From Our Staff | September 18, 2013
Why I read all the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors' Prize essay entries
If you’re wondering about the picture of a run-down motel, read on . . .
I still remember the day twenty-some ago that Speer Morgan walked into the office and asked, “What if we started a contest?” Since then the Editors’ Prize contest (now the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize) has grown impressively in the number of entries and the prize money. The $ prize you get if you win is now $5000, thanks to the generous support of Jeffrey E. Smith, and the cash has been equalized among the genres—early on, we awarded less for prize essays, and somewhere along the line a few of us argued for making the money equal, and we did.
Since the contest’s inception in 1990, I’ve read all the essays every year. Some years other readers have pitched in and helped with screening. But I’ve always still read them all.
Why read them all myself?
In the early days it wasn’t too bad. The first year of the contest we bit our nails over the small pile of essays and finally ended up with a scant eighty entries. So I could say that I still read them all because there aren’t as many entries as in fiction. It’s true that we get over twice as many fiction entries. But because of the growth of creative nonfiction as a genre, we get hundreds more essay entries than we used to. It’s a considerable amount of reading to knock out in a few months, but I still like to do it.
Besides wanting to get familiar with the authors, the main reason I read all the essays is because I know that I don’t know what I’m looking for. That is the approach one should take, in my opinion, with any submission, in any genre. The opposite conviction—knowing what you’re looking for, or even saying, “I’ll know it when I see it,” is simply not viable. It’s the thinking of a reader or judge who is going to make a mistake. A contest reader’s worst enemy is preconception. I read all the essays every year to slay it.
In 1993, I didn’t know I was looking for a lyrical second-person memoir of the author’s intellectual and aesthetic coming of age in the late ’60s at the University of Arkansas, in the shadow of Vietnam. That was Tom Whalen’s The Spectral University. I find it just as striking now, twenty years after it won the prize.
I didn’t know in 1999 that I was looking for an essay about the nightmarish experience of life-threatening preeclampsia and high-risk labor and birth: that was Adria Bernardi’s “Hep-Lock,” which is collected in her new book Dead Meander.
In 2003 we awarded the Editors’ Prize in nonfiction to Rachel Hillier Pratt for “Negotiating Bride Price,” an essay about cross-cultural understanding and misunderstanding, based on Rachel’s Peace Corps service in the Solomon Islands. It was her first publication. I could legitimately have felt certain, just three years later, in 2006, that the prize would not go to another first publication about intercultural understanding based on a Peace Corps experience. But never be too sure. Read carefully. “Obedience,” about author Erica Bleeg’s Peace Corps service in Benin, was interesting and compelling. It won the prize.
Literature about animals is not TMR’s forte, so how could anyone have imagined that in 2009, our prize-winning essay would be about a stressed and troublesome dog? That was Deborah Thompson’s “What’s the Matter with Houdini?” I grouped it with the finalists, and it kept rising to the top. Finally all of us agreed it was the winner.
One of the strangest Editors’ Prize essay-reading situations happened in 2007, when the nonfiction prize went to the first essay entry I read that year. Robert Kimber’s “Big Jim,” a memoir about Kimber’s father’s late-realized dream of owning a hunting and fishing camp in Maine, literally ended up on the top of a stack of a few hundred manuscripts. It was good, but though I doubted I’d find a better essay among that year’s entries, I didn’t want to be wrong, so I read all the others, and even found a couple more to publish. Time well spent. It’s always instructive and interesting hearing what good writers have to say.
This is all a long way of saying that if you write creative nonfiction, give our Editors’ Prize contest a chance. If you win, you’ll have enough money to take a vacation and stay in a really nice place, not like the one above. Even if you don’t win the prize (and I hope you do), your essay will be read. By me. I can promise that you will have an interested reader who will have enjoyed spending time with you.
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