To mark the 40th anniversary of the prestigious Booker prize, The Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk) asked 40 judges—one judge per year—to tell “the inside story of how the winner was chosen.” Some of the judges obliged with literary tittle-tattle, but more amusing, and much more revealing, was the steady drumbeat of scorn for the whole business of picking a winner. Here are some highlights:
“[T]he absurdity of the process was soon apparent: it is almost impossible to persuade someone else of the quality or poverty of a selected novel (a useful lesson in the limits of literary criticism). In practice, judge A blathers on about his favorite novel for five minutes, and then judge B blathers on about her favorite novel for five minutes, and nothing changes: no one switches sides. … Some wonderful books win the Booker, of course, just as the flypaper occasionally catches some really large flies. But it means—or should mean—nothing in literary terms.” —James Wood, a Booker judge in 1994.
“[A]s far as I remember, not a single judge (including me) ever changed his or her mind, or shifted his or her position, in response to an argument put forward by a colleague.” —Jonathan Coe (1996)
“What did I learn? Discussion is futile. No one changes their mind about a book. You might as well have a show of hands straight away.” —Tibor Fischer (2004)
“As usual, no minds were much changed by the panel discussions.” —John Sutherland (2005)
“I’m glad I was a Booker judge relatively early in my career. It stopped me thinking that literary prizes are about literary value.” —Hilary Mantel (1990)
I consider these remarks entirely portable: Feel free to apply them to the prize of your choice—the Pulitzer, say, or the National Book Award.
OR THE GRAMMYS.
Taking the urge to pick a winner to an absurd (and mercifully self-mocking) extreme, Sean Manning’s Rock and Roll Cage Match (Three Rivers, $13.95) brings together a selection of music writing that purports to settle the great pop rivalries, from John Lennon vs. Paul McCartney and The Album vs. The Single to R.E.M. vs. U2 and N.W.A vs. Wu-Tang Clan.
Some of the fun here is conceptual (Hall & Oates vs. Simon & Garfunkel, which isn’t a fair fight, though Michael Showalter turns it into one); some of it predictable (Radiohead vs. Coldplay); some of it unfunny (the Harvard Lampoon’s decision to cast Elton John vs. Billy Joel as an NFL scouting report).
One essay stands out: Richard Hell on the Rolling Stones vs. the Velvet Underground (restricted, by Mr. Hell’s fiat, to the brief years of the Velvets’ existence, 1966 to 1970). Not only does the punk grandee make a slew of sharp observations about each band (“The Velvets are linear, surface, compared to the Stones, whose best records have real depths”; “the music [on Let It Bleed] is physical in a way the Velvets never are. It’s music that commands your body”), he also reaches a nearly perfect conclusion:
“Of course, you don’t have to choose. You can like it all. When you are a kid, your identity is your favorite band. But you realize, when you know more, that you can like them all. Or not. It is interesting how preferences and interests fluctuate. So the winner has to be provisional.”
And then he spoils it by playing the kids’ game after all:
“[A]t the moment of truth, the Velvets can’t be denied. They take the crown. Lou Reed is queen for a day.”
Mr. Hell is clearly following Warhol’s famous advice to the Velvet Underground: “Always leave them wanting less.”