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Introduction

Iudex non sum. I take great pleasure in brandishing this vestige of the little Latin I once knew. When I saw advertisements for this Mississippi Review contest darkly designating me "Juror," I thought, Hey, judge maybe, juror no. Bit too lofty, tad august. That post-OJ virus Jury Nullification going round, too. I wanted to give out some gold stars, not hang people. Alas, I am no juror, and no judge either, and with some pleasure I can say I am retiring from the bench of letters with this my first case.

All the sentimental glop you may have read by other judges concerning the hand-wringing they went through to eliminate all the fine work they had to eliminate to bring you their final selections is true. About one hundred of the four hundred and fifty manuscripts entered in this contest got to me, past first readers who applied modest maybes, temporary silver stars, according to aesthetic lights less suspect than my own. Then I went at the one hundred, flicking silver stars off all but eleven of them, and finally putting a gold star on Richard Schmitt's "Leaving Venice, Florida."

I had visions the whole while of the late Angela Carter once enraging a student of mine by applying a gold star to a lesser story than one beside it during an inebriated workshop we held here in Florida at a fish camp. Because the affair was inebriated, or for inscrutable reasons, it was the author of the story receiving the gold star who got enraged. He got enraged apparently on behalf of his classmate, whose slicker, more polished effort was coming in for medium heavy fire from Ms. Carter, on grounds that it was polished and slick and easy, and therefore uninteresting. His story, by contrast, openly flawed, ill-formed, even spastic, was after something more difficult, was therefore, on the big battlefield of Truth and Beauty, the better animal. The author of the impugned finished story, Kevin Canty, who has gone on to distinguish himself professionally, was taking all this with calm equability, seeing Ms. Carter's point, I presume. But Richard Walker, his story on the bar, wet with beer and high praise from a British priestess of postmodernism, was livid. "I think you've had too many courses in literature," he fairly hissed. It wasn't clear who was being accused, so I said, "Who?"

"All of you!" Richard Walker said, and all of us laughed, and kept laughing, Kevin Canty and Angela Carter and I but not Richard Walker, with whom it is fair to say Angela Carter was somewhat in love at this moment. And she would continue to be fond: "How is my lovely jackass Richard Walker?" she wrote me. "I believe he could make it."

A scene like this one preys on the mind when you encounter a hundred competent stories. Competence begins to irk. When you read a hundred stories your aesthetic lights begin to flicker and dim. The equipment you use to assess merit gets overheated and out of calibration, and there is no way to recalibrate it. You realize you don't know what you are doing, really. You are, you can still see, selecting according to your taste, and your taste is ever suspect, of course, as is everyone else's, except Ben Sonnenberg's, but now your taste, irked and tired, is mere whim. You are looking for something beyond competence in the beginning, and in the end you are looking for something beneath it. As was Ms. Carter at the bar.

P. P.

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