I’m packing up my copies of the books submitted for The Kitschies. I can’t keep them all. I don’t have shelf space. There aren’t actually two hundred and thirty four books here, because some of them were submitted digitally, but all the same there are enough books that they take up five or six large boxes in my front hall, and when I tried to stack them up and photograph myself with them I realised that I was in serious danger after about a box and half.
There were a lot of books.
* So what’s it like judging the Kitschies?
It’s like having your brain inflated as a balloon and then made into a model of a puppy and then squeezed through a letterbox between copies of “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” and “The Hobbit”.
More clearly: that number of books at the rate of one per day would take eight months. That isn’t what happens, of course: you read a couple a week for the first while, then as many as you possibly can in an evening for the last two months. That’s not purely about human sloth and procrastination: many submissions arrived in the run-up to Christmas or after.
* Do you actually read them all?
Basically: yes. That is the gig. However, the Kitschies have a very specific set of criteria, and some of the books simply don’t meet them. If you’re doggedly struggling through a book, resenting every page and wishing you could do something else, that is a subtle clue that however worthy it may be, this particular offering may not meet the “entertaining” qualifier. Similarly, if something is epic fun but abjectly brainless, you are obligated to reject it. The Kitschies shortlists are for “intelligent” books. There’s also the “speculative” hurdle, which is fuzzier because a lot of literary and mainstream writing flirts with the supernatural before helpfully explaining it was all a dream. Sometimes you go one way, sometimes another. Like slopestyle and LBW, it’s a bit subjective, but also like those things it does not suffer thereby.
But once you’ve got past all those, there’s still “progressive”, and that is a slippery fish. This year we had a lot of debate about what it meant. We discussed whether something which advanced the form, challenged the concept of the novel, was by definition progressive. We dickered over agendas, critiques, manifestos and themes, negative visions deliniating positive futures, simple but positive experiments with gender. “Progessive”, once you abandon the strict political/economic definition, is tricky. But it does tell you that some things will not make it through.
* Wait, what won’t make it through?
I’m going to answer that as an epistle…
Dear, dear editor, may I bend your ear for a moment? It is to your advantage, I promise. Here’s the thing: there were a LOT of books submitted this year. There were many, many books submitted last year, but not AS many. If the upward curve continues, next year’s judges will be asked to peruse between three and four hundred books. Their time and their attention will be stretched to breaking point. They will become acerbic, even irritable.
I know this, because I became acerbic around about the third month. I called Jared and asked him whether, before we gave out the positive awards, we could boil in melted cheese those publishers who had submitted books that were not only not progressive but actively and even aggressively reactionary. One still had to read such books to the end in case there was a genius twist which inverted the entire narrative in one brilliant cataclysm – because surely a reasonable person would not submit to a progressive prize a book that was (for the sake of argument) effectively a seven hundred page speculative apologia for the extreme nationalist position on immigration? Surely, submitting to a prize that makes a virtue of transcending society’s sometimes ugly and outmoded attitutdes to gender, race and so on, no one would propose something that dealt with a woman getting in over her pretty wee head and having to be rescued by her über-male boyfriend?
In no instance I can recall was there a redemptive twist. I just read on, growing increasingly uneasy at the dogwhistles on the edge of my hearing, until the end, and then I put those books in the “no” pile and sent another exasperated email to Jared demanding some form of public punitive justice for my wasted hours. (He apparently still has nightmares about the one with the surfboard.)
Dear editor: please consider the nature of the prize. Submitting irrelevant books degrades the opportunities of the ones that should be in the mix to shine. It contributes to a bloating of submissions and therefore of necessary judging time that ultimately is not sustainable.
That doesn’t mean that you should curtail borderline submissions – the border is fine: indeed, it is rich and interesting – but you should at least ask yourself whether a book falls broadly in the Kitschies’ catchment area.
* Do you ever want to read anything again?
Surprisingly, yes. I do. I have a big stack of books I’ve been waiting to read until I was allowed, and I’m falling into them with a kind of weary delight.
* How did you pick the shortlist?
Exactly the way you’d hope. We picked out a fuzzy longlist of the books we loved and then we argued about them. There are a couple of books I was sorry to see go, a couple of books other people were sad to have to return to the wild, but that’s the nature of the thing. That’s why there are five judges. What would happen, though, was that every so often you’d be reading something and you’d think: “Holy shit, this is amazing!” And those books went into the fuzzy longlist, but they also set the bar for admission to that list. Those were the books that made judging the prize possible, because you knew they were there amid the stuff that was maybe just fun, and you kept looking and sharing them. It turns out that judging two hundred books is surprisingly easy. Judging the longlists and then the shortlists, though, is hard, because by that time you’ve already got books that meet the criteria and are amazing. At that point it’s just about which flavour of amazing you end up with.
* So there are great books that maybe didn’t make the shortlists?
Yes, absolutely. But I can’t tell you what they are. Let’s say, though, that there were books by household names in there as well as books by relatively new authors who will one day be household names. There were some stunning books that were in one way or another not shortlistable – most often because they were politically neutral: they simply had no progressive element.
* Will you miss it?
No – it was a huge effort and a constant klaxon in the back of my mind. But it was an education every author should have, at least once. Being inside the judging room is fascinating. I can’t encapsulate the lessons… except: don’t piss about, there isn’t time.
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