Someone recently asked how I could be a judge for the Whitney Awards when everyone knows I don't care for fantasy novels. This question is based on a couple of erroneous assumptions, for which I can only blame myself. I've been pretty open in expressing my dislike for some kinds of speculative fiction. (By the way, not all speculative fiction is fantasy). First, I don't hate all fantasy, and second I'm not a judge in either speculative category. I won't even be voting for the novel of the year because I just don't have time to read the finalists in the speculative categories. I read eight to twelve novels a month, sometimes more, as a reviewer and there's no way I can add ten speculative books, especially considering the length of those books, to my already busy reading schedule.
A good share of the LDS reading public is aware that fantasy isn't my favorite genre, but the truth is, I've read a lot of science fiction, a lot of "last days" fiction, and a whole lot of fairy tales, mythology, and fantasy. As a teenager, I think I read all of the Martian Chronicles and many other well-known science fiction novels. As I grew older my tastes changed. Through the years I've sampled most of the big name science fiction writers' works, finding few that held my interest enough to read more than one or two by any one author. I've always had a soft spot for fairy tales and as an adult have been amused by some of the better fractured fairy tales I've come across. I've been touched by a few "last days" novels and annoyed by others. I'm a little touchy about paranormal; most flirt a little too close to the occult, but occasionally I find one where the paranormal elements of the story are handled with a finesse that works for me. I do not like the kind of speculative fiction that plays around with the occult, gives tacit approval of drug use by calling drugs by some other name, or the ones that are filled with monsters and brutal violence.
Why should being less than enthusiastic about speculative fiction make me any less qualified to judge a contest open to all genres than it makes someone ineligible because they don't particularly like or spend much time reading romance or history? In any contest where apples, oranges, and potatoes are judged against each other, it would be difficult to keep out all personal bias, but I think most people, who are well enough read to qualify as judges, know the difference between good writing, mediocre writing, and just plain bad writing. I don't think it's necessary to love a particular genre to determine whether or not the book is well written, though I suspect most judges faced with equally well-written books in two different genre's will lean toward the one they personally enjoyed the most.
The Whitneys do not provide judges with a set of rules by which to judge the entries, other than requiring them to actually read the books. Different judges set different criteria. Some of the things I look for are:
Entertainment - Did I enjoy reading the book? Did it hold my attention? Does it have a spark of originality?
Accuracy: Was the research accurate and believable? Could it really happen? Does the background suit the story? Is the world the author creates consistent?
Technical Points: Does the plot move smoothly and is there a good fiction arc? Are the characters believable with at least one I can care for enough to cheer for? Do the characters grow with the story? What about info dumps, backfill, a strong opening hook? Does the book begin where the real story begins and end when the story is finished? Etc.
Acceptable social standards: It doesn't have to be LDS, but the actions, speech, and values of the protagonists should not be contrary to LDS standards.
The preliminary judges for the Whitney Awards come from a broad cross section of tastes in literature and are professionals in the publication field. I don't think anyone has stopped to question how many prefer literary over genre or history over speculation. Even if the criteria for judging were set in stone, I'm afraid there would always be a certain amount of the subjective element in the decision making. There will always be "that stupid book the judges must have been out of their mind to pick'' and the "absolutely perfect book the judges ignored."
I promise I'm as unbiased as possible as a judge and I trust the other judges are too. I think the awards are fun and important to our profession, but it would be a mistake to take them too seriously. Another set of judges could easily pick another set of winners and be just as fair. After all, there are a lot of good LDs writers out there, and not all of the best ones pick up the prizes.