Uncategorized | October 14, 2015
Reflections of a long-time contest reader
By Evelyn Somers
In less than forty-eight hours, our Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize contest will close to entries. Two weeks ago we extended the deadline because we know how writers are—they mean to get around to entering; they have it on their calendar, but then suddenly they have forty fiction portfolios to grade; or their freezer dies and they have to go to Big Box to buy another; or the evil naysayer on their back, enemy of all writers everywhere, gets his claws in and convinces them not to bother. We wanted to give those writers a chance to rebound—grade the papers, buy the freezer, shake off the demon and take the chance.
Already, I’ve been dipping into the entries and reading. Each year, I mostly read essays, though I will read some of the fiction as well. Every year I embark on the reading with a sense of expectation. Somewhere in that stack—which used to be a literal pile of manuscripts and is now a primarily digital “pile,”—is a winner. And there are the finalists, several of which we will almost certainly publish.
As with reading the slush pile, it’s a hunt for a mysterious quarry. Not one of us who reads for the contest has any idea what we are going to find or what will win. Every year, subjects and themes are different. One year in the ’90s, there were so many essays about kids dying that I just wanted to stop reading and go to bed. In a more recent year, a striking percentage of the essays dealt with terrible breakups and abandonments: I had to wonder how many seemingly happy adults were walking around with invisible wounds from love gone wrong.
I will never forget the year that the winning essay was first out of the gate. It was a snail-mailed piece, and I picked it off the top of the pile and was instantly charmed. Still, after I read it, knowing how good it was, I read every other essay in the queue—evaluating, reassessing. Sometimes it dropped down a few places as I read other essays that were also stylish, also fascinating. The most pleasurable thing about reading all those essays is the range of subjects: nature, technology, travel, culture, art, prisons, family, health, death, history—you get the idea. And a lot of other less promising, less expected subjects that become marvelous through the exercise of good writers’ imaginations.
A long time ago, I worked briefly as a wedding photographer. I wasn’t suited for it, but it had the great virtue of being a job where I encountered happy people. They were getting married! They were wearing beautiful clothes! They were having a big party for everyone they knew! In the daily sometimes-tedium of what we do—reading so much material and having to send so many rejections—the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize contest offers a bit of that wedding feel. It makes people happy. When it’s all over, I will be communicating with the winners and finalists. The finalists will be happy to be recognized for their strong work. The winners will be thrilled because they’ve won. They’ll come to Columbia to read to a lot of people in nice clothes, who will be throwing a party for them and giving them a chunk of money.
There will be entrants who are let down that this time it was not their hour. But I like to believe that if you are writing hard, and a lot, and entering your work in competition or sending it out persistently, you are not always going to be a bridesmaid (terribly anti-feminist, that metaphor, isn’t it?)
The contest has always been about writers—finding good ones, helping them with a cash prize that goes above what we can ordinarily afford to pay for deserving work. Giving them some extra recognition to boost a career or the flagging spirits that every writer has to contend with. Once again, we’re excited to see what is going to happen . . . .
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