It occurs to me that I just served on a “super-committee.” One that got its work done, on time, and with minimum drama. I recently concluded several months work for the National Book Foundation as a judge in the youth literature category (details below in earlier postings). Reading and evaluating close to 300 novels was my main task, but it required me to work closely with the four other judges. All, like me, were writers. And while we knew of each other, we had not met, or had met only in passing on the book trail.
Our panel of five included three men and two women. An age range from 28 to over 60. Hispanic, African-American, Caucasian. East Coast, West Coast, and the Midwest. Protestant, Catholic and Jewish. We all had distinct opinions on what constituted a really good book, and while some of our opinions overlapped, many did not. Five independent thinkers charged with working together and reaching consensus on the 2011 National Book Award for young adults.
Our first step was to meet and get to know each other–get a sense of each other’s personality, interests, inclinations. Then it was quickly forward to our work as book reviewers. Each of us, over a long summer, read the same 278 novels. We communicated by conference call, email, and a secure, online spreadsheet where we weighed in on the books, and ranked them. In September we narrowed to a list of ten titles. In October, the final five. And, just last week in New York City, we met again in person to choose a winner, which was not easy. Over a three hour lunch we lobbied, cajoled, debated, dug in, gave ground and made compromises. Failure was not an option. People were depending upon us, and we came through. The National Book Award for youth literature, as well as three other categories, was presented November 16 at a grand ceremony in New York City, after which our committee packed up and went home.
Unfortunately, our national “Super Committee” charged with deficit reduction has not worked so well. Worse, it is nightmarish kind of déjà vu for those of us from Minnesota: we all remember the disastrous government shutdown of the summer of 2011 that, most of us agree, did not have to happen. As I look back at my NBA “super-committee,” I see several factors that helped us complete the work, ones that politicians ought to try some time....
1. We approached our task with an open mind. As best we could, we left our literary prejudices at the door. I write realistic fiction and nonfiction that tilts toward boys and men; I’m not a fan of fantasy novels, or the so-called “chick-lit.” One of the younger, women panelists was best-selling author of novels for girls. I lobbied hard for a novel focused to the Inuit life of hunting and survival above the Arctic Circle, while she advocated for a fantasy novel about twin sisters, magic and misty glens. In the end, we came to understand and like each other’s books a great deal, and support both of them as finalists.
2. We did not inject personal or cultural issues into the debate. Our job was to discuss books. Period. Not religion, or what constitutes liberty, or whom we can marry, or what we can do with whom, or whether it’s right to buy wine in grocery stores on Sunday. None of us believed it was our role to tell the others how to live their lives or what to think. True, we had to choose one book out of a very large pile, which made us “deciders”, but we made our decision through a reasoned debate on the books only.
3. We made compromises. No one had to give up his/her core beliefs about writing and literature, but all of us had to make tough choices. Often we had to let go of one book in order to move another forward. In the end, none of us got all of our choices, but all of us got some. The winner was unanimous, a book we could all support, which is not to say we didn’t have regrets about some of our favorites not making the cut. But without compromise, we would never have finished.
4. We were not beholden to or pressured by outside forces. All of us authors had publishers, editors and agents, and our publishing houses especially stood to gain from a winning book. But our editors left us alone, and we them, and we made our choices based solely on the books at hand.
5. We did not make the process all about us, even though there was lots of opportunity to do so (I'm referring to the infamous error in the announcement of the final five authors). The work of any committee is is more important than any one member. We did not seek microphones or the spotlight. None of us tried to leverage our role into something more.
In short, by using a few fundamental approaches to group work–ones that politicians ought to know– it is possible to get things done. I can only hope our national and state legislatures can start to work half as efficiently as this disparate group of writers thrown together to get a job done.