"Horse-trading and gamesmanship"

In his column in today’s Newsday, Kevin Baldeosingh responds to the discussion about literary awards hosted by the CRB and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize last month. He draws on published comments by various Booker Prize judges to make the point that “there are no rigorous standards in literary judgements”:

Last September, to mark the 40th anniversary of the Booker Prize, the London Guardian asked a judge from each year to give the inside story of how the winning book was chosen.... “The Booker has certainly mirrored fashion -- the collapse of the empire; post-modernist Victorian pastiche; New Age sentimentality,” one judge said. Another recalled: “The absurdity of the process was soon apparent: it is almost impossible to persuade someone else of the quality or poverty of a selected novel (a useful lesson in the limits of literary criticism).” And a third: “It stopped me thinking that literary prizes are about literary value. Even the most correct jury goes in for horse-trading and gamesmanship, and what emerges is a compromise.”

Which brings me to Ken Arrow, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1972. Although he got the prize for his “pioneering contributions to general economic equilibrium theory and welfare theory”, Arrow is best known for his 1948 impossibility theorem, which is a cornerstone of, not economics, but politics. Put simply, the theorem proves mathematically that any election based on “one person, one vote” is fair only when there are two candidates. Add a third or more, and it is likely that a candidate who is no one’s favourite will win. The theorem applies to many areas besides electoral voting, including literary prizes.

Baldeosingh is the author of three novels and a former CWP judge himself, so he writes on the subject of literary awards from an insider’s perspective. He is also annoyed, it seems, that he was not a member of the discussion panel for the CRB/CWP event, though he was in the the audience:

The Commonwealth Foundation had commissioned a local publisher to arrange this forum. As the only Trinidadian who had served for three years as a judge on the Commonwealth Book Prize, including 1999 when Salman Rushdie was a finalist and made his first public appearance in India after the fatwa, you might think I’d be a logical choice for such a panel. But you’d be wrong. You see, these discussions require fluency in literary discourse, and I don’t speak twaddle....

Now it may be that the Trini literati don’t consider me a good writer; and it may be that they’re even right. But I have found most literary professionals (not readers) in this place to be persons of small mind and spiteful spirit. And if unprofessionalism so infects individuals on matters of art, where neither much money and even less power is at stake, imagine how much more pervasive the pettiness is in other arenas, such as politics or business. Far more than imperialism or colonialism or poverty, this is what keeps us Third World.

Your humble Antilles blogger, who after all helped organise the event, appears to be somehow implicated in this; so I will now end my twaddling and engage in contemplation of my alleged smallness of mind and spitefulness of spirit.

PS: If anyone knows where the Trini literati are to be found, do drop me a line–perhaps they will help fund the CRB.

Nicholas is the editor of Caribbean Beat and editor of The Caribbean Review of Books (CRB). He is also one of the administrators of the contemporary arts space Alice Yard and the Bocas Lit Fest (The Trinidad & Tobago Literary Festival). His reviews, essays, and poems have been published in various periodicals.