It was my first time. I bought a frock, a summery scarf to set it off, and matching shoes with high heels. My partner came with me. We were both nervous. It was a beautiful day.
OK, that’s the basic background. I’d like to share some details of this new experience without in any way sounding critical, impressed or disappointed, descriptive and without judgement as I’ve nothing to judge it against except my own expectations which were few and low. Reading over what follows, I don’t think this aim has been achieved, but I did try.
It was indeed a beautiful day, and the venue was impressive too, a posh hotel by the lakeside, with large and impeccable rooms and open doors onto the terrace. We weren’t sure which door to enter, but managed to find where the free glasses of prosecco were waiting, bubbles rising lazily. There was no-one there to check us off, explain what would happen, or introduce us to anyone else. The ostensible purpose of this first ‘reception’ was for those who had submitted books to meet the judges, but who were the judges, and where were they? I recognised one of the three, but he remained throughout with people he obviously knew. The second judge, who I already knew, wasn’t there and the third I didn’t know at all. We did not meet the judges. Instead we met someone I had seen recently at a library reading. She was with her husband and they too were also confused about what we were actually doing there, but at least it was someone to talk to.
I did my best to circulate rather than just sit and wait, but huddles of people seemed to be well-established and hard to penetrate, so I gave up. More guests arrived. Still no sign of an introduction or a welcome to the event, or the judges.
It was as if we’d wandered into a strange wedding. Eventually we were summoned by the hotel staff to the adjacent marquee for lunch. On the way we passed the bookstall and I was able to say hello to the ladies from my book distributors. They seemed pleased to see me. My three books gleamed on the table, side by side: they seemed pleased to see me too.
And so to lunch at the strangers’ wedding, and very pleasant it was. Beyond the raised canvas walls of the marquee the lake sparkled and yachts glided past. None of us at the table had been shortlisted, but we’d all come anyway, just to be there and see what happens. We chatted about nothing much, like you do.
It was after lunch when the speeches and awards began that I wondered once again about how some books are chosen over others. My educational specialty is assessment and it raised questions in my head about criteria, weighting, transparency, and so on, none of which were probably applicable. No clear criteria were ever offered, but there was mention of the importance of appeal to a wide audience, followed immediately by praise for the most esoteric book on the list that retailed at £45. There was only one category for fiction among the five for other genres, and I listened with particular care to the deliberations shared by the judges about their choice. No guidance was offered. The winner was a commercially-published crime/thriller/suspenseful piece set in the Lake District. I can’t remember whether it was before or after the author had accepted her award that the speaker asked us to consider whether her novel was really ‘literature’. Some debate at that point would have been interesting and welcome, but it didn’t happen.
At the end of the presentations all the important guests, judges, sponsors and those whose books had made the various shortlists were invited outside to meet the press and have interminable photos taken. Inside the half empty marquee the rest of us sat through an endless raffle, for which the prizes were copies of our own books, sitting on a table like puppies at the dogs’ home, yearning to be chosen and taken home. It was almost more than I could bear. The only person I wanted to speak to, and had come a long way to find, was outside with the important people. It was four o’clock. I’d had enough. I picked up my summery scarf and we headed out into the glorious afternoon.