Saturday, May 02, 2015

Notes from a judging process – on the pitfalls and pleasures of the Crossword Awards

[Did a version of this for the Daily O]

This will sound strange, even hypocritical, coming from someone who has accepted invitations to judge literary prizes a few times, but the idea of competitive awards for the arts makes me uneasy. I don't like the thought of creative works being thrown into a horse race, assessed by supposed gatekeepers of culture, and awarded marks and ranks so a single "winner" can emerge, just to satisfy our need for patterns and clean narratives.**

At the same time, there are good justifications for the existence of such prizes. The Raymond Crossword Award – in which I
participated as a judge for the fiction category this year – culminated in a pretty good show at the NCPA Mumbai this week, one that brought glamour, music and humour to a field that doesn’t often get a showcase of this sort. The award itself encourages and rewards writers, and brings high-quality books to the attention of readers who might not otherwise find out about them. And I emphasize “books”, in the plural, because the dreamer in me wishes each literary award committee would simply announce a shortlist of five titles (or 10 or 20 titles, depending on the overall size of the field) and leave it at that, taking the proceedings no further. So that readers can then explore the many riches on offer.

Silly fantasy, I know.

But even while congratulating Anees Salim on his win for The Blind Lady’s Descendants, I would encourage you to look as closely at the other shortlisted books, which represent a marvelous variety of styles and subjects. Just one example: Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar's The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey and Amitabha Bagchi's This Place are utterly different novels in terms of form, use of language and character types, yet both beautifully capture a sense of a setting (a Santhal village in Jharkhand and a Baltimore community respectively), the people in it, and the particular shapes that communal life can take. Ranking one of these books over the other is not something I, at any rate, could do with confidence. And yet, for our final discussions, we judges HAD to rank, and convince ourselves that the rankings had an internal logic.


Given these subjectivities inherent in “jury duty”, it helps if the actual process is made as efficient and clear as possible. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case here. The three of us – author/editor Anjum Hasan and author/academic Devika J were the other judges for the fiction prize – were disappointed by the apparent lack of organisation, and our initial impression was that the awards this year were more a brand-building exercise (or a “we have the brand, so let’s just keep it going” exercise) than a sincere, properly thought out celebration of literature.

Things would have been better, we felt, if R Sriram, a man of integrity and taste, who co-founded the Crossword Awards nearly two decades ago and still works as a consultant for the prize, had had a more direct role to play. Sriram has been candid about the shortcomings, among them the bizarreness of the 1.5-year period. Most awards operate on a 12-month cycle – preferably a calendar year, for obvious reasons – but the rule for this edition was that eligible books had to have been published between March 2013 and September 2014. I suspect this was as confusing for the participating publishers and writers as it was for us. (All books have a publication year listed, of course, but not many authors would be able to say, with certainty, that theirs was a “March 2013 book” rather than a “February 2013 book”.)

A reason for this timeframe oddness, apparently, is the uncertainty about sponsorships for the prize. As one of my fellow judges put it during an early email discussion, “I think the main problem is no one seems to want to take ownership of the prize. Crossword don’t put down the money themselves [...] This year the sponsor is Raymond, the other year it was Economist, before that it was Vodafone. How can any self-respecting award have this kind of musical chairs sponsorship?”

The silver lining is that things are set to improve in the next couple of years: Sriram tells me that Raymond has committed for the next two years as well, and that in the near future they will revert to a saner, calendar-year format.

In any case this wouldn’t have mattered much if the other things had been done well. If, say, the lists had been properly drawn up and the books we were to read had arrived in good time.

For clarity, here’s an outline of the process for the fiction prize. Publishers were asked to send Crossword a specified number of titles each for award consideration. Once this “longlist” was ready, the three judges came into the picture. We were to divide the books – there would be around 80, we were told – amongst ourselves. After an initial reading marathon, each of us would identify the five or six books from our respective quotas that we regarded mostly highly. At this point, with a total of 15 to 18 books in the fray, all the judges would be required to read everything and arrive, through discussion, at the final shortlist – and thence the winner.

Early on we learnt that the “around 80” was really 90-plus books – but that was okay since we had plenty of time on our hands. Except…we didn’t, since there were mix-ups and delays. The lists we were sent were far from finalised. The first list didn’t represent a couple of major publishers at all (it was subsequently updated). There were some titles listed that later turned out not to be eligible, because the author didn’t have Indian citizenship, or because a book had first been published years earlier, or belonged in the “translation” category. It became clear that Crossword didn’t have a basic filtering process in place before dumping 90-odd books on us.

As for the books themselves, it took forever for some of them to reach, even though it should not – in theory – have been a very thorny business to collect three copies of each of the longlisted titles, arrange them into sets, and send them out to three addresses in three different cities. Instead they came piecemeal, one couriered box at a time, weeks apart. With some duplications, many missing titles, some books that hadn’t even been mentioned in the longlist. Nervously aware that each of us would have to read around 30 books in a couple of months just to get through the first step of the process, we sent increasingly shrill reminder emails, and rarely got coherent responses. Samples of email chatter:

Judge: only three eligible books from Penguin in one-and-a-half years? That seems hard to believe. Also, nothing from Bloomsbury and Roli who both do fiction.

Terse response: They haven’t sent anything. Will still check with them.

Judge: were the publishers originally told to send 4 books per imprint or 6? I think we should be careful about this. We don’t want publishers comparing notes later and finding they were given different criteria.

[No response]

I wouldn’t let the publishers off the hook either. This is conjecture, of course, but looking through some of the titles submitted, it felt like the decisions were being made by marketing teams, based on which author was putting the most pressure on them, rather than by editors. When the first longlists (including updates) were ready, Anjum – who, as The Caravan’s literary editor, has been following recent publishing developments more closely than either Devika or me – noted that many acclaimed books published over the given period were not on the list at all. Accordingly she made a list of around 18-20 titles and asked Crossword to have those sent across as well. (The judges had been given leeway to do this.) We diligently revised our schedules to accommodate 110 titles rather than the original ninety.

One of those specifically-requested titles was The Blind Lady’s Descendants. That’s right – the book that ended up winning the fiction prize was not even submitted by its own publisher (Tranquebar) for the initial 90-book longlist.

That list also didn’t include another eventual shortlistee, Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad, which was one of the most acclaimed titles of the past year. Altaf Tyrewala’s Engglishhh and Kaveri Nambisan’s A Town Like Ours, both of which made it to our “pre-shortlist”, hadn’t been submitted either, and had to be asked for.

I could give you an idea of how surreal it was to not see books of the quality of Chaudhuri’s or Salim’s on the longlist, simply by quoting passages from some of the titles that WERE on it, but this website will run out of bandwidth. (Hint: if, in a bookstore you find yourselves within arm’s reach of a “medical thriller” titled Coffin Her Back – with a front-cover blurb that says nothing more effusive than “A decent first-time effort” – take a minute to open a page at random and read a few sentences. But only if you haven’t recently been operated on. This book will open your stitches like a freshly sharpened knife.) Also taking up a lot of space on the longlist was an over-generous sprinkling of barely written, not-at-all-edited books by Srishti, Leadstart and other publishers who operate in a grey zone located just on the outskirts of Self-Publishing.

And no, I am not being snobbish about popular or mass-market fiction. One of the things that makes me uncomfortable about such awards is the unspoken (and vague) distinctions that get made between “literary” and “popular” – distinctions that can be unfair to the really good writers of genre or fast-paced fiction like Anuja Chauhan or Samit Basu or Krishna Shastri Devapulalli (to name just three whose work I am reasonably familiar with), who tend to get sidelined in the “fiction” category while also getting dwarfed by the Ravi Subramanians and Ravinder Singhs in the “by popular vote” category.

Which is a good time to mention this observation Devika J made about our eventual winner: “Anees Salim breaks down the barrier between the high-brow and the popular quite spectacularly […] There is a way in which his writing communicates at different registers to different people, and that's no mean achievement.”


The choice of The Blind Lady’s Descendants was unanimous – in the sense that the book topped the final, “order of preference” list submitted by all three judges. More specifically, on each of those three lists there was another book that was joint first with Salim’s – except that it was a different book in each case, so we had our clear winner.

And a little admission: one book that all the judges loved (and which featured in the top 2 in two of the judges’ final lists) was not included in our final shortlist.

How does that work? The book in question was Anees Salim’s Vanity Bagh, which was one of three Salim novels eligible in the (1.5-year) period under consideration. After a bit of back and forth over email, we decided that there were so many good books to pick from this year that we should restrict the shortlist to one novel per author, rather than have two Salims on it and take away a spot from another writer.

Speaking for myself, I loved The Blind Lady’s Descendants (having read it twice now, I find myself mesmerized by how it manages to be so funny and light while also dealing with one of the saddest of subjects – the fear of obscurity and irrelevance, and the temporary comforts that writing can bring). And yet, in a way I saw Salim’s win as a win not just for this novel but for the sum of his achievements over the period: for Vanity Bagh as well as the delightful Tales from a Vending Machine, which is the fastest paced of his books, seemingly written for younger readers (and therefore perhaps most prone to snobberies about not being “literary” enough for a prize) – but which I think is in its own way as good as either of the others.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that for all the shortfalls in organization, for all the inherent flaws in such a competitive process, at the end of several months we had a very satisfying winner. Along with a solid list of other nominees. 


** More on competitive prizes
what I’m more interested in are the processes involved. When I became obsessed with the Oscars as an adolescent, I spent a lot of time making lists of potential nominees, conjecturing why this or that film or performance would be favoured. But even back then I never thought the results would represent an objective “best” – the inherent subjectivity of the process was a given, as was the fact that actual merit might be just one among a multitude of intersecting factors behind a vote. (Among those factors, well-chronicled in Oscar history: the perceived topicality of a film’s subject matter, or the “holdover award” given to a respected performer who had never won for his or her best work in the past.) In any case the period leading up to the announcement of the nominations was the most exciting for me; after that it became predictable, and awards night itself didn’t interest me much unless there was a thoroughly unexpected winner.


  1. Liked this about the winning title (which I'm yet to read; now there is enough reason): I find myself mesmerized by how it manages to be so funny and light while also dealing with one of the saddest of subjects – the fear of obscurity and irrelevance, and the temporary comforts that writing can bring.

    That said, prizes can, sometimes, and far too easily, confuse the reader. But overall, it's good for a laugh, if not to see how people look with raised eyebrows.

  2. Other than such famous and established literary awards, these days many smaller literary award competition are also being organized. One recent such award competition I came across was to decide the winning book on the basis of public votes. So basically, the writer who had more friends willing to vote could easily win the literary prize. The quality of the book obviously didn't matter.

    1. Jyoti: well, the "popular award" category at the Crosswords is decided by readers' vote too, which means the competing authors get to mobilise their fan base on social media etc. Sign of the times, I guess...