Having read Dana Goodyear’s “The Moneyed Muse” (New Yorker, February 19 & 26, 2007), we were surprised to hear that the Willesden Herald received only 850 entries in this year’s annual short story contest, then again surprised at the outcome, for into the valley of rejection rode the 850.
The follow up on the Willesden Herald site, including finalist judge Zadie Smith’s letter of explanation, is the interesting part of this story. The judges decided there will be no prize this year, all 850 of the entries failing the requisite “make it good.” Zadie says, “…we didn’t receive enough,” after the editors have already described an overdose reading experience. From Goodyear’s article, readers might recall: “At last count, several years ago, Poetry, which prints some three hundred poems a year, had to choose from among ninety thousand submissions.” One wonders how even a fraction of those get read – and how do they select which ones to read?
But Willesden Herald’s total rejection may have been a response informed by a pre-determined argument rather than a reader confronting any actual story. From Zadie’s letter: “Just like everybody, we at The Willesden Herald are concerned about the state of contemporary literature. We are depressed by the cookie-cutter process of contemporary publishing, the lack of truly challenging and original writing, and the small selection of pseudo-literary fictio-tainment that dominates our chain bookstores.” Does that describe the stories they received? We don’t know. And is there ample evidence to support that “everybody” is concerned? The number of those concerned is probably closer to nobody than to everybody.
It’s apparently no fun being a judge: “…by the start of November, all three short-listing judges started having to give up between 12 and 20 hours every week of their time to reading. Eventually, the volunteer that opened the envelopes and did the initial data entry was swamped and at one point, while keeping the entrants’ names secret to all the judges, SM had to help out with tedious data entry by staring at a spreadsheet through the night.” Perhaps a fresh crop of volunteer readers might have read things differently.
“No bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions,” Rene Char said, nor read in one, no doubt. While we have been struggling in the current reading crisis to identify a common reader, here is evidence of a common writer. How is it possible that the publication these writers are reading received not a single entry that matched the quality of what they publish, or would like to publish? How can the number of writers be growing while the number of readers is declining? Was the quality of writing really the issue, or is there a warrant in the Herald’s justification, an attempt not to devalue as much as revalue? What does the common reader (in this sentence defined as a reader who is not also a writer or a would be writer) want to read? What if next year they get 90,000 submissions; how will they handle that?
Good is that which suits its purpose. A good story is one that achieves its goals, even if we happen to dislike those goals. We don’t like horror films, but we’ve no doubt there are good ones. We go to Edmund Wilson, speaking of Flaubert and Baudelaire, who “exerted, in dealing with the materials supplied them by their imagination, a rigorous will to refrain; that their work might thus fortify their readers as well as entertain them…” Further, Wilson maintains, “…fine workmanship itself always contains an implicit moral… experimentation is necessary: one must allow a good deal of apparently gratuitous, and even empty or ridiculous work, if one wants to get masterpieces.” And, finally, Wilson: “…they may not be good for anything, but, on the other hand, they may be valuable – one has to wait and see what comes of them, what other writers may get out of them.”
Perhaps the Herald should have spent the prize money to publish all 850 stories, thereby letting their readers decide. Or we may leave literature and go into social science, where we will find that a preference for a particular story is the result of class privilege, for taste is not a virtue; it is distilled.
Edmund Wilson quotes above taken from “Notes on Babbitt and More,” from Edmund Wilson, A Literary Chronicle: 1920-1950, Doubleday Anchor Books.