Awards are a serious business – as garden gnome reminds me

Tracey Thorn, one of our brilliant 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction judges, talks awards, gnomes and sorting books into ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and Maybe’ piles in this fantastic New Statesman article.

I still have it, in a box in a cupboard at home – a six-inch garden gnome holding a tiny placard bearing my name.

For years after leaving university I always read books with a pencil in one hand, underlining “important quotes”, making notes in the margin, highlighting paragraphs that seemed to encapsulate the key themes. Until one day it occurred to me that I probably didn’t need to do this any more. That in fact I was now just reading for pleasure, and it was unlikely that anyone would suddenly say to me: “Beneath the surface disaffection of Eliot’s poetry lies an almost Romantic desire for transcendence. Discuss.”

I felt a bit bereft for a while, not sure how to read if I wasn’t reading in order to answer questions. I worried that I would forget books once I’d finished them; that they wouldn’t leave their mark on me if I didn’t leave my marks in them. And I began to notice how differently we talk and think about books outside of academia. For instance, if a friend asks what a book is about we answer, “It’s about a woman who leaves her husband and goes to Berlin to become a painter,” or, “It’s a murder mystery about two friends on a train.” But for students and reviewers there’s a different meaning to “about”. There, you say: “It’s a book about love, loss and friendship.” Or: “It’s a book about grief and history, about time and forgetting, about the very act of writing.”

Now, after years of reading casually, I find myself back on firmer ground, with a pencil and a notebook, as I take on the role of judge for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Launched in 1996, the annual prize “celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world” and so, with those criteria in mind, I am reading my way through a mountain of novels, mentally marking them out of ten, trying to sort them into piles of Yes and No. My notebook devotes a page to each novel, and already tells a clear story. A Yes on page one, a No on page two; a Definitely Maybe, followed by another two sharp Nos. At this point the character called Doubt arrives in town. Page six has a No with two question marks, page seven a Yes with a row of them. This is going to be harder than I thought.

Read the rest on the New Statesman website here.