It’s time once again for book award season, and as usual, there is much discussion about snubs, surprise nominations, and familiar faces appearing on these lists. As most of us would agree, taste is subjective, and one person’s gem can easily be another person’s flop. I know I’ve definitely questioned the presence/absence of more than one title over the years on the awards circuit, and have been disappointed when a favourite title just doesn’t seem to be getting the love I think it deserves. What also enters the discussion is the notion of bias. This is not to suggest that any of the awards are rigged. There is a great deal of care put into selecting judges/committee members of diverse backgrounds and experiences to make the process as fair as possible and a clear set of criteria, but no matter how hard you try to be 100% impartial, there are conscious/subconscious biases that enter into the judging process the moment the reader is given any information about a book.
One such example gender bias. Data has shown that 0 books by women and about women have won the Pulitzer Prize, and that in general, the more influential the prize and the bigger the purse, the less likely it is that the winner will be a woman writing about women. BOOKS ABOUT WOMEN DON’T WIN BIG AWARDS: SOME DATA There has been a great deal written about gender disparity in book awards and whether or not judges subconsciously value the work of men over women. This observation has even been made about the Caldecott Medal for illustration in a Hornbook article that puzzles over why so few female illustrators are recognized for the award, even with a predominantly female committee.
Genre is also a victim of awards. Yes, there are specialized genre awards such as the Bram Stoker Award, the Hugo Award and the Edgar Award, but outside of these awards, genre fiction is largely snubbed. There is a preconception that genre fiction can’t be literary, and literary wins awards. Granted, there have been several winners in the big three awards (Man Booker, Pulitzer, Nobel Prize) whose books contain sci-fi/fantasy themes, but their books were not published as such. Sadly, it seems that no matter how brilliantly written a book may be, it is automatically behind the eight ball for award consideration when it’s labeled as a specific genre.
Lastly, is what I call author bias. Gender bias is absolutely one aspect of this, but I have witnessed first hand during my own involvement with prize juries the predisposition to dismiss or to revere works by a particular author. What we know or don’t know about the author and his/her work absolutely plays into how a book is judged, and it often seems like the same handful of authors can be counted on to at least be nominated for major awards. You might argue that their books are just that good, the cream rises to the top, etc… and I’m not suggesting that they are undeserving of their recognition or success- but in a shortlist of 10 for example, when over 100 books are read, should one author appear twice on the same list for two different books?
So what can we do to eliminate these biases? This is something my colleagues and I have discussed at length. One radical idea we’ve come up with is blind reading. If you’ve ever watched the singing competition The Voice, you’re familiar with the blind audition round. Before the singer comes on stage, the judges are turned around so they can’t see who is performing. They listen to them sing, and judge solely on their voice. If they like the performance, they turn the chair around and see the contestant for the first time. This has definitely resulted in some atypical contestants, and I think the competition has been richer for it. What if something similar was done with books? What if they were submitted simply as submission 1,2,3, etc… with no other information supplied until after the nomination list was finalized, and a winner chosen? (Jurors would also have to agree not to try and and find out.) Not knowing anything about a book before you read it makes it a lot harder to make a pre-judgement, and it could substantially change how books are evaluated and what gets selected. I don’t know about you, but I bet I’d find it difficult in many cases to identify the gender of the author- let alone his/her name. Would the lists end up more gender and genre balanced in the end? It’s difficult to say for sure, but I for one would love to see somebody try it out and see what happens.