Tracey Thorn on Judging the Baileys Prize
7th June 2016 - Tracey Thorn
Tracey Thorn was a singer and songwriter with Everything But the Girl from 1982-2000. At that point she semi-retired from the music business to bring up her children. She has since recorded three solo albums, Out of the Woods, Love and Its Opposite and Tinsel and Lights, and published her autobiography, Bedsit Disco Queen. She lives in London with her husband Ben Watt and their three children.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Tracey writes about her experience of judging the Baileys Womens Prize for Fiction, re-learning how to concentrate and the difficulty of letting a book go. The six-strong shortlist was announced recently and the winner will be declared on 8th June.
Below: Tracey and fellow judges, Margaret Mountford, Laurie Penny, Elif Shafak and Naga Munchetty.
On Judging the Baileys Prize
Judging the Baileys Prize has been a fantastic experience. I came to it eager but terrified, full of wide-eyed enthusiasm tempered by the fear that I wouldn’t be sure which books to choose, wouldn’t trust my own judgement. I was wrong about that. The very intensity of the process nourished my confidence, and also reminded me how to read. Like many people, I’d got into the habit of taking novels to bed, leafing drowsily through a few pages per night, losing the thread, flicking back each night for reminders. It’s no way to pay attention to a book. They deserve better. I made a rule to do all my Baileys reading in the daytime, and gradually I re-learned how to concentrate, and from that I came to recognise what I was looking for in a book. Which amounted, in simple terms, to some kind of energy - not necessarily in the sense of plot, or action, or noisiness - but an intensity of purpose, the feeling that a book was alive. And that intensity could be found in wildly differing books, from the quietly minimalist My Name is Lucy Barton, through the earthily poetic The Glorious Heresies, to the epically heartfelt A Little Life, all of which were longlisted .
So the actual reading was easy - what was hard was having to let a book go. I still haven’t quite recovered from the shocking experience of loving one book so much I thought it might win, and then being unable to persuade my fellow judges that it even belonged on the longlist. To counter that I had the opposite and delightful experience of hearing fellow judges articulately explain why they had loved a book I hadn’t rated, and then seeing it afresh, through different eyes. I learned to recognise my own style of reading, my own inevitable preferences, my blind spots.
This push and pull between the judges - the respectful listening to each other, the opposing passions - made our meetings argumentative, but surprising and fun. I understand that it’s not always like this; people who’ve judged other prizes tell me horror stories of hostility and intransigence, of domineering characters who take over the process, and an eventual glum compromise that pleases no-one.
We had none of that, we just had differing tastes. And so we had to make a decision, at both longlist and shortlist - did we aim for consensus, or try to reflect the variety of our opinions? What we most wanted to avoid was a list of books that none of us much minded - novels we all felt were sort of fine, which no-one either loved or hated. Instead, we opted for passion. Every book here has inspired real love in some of us, along with the agreement and understanding of the rest of the panel. Each of us is thrilled by something on the list, and we’re all thrilled that the list so vividly represents the five of us.
Now all we have to do is agree on a winner.