Sunday, 4 May 2014

Thoughts on Passing Judgement

When I heard the iconic and brilliant Ruth Rendell say recently that she doesn't judge people because, she said, 'I don't think we should', her words struck a chord with me. If there's one thing that infuriates me, it's people who are judgemental. I know that sounds like a judgemental statement in itself, but you know what I mean: the people who love to tell you what you ought to be doing, and how you should dress, behave, and generally live your life. Often these people are speaking out of genuine disinterested concern, a 'learn from my mistakes' or 'benefit from my experience' motive. But it's a slippery slope from disinterested advice to interference and ultimately bigotry. People who are convinced their views are 'right' are very dangerous. In a conflict, both sides believe they are right. It reminds me of a joke...

A student rabbi observes an old rabbi judging a disagreement. The old rabbi listens to the first  side of the argument. 'You're right,' he says. The old rabbi listens to the other side of the argument. 'You're right,' he says. The student rabbi is perplexed. 'But Rabbi,' he says, 'they can't both be right.' The old rabbi shrugs. 'You know, you're also right.'

Judgements about other people shouldn't be arrived at on the basis of whether they agree with our own opinions or ideologies. But what about judging talent? To some extent this is unavoidable. It's part of life if we are going to enjoy the arts at all. I wouldn't place my own pathetic attempts at painting on a par with Van Gogh. Is that a judgement? However skilled I might become at playing the piano, I'll never attain the inspired genius of Mozart - or even be as 'good' as any mediocre musician. Is that judgemental? And if so, how do I set about judging other writers, as I am often invited to do, as the judge of a writing competition.

Recently the panel of judges for the Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Competition met for lunch to agree on a winner. This prestigious international competition involves unpublished authors submitting the opening of their novels. The winner is likely to attract interest from literary agents, if not publishers. So winning this competition can be quite a significant step for an unpublished writer. As judges, we were sent a shortlist of just over a dozen entries, selected from nearly five hundred submissions. Over a long lunch, with much discussion, we managed to reach a concensus about the winner. We had some lively discussions about the other entries. The panel, which comprised a leading literary agent, senior editors from two major publishing houses, an independent publisher, and myself as a bestselling crime writer, were sitting in judgement on the entrants. Did we make the 'right' choice? Is there a 'right' decision? All the writers shortlisted were 'winners', to have reached that stage in the competition.

But there could only be one winner. I wonder what the old rabbi in the joke would say about that.

What do you think?

5 comments:

John Cowton said...

I suppose, even a judge should be non-judgemental during the process of examining a piece of written work in an objective methodical manner to an individual set criteria matching a clear idea of what they are looking for in a potential book.
Once a winner is selected and subsequently published, the true measure of the books worth has to be on book sales. Subsequently come the reviews, and I'm afraid there is no holds barred in this arena, where individuals can be as subjective and judgemental as they like. Although, I occasionally feel compelled to review, I try to keep an open mind when it comes to reading reviews. When it comes to making a purchase, I prefer to read the blurb and one or two pages. I don't judge a book by it's cover.

Leigh Russell said...

You're right, John, a judge should try to be objective. Reviewers are another matter altogether. I agree it's best not to be swayed by reviewers when deciding whether to buy a book. They are notoriously unreliable for all sorts of reasons. It's a funny old world!
Thanks for commenting here.

Leigh Russell said...

Hard to see how the burglar who broke into my 85-year-old mother-in-law's flat last night, and forced her to hand over her jewellery - including her own grandmother's diamond engagement ring - could be 'right' in any way. There are circumstances where I can be judgemental!

Val Ewing said...

Reading is such a personal taste sort of thing.

Passing judgement is something I've learned that a person shouldn't do.

I am flummoxed sometimes because when presented with both sides of an argument I can usually see each opposer's point quite clearly.

Leigh Russell said...

You're right, Val, that's why it helped - and hindered! - to have a panel of judges. Very often it is possible to see two sides of an argument, which makes the whole 'argument' seem a bit silly...