What's it like to be a Miles Franklin Literary Award judge?

Miles Franklin!  That's a lot of books.

We were very lucky to secure one of the Miles Franklin Literary Award judges (our boss Anna Low) to answer some questions about what it's like to be a judge for not only Australia's most prestigious prize but also it's most talked about!

We have watched Anna toiling away these past months, reading and re-reading the very large towers of books (as seen above) submitted for this year's award and we know firsthand that being a judge is not for the fainthearted. Here's what Anna had to say about it all.

Give us an idea of the Miles Franklin Literary Award judging timeline.  How long does the process take from submissions to a winner being chosen?

AL:  I only know my timeline and can't speak for the other judges.  This year I received my first box of books in October and a further two boxes in December.  The judges meet several times throughout the process and the winner is finally announced in June.

How does one become a MFLA judge?

AL:  The Miles Franklin judging panel consists of five judges who come from different areas of literary life.  The prize is administered by the The Trust Company; they approached me to join the panel.  With the exception of the Mitchell Librarian, each judge stays on the panel for about five years.

How important do you think awards such as the MFLA are to both writers and readers?

AL:  Very important.  For writers, awards recognise and acknowledge the hard work and commitment that it takes to write a book.  Awards, like the Miles Franklin, reward excellence.  Readers are drawn to books that have won a prize, as prizes draw attention to an author's work and generally this encourages readership.

And in regards to the wider book industry?

AL:  For the book industry, awards are important.  Of course, some are more successful than others but anything that starts a conversation about books or singles one book out from all the others is a good thing.

Do you have a new respect for the MFLA and other awards?

AL:  I think I have always had respect for the MFLA and other awards, but I realise now how hard people work behind the scenes to give life to awards.  I think I am much less likely to criticise the decision of an award having been through the judging process twice.

Recently, the judges of the Vogel Literary Award decided not to award a winner and the same thing happened last year with the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  Do you believe that this should be an option or that judges are somehow letting down the reading public?  Or even that perhaps it might suggest a flawed submissions process?

AL:  The judges of the Vogel Prize would not have made that decision easily; there would have been much heartache and pain getting to the point of not awarding the prize.  I think they were really brave and that it is in the best interests of the prize, past winners and future winners to not award the prize if the work is not up to standard.  I have read quite a few books that have been through the Vogel prize process and they are universally of a very high standard.  I think it is far more important to maintain the quality of the prize than award a prize for the sake of it.  Having said that, it must be devastating for the authors who have submitted manuscripts.

What do you think of all the fuss the MFLA has generated in recent years?

AL:  I think that anything that gets people talking about books is a good thing.

Can you tell from reading the first page whether a book is an award winner?

AL:  Sometimes I wish you could tell from the first page of a book whether it is an award winner but no, I don't think it's possible.  It is certainly possible to discern the quality of the writing from the opening page and to be excited and want to read more.

How do you drown out outside influences?  For instance, Anna Funder's "All That I Am" won several awards last year before it was awarded the MFLA - can that be an agent of distraction or emphasis?

AL:  It can be very hard to drown out outside influences.  Once people discover that you are a judge they constantly ask you who is going to win or put forward who they think should win the prize.  Quite often, this is the only book they have read on the list.  As a judge, it's important to remember to consider each book fairly and with the criteria of the prize in mind.  The judges have long and full discussions about each book.  It is impossible to ignore the fact that a title may have won other prizes, but it is also important to remember that every prize has different criteria for judging them and you must judge your books by the criteria laid out in Miles Franklin's will.

There has been quite a concerted effort this year to engage readers and to encourage Australians to read the MFLA longlisted and shortlisted books. In effect, you've been responsible for curating a reading list for 2013.  What do you think of that?

AL:  I hadn't thought of that, that I was responsible for curating a list of books for people to read.  That is what I do everyday in my shop, curate the selection of books available for people to read and look at.

On one level this makes me very happy because I believe the books on the shortlist are excellent and deserve a wide readership.  I would also like to encourage people to read more widely than just the longlist, there are many wonderful books out there.

This year there will be an award for the best Twitter review of a MFLA shortlisted title - do you and your fellow judges have to read and award those as well?

AL:  I haven't been following the Twitter campaign but I will definitely check it out.  As judges we don't have to read and assess these entries but I imagine it would be quite fun and probably quite challenging to do so.

Having spent the past six months reading carefully and critically with one objective in mind, has it changed the way you read going forward?

AL:  Yes. One thing that continues to surprise me is that when you read a book for the second or third time, you can discover new elements and nuances - no matter how carefully you read it in the first place.

Nothing beats a good editor.  When you read such a large quantity of books in a relatively short space of time you can really see the effect of a good editor.  Some of the books that are submitted are really good, but one can't help but feel that they could be fantastic with a little more time spent on the editorial process.