Guest Post: Thomas Fortenberry on Judging Literary Contests

A fantastic guest post today from Thomas Fortenberry, an American author, editor, reviewer, and publisher.  Owner of Mind Fire Press, he has also judged many literary contests over the years, including The Georgia Author of the Year Awards and the Robert Penn Warren Prize for Fiction.

Oh, the gods are laughing at us now. But more on this in a moment.

In an exchange with Natasha, she asked if I would speak about judging literary contests. Glad to do so, as this is a very interesting area. But, what a proverbial can of worms!

Judging literary contests is actually one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. Akin to editing, it is always delicate and difficult to pass judgment upon another author’s hard-wrought works. Judging is difficult on several fronts. First, from my side, there is the volume of submissions to deal with — sometimes manageable and sometimes a complete tsunami. Depends on the rules of the contest and nature of the publication/organization behind it. I learned early on that if a contest does not have strict guidelines, it spins out of control, falls apart, and becomes buried beneath an ever-shifting slurry of stories.

Secondly, there is the nature of the publication. After years of various types of editing and judging, I much prefer the more established book contests rather than wide-open Internet lists, websites, or writing contests which are open forums or “dumps” of endless posts and submissions. With books we have already cleared several writing/editing/production hurdles, thus narrowed the field, and enter higher levels of sophistication. I also prefer traditional print over e-books, because for some reason I find reading numerous, flickering-screened, lengthy e-texts to be eye-straining, tiresome, and thus much more difficult than curling up in a secluded corner and plowing through books. Onscreen work forces me to take many more breaks, which lengthens the process, whereas reading can continue unabated all day if necessary. Maybe that is generational on my part, but there it is. I prefer printed books.

Thirdly, there is the question of quality and genre. I am a very strong advocate of all things good — good being the operative word. I do not distinguish between any genre or sub-genre and do not take a dismissive attitude towards things not labeled with the snooty, ivy-covered curlicues of capital-L Literature. Likewise, I find no problem with works of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. All are equally valid, if they are well-written. That is the entire argument. Quality is the key that unlocks the reader. If writing has merit, it does not matter what the style or content is. High quality writing can withstand any criticism and is always a pleasure to read, regardless of genre/stylistic labels.

Which brings me to judging a good literary contest. Contrary to what you might think, the poorly written works are the easy part of the contest. I have been asked before if it is annoying to have to read “crappy” works. Not really, because poor writing eliminates itself immediately and without problem. After discarding the trash, the hard part remains.

Good writing is very troublesome. Elsewhere, on this same topic, I wrote, “It isn’t wading through the crap that gets you … it is having to pick and choose between brilliant yet often completely different and creatively opposite works. Those are the ones you might read a dozen times and still be weighing back and forth, because they have different, yet valid, merits.”

Last comes the moment you’ve been dreading and everyone has been eagerly awaiting. We have come to the final decision. Unlike editing a journal or anthology, I can’t dodge the “best” question by choosing several works for inclusion. With a contest, to quote Queen from the Highlander soundtrack, There can be only one. The ultimate judgment must be made and you have to choose a single work over all the others. Not an easy task at all, since all the finalist manuscripts are fantastic and the authors equally worthy. Regardless of talent, you have to toss out all the other great works and choose a single tale. This is the thing that will gnaw at you, not just before with the deadline looming, but years afterwards, when you still remember these other, fascinating characters and their compelling stories, or when you run into an author again and are reminded that you chose someone else over their absolutely excellent work. It is a somewhat bitter moment when you feel like apologizing but cannot because it is the nature of a contest. If only everyone could win the Olympic gold medal.

Which brings me to my Theory of Relative Literary Merit: All things good are equally valid and judges are victims of excessively high quality. I think it is good to remember wily old Albert Einstein’s warning: “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.” We judge at our own risk

Visit Thomas at his website.

3 comments


  1. I love this “I am a very strong advocate of all things good — good being the operative word” and this “All things good are equally valid and judges are victims of excessively high quality. I think it is good to remember wily old Albert Einstein’s warning: ‘Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.’ We judge at our own risk”
    Thanks for a great guest post! I love lit prize lists so this was fun. Happy Booker Long List Day!

    on July 28th, 2009 at 11:19 am
  2. Pam – I love lit prize lists too! It was a great guest post.

    on August 2nd, 2009 at 8:01 pm
  3. this is a fascinating post. Thanks for hosting it Natasha.

    on August 9th, 2009 at 8:45 am

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