Author Abby Frucht, who teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, is an acclaimed novelist who has published five novels in an extensive writing career. The following nonfiction rumination regards her time spent as a judge at a recent literary contest. Its full title is “Pratfalls, Ironies, and Other Observations: One Judge’s Account of a Literary Contest.” A short biography of Frucht’s may be found at the end of the piece.
Part 1 A year ago, when I was asked to join a panel of writers judging a college fiction contest, the first thing I thought of was my membership on a State Arts Council grants panel years earlier and our urgent discussion about which was more important, consensus or passion. Should we support only those applicants for whom all of the judges shared significant admiration, dismissing the ones that didn’t earn at least some praise from each of us? Or was it better to call attention to stories that awakened a wildly positive response even if only in one of us, and even if that story left the other judges unmoved?
We called the second option the Passion Vote, and we agreed that we would each be permitted one of them. Since then I’ve been a judge in numerous capacities, and whether I am part of a panel, working solo, or selecting works for a final reader, I always keep a synapse fired up for that Passion vote, on the lookout for a manuscript I’d practically throw myself over a cliff for.
The location in which the college judges met last year being far for me to drive, I sat in my bedroom and Skyped myself into the gathering, careful not to tilt the screen in the direction of the bed, even though it was made. There were four of us judges, and once we’d introduced ourselves, we named our top three picks of the six finalists we’d each been sent in advance. But, since we had each been sent six different finalists, this meant we were discussing stories we hadn’t all seen, so we needed to take a break and read a while. At that point an unexpected fifth judge arrived late, and it was discovered that one of the poetry judges had been asked to vote on the stories, while we fiction judges were expected to vote on the poetry, too, along with the essays, none of which had been sent to us. Such frustrations would prompt one of the judges, when we were asked to judge the same contest again this year, to email me in private, “Probably not, even if they simplify the format. It’s a college writing competition, not the Nobel Prize for Literature.” Meanwhile we all knew that if we weren’t so busy doing this, we might be writing our own essays, poems and stories to be sent to other contests, contests judged anonymously by maybe each other.
Part 2 This year’s college fiction contest did feature a simplified format, as there were just three fiction judges, each of whom were sent the same nine finalists six days before deadline, on which we are to convene via email to agree on the first, second, and third place winners. There would be no face-to-face meeting, and thus no Skype (no need to make the bed!) and as far as we know, there were no orphaned essays or poems waiting to be scrambled into the mix. Below are some of the notes I took while reading the nine entries on Monday morning, April 15th, notes modified in such a way that nobody but the writers might recognize the stories.
Story One: A kid and an animal engage in a primal battle of wits. Gun. Clumsy in places, melodramatic. But the mythic parameters do open out into real world stuff. My first notation is only a Maybe, but later it’s the story I feel most viscerally.
Story Two: Siblings at a family estate. Accomplished, elegant prose, the emotional trajectory delicately handled. Still, if a story can be too quiet for me, it must be pretty quiet. How do the other judges feel about it?
Story Three: No.
Aside no. 1: It’s not worth rankling your judges by forgetting that women hold up half the sky.
Story Four: Contemporary Western Divorce with silly twist. I have no feeling for it.
Story Five: Sports story among the better written of the entries. The plot is bland, the voice fun and compelling, the silly ending unfortunate. I give it a Maybe yes.
Aside no. 2: Lapses matter. I’ve seen entries here with multiple typos, unclear antecedents, errors in tense, and an instance in which, after “reality” is described as a blur of nebulous, oddly meteorological abstractions, there suddenly appears a “blue 98 Honda Civic sedan with custom special interest license plates.”
Story Six: A ramble through genealogy. I take a break to read some breaking, sketchy news about explosions at the Boston Marathon.
Story Seven: Earnestly told rendition of two characters who appear to be peripheral to a Greek myth. Well done but I feel only more strongly about the need for relevance when Chuck calls up to me from downstairs to ask, “Hon, did you see the news?”
Story Eight: Advanced, confident, voice-generated. But I don’t get it. Is it over my head? Feeling dumb, I give it a Maybe yes.
Aside no. 3: I read that clouds “are overhead,” cots “creak,” waves “break,” squirrels “chirp,” birds “call.” So when I come to the mom who “built up her mind like a bomb shelter” and the man standing “like a watchdog at a tavern window,” I notice.
Story Nine: Has a more mature range than some of the other but I don’t believe in the final conflagration.
Part 3 On Monday evening, after watching the day’s awful news about the Boston Marathon bombings, I remembered a question somebody once asked me at a writing conference: Does fiction do any good in this world? And I remembered I answered with a guilt-stricken no, not least because so many of the people for whom fiction might do good have neither the luxury nor the skills to read it. But on Tuesday morning, I came upon Roxane Gay writing in The Rumpus: “I (turn) to words because in the wake of something terrible, my gratitude for reading and writing only amplifies, sharpens,” and I wanted to make an effort, at least, to pay homage to that conviction. Still, worried about my own lack of feeling for so many of the contest entries, I emailed the other two judges to say, in our first exchange, Maybe rather than strive for consensus, we might each pick just one… to which one of the other judges, W, replied, that’s an interesting idea. Let’s wait to hear from the third judge.
But we didn’t hear at all from our third judge that Wednesday. Maybe she wouldn’t appear. In any case, I supposed, better late or never than the same judge as last year, the one who was editor-in-chief at a university press and who had once asked to see a manuscript of mine in progress. In the sixteen months between the day I had sent him the manuscript and the day of last year’s judges’ meeting, he hadn’t replied, and when we met on Skype, neither one of us mentioned it. But the college students whose stories are up for prizes were infinitely more vulnerable to this business of rejection than I was, and if soon, something happened to make them give up writing, they might never feel the gratitude Roxane Gay was talking about, or write the kind of prose that might make the world, for some few people anyway, a better place. I asked myself: Which of the nine young writers of this year’s stories would I most like to play a part in encouraging to keep on writing? The answer was the writer of the lumbering story about the kid, the gun, and the animal, the story whose primal underpinnings, over the course of that violent April week, felt modern, important, and relevant. It was at this point in my thinking that I received an email from W, saying, OK, I read them all and I have a top 4, but I’d like to give them a fresh look tomorrow to decide my order. What was your favorite? Let me know and I’ll send you my preliminary top picks, soon to be whittled ruthlessly down.
After an onslaught of nerves, since W was editor at a (very) prestigious journal to which I rarely had the guts to submit my stories, and, worrying I didn’t know what I was talking about, and, reading the animal story yet another time, and then, wondering if I was judging W too harshly in imagining W would judge me for selecting an unsophisticated story, I emailed back with my choice, remarking on Story One being both otherworldly and topical. Another thing, I added, I don’t see self-consciousness and I don’t see self-importance in it. My other top two picks are Story Two and Story Five.
I also mentioned Story Eight on the basis of its advanced, confident language, to which W responded that Story Eight demonstrated the need for writers not to settle for flashy prose at the expense of legible story. The funny thing was, all my nerves about picking Story One were for naught, since W liked that story, too, she said, and we discussed what mattered to us in fiction: world-building, and the making of definite choices in character and storyline, and the avoidance of grandiosity, and that the writer does the work to make the story, if not modern, relevant. By now it was Thursday, and even so we hadn’t spoken a bit about the bombing — the morning’s interfaith service, Boston in lock-down, the unidentified suspects still on the lam — but of course the news was there, buzzing around and within us. Like me, W admired Story One’s richly textured portrait of the natural world, and we agreed on Story Two’s blurry but mature emotional landscape. Story Two was W’s top pick, because the prose was more graceful than Story One’s. We signed off still hoping to hear from the missing Judge Three. Saturday was deadline day, so we hoped to finish deliberating by Friday afternoon.
Part 4 On Friday Morning it turned out our third fiction judge wasn’t who we thought it was, since that person was “doing” poetry this year, but was in fact the same as last year, the university press editor who still had not responded to my manuscript in progress, a project I’d long since shelved, anyway. But at last he weighed in with his top two picks, Story One and Story Two, same as ours. He was with W on Story Two receiving first prize, but for different reasons, for while W objected to the fuzziness of Story Two’s emotions, he liked them for the subtle sense of loss they achieved. I made a heartfelt stab at Story One receiving first instead of second place, but I let it go at that, and finally we struck unanimous agreement on forgoing a third prize altogether. Story Two and Story One were heads above the remaining seven finalists, we concluded.
Finally W emailed the contest organizer with our results, and then I emailed the friend I made at last year’s judging, the one who’d remarked, “Let’s face it, it’s not the Nobel Prize,” to tell him all about it. To be still in contact with this friend is one of the perks of last year’s judging, and when I’m wondering what new thing might crop up as a result of this year’s judging, the errant judge, the university press guy, emails me to ask if I’d be interested in reviewing submissions to the press. The pay’s practically zero but there’s that chance I’ll find something I’d practically throw myself over a cliff for. Also, I’m thinking, maybe he’ll send me my own manuscript in progress to review by mistake.
— Abby Frucht’s new collection of stories, “The Bell at the End of the Rope,” is published by Narrative Library. She is the author of five novels and an earlier collection of stories, all of which will soon be available as ebooks as part of Dzanc Books’ new rEprint series. A recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a New Voices Award from Quality Paperback Book Club, several grants from the Ohio Arts Council, and the Kay W. Levin Short Non-Fiction award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers, Abby lives in Wisconsin and has taught at the Vermont College of Fine Arts for almost 20 years.