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The beauty of blind reading

The strengths of judging literary awards “blind”

Last month I sat down with my fellow judges to pick the longlist for the 2017 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award — and came up with something remarkable.

My fellow panellists included a Booker prize winner (Anne Enright) and an Orange prize winner (Rose Tremain). The prize itself, at £30,000 the richest in the world for a single story, receives entries every year from some of the most recognisable names in literature.

This year, though, none of those famous writers made it onto our longlist of 14. Instead, we picked a group of fresh and exciting new names, many of whom — the American writers Kathleen Alcott, Bret Anthony Johnston and Victor Lodato, the Irish debut novelist Sally Rooney and her compatriot Ethel Rohan, the British author Richard Lambert — are, I confess now, new to me.

Why all these new faces? Well, it wasn’t because of the quality, or because of the quantity — this year we received more than 1,000 entries, the most in the prize’s eight-year history.

No, the reason we came up with such a bold and unexpected list of potential winners is, I’m certain, because we did something uncommon in literary prizes, and judged our longlist almost completely “blind” — ie, without knowing the identities of the authors we were reading.

“Blind” judging in the book world is rare. The Booker doesn’t do it, the Baileys’ prize for
women’s fiction doesn’t do it, nor do the Costas. In other spheres it’s more common. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, famous orchestras introduced blind auditions to avoid gender bias, and in the wine world the Decanter World Wine Awards pride themselves on judging blind.

But, then, the wine world seems particularly susceptible to the lure of labels. In 2001 a French academic called Frédéric Brochet is reported to have put the same wine in two different bottles — one for a normal wine, one a grand cru — and asked 54 volunteers to taste them. Although the wine was exactly the same, the tests showed that his guinea-pig drinkers much preferred the tipple coming out of the grand cru bottle.

And that sort of unconscious bias is very hard to combat — whether you’re a wine drinker or a literary judge.

You don’t have to look very far in the news to find other stories about this sort of bias. Last week, for instance, an investigation by the BBC programme Inside Out London found that applicants to management roles who had Muslim-sounding names were three times less likely to get an interview. Two identical CVs, one for “Adam” and one for “Mohamed”, produced 12 positive responses for Adam, and just four for Mohamed.

The same broad principle — of judging people by their names, rather than what’s there in front of you on the page — applies in the book world. Generally this works in favour of famous writers, whose past work you cannot help thinking about as you read, giving them an automatic advantage over unknown writers.

Sometimes, though, it can work against them. When JK Rowling wanted to write a crime novel after finishing the Harry Potter books, for instance, she thought that the only way to get honest responses was by writing it anonymously, under the name Robert Galbraith. The results were slightly chastening.

One of the publishers who rejected her — and there were quite a number of them — even said she should think about joining “a writers’ group or writing course” to improve her skills.

Like it or not, authors come with baggage attached, and it can often be difficult for judges to jettison that baggage and just read what’s in front of them.

Anne Enright, one of my fellow judges this year, certainly felt that she was carrying around some of that baggage in her native Ireland a decade or so ago. When it came to Irish book prizes, she says, “I felt that my luck was out. I couldn’t make any headway there … I don’t quite know what I was doing wrong, but I did know that a blind reading was my only chance of a fair reading.”

And then, in 2004, she won the Davy Byrnes prize, which was — you’ve guessed it — read blind.

“Overall,” says the broadcaster and writer Mark Lawson, another of this year’s judges, “my experience is that blind judging clearly does reduce the risk of prejudice.”

There are, though, he adds, some caveats, particularly when it comes to point of view. “I once judged another competition blind, in which there was a story about a rape. And some judges were extremely reluctant to pass judgment on the story without knowing whether it had been written by a man or a woman. That’s when blind judging can become difficult.”

If a story is set in Africa, your opinion could change, too, Lawson says, “depending on whether the piece is written by a white American, a black American, a white African or a black African”.

But when it comes to evening up the chances between well-known literary names and unknowns, giving both an equal chance, and stripping out as many preconceptions as possible about what you are reading, the need to read blind seems pretty clear-cut. It won’t eliminate all bias — good judges can detect telltale styles of different authors — but it helps.

In 2006 the chairwoman of that year’s Booker prize, Hermione Lee, under siege from critics and publishers keen to press particular authors on her, began to fantasise “about manuscripts arriving in brown paper wrappers, with no name, no author photograph, no praise and no biography”.

“Well, why not?” she wrote. “An anonymous Man Booker prize!”

Why not, indeed. Maybe it’s time for the Man Booker, our premier literary prize, to set a trend and consider judging blind.

Andrew Holgate is the literary editor of The Sunday Times