The call came on a sunny summer day as lockdown one was ending, when it seemed as if the world would swiftly reset and put this temporary aberration behind us. I’d had Covid (plus the anti-body test to prove it) so although I felt optimistic about the autumn and life in general, a project where I could spend the rest of that glorious summer outside reading sixty or so books with a connection to Jewish thought or life was tempting beyond imagination.
What greater honour and privilege can there be, I thought, as an author, to be asked to judge the works of your fellow authors and award the best a prize?
What joy it would surely be to hold such power to bestow prizes and accolades.
Ah, but there’s the rub. How can you possibly choose a novel as more prize worthy than a memoir, a scholarly book about the Holocaust above poetry? Was this, I worried, a project doomed to failure because apples are not, as we all know, the same as pears let alone potatoes.
However, as I settled into my task and learned to alternate my reading – first a novel, then a history or diary and savour the biographies, my natural terrain, till last – I re-discovered a delight about reading with a purpose, but a purpose that was not to fillet the book looking for crucial quotes or segments for my own work. This pleasure of reading books that might overwise never cross my threshold and which broadened my horizon and took me on journeys (to several other lands) soon overtook the worries. I read for enjoyment all summer and that carried me through to the first meeting where we four judges met online, in our living rooms, occasionally in different countries and with enchanting off camera noises as children wandered in. In some ways that first meeting was the best; approached with no preconceptions as to what the other judges would or would not like, it had a certain freedom and no knife wielding to be done. Yet.
We could still leave most of these wonderful books in with a chance. Those that were discarded at this early stage were removed probably because they did not meet the prize criteria either by doing little to broaden the understanding of what it means to be Jewish for the general reader or perhaps for technical reasons such as they had been assembled from television programmes. There was little personal about it.
But then we all discovered, sadly, that the world had not reverted to normal and our second and third meetings would also have to be held on Zoom. Would remote meetings make the inevitable cull when it came easier or harder? Could we look off camera distractedly as we said something critical about a book? Perhaps.
But I have been a book prize judge before so I have tried to reflect on what was gained and what lost by remote judging. Selfishly, having a reading project like this in lockdown has been an enormous treat and privilege. And, since the banter of intellectual discussion is the real pleasure in judging a book prize, zoom or no, we could still have that, even though I would have liked to see the colour of my fellow judges’ eyes as they argued for a particular book. Best of all we could have two or three hours where we did not discuss the R rate, lockdown breaches, the tedium of life under lockdown or even vaccination. None of the books under consideration referenced the pandemic since they were all written before that hit and we could (almost) forget it and escape into the world of literature, which is of course what books are for.
But I do believe that meeting in reality would have been both more enjoyable (I relish human contact and missed the small talk, biscuits and cups of tea) and more challenging. It’s harder to have a good argument on zoom, even if, as we now all know, you can storm out of the room, it doesn’t have quite the same effect. Once there is an agreement that, say, ten or so books all reach a certain standard of good prose and insight into life, arguing that one particular book failed to work its magic on you is, ultimately, a subjective response. Sadly (or perhaps luckily) we never had those fierce arguments, more difficult in my view over Zoom than over a glass of wine.
Perhaps I should not generalise but I think Zoom, as we all waited for our own little box to light up with its yellow border, made us more polite than we might have been had we met in the flesh. We had some intense arguments. But in the end, we resolved our issues by extending the shortlist from six to seven – seven fine books from a variety of genres and I cannot say yet which of those will be chosen as an overall winner. But they all satisfy my personal criteria which is: do they take me into a different world, one which I might not be otherwise able to access and do they do so with literary elegance and style?
Anne Sebba’s latest book Ethel Rosenberg A Cold War Tragedy is published in June 2021 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson