Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Wrong Kind of Critic

I had to read 85 books, as a judge for the 2007 CBI Bisto Children's Book Awards. A weird experience. You hack your way through stuff that you'd normally put back on the bookseller's table. You also get to enter compelling worlds. You read great books, and some less so. Good ideas that didn't quite come off. Bad ideas that did. And what do you learn? Obvious things, really. For a writer of genius, genre can be the springboard of imagination. For lesser writers, or condescending types, it's a straitjacket. Plus, it's astonishing how far you can get in the marketplace by sticking to the bleeding obvious and hammering out trendy messages with all the subtlety of a pneumatic drill. Good stuff also makes its way through the marketplace, now and again.
At its best, young people's fiction has an amazing emotional reach.
Of course the idea of competition distorts everything. Life is not a competition. Neither is literature. But prizes are newsworthy, so competition must be good.
Reading 85 books takes time. More time than you can easily spare. As the pressure mounts, you feel yourself turning into the wrong kind of critic -- the demi-semi-clever kind who swallow books whole and spit them out half-digested, the ones whose heads are filled with the clamour of their own judgmental clichés. Worse still, you find yourself sympathizing with the hostile reviewers of your own work. They didn't like your book; they were forced to pretend to read it; the review is their revenge. Others liked it, but didn't get it.
W.H. Auden confessed, “When some obvious booby tells me he has liked a poem of mine, I feel as if I had picked his pocket.”
We came up with a pretty decent shortlist. And there was some wonderful stuff that didn't make the final cut. In children's books as in other fields, Irish writers can be world-class.