Choosing a ‘best book’ is an impossible task. Even the Booker Prize panel failed and all they’ve got to do is decide on the best novel of the year. The Wingate Prize — for which I am, this year, the chair of judges — requires that it should also be “of Jewish interest for the general reader” and that we include non-fiction books as well. Simply not possible!
And to make it harder, I didn’t get to pick a cosy little judging panel of yes-people who will simply support my preferences, but I’m given three other folk whose attitudes might well not — in fact probably been chosen specifically not to — coincide with mine. Doomed!
It therefore comes as no surprise to me that Booker eventually ducked their challenge and chose two winners. But that made my fellow judges and me all the more determined to succeed.
Last autumn, I first met the rest of the judges: Dr Roopa Farooki, Philippe Sands and Kim Sherwood, surrounded by crates of books submitted by publishers for our attention.
All four of us are published authors, but after that the commonalities fade. Roopa is a hospital doctor, a critically acclaimed novelist and Muslim.
Kim, Jewish, is an award-winning novelist a university lecturer in creative writing. Philippe, also Jewish, is a renowned international human rights lawyer, a professor of law at UCL, a non-fiction author and recent winner of the Wingate Prize. I’ve also had a few books out, but almost all either for children or academics.
At our next meeting, to decide the long list, we all had our opinions of the books we had read but I suspect we were all also minded to defer to someone else’s strong feeling about a book we hadn’t rated. After all, might we have read it too superficially, or when not in the right mood?
Still, we argued and discarded and finally arrived at our long-listed 12. Once agreed, we all then needed to return to them and give them another go without prejudice.
For my own part — and I think this happened to the others, too — re-reading works that had more or less passed me by the first time around, armed with the analysis and enthusiasm of my peers, led me to appreciate books that had not hit the spot at first.
The insights and advocacy of my fellows enriched my capacity to read effectively. We learnt from each other to savour books we might not have chosen for our own pleasure.
The short-listing meeting saw us all more determined to fight for our favourites.
Therefore, like the Booker people before us, (but perhaps not so bad) we couldn’t trim the shortlist to six, so agreed on seven. This meeting featured emphatic discussions as to what constitutes “Jewish” in a book, as well as how to balance fiction against non-fiction, but, ultimately, we picked the books we liked.
In the end we had fortuitously selected a good balance of historical and contemporary, male and female writers, fiction and non-fiction. The genius of the Wingate Prize people… they must have picked a well-balanced panel after all!
After a re-reading, we met for the last time. This discussion needed all the generosity that my colleagues could muster. While we were each duty-bound to press for our favoured book(s) we also needed to forbear so that a decision could emerge.
In the end, we were all hugely happy with the superb winner we chose. We differed, even quite vehemently, on which book should come third or fourth but luckily we don’t have to tell you that.
The winner emerged, like a newborn babe, with a rush and relieved cries of recognition from us all. It was an impossible task. But I’m pleased we did it.
Clive Lawton OBE, is an educator, writer and broadcaster and chair of the 2020 Wingate Prize judges.
The winner of the Wingate Prize 2020 will be announced on March 16