Can we grade works of fiction? Novelist and short story prize judge Benjamin Markovits thinks we can—and tells us howby Benjamin Markovits / December 7, 2018 / Leave a comment
For six months in 2018, I was a judge on the BBC National Short Story Prize. This was not a full-time job. In May they sent me 60 anonymous short stories, and I was supposed to whittle them down to 10 or 12—in the privacy of my own home. Then, at the end of June, my fellow judges and I met in a conference room of the London Library and spent a pleasant afternoon (with platters of cheese, fruit and cakes on the table, which slowly yielded to partial assaults), coming up with a shortlist of five.
A few weeks ago, I showed my kids 12 Angry Men, the original Sidney Lumet production. Henry Fonda plays an architect who quietly persuades a panel of jurors to vote Not Guilty—a “slum” kid has been charged with knifing his father. But the movie is really about the personal feelings the decision-making process churns up, the way it exposes prejudice. Judging the National Short Story Prize might more aptly be called “Five Friendly Writers,” but it also raised uncomfortable questions about what the hell we were doing.
How do you judge fiction? How do you say one story is better than another? I also get paid to do this as part of my day job—teaching Creative Writing at Royal Holloway. Short stories are the meat and drink of the workshop. You can discuss them in class, the whole and the parts, plot arcs and sentences, in under an hour. If they didn’t exist, universities would have had to invent them. You can expect students to write several in the course of a term; you can give them feedback and consultations, help them work through several drafts. The whole process is designed to produce a constantly improvable piece of writing, which you then assess at the end of the year. You give it a grade.
People often ask me: how do you mark creative work? I’ve got a standard line in response. Well, it’s not that different from judging an English essay. There are objective criticisms you can make, you can point stuff out, but how you decide to rate or value the things done well, how much you penalise the things done less well—it’s a semi-random…