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.