I don't know whether to be gratified or deflated that my blog has gotten more hits in the past two days than it has all summer. (Granted, I've only posted to it five times this summer. Hey, I've been busy writing writing.) And I hope I don't sound fakey when I say I didn't mean to cause a stink with my post on Monday - I wrote it because I had to. I didn't tag anyone, and I figured it would disappear into the internether after I wrote it, or at the most get me some condolences from my friends on social media. (Which it did - thanks, friends.)

But it turns out, as the first comment to my post said, "You're saying what lots of people are thinking." This doesn't happen often, which is something I usually pride myself on. But in this case I'm glad I hopefully put into words what most of us who entered this year's AWP Prize in Nonfiction thought when we read the letter stating that judge Lia Purpura had decided not to award a winner this year. Lots of people - most of whom I've never met - expressed similar thoughts, many of them more lucidly than I did. And then, this morning Brevity Magazine's blog published a reply/retort to the mounting criticism of both the AWP and Purpura:

I read a blog post written by someone who had entered the contest and I appreciate his passion and disappointment. I would imagine others feel same as he does.
But I do disagree with a statement he made: “The choice to say that no nonfiction book submitted is worthy of her (or, by proxy, the AWP’s) selection is an outright dismissal of a hell of a lot of artistic, intensely wrought, truth-telling work, and make no mistake: it will be seen as a wholesale value judgment of an entire year’s crop.” I’m sure there was artistic work in the bunch. I’m sure it was intense, and I’m sure the writers told the truth in literary ways. But I would ask this of the entrants: Did you submit your absolute finest work? Are you sure you submitted something near perfection? I wrote seven drafts of my memoir before it was published. It is quite tempting to submit a manuscript before it’s ready. And you know what? I did that. A lot. I think I even submitted it to the AWP contest. But now I realize anything before that seventh draft was not ready. I suspect the judge, Lia Purpura, saw a lot of great work but judged that the writing was still rough.

There's a lot to take issue with here, which to me boils down to this: No book is perfect upon submission. I've been working on my essay collection, and I know it's not perfect, even though (or perhaps because) I've been writing and publishing the essays for the past five years. In fact, I would argue the search for "perfection" can lead many a writer to go over and over old material until one finds oneself running so obsessively on the editing treadmill that one loses the joy in creating new material and experiencing the world with fresh eyes, something I think is perhaps the most important quality of a nonfiction writer. And then of course there is the advice almost all of my writing mentors have given me: Don't get too attached to your manuscript, because any decent editor is going to have her/his own ideas to impose on it. How can that relationship happen if f one considers one's manuscript perfect, or even nearly perfect?

So perhaps I have an issue with contests as a whole, especially book contests. And in a way I empathize with Purpura - as an editor at Hunger Mountain I read plenty of shorter submissions, and I personally can't imagine reading ten full manuscripts over the course of one summer. AWP Executive Director David Fenza in his letter said that the award series is not "like a sweepstakes or a lottery," but all literary contests are structured precisely like a lottery - everyone gives a little pittance so that one person wins. If no one won the lottery, no one would play.

Like I've said before, I'm new to this game. I spent two years with the completed essays that comprise my manuscript, sinking into a depression many of my fellow writers can probably understand - not knowing when it was ready, when it was done. Finally, my wife and my closest writing friends told me how crazy I was making myself and them, and I decided I had until spring of this year to start sending it out and get back to, you know, writing. I'm still a bit tentative about putting my essays - my babies - into book form, but this whole AWP thing has led me to believe that literary contests are not where I want to send my babies.

Hopefully this is the last I'll be writing about this, though I'd love to hear other people's lingering thoughts. Tomorrow I'll get back to finishing an essay, preparing syllabi for classes next week, organizing for Hunger Mountain's online presence, and writing updates on my blog that will get, at best, probably 10% of the hits I've gotten for the past two days. I'm cool with that.

PS: Many people had more insightful things to say than I do in the comment section of the Brevity post and Brevity's Facebook page.

AuthorJohn Proctor