The Thrill of the Anonymous Judging Process of the Bridport Prize

by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

 

“I wanted my party to be united…” —  Truman Capote, on insisting his illustrious yet professionally-divided Black and White Ball guests attend his event anonymously disguised in masks.

 

I’ve always been fascinated with the iconic Black and White Ball which my subject, Truman Capote, threw at the Plaza Hotel in 1966, following the publication and wild success of his masterpiece, In Cold Blood

A fan of masquerades since his childhood of abandonment in rural Alabama, Capote saw disguises as life’s great equalizer. 

Anonymity was his trump card— the factor that would enable the most and least successful of his chosen guests to mingle with impunity.

I suppose it is this same mentality that has pleased me about the process of being assessed in anonymous judging scenarios for literary accolades— the Bridport Prize being the most significant of these for me to date, for reasons detailed in the following account.

My first fascination with such competitions came in the world of screenwriting, where I was honoured for numerous prizes over the years, each beginning with a script with author credit deleted from the title page.  Often I found that screenplays that might not have made it through the dragnet of the normal development process— due to a writer’s status or lack-thereof— were commended based on merit alone.  When my Regency-era boxing drama was recognized by the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, I had the baffling delight of two Nicholl committee members approaching me in the ladies room on the afternoon of the Academy luncheon, enthusing, “We had no idea you were a female writer!”

This constitutes high praise in my mind.  As a reader I admire authors who write characters of all genders, eras and genres so effectively that the writer’s own identity becomes secondary, if relevant at all.  This is a theme I found would repeat itself when I began to enter my first novel, Swan Song, in literary prize competitions.

Given that I employ a female chorus of voices in my six betrayed ‘Swans’, if I had thought of such a detail at all I suppose I would have assumed it was evident that a female writer was behind the material.  But when Truman elbowed his way into the text as the brash force-of-nature character he insisted he become, I suppose I might have wondered if this additional ‘voice’ might have confused matters regarding authorial identity.

As an American writer married to an Englishman, determined to succeed in the UK publishing

industry, inspired by my literary heroes— natives and expatriates alike— it never occurred to me that an author’s gender, age, nationality or pedigree would prove a source of speculation.  To me a strong narrative is a strong narrative.  An author’s background was something I hardly considered.

Until, that is, I encountered resistance from several prominent readers who were an early audience in my attempting to make the transition from dramatic writing to prose.  Given my background as a screenwriter, having trained at prestigious theatre and film schools in the U.S., I was surprised to find that I didn’t fit a typical profile as an aspiring prose writer.  It was suggested that screenwriting and literary prose were not transferrable talents.  Deflated by such opinions, I briefly returned to California, then my birthplace of Texas for a few weeks to regroup.  After a previously fruitful year developing the novel in the astonishingly supportive UEA-Guardian Masterclass, had I misjudged my progress…?  I fiercely believed in my prose voice— as had the Masterclass team— and felt that my background in dramatic writing only served to enhance the scenes that, in my view, most effectively defined my novel.

It was, significantly, in this two week hiatus that I entered my opening chapters for the Bridport Prize. 

Within a week, I was contacted by a previously-entered literary contest— the fantastic Myriad Editions First Drafts competition— informing me that Swan Song had been named to their 2015 shortlist.  Within a month I found myself in Brighton, reading an extract from my first chapter at an evening reception at Waterstones.  Within weeks the news of the Bridport Prize Peggy Chapman-Andrews longlist followed, and thus the exhilarating Bridport journey commenced.  Swan Song has gone on to be shortlisted for the 2015/16 Historical Novel Society Award and the 2016 Cambridge Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize, and has been longlisted for another significant award (pending.) 

It must be said that the extract that my early critics questioned was the opening chapter, almost verbatim, that all five judging committees recognized as being a worthy contender. 

I’ve thought a great deal about this over the last twelve months.  The blind judging processes of these vital competitions resurrected and confirmed my belief in my efforts.  A manuscript being chosen by multiple readers from an anonymous pile of drafts places merit solely on the work itself.  There can be no agenda or prejudice at play, as all that is left for evaluation are the words on the page. 

In my opinion, such honours are far more than mere laurels.  They serve as the barometer of the work itself.  That, to me, remains the most liberating and empowering part of the anonymous judging process that the Bridport Prize and others employ.  It is certainly what I consider the greatest of compliments— that the work alone matters in such anonymous judging scenarios. 

The long and shortlisted authors might range from literary scholars to first time authours… from writers in early or later stages of their careers.  They might span vastly different professions, ages and backgrounds.  What matters is what each of them has created. 

This, for me, has proven the ultimate approbation. 

Perhaps my final bit of joy basking in the anonymity of the judging process came at the Bridport

Prize-giving festivities, when I was told by members of the judging committee that there had been a fascinating debate as to the identity of the author of Swan Song.  There was disagreement amongst the judges whether the author was male or female— whether English or American.  The most flattering thing anyone has said about the work to date is that my identity could not be determined one way or another, due to the novel’s boldness of voice. 

That the Bridport Prize judges neither knew nor cared about anything beyond the effectiveness of the words on the page remains a heartening notion. 

As this year’s Bridport Prize deadline looms but a week away, I’m thrilled for the next round of debut authors, who will be selected from the piles of hundreds of anonymous manuscripts.  It is a rare thing in our age of cult-of-personality to discover equal, anonymous opportunity for success. Bridport and other respected contests provide an egalitarian shot for debut authors to break into the field of literary fiction, which I shudder to think I may not have been granted otherwise.

Surely it is the power of such anonymous achievement having the potential to transform one from ‘aspiring author’ to ‘author’ that is the greatest prize of all.

Here at the week-left-to-submit mark, on lucky day No. 7 and counting-down, I send sincere best wishes to you in your mysterious ‘masked’ states these next five months.

 Enjoy— for the moment— the pleasure of disguise— and remember, it’s anyone’s game…!

As Capote knew, nothing is more satisfying than removing the mask of anonymity when all is said and done, revealing your identity and revelling in your achievement.

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