Rick Gekoski has lived his life immersed in books; as an author, a rare book dealer who aspires to become a rare book collector "when he grows up" and literary guru. Rick has published a critical book on Joseph Conrad, The Bibliography of William Golding, Staying Up (about football), a collection of essays entitled Tolkien's Gown and Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books and Outside of a Dog: A Bibliomemoir.
He is also a regular broadcaster and reviewer of books. He has founded
two private presses, The Sixth Chamber Press and The Bridgewater Press,
which issue finely printed editions of leading contemporary novelists
and poets. In 2005 he was one of the judges for the Man Booker Prize,
and he is currently Chair of the judges for the Man Booker International
We talk to Rick about the impact of books on one's life, the judging process of the Man Booker prize, "Outside of a Dog" and the books that changed his life, and those he wished he still owned.
Earlier this week Philip Roth was announced as the fourth winner of the Man Booker International Prize, a biennial prize awarded to an author for an outstanding collection of work. Last night, in the session "The Final Judgement", Sydney Writers' Festival director, Chip Rolley, chatted with Man Booker judge (and chair of the judging panel), Rick Gekoski, about the process of judging this important prize.
Awards are often controversial and it seems literary prizes are particularly prone, and this year's Man Booker International announcement has caused its own stir. One of the three judges, Carmen Callil, disassociated herself from the decision almost immediately with a scathing attack on Roth's work. You can read about it here.
Passion over compromise
Chip Rolley questioned Gekoski about managing the tastes of three different judges, and how such a small and disparate group can come to a final decision about an author's work. Rick said: "I will always go with the passionate majority rather than compromise."
In this instance, siding with that majority must have been made easier for Gekoski by the fact he himself is so impressed with Roth's writing. He noted that Roth has sustained an impressive literary career over 52 years, with many of his masterpieces being written later in his life. (He mentioned his latest, Nemesis, as an example.)
Gekoski's praise of Roth belies the difficulty (and angst!) in making a decision like this. Because names are not submitted for this prize, judges must put together their own list. Gekoski says they do this by "ringing around" and asking people, then they "read, read, read". Once a month, the judges would get together over dinner and argue the merits (or lack of) one author over another.
Reading, eating and arguing
The judges initial lists were whittled down to just 13 authors. (Gekoski said he wanted fewer than the traditional 15 or 16 names), with the final winner nutted out over yet more reading, eating and arguing. (It almost sounds fun, doesn't it.)
After speaking for a short time on the judging process, we moved to an interview with Roth, which was recorded not long after he received news of his win. It was incredible to hear from one of our greatest living writers on what drives him, and surprising too. He said: "What drove me [when I first started writing] was: one, learning how to write a novel; and, two, what my talent was." He was committed to figuring out exactly where he was strongest in his writing - quickly realising it wasn't in imitating Henry James!
Roth also spoke about his influences. Apart from immersing himself in James during his college years, He also listed Franz Kafka and Saul Bellow as key writers. But his greatest praise was for John Updike, saying: "If he were alive today, I think he would be sitting here not me. He can do anything with any sentence."
With that, Roth showed that writers find inspiration in the greats that came before them. But the key, if you are writer, is to find the greatness in your own voice.