This past week I served on a panel judging a writing contest at American Greetings – the greeting card company headquartered here in Cleveland. Along with me were the executive director of The Lit – Cleveland’s Literary Center and the head of the Cleveland Institute of Art’s creative writing department.
The AG campus was fairly massive with its own Starbucks centered in an indoor courtyard. An empire built on the backs, blood and sweat of Ziggy, Holly Hobbie, Strawberry Shortcake and the duplicitously fluorescent colored Care Bears. Even so, everyone I met there seemed very nice and went to great efforts to see that we felt appreciated. The rumors of forced sing-alongs and oompah loompah-like chorus line productions ending in cupcake feeding frenzies are totally false. Our payment for the three and a half hour task were hundred dollar gift certificates to a hoity-toity steakhouse – one of those places where they have a meat parade at your tableside so you can pick out your cut. There was also a visual arts component to the contest – but those judges were long gone when we finished perusing our entries.
The works we read ranged in quality but those we chose as winners were good as or better than anything I’ve seen in lit journals. To boot, the company was coming up off some real scratch – we had $2500.00 smackers to divide amongst the winners in any way we deemed fit.
Mind you though, any of this is totally subjective. Three different judges may have come up with different choices – maybe not for the overall winner – but once you get past the one or two who immediately rise above, those who just make or miss the cut are a lot more idiosyncratic. There was even some dealing going on “you think they should be in – well then how about adding this one then…”
Such is the case with all contests, literary journals, etc. So many times inclusion boils down to the cliché of who you know as much as what you know. How many academics’ publishing credits are buoyed by their works being assigned to classes taught by their cronies? I know I have benefited by my connections with people on editorial boards. Any little nudge that gets your work out of the slush pile and into a person’s hand who can make a decision instead of some bitter grad student convinced her work should be filling the pages as sole feature of whatever rag she’s interning at. Of course once you’ve got your stuff untwined from the pile of submissions raked into the corner – you still have to have something worth reading. Just remember if you're lucky enough to to bust free – there are dozens of pieces just as worthy as yours that will never escape that black hole.
A couple years back I was asked to review a body of work being considered for publication by a local university. I hated the stuff – I found it a soulless exercise in linguistic acrobats intertwined with complacent acknowledgment of one's own superiority sprinkled with winking understatement - and I said so. Now I had never been asked to do an academic review before (nor since) but I had done book reviews – so this is what I sent back to the dean of the literature department – I thought the piece I wrote was great. Well my dear readers – it turns out they weren’t interested in my opinion as much as they had implied – in fact the work under consideration was already slated for publication and they were looking for fawning praise, words numbering in the thousands – not the sardonic and flame broiled 750 word skewering I delivered.
Anyways – there’s your lesson for the day. You want to get your stuff in print – do your homework, get to know the folks in charge. Having been one of them this past week I can definitely say – they ain’t anybody extra special so don’t get too full of yourself when accepted or too down on yourself when rejected.