libraries and bookshops reopened albeit not at their full capacity, soon, I hope. Whilst the novel has certainly had a resurgence in the pandemic, without festivals and bookshop events it’s felt harder to connect communities with books, especially as the aforementioned Zoom fatigue has hit. I was slightly worried it might affect our longlist and people getting to it, there is of course social media, and I do love to shout about books on all my socials, but how much could I shout about the books I was judging; how much was fair to share or say? I am after all only one judge of three. So, I chose to shout about them as a collective.

Whilst I have enjoyed many an online book event in the last year, I cannot wait for the real events to come back. Those chances to see people respond to an author live on a stage, a chance to ask all those questions and for readers to feel they have spoken one on one with an author even if they are in a room brimming with other people.

This is a challenge I think prizes have with and without a pandemic. How do you make sure every longlisted book is truly celebrated, not just with a few tweets? Because the joy I often find in a longlist as a reader, whether I have been a judge or not, is the books and authors I have never heard of before. Yet it seems after that initial day or two, maybe a week, of buzz it becomes all about the shortlist which might not be announced for months, then we have a week or two of events in celebrating those books before the winner is announced and those who didn’t make it seem to be left behind.

Here I should say that I thought the Jhalak Prize did an amazing job this year of getting independent bookshops to champion a book each from their shortlist and really create buzz with their customers which I thought was fantastic. Wouldn’t it be fabulous for that to be the case with a whole longlist? 

Then we have the winner, they will get a huge slice of publicity, probably do the rounds at lots of festivals and bookshops (libraries tend to be forgotten in these scenarios) for the forthcoming months. Don’t get me wrong, that is fantastic and deserved, they should have their moment in the spotlight, it is a prize and they have won yet even that buzz may only last a few months rather than the full year. Imagine how amazing it could be if every author and every book on every longlist got that 9 – 12 months of promotion? To me that would be truly magic, a fantastic chance to connect readers of all tastes and authors of all styles, which is what the whole publishing industry should be about.

Find out more about the work Desmond Elliott Prize is doing with bookshops and readers.

Simon Savidge is one of the judges for the 2021 Desmond Elliott Prize. He started the book blog Savidge Reads in 2007, he then moved into podcasts with The Readers, before heading to YouTube in 2016 which has become his main focus. Simon has judged The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize, Fiction Uncovered, the Costa Book Awards Debut Novel in 2017, was chair of the Portico Prize 2019 and on the overall Costa Book Award 2020 winner judging panel.