Friday, March 12, 2010

Is it weakness of intellect, Birdie, I cried...

The fact of you agreeing to be one of the two judges in a fiction contest--short stories and stand-alone segments of novels--reminds you once again of the notional climate inherent in any contest and/or submissions landscape. There is, for instance, the fact of you with a work of your own in submission for two months with a publisher whose books you have published two reviews. Speaking of which, there is the persistent campaign being waged by the author of a self-published book to have you review his project, despite your assurances that anything you might think to say about the work would hardly encourage anyone to read it, much less to buy it. There is also the incest of you living in a city with a larger-than-median percentage of writers, both published and aspiring, and, speaking of the nooks and crannies of interconnectedness, the other judge in this latest writing contest is not only a friend but someone who became a friend as a direct consequence of a published review of his last major novel.


There were also times when the writers' conference with which you are associated, in concert with the local daily newspaper, had a yearly contest, the awards being full and partial scholarships to the conference. As a judge in this contest, you frequently gave the highest marks to those submissions you thought had the least to recommend them, your theory being that they most richly needed the writers' conference.

Let us take a number, say one hundred, representing the number of times you have served as a judge in a contest. This is separate from the approximately one thousand book reviews you have written and at least ten thousand full manuscripts or manuscript proposals you have had a say on in your capacity at various editorial venues. Is there some terse, cogent philosophy you can articulate to describe the process by which you cast your lot for or against? If such terse, cogent philosophy existed, it might be this: If something aroused the adrenaline of your interest to the point where you felt invested in the outcome, you stood for it. If not, not.

What causes the adrenaline to flow in a genre you think you hate or at least have no interest in? What causes the adrenaline not to flow when the work is in a landscape you admire, written by an author whose work you admire? You would think a man with your experience would be able to give Power Point answers, the slides already on the screen of your mind, but the added fact is that you are vastly impatient with Power Point presentations, thinking them a gross sham.

The simplest answer--pace William of Occam--is that you like what you like on the basis of external chemistry. Same is so with individual persons; you like something in their manner or stature or posture or tone of voice or a combination of these and no doubt reflecting sexual, intellectual, and artistic considerations in the summary. You do not, accordingly, apply a cookie-cutter set of standards so much as you apply a chemical response which you then begin to break down into more component parts such as potential readership, artistic and intellectual challenges inherent.

Do you, in effect, say or think to another person, Thanks for letting us see you, but unfortunately...you are not right for us? No doubt you do.

How many manuscripts have you accepted without any thought of editorial suggestion?
How many friends and acquaintances have you accepted without any thought at all of wishing to tweak some large or small mischief?
Added to this calculus, how many novels or short stories, even by your own reckoning, even novels or short stories by Louise Erdrich, are perfect?
Is Conrad perfect? Wolfe? Fagan? Cook?
You know from intimate association and those tumultuous teen years when intimate association was put on hold that you least of all are in any way perfect and you are well able to live with that, just as you are able to live with the utter anarchy of unfinished business and clangorous coincidence in fiction.

Accordingly, even though you are hired, or in this recent case enlisted to judge, you do so by the one reliable standard you have encountered so far, the utter anarchy of chemistry.

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