Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Bookish Bits and Bobs: A rose by any other name?

It was recently announced that Hilary Mantel, author of the famed Wolf Hall, had won the Booker Prize again for its sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, just three years after her first win. This made her the first author to ever win the prize twice in her lifetime, and while I can't imagine what such a mind-boggling achievement must feel like, it did get me thinking: would she have won twice if her name had not been on the cover?

Negative discrimination springing out of first names in particular is well-documented. It may be superficial, but would you prefer your university lecturer to be called Catherine or Chardonnay? And would you rather have Charles or Chayse as your solicitor? Whether we like it or not, names do have positive or negative connotations encoded in them by society, and while some of us have a middle name that we can choose to use instead, our names are badges that we have to wear on our fronts more or less for life, and cannot be erased as easily as the arguably equally socially controversial tattoo can.

But what about positive discrimination? This perhaps comes less from the name itself and more from knowing the person (or, in Mantel's case, their work). As a teacher myself, I am ashamed to admit it, but there does come a moment about halfway through the year when you're marking students' work and you find yourself thinking something along the lines of "Oh God, what's Kaylie produced this time?" or "Ah, my shining star Stephen! He won't let me down!" And part of me wonders how much of their good or bad marks is down to the work itself, and how much of it is me EXPECTING them to do well or to do badly.

And so part of me wonders, too, if the judges of the Booker Prize were in some way expecting Mantel to win because of her high profile and previous Booker win. Her name was one of only two really famous ones on the shortlist (with the other being Will Self), with the other four being small-timers, and I'm wondering just how far this swung in her favour. Would Bring Up The Bodies have won if an unknown writer's name had been attached to it?

At university, even undergraduate dissertations are (at least theoretically) marked anonymously, only being tracked by a candidate number. I was therefore deeply disappointed to find that mine had been marked by my dissertation supervisor (the cover sheet doesn't quite cover all manner of sins), feeling that someone so intimately involved with the dissertation's development should not have had a hand in its final grading. For the true clarity of ideas to be perceived, a fresh eye is needed - and by knowing who wrote it from the off, you perhaps don't get that new perspective that the work sorely needs for its true merit to be assessed.

If I'm to practise what I preach, I ought to assign each of my students a candidate number and insist that no names are written on papers. But there are flaws to this system: to avoid candidate numbers being memorised (as I have no more than 17 students in each class), work would still need to be distributed among a wider pool of staff. And just how would such an anonymised system work for something like the Booker? The judging panel would need to have a separate, more highly-ranking administration body above it to anonymise the entries for truly blind judging to occur, which could be time-consuming and costly. Ultimately, however, it would probably be worth it for completely fair assessment.

You could argue that all of this arises from my own bitterness that Will Self didn't win. It's possibly down to that - not to mention that I do have a pretty good history of fabricating Booker conspiracy theories. It's also perhaps a little hypocritical, seeing as during the 1990s I got plenty of stick about sharing my name with a popular yet chavvy Eastenders character. So maybe I'd better just go away and read Mantel's books (my copy of Wolf Hall still sits on the shelf unread), applaud her victories...and then next term give Kaylie and Ashden a better deal.

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