In a nutshell, Willamette Week held a poetry and fiction contest this winter. We put out a call for entries in December. Winners were published in our Feb. 27 issue. Along the way, we asked local writers to help with the judging, and, as you can see from this week's letter, now some of them are upset that the fiction piece they had chosen for first place got knocked down to third place by yours truly.
End of story. Or is it?
As a professional arts and culture critic for the last 15 years and a semiprofessional scandal stalker, I know situations like these can take on a life of their own. The biggest rule to follow is to tell the truth. This is the first time WW's current arts staff has put on a writing contest. We had no idea what to expect, and we definitely approached things slapdash. We were surprised and pleased--and more than a bit overwhelmed--to receive 700 entries. Things tended toward the chaotic: Two of the fiction judges dropped out at the very last minute, and we had to rush to replace them.
Our scramble to find replacement judges and get entries looked at in time for our looming deadline took precedence over preparing the judges. Had we taken the time to prep them properly, they would have known that I planned to use their feedback to aid me in making a final decision--and to run as comments alongside the winners when they ran in the paper. In retrospect, perhaps even calling them judges was inappropriate. Maybe Subcommittee for the Advancement of Literary License or Footsoldiers in the War Against Cliché would have been more correct.
Admittedly, we should have been clearer with the judging panel about what was expected from them and how their input would be used.
After it was obvious that some of the judges were upset, I sent them all a letter outlining how the process worked. I noted that assistant arts and culture editor Steffen Silvis and I had culled the 700 entries down to approximately 60 finalists--roughly 30 in each division. I let them know that each judge was given about a dozen of the submissions and asked to give us feedback. Besides me, none of the judges read all the submissions, nor did any of the judges read the same exact group of finalists. Each finalist, however, was read by two non-staff judges. I informed them that after receiving their feedback, I made the final decision, as I was the only judge to have read every piece.
The first response I got was from poetry judge Carlos Reyes, who wrote, "I have no problem with the way you proceeded...I appreciated not having to read dozens/hundreds of entries and had no qualms about the entries you chose." Another poetry judge, Rochell Hart, replied, "I was quite pleased with the outcome of the WW writing contest and agreed with the decisions totally...I was very pleased with the outcome (based on the submissions I saw) and was glad to be a part of the event as a judge."
A few days later, however, I got the letter you see in the front of the paper from literary judge Myrlin Hermes (with whom, by the way, I enjoyed working when she was an intern at Willamette Week last spring) on behalf of the three literary judges.
Their concern about not being informed of the process is more than fair. As stated above, we should have made it clear ahead of time how we would use their feedback. It's not correct, however, that their "input was discounted entirely." Their feedback was used in the decision process, and their comments on stories they liked were published in the paper.
Which comes to the big question: Why did I pick a different winner than some of the literary judges? Phil Stanford wrote a column in the Portland Tribune last week suggesting the piece selected by the two literary judges (which was written in black dialect and ended up coming in third place) was shot down because it "just wasn't suitable for [WW's] yuppie target audience." This makes me wonder if Stanford even read the issue, in which we ran the entire stories by all the winners, including the third-place piece--black dialect and all.
Here's the real reason I put "Creative Thought 101" in first place, "Blood Money" (on which Seay voted positively) in second and "Floozy" (Hermes and Hillsbery's choice) in third. I created this contest with one major rule all the fiction writers had to follow: Their entries had to begin, "At 4 am she found herself under the Broadway Bridge," which is the local equivalent of "It was a dark and stormy night." The reason I applied these obviously artificial and cliché handcuffs was to see how well the entrants could play Houdini. As the person who read six times more entries than the non-staff judges, it was clear to me that the obvious response to this condition was to write a story about a homeless person, a prostitute, a drug addict or some combination of all three. (This is something we shielded the non-staff judges from by only providing a dozen or so stories for each to read). As far as I was concerned, the person who deserved to be plopped into first place had the most creative response to the opening line. "Floozy," selected by two of the literary judges, indeed had strong voice and evocative characters, but fell into the same sandtrap of topic that far too many other entrants got stuck in. I may have dismissed it entirely if it weren't for the fact that two of the judges rated it so highly.
So that's the whole shocking tale, denuded for your reading pleasure. Here's a postscript: Scandals, like good stories, require a denouement. In this case, it's my commitment that next year we will make it clear to our panel of literary advisors (and to readers) what their role in the proceedings will be. They can chose to climb aboard--or not--based on that information.