In the Shadow of Context

by Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún

Context: The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.”
– Oxford English Dictionary

In the early twenties, Professor Ivor A. Richards, in search of a new way to teach the assessment and appreciation of poetry, came up with an idea that seems commonplace now, but at the time was interesting enough to challenge existing conventions. What he did, an experiment he detailed in his book Practical Criticisms (1929), was to distribute to his students, poems written by a wide range of people from ancient masters to modern practitioners, from Shakespeare to a random poet in the reigning literary magazine, without the names of the authors printed on the pages of the poems.

This method, he realized, achieved a number of fascinating results. It brought the work to a level of familiarity, gave each poem a chance to be appraised on its individual merits or flaws, and removed the bias that the prominent or unknown name of the author brought to bear on the assessment of the work. The same yardstick that is used to judge Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 is used on Frost’s Mending Wall. And without the name of the author present—the experiment was based on the knowledge that these student critics had no prior exposure to these poems at all—the positive or negative assessments of the craft is obtained purely from contact and the learned rules of criticism. The result of this experiment was published in the 1929 book, with each chapter dedicated to one selected poem and the individual appraisal given by each of these students, affording the reader another chance to walk in the shoes of the student critics and the experience of their teacher.

Although an eye-opening experiment at the time, it was not without criticism. For one, poems, like fingerprints, are unique not just in their creation but also in form, style, content, and context, so any analysis based solely on their physical form always lacks something to make them relatable to an audience that has never been in a classroom. While it impressed educated critics and other professors, for whom such a system was already in place for the assessment of academic work for peer-reviewed journals, it failed to carry along a wide range of the writer’s’ audience. By excluding the extraneous circumstances not obtainable by primary contact, each work was assessed like the other, with little regard for what made them different, or what truly brought them alive. A certain assumption had to be made about the homogeneity of the writings in order to successfully treat something from people of different generations, class, gender, age, and influence in the same way for the purpose of criticism.

From 2014 to 2015, while I taught as a high school teacher in Lagos and edited a print anthology for students, I initiated a similar experiment, but this time for a writing competition for poetry, short fiction, and essay writing. All the entries received were stripped of identifying information, re-typed for uniformity of font, grouped into their different categories, and sent to judges. For poetry, a judge was selected who received the formatted package containing dozens of students’ writings without their names, age, or class. For fiction, the same was repeated, with the judge receiving dozens of short stories bearing nothing on the stories but the title of the work. The essay writings received similar treatment. Our instructions to the judges was that they return the scripts with an assessment of the overall quality of the work, and a rating of all the entries with a view to choosing the first, second, or third prize-winners in each category.

The result of the judging, similar to what I.A. Richards had expected and received from his student critics, was something close enough to an objective-subjective assessment: objectivity from knowing that nothing outside of the work gave away the authors’ “reputation”, except for their competence or otherwise in handling the plot and style, from knowing that all that the work received would have been ranked highly or lowly on their own merit; and subjectivity from our inevitable reliance on that one judge for our selection of the winning work for the year in that particular category. (For bigger competitions like the Booker, Orange, NLNG, Caine, etc, there are usually more than one judge, so that a comparison can be made of subjective opinions of judges before results are declared). Parents were happy with the results, and so were the students, particularly in the knowledge that the works had impressed without any personally identifying information.

For that competition focused on high school students, it might seem quite odd that any notable factor outside of the text was thought capable of influencing the judges in any direction of note. But a question from one of the judges during the process put this assumption to rest. He had written back to ask what the age range of the students under assessment was. This was for his own notes, some of which were to be used on the book’s blurb. Because the question dealt with all the works under consideration, the information was not “damaging” enough to have been withheld. But one imagines that if one particular work had impressed solely because of the author’s perceived youth, that information would have become prejudicial to the overall assessment of other parts of the work’s failure or success.

So obsessed was Professor Richards with his desire to preserve the sanctity of this method that he ensured that the names of the authors of the poems used in each of the book’s chapter were left not just at the tail end of the book, but written in reverse, to be decoded only by holding the book to a mirror. That seemed a little extreme, but the message was clear. With The Sail, the high school anthology to which I alluded earlier, all it took was a private spreadsheet in which the names of the original authors were properly matched with the title of their work, kept away not just from judges but also from fellow teachers to whom the student authors often went in pursuit of information about the status of their entries. One imagines that if modern prizes for writing pursued a similar course, the process would require a lot more time. To strip a novel, for instance, of identifying information might require more than just ripping off its cover or book spine but retyping it in total. Now how much effort would that need in order to choose a Booker Prize winner? The result, in any case, might not be any more subjective than they currently are, but might they be more objective? Will they make the prizes better insulated against charges of subconscious bias and arrive at what T.S. Eliot referred to as “a juster estimation of actual [work], good and bad”?

I brought this question up once on Twitter with the administrator of the Caine Prize, curious, at the time, about the perception that the return of previous winners into the shortlist that year might indicate that favouritism, intended or not, had begun to mar the selection process. That 2015 shortlist was called “probably the weakest line-up” that was intensified by a comment by E.C Osondu—a previous winner himself—who asked if the judges had thought of how their decision to shortlist past winners would “complicate things going forward”. My primary curiosity in raising the Twitter question was whether the judging process could offer some clarity in either direction. If the entries were judged blind, then it wouldn’t matter who showed up on the shortlist, or how many times they did. The rules for the prize hadn’t precluded anyone from entering their work, so if whatever was entered was good enough, it deserved to make into the shortlist, or win.

However, the Caine Prize had branded itself over time as a prize for upcoming and emerging voices in African literature. The prize was launched, according to its website, “to encourage and highlight the richness and diversity of African writing by bringing it to a wider audience internationally.” That could suggest that previous prize-winners, already exposed to the wider international audience, deserved to be excluded before the submissions are sent to the judges. Not doing this in 2015 meant that something was askew. Realizing that the entries were not even sent blind to the judges raised the question: what exactly were the judges assessing? Or, put another way, was there anything that they were prevented from using as means of assessment? And was the audience justified in its discomfort with the judges’ lack of insulation from positive or negative bias brought by the presence of (name, reputation, bio, worldview) context?

I realised in time that these questions aren’t met with smiles. To begin with, every prize is subjective, seeking a certain type of writing with which its name can be associated. The Caine, fairly or not, has over time been associated with what has been called “a riot of exhausted clichés”, rewarding writers who—according to Helon Habila—“perform Africa for the world…”, inundating their writings “with images and symbols and allusions that evoke… pity and fear… in a CNN, western-media-coverage-of-Africa, poverty-porn sense.” Were that the case, nothing in the suggestion that the names of the authors be removed before the judging process starts will bring about the expected change in overall direction of the Prize’s gaze, so it was also a waste of time. What should have been suggested is a clarification of what is the true object of that gaze. And that is an ongoing conversation.

I first read Practical Criticism eager to understand how English poetry worked, interested in learning how to identify a good poem or a bad one, and curious about the process underlying the critical assessment of that kind of literary output. I came away suddenly freed from the hefty burden of perfection that modern practitioners and valorised teachers exuded through abstruseness and “authority”. But what was lost in the demystification of poetry was gained in the stronger respect for the field of criticism and that particular method of interrogation. Poetry, it showed, is first a craft, much as it is also an extension of a writer’s worldview and influences; but the appreciation of this craft is primarily a subjective one too, even when passed through a seemingly objective filter of a blind assessment. Yet, that blind assessment, helpless as it might be, has had its moments.

In 2014, American writer Michael Derrick Hudson, having been denied entry into the prestigious Best American Poetry anthology forty times prior, invented “Yi-Fen Chou” as a pen name. Suddenly, his work seemed to acquire visibility and was promptly accepted, to his surprise and delight. When he later disclosed what he had done to suddenly “earn” this respect, an uproar ensued, and charges of fraud followed. The editor of the collection, Alexie Sherman, did himself no favours by then refusing to rescind the offer, remarking that “if I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world… But I believe I would have committed a larger injustice by dumping the poem… It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity. But that’s not what happened. In the end, I chose each poem in the anthology because I love it. And to deny my love for any of them is to deny my love for all of them.”

Leaving aside the unconvincing nature of a “love” that didn’t show itself during the forty previous attempts, the simultaneous denial and acceptance of bias in one paragraph showed the complexity of the problem. Other factors not relevant to the work at hand are superimposed on it by the intrusive “goodness of heart” of the sensitive judge/editor/critic, and what emerges on the other side becomes less of a credible product of unbiased diligence than a labour of love. This, as have been argued, is not always a bad thing. Minority writers, typically left out of prominent selections, have been given exposure by this kind of affirmative action. But this only further illustrates the problem. Would an increased diversity of judges not improve the system better than what amounted to editorial tokenism? Would a V.S. Naipaul, who has judged women’s writing as primarily “sentimental, with a “narrow view of the world” be a valuable member of a prize panel in which the gender of the entrant is publicly known?

Now, to say that a process exists that will totally eliminate bias, or remove any way of making assumptions of the writer’s background, skill, interests, preoccupations, from the text of their creative work, is near impossible. Writers themselves make it very hard. In my June 2016 review of Tọ́pẹ́ Fọlárìn’s Caine Prize shortlisted story, written in practical interrogation of this question, I referred to the work as being “nakedly autobiographical”. It was a categorization helped along by the overwhelming shadow of context which the writer himself had unwittingly provided via publicly accessible interviews about his life, begging the question as to whether the work, entered for a fiction prize, could be so-categorized. It started off a feisty internet debate that lasted for weeks. What most of the negative responses to the review’s argument failed to resolve, however, was the purpose, usefulness, relevance, or limit of context itself. If the Caine Prize judges had access to all the same publicly available information the critic cited, and were most likely to use them in the assessment of the work under consideration, what precludes the reviewer from using them as well? Conversely, if all that mattered was the text and nothing more, would the concerned metacritics also be up in arms about the disclosure that entries were sent to the Caine Prize judges along with accompanying personal biographical information of the shortlisted writers?

Still, sending entries to judges, and critics, without identifying information—bios, names, previous prizes won, etc—will only offer a primary layer of protection against deliberate or unconscious bias. Won’t there need to be a conclave-like insulation (or a truly honour-based system) to prevent them from just googling keywords to bring out the work to them on the computer in its full publicly available form? I’ve tried to imagine, many times, how this would work out in real life and I keep coming short of a truly perfect system. The suggestion, by readers less intently obsessed with the question, always provided an exculpating alibi: “What do you mean by a perfect system anyway? They don’t exist. This is not an academic exercise. Some writers even have such a distinct style that will permeate through every layer of protective insulation. Best to trust the subjectivity of the current system than chase an impossible ideal. Opinions are subjective, and imperfect, and will always be.”

Professor Richards’ method is situated in formalism, “a style of inquiry that focuses, almost exclusively, on features of the literary text itself, to the exclusion of biographical, historical, or intellectual contexts” as Wikipedia puts it. The approach is called new criticism, which emphasizes “close reading, particularly of poetry, to discover how a work of literature functioned as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object.” Much of modern literary criticism has moved away from formalism, perhaps for the better, opening its arms to issues declared relevant with the subject matter of the author’s preoccupations: feminism, racism, sexism, ageism, ethnicism, nationalism, and many more. The 20th century, affording us so many issues against which to rebel or with which to identify, has either saved literature from the tedium of closed assessment, which had disproportionately benefited the high society of literary criticism, the elite prescriptivists and guardians of the form; or condemned literature to the gutters of plebeian society where each word, line or paragraph is smeared with an allegiance to or rebellion against a real or imagined social norm or ill in the writer’s supposed conscientious pouch.

How much is Wọlé Ṣóyínká’s Telephone Conversation (1962) enhanced by the knowledge of the writer’s background? One can argue that everything that needs to be known about it should already be obvious within its lines. Yet, it is also true that knowing it was written in the early 60s adds a new knowledge that will be lost when appraised in isolation. Why is the landlady concerned about the potential tenant’s skin tone if she wasn’t of a different race, and in a different country? Appraisal of other works follow similar concerns, from J.P. Clark’s Casualties (1970) to W.B. Yeats’s An Irish Airman Foresees His Death (1919). There’s insufficient satisfaction in enjoying the latter’s iambic tetrameter than in knowing that the subject of the poem, a 36 year-old aviator friend to Yeats, was shot down over Italy, by mistake, in 1918. And though that context helps to better situate the work and understand the author’s obsession with the theme in later poems like Memory of Major Robert Gregory, Shepherd and Goatherd, and Reprisals, it does nothing to enhance the poems’ individual integrity as commentary on the nature of war.

The case of Elena Ferrante’s anonymity presents perhaps the most extreme case of rebellion against the scourge of context. But even that doesn’t much succeed. The experiment fails not because of the writer’s “outing” by a restless journalist, but by the shadow of the context that still naturally arises from the writer’s constructed biography. That “George Orwell” was not a distinguished gentleman from the British royal family but a cynical ex-policeman and journalist Eric Blair from Burma neither adds nor removes much from the enduring relevance of Animal Farm or 1984, yet the relevance of the existence of either information, constructed or otherwise, poses an interesting paradox. If the writer’s bio is important at all, why are pen names even a thing? And if it’s not, then why do we place any attention on it in our overall appraisal of the work? If, as Ferrante argues, “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors”, then why are authors’ names part of the package in the first place? The writer who became Elena Ferrante may be assumed to have separated the real human self from the constructed artistic one. But Elena Ferrante, even as a constructed person, has come to embody enough of a sufficient distraction herself — as a brilliant writer of heart-wrenching stories, to ever be truly ignorable. So, the cycle never ends.

What is left then, particularly of the stamp of approval that literature prizes confer—perhaps the most distracting context of all—is the settlement of the argument of what exactly is being assessed when works are entered. Aaron Bady, in our interview from 2013, wondered whether these prizes set up to reward the best writing or to allow certain regular (or upcoming) names thrive? The answer to this will be varied. I don’t assume that the Booker and the Caine have the same intentions, so their process should be equally as diverse. But if this is not the case, then what does that tell us? Tidbits from behind the scenes of forty years of the Booker Prize throws up fascinating discoveries, from guilt about having awarded an author the same prize over a decade earlier (see Coetzee’s Disgrace, 1999), to disagreement about whether the work was a “novel” in the strictest sense or a non-fiction documentary (see Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, 1979; Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, 1984), to disinterest because of the small size of a book (Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood, 1977) or resistance to a novel’s perceived “domesticity” (Margaret Drabble’s The Waterfall, 1970). This description of the process by Jonathan Coe (a 1996 judge) makes the point more soberly:

“The process consists of nothing more rigorous than five people sitting in a room together for a few hours, swapping personal opinions. And as far as I remember, not a single judge (including me) ever changed his or her mind, or shifted his or her position, in response to an argument put forward by a colleague. In the midst of it all, the novel which I now remember as being the finest of all – Asylum, by Patrick McGrath – slipped through our net, and failed to make the shortlist by a whisker. If it had reached the shortlist, such is the randomness of the final selection process, it might easily have won the prize itself.”

And from James Wood (1994):

I liked the winning book a great deal (James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late) – it was one of my choices – and would have been happy with either that book or Alan Hollinghurst’s The Folding Star. But I intensely disliked the way we reached that verdict, and felt that the arbitrary, utterly political process discredited the whole project.

If cost is the biggest reason for the infeasibility of blind assessment, what is the excuse of the Nigeria LNG Literature Prize, with its $100,000 prize booty and much more in administration costs? What is the Booker’s or any of the bigger budget book prizes’? Smaller budget prizes like the Caine have hinted at that excuse as have others, but is it valid? The presence of mostly prominent contemporary names in the last shortlist of writers on the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship will certainly do little to assuage concerns that the effort is driven mostly by the entrants’ reputation.

Lizzy Attree once told me that prizes are only “as good as the writers who enter for them”. It is worth asking, as I.A Richards might have, whether they, instead, should be as good as the writings that the prizes uncover.

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About the writer:

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún’s poetry chapbook Attempted Speech & Other Poems was published in Saraba Magazine in September, 2015. His work has appeared in Aké Review, Brittle Paper, International Literary Quarterly, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and recently in Literary Wonderlands, an anthology edited by Laura Miller. He is on twitter at @kolatubosun

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