Thoughts after my Year of Judging


posted on
November 12th, 2010
written by
Sara
category
NBA, psychobabble, reading
comments
14 comments

By this time next week, the National Book Award winners will be chosen and announced. I’ve had so many thoughts throughout the process of being a judge, but we all commit to not talking publicly about the inner workings of that process. So I can’t tell you how we arrived at our five finalists, what books were close and why, etc. But I can share a bit how it felt for me, and what I came away with.

At first, most of my brain space about the job was taken over by fear. I think I can say there were over 230 books entered in the young people’s lit category. I put a lot of energy into practical concerns about organizing my life around my reading, and coming up with some kind of schedule that would lead to the successful completion of the task. Once I got into the rhythm of the work, I began to feel other things:

- Awe at the huge range of creative gifts represented in the entries.

- Joy upon discovering that though I sometimes feel jaded about publishing, I can still get lost in a great read, still be moved to laughter or tears or delight or fear.

- Surprise that I could like and love types of books I’ve previously claimed are not my thing: fantasy, historical fiction, romance, gothic ghost stories, horror, epic adventure, science fiction.

- Naturally, this surprise was followed by humility and regret, thinking about the lines I have drawn, consciously or unconsciously, around what makes “literature.” I fear/know I’ve missed out on some great reading experiences over the years because of those lines, and from here on out seek to correct that.

- Respect for the hard work of writers and editors and designers, everything that goes into the creation of a finished book no matter what you think of the result.

Most of all, what I feel now, having been through this process, is: awards and good reviews are nice to have, and probably good for your career, and should be celebrated. If you get them, be proud. Other than that, they don’t mean too terribly much. They certainly don’t mean books that don’t get them are failures, are unworthy, or should be dismissed.

Just look at the variety in all of the year-end “best of” lists. Clearly, as a community of readers and writers and critics, we don’t even have consensus on what good writing is, let alone what stories we’re drawn to or what we think books should do or say in the world.

The judging process reminded me what a mysterious, personal transaction reading is. At first, that stressed me out. How were we going to get through these books and make decisions if we’re all so different? By the end, I marveled at really what a cool thing it is that each person can connect so differently across such a broad range of material, and that gives me hope for each of the books I’ve written and the ones I’ve yet to write.

Richard Rodriguez says that the reader re-creates the book when he reads it. If that’s true, and I think it probably is, that means 100 readers could have 100 different experiences of the same book. Which can be frustrating, but is also kind of magical and also tells you something about what it is to be a person, an individual.

I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, and from then through the rest of the year will be blogging about my memorable reads from 2010. Some of them were NBA entries, but not all. I can’t say which are which. But it really doesn’t matter – the point is the joy of discovery, and connection, and then sharing those discoveries and connections, making the offer to you to pick up the book and enter into your own relationship with it.

Make a note of it:

14 comments

  • Amy @ My Friend Amy - November 12, 2010 at 11:36 am -

    Love this. “The judging process reminded me what a mysterious, personal transaction reading is.”

  • Georgia Beaverson - November 12, 2010 at 11:56 am -

    Sara, you are amazing. I especially love that you’re going to fill the gaps in your reading experience. I love genre fiction, and some of the best novels I’ve ever read fall into that category–especially young people’s novels. If you haven’t read Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy, please start there. You won’t be sorry.

  • Debbie/Cranberryfries - November 12, 2010 at 12:42 pm -

    Interesting and fascinating thoughts on being a judge. While it’d be fun I can’t imagine how much time it took you to read all those books. Did they give you several months?

    I liked what you said about the lines drawn sometimes unintentionally. I often will read a book based on a friend recommendation I might not have otherwise picked up only to realize I loved it.

  • Coe Booth - November 12, 2010 at 1:52 pm -

    Well said, Sara. As a former National Book Award judge, I can definitely relate to your experiences. I was also surprised by how much I enjoyed reading genres I never think to read just for fun. For me, it was middle grade and YA non-fiction. There’s a lot of really excellent non-fiction out there, and I probably wouldn’t have discovered that if I hadn’t been a judge.

    I’m glad your experience was so rewarding! It really is an honor to be selected!!!

  • Greg Neri - November 12, 2010 at 5:39 pm -

    Nicely stated and what an awesome responsibility to conquer. I don’t think I could handle that myself but kudos for those who dare…

  • Amy Lindsay - November 12, 2010 at 6:47 pm -

    I am soooooo looking forward to your blog entries about your 2010 reads.

  • Andria - November 12, 2010 at 9:59 pm -

    Personally, I think I would have been so freaked out about having to make judgements on so many books and then narrowing it down to five and then down to one. I would have been worried about my ability to think critically about the books, to find the literary value in books, and then to stick up for books I believed in.

    I don’t like reviewing other people’s books very often, because I wonder if I had the “right” reaction to it. So your point (or Richard Rodriguez’s point) that each reader re-creates the book might make it easier for me to feel comfortable with my opinions. Thank you.

    • Jo S. Kittinger - November 15, 2010 at 4:02 pm -

      I could certainly identify with your comment “…though I sometimes feel jaded about publishing, I can still get lost in a great read, still be moved to laughter or tears or delight or fear.”
      As a writer, there is so much rejection, and the bottom line often seems more important to publishers than story.

      I appreciate your dedication to serving as a judge and will look forward to hearing the results!

  • Léna Roy - November 15, 2010 at 5:01 pm -

    Wonderful post! As a debut author, I am anxious about reader response. I am going to print out this statement you made and keep it close during the next few weeks: “Richard Rodriguez says that the reader re-creates the book when he reads it. If that’s true, and I think it probably is, that means 100 readers could have 100 different experiences of the same book. Which can be frustrating, but is also kind of magical and also tells you something about what it is to be a person, an individual.”

    Thank you Sara!

  • Kathi Appelt - November 16, 2010 at 9:36 am -

    Sara, what a lovely post. As a former judge myself, you perfectly captured the experience. One of my great surprises was how much I enjoyed the scarier books that in my normal reading life I would have avoided like mad.

    It all made me feel a little braver.

    I also learned so much as a writer. So many valuable lessons, which you so eloquently state here.

    Thanks!
    Kathi

  • Dave Cullen - November 17, 2010 at 11:40 am -

    Sara, great stuff. As always, your sincerity and candor really shine through.

    The refreshing part about reading your stuff is that you’ve always dug deep, explored what was really going on, what surprised you about yourself, and came back to report the truth, and the whole truth. Thanks.

    I also loved the Richard Rodriguez quote. I totally agree that the reader re-creates the book when he reads it.

    And having lived through just one awards season, I also agree with your thoughts on that. It’s definitely a fun ride, and it should be relished, but consensus is elusive, and it will change. Best to be really happy or sad for a day or two, then let it go.

  • DeAnn Campbell - November 22, 2010 at 10:20 am -

    Beautifully said. Can’t wait to hear more.

  • Kensie - November 24, 2010 at 11:26 am -

    I really loved the book, Sweetheart. Sara Zarr is my new favorite author! I don’t read much at all but when I started this book, I just couldn’t stop. And also I have nothing to do but read because I cracked a growth plate in cheer, and all I can do is sit around for about a week. So I thought reading would be the best and I finished Sweetheart in 2 nights, it was amazing! I am going to go get the book Once Was Lost, today. I can’t wait to start it! Then I will read Story of a Girl. Sara needs to start writing new books.(:

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