Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Judging the Judges

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One of the mysteries that has interested me most over the years has been the absurd and elusive criteria for selecting judges for book awards in this country. Thomas Hodd has written a superb essay, published in The Globe and Mail, Tuesday, January 5th, in which he boldly argues just this. Check it out.

Before taking up writing mysteries as a suitable vocation for a retiring fellow like myself, I taught Canadian literature for decades and toiled in academe as a literary critic. I was in the business of exercising taste and judgement to illuminate literary quality. There are scholars and there are critics: scholars don’t judge but critics do.
There are critics and reviewers. Reviewers express opinions. Critics make judgements based on an informed sensibility and educated imagination. Some reviewers are good critics, some critics are good reviewers. Critics are accountable, at least to themselves. That’s why they make good judges.

I have yet to see a literary critic, whose life work is grounded in cultural and literary context, on the list of Giller judges or Governor General’s Award judges. Instead, we have writers, their friends, and apparently ‘representative’ readers. If you traced the connections among winners and judges over the years, you might be appalled, or at least embarrassed. If you interviewed representative readers, and asked for their criteria, apart from the fact that they read quite a bit, or about the depth of their knowledge or the breadth of their critical awareness, you’d generally feel insulted.

Consider the recent bleating of Victoria Glendinning. How is this person in any way qualified to make an informed and educated judgement when she is neither informed nor educated in relation to the works being judged (see my blog below re Glendinning).

Consider Justin Trudeau a few years back, championing Wayne Johnston on “Canada Reads,” capitulating to the spokesperson for Hubert Aquin. Why? For political expediency. I doubt Trudeau had read Prochain Episode. I’m bloody well sure, listening to him, he didn’t understand it either as a work of literature or for its anarchist political exhortations.

Isn’t it about time the experts were called in. Writers are the worst of all possible judges. If they could explain what it is about art that makes it work, they’d be essayists. If they knew their own minds, they’d probably be lawyers. If they exercised good taste and judgement they’d be teachers. Do you want brain surgery done by someone who has had deep thoughts, someone who has had numerous cranial invasions, or by a trained surgeon?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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John Moss

John Moss's latest book is Grave Doubts (Dundurn Press). His website is

Go to John Moss’s Author Page