22 August 2020

The Case for Award Juries (why checklists are not enough)

I was once on a jury for a major award with the late, great Ed Hoch.  We did the usual thing; each of us read the entries and came back with a longlist of 10 and a shortlist of 5, and then met by phone and email to discuss our choices.

I was shocked to find that my number one story - the one I thought was a shoe-in for the award - was not even on Ed's top five list.  (It was on his top ten.)

When I stated my dismay about this story not making his shortlist, Ed said two words.

"Convince me."

And so I did.  I pointed out the brilliance of the setting - a near perfect depiction of a famous train - The Canadian - racing through the Rocky Mountains.  You could feel the train moving, hear the squeal of wheels on track.  I pointed out that the plot was unique.  No, it didn't have car crashes like the typical thrillers that win. This was a locked door mystery - one of those clever, quiet stories that led to a smiler at the end.  I had never read that plot before, and neither had he, he admitted.

"You've convinced me," he said.  And it went on our top five list.

A similar thing happened when my book, The Goddaughter's Revenge, won two major awards in 2014.  After the Arthur Ellis ceremony, one of the jury members told me that there was some discussion about whether a caper with no gravitas should be considered for the top spot, even if "deliciously unique."  But one of the jurors pointed out there was indeed a darkly deeper theme in the book:  You are supposed to love and support your family, but what if your family is this one?  How far do you go, and no farther?

It's true that Gina Gallo, a mob goddaughter, struggles with this in every book.  She won't cross a line.  But what is that line?

After jury discussion, it was a unanimous decision.  The book won the award.

We can argue that a book shouldn't need to be serious to win awards.  There are numerous subgenres of crime writing, and surely heists can be written as well and be as entertaining as noir thrillers.  If not, why do we even bother to let them enter?

However, my point is this.  In both cases, jury discussion was necessary for these two stories to reach the podium.  If we went strictly by a checklist point system, with no discussion by juries, we risk the chance that some excellent stories would be lost to consideration.

Ed Hoch reminded me that jury discussion is valuable.  In discussing the merits of a story with others, we see things we may not have seen before.  This is a huge reason why we discuss stories in schools and universities.  Why have profs like me, in classrooms leading discussions, if sending everyone my lecture notes would accomplish the same thing?  Discussion is where the magic happens.

I would say the same for award juries.  Just like in a classroom, discussion adds richness to our comprehension.  Our appreciation of an entry can increase ten-fold by listening to what other jurors find in a story that we might have missed.

Checklists alone can never do that.

Melodie Campbell writes seriously funny capers that have won some awards.  She didn't even steal them.  Available at all the usual suspects.    www.melodiecampbell.com


  1. Now that was interesting. Good post.

  2. I agree with you, Melodie. Discussion should be part of the process.

    Several years ago, I was a judge for an award, one of four people reading about 140 stories. I actually read and took notes on ALL of them, and when we made our lists of ten, none of my top six stories appeared on any list. When we trimmed our lists, I cut the story that eventually won because it was merely competent with no outstanding features.

    I believe that being able to discuss our opinions and evaluations with each other would have made a huge difference.

    I think check-lists are good for a preliminary overview, but not much else. So much of judging is still subjective just because we're emotional beings as well as rational ones.

  3. Absolutely. I've been a judge, and there was a lot of discussion when it came time to winnow down to the top 10. We discussed, argued, cajoled, etc. And I think that led to a better choice than if we'd gone by a strict checkpoint.

  4. Steve, that is exactly what I am afraid of - great stories being missed. I worry when I see more and more awards becoming 'mechanical'. A robot could write a story that would satisfy number criteria, I bet, but it wouldn't have that magic I always look for in a winning story. Thanks for this comment!

  5. Eve, I so agree. My experience has been the same - and it went both ways. I saw something through the discussion that I hadn't totally appreciated, and so did my other judges. Thanks for commenting!

  6. Thanks O'Neil! I am so interesting in hearing the experiences of others on this.

  7. Thanks Judy! I see the value of both, and would argue that we need both.

  8. I've been an Edgar judge twice, and we had a lot of discussions, especially toward the end, as things got narrowed down. There's always the concern that something good will get overlooked, but we tried hard to prevent that.

  9. John, I think that is the main value of discussion, isn't it? I'm reminded of that movie Twelve Angry Men. How each Juror started out with their own opinion, and how by the end, so many changed their decision. If that had been twelve people filling out a checklist instead of having a discussion, the result for the poor suspect would have been quite different.

  10. I believe that jury discussion is like test driving a race car. It's okay to have a check list when the car is in the garage, but you have to test drive it to make sure the car is a winner.

  11. As usual, a great article, Melodie! Thanks!

  12. Oh wow, Thom, that is the best analogy! Thank you. I'll remember that. And thanks for commenting!


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