Literary Prizes and the Selection Processes

I was on vacation in Colorado recently where the weather was consistently hot. But I arrived home three days ahead of the record-breaking floods that took place, for which I am grateful. I have enough problems without death by drowning. While in Colorado, however, I was informed that my memoir-essay, “My History of Racism,” had been selected by the Apeiron Review to be a Pushcart nominee. This is very nice, and I am happy to be selected, but it behooves me to point out that this particular memoir-essay had previously been rejected by no fewer than 82 publishers. I know, I know, I keep railing on about rejection slips, but the irony here is too much.cover_2013

 The Pushcart Prize, for those of you who may not know, is a yearly anthology of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, but is not as well known in the literary world as the Pulitzer or National Book Awards. It was founded in 1976 by Bill Henderson who is, interestingly enough, still the editor. Other founding editors include such luminaries as Anais Nin, Buckminster Fuller, Joyce Carol Oates, and Ralph Ellison. The Pushcart accepts nominations from print and online literary journals and selects the cream of the crop, so to speak, to appear in the anthology. Bill Henderson was nice enough to return my phone call and informed me that they had over 7000 entries last year from hundreds of lit mags and they expect at least that many this year. He also added they are always looking for new journals to represent in the final collection.

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Well, maybe. Pardon my cynicism but I have been reading the Pushcart since its debut in 1976 and have always been struck by the few number of literary journals that are consistently represented, a trend that continues to this day, despite the proliferation of genuine quality lit mags both online and in print. Are Ploughshares, Agni, and Tin House really producing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that is substantially better than, say, the Summerset Review, Prime Number Magazine, or Front Porch Journal, to name three perfectly respectable journals run by perfectly respectable editors? I wonder.

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I was recently a judge for the Million Writers Award, a contest run by Jason Sanford, in which online short stories are submitted by editors and writers alike, whittled down to a hundred or so by judges, reduced to the last ten by different judges, and then the general population votes on the so-called best story. Pretty democratic, it would appear. Here is the problem I found as a judge: I had thirty stories to choose from AND THEY WERE ALL GOOD! How can you choose? A journal like, say, Bartleby Snopes, publishes eighty-four stories a year from over a thousand submissions. The editor sends what he considers his three best to the contest. All the other editors of other lit mags do the same thing, giving me the best of the best from which I am suppose to choose. Ladies and gentlemen, I am here to tell you it is highly subjective. I ended up choosing the five stories that interested me the most—just that and nothing more. They were all well-written, and another judge would probably have selected a totally different group for that first cut.

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I am searching, SEARCHING, as a psychologist who comes from the scientific world for some methodology in the literary world for what is supposedly good versus not so good, but have had limited success. I have seen absolute crap published not only in the Pushcart anthology but also in the New Yorker, a magazine I have nothing but esteem for (Don’t get me started on their poetry, however. A Pulitzer-nominated-poet-friend of mine dismissed the poetry they publish nowadays as absolute “rubbish.”). Mark Twain once took apart THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS in a methodical, logical way, demonstrating all of its flaws. Still, the subjectivity of the literary world drives me to distraction.

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One thing I am certain of: the winner of this year’s Million Writers Award will not necessarily be the best short story, but surely the luckiest one. And I strongly suspect this is also true with the Pushcart Prize. (Caveat: if my memoir–essay, which is about race relations in the South during the ’50’s and ’60’s, and is, heaven forbid, RELEVANT, and which can be found at the bottom of my nonfiction list of publications on this website, is awarded a prize, I will kiss all the judges and retract everything I’ve said. Obviously, the selection process must be more objective than I thought).

No, I won’t. Just kidding. 🙂   

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