The Wasserstein fire and the right to refuse to choose
I keep wondering how anyone, without themselves having seen the entries, can declare with certainty that the Wasserstein judges erred in not picking one winner (the question of what the contest did to attract entrants, wotsizname's communication skills, and other peripheral issues aside). I once judged a novel contest in which every single entry was so bad that I told the director of the project that I couldn't choose a winner. Mind you, this was a state arts council contest, widely and well publicized, no age limits, no gender specification, no published or not published rule. That is, wide open to anyone who wanted to enter, no filters. But the best writers in that very small state simply didn't apply that year. What the literary arts director told me was "Just pick one and let it go." I chose the least bad of the lot but almost immediately regretted complying with the instruction from the director. I felt it was WRONG to offer validation for incompetence, to reward someone who had not bothered to learn the first thing about how to write a novel, or how to write at all, for that matter, because that's how bad the best of the lot was. If I am ever in that situation again, I will refuse to choose, as the Wasserstein judges did. Of course I don't have a clue if the situation with Wasserstein was equivalent - it might not have been, but my own experience tells me it could have been, and any discussion of this issue needs to allow room for that possibility.

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  • Dangerous Old Woman

    Footnote 12/7/2010- In his book of essays Vanishing Point, Ander Monson (he is editor of the lit mag Diagram) mentions that a few years ago he judged about 100 entries in a nonfiction contest and they were so uniformly bad that he had a hard time picking four to pass along to the final judge.