It's no sweat picking the winners of kid-lit writing contests when I'm the only judge. I read through the submissions, make a pile of the ones I hate least, worrying that I'll have to eenie-meenie-miney-moe for my Gold, Silver and Bronze... Until oh good! I find one I hardly hate at all! Then some I actually like -- sometimes even love.
I always agree entirely with my own taste, so the winner is clearly The Winner to me. This makes it easy to believe every cliche’ about artistic justice -- Cream rising to the top, Good writing and hard work telling out in the end...
Many years ago I was on a huge panel of judges, judging books that were already published. In that case my dissenting vote was soooo far out weighed by the majority that I might as well have not even read all those enormous boxes of books.
But recently I served on a panel of just THREE judges, judging the unpublished work of grant hopefuls.
We read through the fifty submissions and each came up with a list of our favorites. Then we compared lists. Two lists had overlaps. One, (mine) did not. Hmmm.
I’d heard of awards committees who, unable to reach consensus, settled on a winner which was no one’s favorite, making the winners into losers and crowning mediocracy with glory. The gold going not to the book anyone loved, but to the one no one hated.
But I always thought that was an urban myth. Sort of the baby in the microwave of writing competitions. But then.... here we three were with unmatched lists.
So, how does a well intentioned, mild-mannered panel reach a fair agreement if they don’t in fact agree?
Enter a bit of lobbying, negotiating, amicable compromise.
No one offered or accepted bribes, or made threats or pulled rank. Our solution was give the top award to the entry my fellow judges both had on their lists... although it wasn’t at the tip top of either. Second place went to my favorite, and honorable mentions to the manuscripts they'd each liked best.
None of us sacrificed inordinately, and all were more or less satisfied. But in truth we arrived at our top choices almost arbitrarily, led by a unanimous wish to avoid unpleasantness and return to our regular programing.
The winners and losers of the contest didn't know that, though. Their reactions to our decision would not take our ambivalence into consideration. They'd either feel like winners or losers, as if my fellow judges and I knew anything at all about anything.
Which of course we do... and don’t.
This calls for a tiny cringe.
But that doesn't mean the contestants should discount our results. Reading is so utterly subjective that perhaps this jury's random method of selection was as pure and righteous as any, and stands as a fair microcosm of the whole submission / selection / rejection process.
Maybe that’s why so many of us drink.