Volume XI of our annual anthology of stories and essays is now available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Bookshop.org! This year’s volume includes pieces selected by guest judge Peter Ho Davies, who wrote an accompanying introduction to the book, which you can read below. Congratulations once again to our finalists! Stay tuned for more news this summer on Volume XII!
I’m a reluctant judge of literary competitions. Partly that’s for practical reasons. As a slow reader it’s a challenge to take on extra pages during a busy teaching semester, and impossible during MFA application season when I’m already encountering hundreds of manuscripts. I often find myself regretfully declining such invitations—it is an honor to be asked, after all—sometimes politely saying, if only I was on sabbatical, except when a sabbatical comes around it’s still hard to say “yes” to the reading, especially for book prizes, when I’m supposed to be writing one of my own.
I feel guilty about this—serving as a judge is a generous act of literary citizenship—which is why occasionally, if the timing is just right, I take on one of these assignments. (In the case of this assignment for The Masters Review, they were nice/dogged enough to ask twice).
But I suspect my reluctance to judge runs deeper than the practical impediments. There are the usual the lofty philosophical reservations about the incommensurability of art, of course, but also the more anxious writerly neuroses. The doubt that I, and any writer, feels when judging our own work (how and when do we know it’s any good?) inevitably spills over into the judging of others.
To judge, after all, is to be judged—for our choices, our taste—and none of us are quite so sure of that as we might wish (as betrayed by how vociferously we argue for or against the lastest Pulitzer, National Book Award, or Oscar winner; how affronted we are when something we hate wins; how diminished we feel when we don’t “get” why something was picked).
Such doubts feel like weakness, and maybe they are, but they seem like the kind of “weakness” that may be essential to strong fiction, a space where writer (and reader) are often productively confronted by uncertainty and ambiguity—more doubt. Novels and stories, we might say, play out doubt—”things in doubt” would be a pretty good catch-all description of most drama, after all. Beyond this I’ve a sneaking sense that fiction—mine at least, and the fiction I cherish— is somehow antithetical to judgement. Judgement feels distant, from on high, ex cathedra. To read, to write, to empathize—these things feel close-up, intimate, entangled. On the page I’m not interested in good guys and bad guys, so much as in people who are both good and bad, which is to say “human,” which is in turn reflected in my resistance to categorizing the pages these humans appear in as good or bad.
This may all seem very deflective, even disowning, perhaps especially to the writers and their work collected here, which would be a disservice. Part of the joy in being chosen, after all, is that someone dispells our own writerly doubt, replaces our judgement with their own. I’ve felt that relief myself. And yet, it’s probably at the heart of my reluctance to judge – this whiff of usurpation. I spend some time in my recent book The Art of Revision: The Last Word thinking about what it means to finish our work, to arrive at doneness, the final draft. That’s a distant, hard-won destination, but on rare, blessed occasions we know it when we get there, a recognition that strikes with the force of revelation. It’s the point, I argue, at which we finally understand our own work, when we become the best reader of our own work, which is to say the best judge. And one way to know a story has arrived at that point of doneness is that we no longer care quite so much about the judgement of others. There’s a conviction to the work, an essentialness. And paradoxically, perhaps that’s the quality I responded to in each of these works: their conviction, the sense of their knowing themselves, the feeling that—contrary to the circumstances in which I encountered them—they weren’t asking for and didn’t require my judgement, just my reading.
by Peter Ho Davies
Congratulations to the Anthology XI finalists!
Funny Not Funny by Jenna Abrams
Open Enrollment by Danielle Claro
The Tree That Stood Alone in the Desert by David DeGusta
Bad Guys by Patricia Garcia Lujan
Sanctuary by Tim Griffith
Walking to Camano by Clemintine Guirado
The Dog by Fredrick Kunkle
Barely a Sound by Kathleen Latham
Hammock by Ikechukwu Roy Udeh-Ubaka
Egging by Sophia Zaklikowski
Purchase your copy today from Amazon, Barnes & Noble! or Bookshop.org!