Judge Dread

9 Mar

Simon Ings writes:

Arc 1.1’s short story competition is heating up, with several blisteringly good stories already spotted. We’re accepting short stories up to 5000 words until one minute to midnight on 8 April, at which point – if our experiences on past projects are anything to go by – we’ll be sitting on a small mountain of fiction.

Then comes the difficult bit: out of all those different visions of the technological future, we have to choose the “best”, and – woolly as this sounds, coming from an editor – who are we to judge?  

A couple of weeks ago the irrepressible Tom Hunter, who runs the Arthur C Clarke Award, held a meeting in a London bookshop to discuss whether prizes should be awarded by juries or by readers. Do we want our literary greats crowdsourced, or canonised?

No-one was unaware of (or indeed bothered by) how well this question neatly promoted the UK’s best-regarded SF prize. But the question was explored well, and is worth asking again here, since it goes to the heart of what speculative fiction – indeed, what any worthwhile fiction – is about.

I suppose the bleakest attitude you could possibly adopt toward literary judging is that it all comes down to snobbery: that expressions of taste are acts of social positioning. This is an argument often used against “elite” juries, and in favour of popular, crowdsourced prizes.

Heaven knows why: a crowd is as capable of “an act of social positioning” as any individual. As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, “Consciously or unconsciously, people censor themselves – they don’t need to be called into line.”

Bourdieu had great fun demonstrating his point with an original combination of social theory and data from surveys, photographs and interviews. For instance, he asked a group of survey respondents to study a collection of photographs and to give each a percentage score based upon how “interesting or beautiful” they were. Here are his results:

A sunset: 78%, a landscape: 76%, a little girl playing with a cat: 56%, a woman breast-feeding: 54%, a folk dance: 46%, a weaver at work: 39%, a still life: 38%, an old master, 37%, the bark of a tree: 35%, a famous monument: 27%, a first communion: 26%, a snake: 20%, a rope: 16%, a metal frame: 15%, cabbages: 12%, a butcher’s stall: 9%… a car accident: 1%.

There are two ways we could respond to this. If we were Stephen Pinker, neurolinguist and author of The Blank Slate, we might say that there is a deep lawfulness, even a conservatism, to our enjoyment of the arts, and it’s an artist’s job to speak to this deep lawfulness, and not rush off on some hyper-intellectualised ego-trip at our expense.  

On the other hand, we might feel uneasy about any popularity chart that favours sunsets, lovely as they are, all the time and forever, and to the exclusion of everything else in the world. (A handful of J G Ballard fans, reaching the end of this list, may well wonder where such a survey leaves a work like Crash.) 

The trouble with a crowdsourced prize is that it doesn’t award the work. It rewards the crowd.

Rather than jump to the conclusion that juries must therefore be better in all circumstances, I think it might be more fun to set a challenge: can you think of a better way to harness the power of crowds? If you can think a literary competition that harnesses the much-vaunted wisdom of crowds in a new way – however mischevious, Machiavellian or mad it is – please let us know in the comments. You never know – we may even be able to trial it in Arc.

Meanwhile, we’ll get reading. Full details of the Arc 1.1 / Tomorrow Project short story competition can be found in the Tomorrow Project section of Arc 1.1. You’ve still got over a month to enter – and we’d love to hear from you.

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