Cole Meyer: We saw so many great submissions for this contest and it was difficult to narrow down. Our three winners are so different from one another; I was excited to see such range in our finalists. Both our grand prize winner, “Confirmation,” by Alina Grabowski and our second-place story, “A Portrait of a Virgin,” by Rachel Cochran are told in a first-person plural point-of-view, but to drastically different ends. And there were a number of non-traditional POVs that made it far in our contest. What makes these non-traditional POV stories succeed? Or where do they seem to most often falter?
Brandon Williams: We did have a ton of nontraditional pieces that made it to our final round. For me, I think that’s a product of looking for authority in storytelling. I’m looking for something that is assured of itself and of its choices – playing around with POV, or with setting, or with character/speaker voices are definite cues that can (emphasis very heavily there on that idea of can, of possibility) lead to that assuredness. Of course, that depends on the skill of the author, but if all things are equal in skill, I’m going to be looking for the piece that has some level of argument in it for uniqueness, for a story so individual that it needs to be written newly or differently or with distinctness. Again, POV isn’t the only place that shows itself, but it’s one way, and it seemed to be the way that distinctiveness landed this go-round.
With that said, considering what makes these pieces succeed or fail: when I think of nontraditional choices in story, I’m still thinking about the story itself. As a reader, there’s the need to be entertained, the need to feel like we’re in the hands of a narrator with authority, and then from there to feel like the world the author is creating exists fully and entirely. Beyond that, I’m looking for the basic elements of storytelling, as I tell my students: interesting people doing interesting things for interesting reasons. When these stories are working at their best, they’re utilizing POV to complicate already interesting stories (“Portrait of a Virgin” did this incredibly, in my opinion). When these pieces struggle, as a few of our almost-chosen did, it’s that the POV choice is interesting, but it can often be such a glitzy tactic that it gets in the way of the who+what+why formula that I’m always looking for at the heart of any story, traditional or non.
CM: Precisely: there were a couple stories that made it to the final round that I think we all wanted to like, but their experimentation (either in form or voice or POV) hindered the narrative more than helped. I’m thinking of one story which we circled around for awhile that was written in the form of notebook entries. “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” by George Saunders is an example of where this form can thrive because it emphasizes the voice of its narrator while sticking to the traditional aspects of storytelling: developing conflict, tension, character, etc. But ultimately we decided against this story in particular because it felt confined by the form and never developed a clear and compelling plot. The form was a crutch and not a tool.
Melissa Hinshaw: In hindsight it’s surprising that two of our finalists are in first-person plural – usually that “we” voice is an automatic no from me, because I see it done in such a trying way so often. In both “Confirmation” and “Portrait of a Virgin,” there is so much more immediately going on in both of those first paragraphs than just a heavy-handed “we” – there are characters! There’s action! There’s history! There’s clarity! We’re compelled from the get-go! They’re both doing the things we ask for and are looking for in any good story, so the POV doesn’t really seem to matter, until you get to the end and feel it really couldn’t have been done any other way. It’s worth noting that each of these stories are very different lengths: “Confirmation” is 24 pages whereas “Portrait” is only 7, meaning, the former was able to keep my attention for that long and the latter left me feeling like hot damn in a very short amount of time.
I’ll echo Brandon in saying that when I’m reading I’m constantly looking for something unique. There are always – and there were in this batch – several very good stories about relationships, small towns, work struggles, people dying, and such that leave me with little to complain about, but they don’t distinguish themselves in tone, character, or pacing. Probably one of the best voices we read was a beautiful family story in a rich setting with thick tension that involved a near-drowning at the end, and like, we all loved it, but there are so many stories that follow that exact same arc. If the voice had been weirder or if the drowning had been interwoven in a different way, perhaps it might have stood out. Perhaps that’s why I fought for “A Country Where I Am Beautiful,” our third-place story: it has this nice, measured third-person-omniscient narration on top of a unique setting and I ultimately ended up charmed by the way it resists drama. There are stories that you know are objectively working, and then there are stories that really make you feel. When I look for a contest winner, I’m looking for a story that can do both. Because on the flip side, we read plenty of stories – that notebook entry story Cole mentioned stands out, as does another one I loved about a teen pregnancy – that twisted up my heartstrings and got me typing “BUAH, LOVE” into the comment box, but were problematic from a plot, writing, or structural perspective.
Some quick notes about others: all my other favorites that didn’t make the final cut involved characters who were a little bit off and didn’t fit into their worlds all the way. Ones I didn’t favor as much were usually too long or chatty or the narration was overly dressed up and pretty instead of having a clear, direct action to follow. One of my big pet peeves is when such great character work gets done and then the story ends on a “moment,” like this feeling of literary-ness (usually some naturey zoom lens or reflective vibe). It feels like holding back and getting tired instead of pushing characters one step further to some new experience. The other pet peeve is section breaks, but “Confirmation” has those, so there’s that old truth again: you can do whatever you want if you’re doing the main stuff really well.
CM: Great points, Melissa. I felt overall we read a lot of stories with domestic conflicts for this contest. I’m always on the lookout for the weird, the unnatural, the magical – with a literary slant, of course – and that’s not to say I didn’t love the submissions we read, but I’d love to see more of the bizarre. A story that’s really out there but is also emotionally charged and filled with intriguing characters would immediately stand out for me. There was one story I fought for which ultimately didn’t make it to our shortlist, and although it wasn’t weird per se (and you could argue it was another domestic conflict!) I was fascinated by its characters. The protagonist was deeply conflicted over her sense of duty to her mother and her revulsion toward the relationship her mother had with a high school-aged boy. But in the end, you two were right: the writing didn’t do enough to highlight the complexity of the narrative or its characters. The relationships weren’t clearly defined and the pacing was off.
MH: Yeah, that story was an example of one where the writing was so lovely and lush that the storyline got a little hidden at points. It was only after talking about it to you guys that I really realized what was going on (and I’d read it a couple of times!). That’s all from me – looking forward to seeing this out there. Congrats again to our winners and thanks to everyone who submitted.
BW: One final thought (which has already been said at least halfway): as much as we know what we like as readers, the stories that we loved from this contest were often pieces that surprised us, that forced us to love them because of their bravery or strangeness or experimentation. At least for me, that’s a really exciting, and also a really humbling, awareness: story will always be first and foremost, but the ways we come at it are myriad and ever-changing. Story, and then experimentation in service to story, can get us to some amazing places, as these pieces – and plenty of others – show, and I think that’s the most positive place I’ve found myself in a long time. Thanks so much to everyone that entered!