'Predictably, none of us chose the same winner.' Liz Calder, Publishing Director at Bloomsbury, on why, when it comes to fiction, the judges' decision isn't final
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The Independent Culture
Back In the Dark Ages, when I was studying English at Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand, we used to crowd into a small, dingy room to listen to a poet called James K Baxter reading his poems. We thought he looked like James Dean. It was utterly thrilling. Decades later, I have come across a brilliant article about writers and editors written by Baxter for a magazine called Numbers. (I should say that in the interim he became a world-renowned poet and a revered guru in New Zealand in the Sixties and Seventies.)

His words are salutary to new writers: "Year by year I become more distrustful of my own ability, and that of others, to deliver final literary judgement on any work. Entirely contradictory yet plausible judgements on books of prose and verse are made every week in our periodicals and newspapers. My own experience as a reviewer has led me to the conclusion that the best one can expect from any critic is informed opinion, though what one often gets is uninformed prejudice." Baxter ends up with: "The processes of literary composition are largely uncontrollable and inaccessible to critical intelligence. One can meddle with a writer, but one cannot make him or her. The chief factor which inhibits the growth of the younger writer and prevents the rejuvenation of the exhausted veteran is lack of trust in their own powers, lack of fidelity to their own unique situation, and above all, anxious dependence on the opinion of critic and editor. The spring must run muddy before it can run clear. We may provide a channel. We do not govern the spring."

Stick that on your wall if you are or want to be a writer.

When reading new fiction, something I do a great deal, and in particular when reading the mountain of stories submitted for the Bloomsbury/Independent on Sunday Prize, I have unconsciously always taken a Baxter-like view. Time after time it is proven: publishers and editors turn down books that go on to become classics; critics contradict each other at every turn. I say, so what? The eye of the beholder rules here, as everywhere. Critical standards matter, of course, but whose standard are we to adhere to? What matters - and this was certainly the case with the present judges - is that the writing moves, disturbs and grips each individual reader, the voice arrests and convinces.

Predictably, then, none of the four of us chose the same winner, so we let democracy rule. What this means for the writers is clear: the only use for publishers, editors, judges and critics is to provide the channels needed to give writing an airing. As a writer you must trust in your unique situation.

Another expert practitioner, John Fowles, gave some sound advice when writing in 1985 about a young-writers' competition of which he was a judge:

"At heart write always for yourself: but make sure you write from your real self, not that one besotted by vainglorious dreams of a future self."

how the four judges went about their impossible job