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Letter from Shortlist Land: Ysenda Maxtone Graham on being a nominee-turned-judge

Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Filed under: Non-fiction

Ysenda Maxtone Graham describes her experiences as nominee-turned-judge of a literary prize.

It was a normal weekday afternoon with the normal succession of telephone calls – the cold-caller from Kitchens Direct, the mother checking the school run, the optician to say that the glasses were ready for collection. Wearily, I picked up the telephone for the fourth time.  It was Stephanie Allen at John Murray. ‘I’m ringing with some good news.  You’ve been shortlisted for the Whitbread Biography Award.’ After graciously and calmly receiving the news, I put the telephone down and danced manically round the room.

A year later, looking back on this scene, I see the physical outpouring of joy as an early peak on a zig-zagging graph of hope – a graph illustrating the cocktail of arrogance and insecurity which, it is said, churns inside the breast of every writer. Nomination Day was the beginning; Deflation Day would be the end. A modern Hogarth could paint a series of pictures: The Runner-Up’s Progress.

Of course, as you assure your family and they assure you when you telephone them two minutes later, being on the shortlist is all you could ask for. There is no need even to think about winning. The first bottle of champagne is opened that evening.

There are more delights to come. After The Archers, your name is actually mentioned by Francine Stock on Front Row. You tape it and listen again. Friends from Devon and Scotland ring you up, having heard it. Mothers from school congratulate you in the aisles at Waitrose. Decades after leaving school, you experience once again the feeling of crystalline success which no one can take away from you.

But then, dangerously, the graph of hope begins to climb. You buy the other three books on the shortlist, and it is quite obvious at John Sandoe’s that you are doing just that. You imagine that the other three authors are doing the same at their local bookshops. You read with a coldly critical eye. You half-want to find fault with the other books, and you half-want to admire them and to think, ‘I don’t mind if I lose to this.’

In the future there is the great dinner to look forward to at the Whitbread Brewery. What will you wear? What will you say? The urge to ponder on the speech is irresistible. ‘I must thank my wonderful editor, who saw the point…’ And (realistically) you also practise the runner’s up facial expression of disguised delight when the first prize goes to someone else and the camera is on you.

All through Christmas, I lived in this heavenly country: Shortlist Land, a place of perpetual hope.  I imagined that the judges, on frosty walks after Christmas lunch, were pondering in my favour, responding to my telepathic willpower.  ‘Perhaps we ought to give the prize to this lesser-known but enchanting book…’  Little did I know that the judges were doing no such thing.  The winner (Claire Tomalin’s marvellous book on Pepys) had already been decided, back in November at the same time as the shortlists.

Very gradually, admitting it to no one, I was working myself up to a pitch of expectation, so that on the night of 8 January (winner to be announced on the 9th), my broken sleep was rich with dreams of after-dinner speeches.

The e-mail from John Murray was waiting for me in the morning. ‘I’m very sorry to say…wanted to tell you before the official announcement…’ And again, I telephoned the family to tell them the news.

Instead of champagne that evening, I drank red wine as I listened to my name, once again, being spoken on Front Row, but this time in the list of losers. There was to be no Whitbread dinner.  Runners-up aren’t invited. Deflated, feeling a failure and seeking ‘closure’, I wrote to Claire Tomalin to congratulate her. She wrote a charming note on the end of a round-robin thanking everyone for their letters of congratulation. ‘I’m so looking forward to reading your Real Mrs Miniver.’ So she hadn’t done so during the shortlist period. If not, what had she been doing during those ecstatic but agonising two months? I was full of admiration for this lack of competitive curiosity.

Two months later, in March, another letter from Whitbread landed on my mat. Had they made a mistake? ‘On further reflection the judges feel that your enchanting book…’

But this was not the letter’s message. They were writing to ask me to judge this year’s biography award. I said ‘yes’, though the work is unpaid, I have three young boys, and all the reading had to take place during the school summer holidays.

At the end of June the boxes started to arrive: fat books, less fat books, political biographies, literary biographies, memoirs of famous people, some still in page-proof and held together by a giant elastic band. Throughout the summer, in Cornwall, in France, in Kent, I read in every spare second of the day and night.  As a tired parent in a heatwave, I could employ one infallible test for the books: did they, or did they not, send me to sleep?

As a writer it has been a joy not to have to write, for once, just to read. It has been liberating to read with no bias, taking as much care over the less-well-known writers as the well-known ones (as some kind judge had done with me the previous year), and judging each book purely on its own merits. It has been a pleasure to be, for the first and perhaps the last time in my life, a step ahead of the book world, opening the review pages of the Sunday paper each week and thinking smugly, ‘I read that ages ago.’

It would be a pretence to suggest that I have not been daunted by the sheer volume of pages, or that I haven’t done a fair amount of book-measuring – closing the book with a finger wedged inside the page I am on, checking the ratio of the read to the still-to-be read. (‘Do other judges do this?’ I guiltily wonder.)  I am always secretly relieved, when starting a 700-page brick of a book, to discover that the last hundred pages are notes and index, so don’t count. I have, on occasions, thought the heretical thought that biographies are too long, written to do justice to thorough research rather than to give pleasure to the reader. I have cursed the modern publishing world for doing away with line editors who spot writers’ bad habits and over-used expressions.  But I have read some wonderful books, and it is astonishing how many of them seem to have a section on the subject’s experiences of the Spanish Civil War.

There are three judges in each category, and we are sent a third of the hundred or so books each. Out of those 33 we choose our ‘personal shortlist’ of three, and those three are circulated among the other judges. Then we meet to shorten that list of nine down to four, with one winner. Tellingly, two of the books on my personal shortlist are under 350 pages, while two of James Naughtie’s are over 600. Will he think me frivolous and lazy? Do I think him cruel for inflicting yet more bricks on me? All will be revealed at the great judging meeting.

Judges are, I am assured, invited to the awards ceremony, ‘plus guest’. At last, that stiff white card will arrive, and I will draw up in a taxi, pitying the poor runners-up who are sitting at home listening to Front Row.