December 10, 2019

Book prize judge resigns, claiming none of the other judges “had read all of the books in their entirety”


An image of a duck, in honor of Ducks, Newburyport, which we’re pretty sure involves ducks. Of course we’ve read it its entirety. How dare you… (Shawn Nystrand, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Lesley McDowell, one of the five judges sitting on this year’s panel for the Saltire Scottish fiction book of the year award, announced her resignation from the panel on Monday.

McDowell, who was boosting Lucy Ellmann’s 1000-page monologue, Ducks, Newburyport, grew frustrated with what she perceived as a gendered bias against Ellmann’s book. She claims two of her co-judges admitted they hadn’t finished it.

The Saltire award ended up going to Nina X, a novel by Ewan Morrison about a young woman who is imprisoned in a Maoist commune in South London.

The aggrieved McDowell argued that greater weight should have been given to a woman writing the female perspective than a male doing so, and that the judges’ inability to complete Ellmann’s book was a sign of sexism, telling the Guardian, “A woman was being overlooked, her book not even finished.”

McDowell elaborated on her objection to the winner:

“I said I couldn’t support the choice because it was a woman written by a man, when there were three women who’d written women on the shortlist and that meant they were saying a man had written a woman better than these three. I said they had to be very sure that their choice stood up against all of that, and that because I did not think it did, therefore couldn’t support it.”

Meanwhile, Sarah Mason, the program director of the Saltire Society, told The Scotsman:

“The 2019 Fiction Prize was judged by a panel of five judges (three female, two male) and overseen by an independent chair (female). The winning book was chosen by the majority. We understand this process, which is fair, can result in some judges not seeing their preferred title win.”

Nevertheless, team Ellmann feels aggrieved. Her publisher at Galley Beggar, Sam Jordison, told the Guardian “it does feel like lightning striking twice for Ducks,” referring to the Booker Prize shockingly going to two novelists, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo, but failing to go to Lucy Ellmann.

Have you ever had one of those dreams that somehow seamlessly synthesizes everything swirling in your mind? Because this looks suspiciously like one of those. Book people casually trying to pretend to have read an 1000-plus-pager by never explicitly asserting or denying it? Luminaries clamorously resigning from high literary institutions? Somewhat overzealous designations of sexism? Margaret Atwood is somehow in the mix?

Someone please wake me up…



Athena Bryan is an editor at Melville House.