12 March 2013

on juries

When I lived in Edmonton, I had the privilege of sitting on two granting juries. They were for different organizations, had different scopes, and were very different experiences--one was pleasurable and one was, let's just say, much less so. I learned a lot about the granting process and I really believe that every professional writer should sit on a jury of some sort during their career. It opened my eyes to how they work (and how they don't), how difficult the process can be, and what makes a strong application.

I was reminded of these experiences today as my FB and Twitter feed were full of writers bemoaning not getting a grant yet again along with links to Madeleine Thien's fantastic piece in the National Post On Transparency. In it, she calls for a greater transparency with prize juries, but I believe that the case can be made for granting juries, too.

Thien writes: For the Giller Prize, it’s a carefully guarded secret as to which books are even being considered. That has got to be the dumbest secret ever conceived. The jurors, celebrated as leading practitioners of their art, are apparently so fragile we can’t even know what they read, let alone how they measured (or, perhaps, didn’t). And now, apparently, it is acceptable to shortlist five books without having read a single one.

Transparency, they say, would hurt the writers’ feelings. Clearly, these people are not writers. Writers have their feelings hurt everyday.

A big, empty, silent nothing sits at the centre of our literary discourse. A lot of people might say it doesn’t matter. Five books are being recognized, a worthy book will be chosen, a few people will make some money. What difference does it make? Nobody cares about you. I think it matters. I want to be able to look all my fellow writers in the eye. I didn’t choose a life in writing in order to contribute to a fictional conversation. I truly believe that the best way to support emerging and groundbreaking work is to engage with the work, to be transparent, honest and willing to take criticism for my decisions. I don’t want to be ashamed to say that reading books does, in fact, matter. To say that the books that surprise us and haunt us do, in fact, change us.

I'm not allowed to talk about what happened in my juries, so I can't go into specifics, but in the jury that worked well, there was a lot of discussion and we took our jobs very seriously. We were passionate, thoughtful, and determined. I was heartbroken when there simply was not enough money to give to all the projects we wanted to support, but I was proud of our list. And on that list was a project I didn't understand. To be honest, I thought it sounded terrible, but the other two jurors were so committed and supportive of the idea, I conceded. They saw something I could not, and I am glad it was supported. The days we spent on the applications were tiring and inspiring at the same time.

Was it biased? Of course it was. Everyone has their biases and our group of jurors created their own. Would a different jury given the same applications have arrived at the same results? Maybe, but probably not. Their fifteenth rank may have been our nineteenth. Who knows?

Unless the systems change, the writers who are currently learning of the fate of their grants will never know exactly why they didn't get one (or did). The only advice I can give is to spend a day feeling sorry for yourself (get that microbrew, open that bottle of wine, buy that fancy chocolate, whatever makes you happy), then dust yourself off, ask for feedback, and write a stronger grant next time. We've been rejected hundreds of times and we'll be rejected hundreds more. And if you're up for it, contact a granting agency and let them know you'd be interested in sitting on a jury. Seriously. But in the meantime, treat yo' self:

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